It was early morning, July 17th 1978. I had just been told by a state police officer to get off the interstate. No hitch hiking allowed. Out of options, I walked a mile on a service road, hopped the fence, and stood on the gravel berm holding out my thumb. I had never prayed in my life, but I think I did that morning, for a ride that would get me far away from the eyes of the law. The first car on the horizon pulled over and slowed to a stop. What luck I thought. After stowing my backpack, I jumped in the passenger side.
“I’m Russ,” the driver said holding out his hand, “where you headed?”
The night before I paid $9 for a motel room with no T.V., and a coin operated vibrating bed. I remember writing in my journal about a dude I met that day driving a psychedelic love bus, who had a bobble head doll on his dash. He told me it was his spiritual guide. “I have to admit, the man’s guru intrigues me.” It was day six of a road trip that began when my father dropped me at an exit on Route 80 near our home in New Jersey, and waved goodbye. I was headed west looking for truth. After inventing arguments and theorems to explain the world, I couldn’t seem to squeeze life out of them.
Russ stared at the landscape ahead.
I broke the silence.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you think there’s such a thing as truth, I mean absolute certainty to believe in?”
He looked at me with wide eyes, and then snapped back to driving. And for the next half hour I know he answered my question, though I have no memory. What I do recall is his laughter, his gestures, throwing his arm out the window in a wild fist pump, and a mysterious something else, so inviting that when I finally left his car, I knew what he had, was what I had been searching for all my life. I pointed my finger in his face and said, “I don’t understand hardly a thing you just told me, but I want it.” I scribbled my address on a greasy McDonalds bag, because Russ said he wanted to send me something in the mail.
A letter from him arrived a week later, eight pages hand written, explaining the gospel, and the answer to my question about absolute certainty. I read, and re-read it many times. Next came a Bible, my first one. I wrote him a letter of thanks, with a few questions, and while it was in the mail, another of his letters came. More gospel, more truth.
About a week later I found the letter I sent Russ sitting on top of the mail pile in the kitchen. I looked at it, and for the first time noticed His street address, “Christman Way.”
I never heard from him again.
Later that school year at a meeting on campus, I experienced what his letters so eloquently forecasted would happen if I placed my faith in Jesus Christ.
I have held on to the letters. I read them once in a while, because the half hour in Russ’ car seems a blur. They are tangible evidence that he wasn’t an angel after all. Holding the yellowed stationary, I think…What if he hadn’t stopped that day? What if his thoughts were far ahead of him when he spotted me, and he just decided to keep going? What if he had stopped, but had failed to testify? What if, what if…a thousand of them, yet there are none that matter now. He did stop, he did testify, and he did bring Christ to me in concrete terms.
Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
Thank you Russ, wherever you are, heaven or earth. You took a risk to testify of Jesus Christ to a long hair derelict want-to-be agnostic. Despite his best attempts at looking cool and collected that day in your car, he was utterly undone by a Living Force of Love.
I tell people my first encounter with Jesus Christ was on a lonely stretch of highway in upstate New York, through a chance encounter with a young man named Russ.
Chance? I don’t think so.
What about you? Will you take a ‘chance for a ‘chance’ encounter today? There are many waiting on a lonely stretch.