Gunsmoke was an American television series that was on for twenty years and many more years after on syndication. It was set in the American Old West, in the fictional town of Dodge City which seemed to be a veritable magnet for ne'er-do-wells. Those scoundrels never won out in the end, of course, due to the heroic presence of Sheriff Matt Dillon, who always made sure that law and order were established with the help of friends Chester, Doc Allen, and saloon-owning beauty Miss Kitty. ("Now there's a woman!" my Gramps would say each time she graced the screen, eliciting a rolled-eye sigh of resignation from Grams, knitting nearby.)
Gunsmoke was everything that my life was not - thrilling and filled with dusty danger - and I couldn't get enough of it. It wasn't just the excitement of watching the epic battle between good and evil played out on the screen that I found so enticing, but being able to watch my Gramps be completely enraptured by it was equally as intoxicating. I think now how refreshing it must have been for him to enter into the vast expanses of the American West after having spent his day (and most of his life) hunched over in the closed darkness of a coal mine.
In one episode, Matt Dillon was chasing some wastrels through some canyon, their presence hidden by large rocks which jutted up and out into the Western sky. They were able to fool him (spoiler alert; not for long!) by using the echoes that the rocks and canyons produced. I was fascinated by these echoes, and asked my Gramps how it all worked.
"Well, Spark Plug, I'm no scientist. But I reckon that their voices leave their mouths and bounce all around those rocks," he said, which, to a six-year old, sounded fairly close to science.
After the episode ended I decided I was going to find a place to make echoes. The problem, of course, was that my grandparents lived smack dab in the middle of the prairies, and there wasn't anything for my voice to bounce off of but miles and miles of some of the flattest land on earth. (My other grandfather used to say you could put a light bulb on those prairies and see it for ten miles.) There was simply no way I could make an echo.
I came back in the house, face etched with disappointment and some sadness.
"What's got into you?" Gramps said.
"I wanted to make an echo, but there's nothing out there for my voice to bounce off of. I hate this land!"
Gramps got up from his chair and said, "Come with me, Spark Plug." We went outside where the setting autumn sun was just barely visible over the prairies, bathing everything in gold. There is nothing quite so stunning as a sunset over the prairies, and Gramps and I both knew that I didn't really hate it.
"It is beautiful," I said. "I just wish I could make an echo."
"Now why would you want to do that?" Gramps asked. "Those rocks outside Dodge City do make an echo - I'll give you that. But when you shout there your voice bounces around and then just fades away." And then, pointing to the vast expanse of land in front of us, he said, "Here your voice just keeps going and going, why all the way to California and then out into the ocean, I imagine, where even the whales can hear you. Ain't nothing can stop it."
And then my Gramps and I started shouting at the sunset. And though there were no echoes, I imagined our voices going, going, going; there was nothing to stop them. I imagined others hearing them on the rustle of the wind, and thus letting them know that they were not alone. And then, when we stopped shouting, I could swear I heard them - other voices - and I knew that I wasn't alone either.
Now this is the point where traditionally I would go on to make some theological connection to the story. But I don't think I need to. Having those who will hear our voice, hearing the voices of others, and the presence of a Word that never ends: you can't get more theological than that. I find it extraordinary that we live in a world where these profound realities can be found in the simplest of gestures, in words on a page, in the beauty of nature, and in the wonder of human love. We just have to keep our hearts open to it all.
And then, open-hearted, we have to let our voices be heard. And, of course, listen to the voices of others.
Ain't nothing can stop it.