God's grace can show up in the most unexpected places and circumstances.
For Elise Matheny Eslinger, a worship, music and spiritual formation consultant, this grace literally came crashing into her life on Oct. 8, 1989.
As a busy staff member of the Pacific Northwest Conference, preacher's spouse and mom of a teenager, Eslinger's life was full. Too full. The demands of her job, parenting and supporting her husband's ministry were taking a physical and emotional toll; exhaustion was seeping in.
Yet Eslinger, also a lifelong church musician, was determined to attend a workshop introducing the then new United Methodist Hymnal at Okanogan (Washington) United Methodist Church serving the Colville Indian Reservation.
Eslinger's daughter rode with her. They stayed in a motel the night before the event. Her daughter remained there to rest while Eslinger drove on to the workshop alone. The drive was uneventful and the event lively and uplifting.
"As we sang together, I waxed eloquent about story, theology, meaning and musical style in the many lovely and inspiring new songs found in the hymnal," Eslinger said. "I especially remember introducing the gathering to 'On Eagle's Wings,' (based on Psalm 91) and 'Cuando al Pobre' (When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers ... then we know that God still goes that way with us.)."
At the end of the workshop, an exhausted Eslinger faced a drive back that included several hours over the Cascade Mountains. "I remember thinking, 'Maybe I should take a nap before heading over the mountains,'" Eslinger said. "That is the last thing I remember. I awoke abruptly to find myself jolting along the rocky shoulder of the road, dust everywhere. The car then sailed off the road, headed down a 20-foot embankment, tumbled on all four sides yet landed right side up. All of the glass shattered and the doors compressed shut."
Eslinger remembers holding onto the steering wheel and whispering "eagle's wings, eagle's wings" during the sail through the air. When the car thudded to a halt at the bottom of the embankment, she could only whisper, "eagle's wings, thank you." Eslinger did not have a scratch, but the car was totaled.
Almost immediately, an older Native American man who had seen her car fly off the embankment arrived to check on her. Expecting to find her dead, he instead found her stunned, sitting in the driver's seat. He carefully helped her get out via a broken window. Moments later, two Native American women and their small children came out of their small cottage — 20 feet away from where Eslinger's car had landed.
The women welcomed Eslinger into their tiny home, offered her water to drink and the opportunity to clean off the dust covering her hands and face. Within 30 minutes the tribal police, a wrecker and Eslinger's daughter were called. An hour later, Eslinger was back with her daughter at the motel.
"On that October day 'Cuando al Pobre' became a living memory for me," Eslinger said. "I also knew that some distinctive changes had to occur. I felt that the providential care of God's 'eagle's wings' had quite literally saved me from death, and that this 'saving' was for something. And that something was not to continue to live the stressed, frenetic, addictive schedule I had been seeking to manage in my ministry and family."
Now whenever Eslinger finds herself slipping into former addictive patterns, those eagle's wings pull her back. She is deeply aware that the poor ones on that reservation delivered hospitality filled with a profound grace that her frenetic pace could never offer as effectively.
"A central word for me for the decades since the accident has been shalom," Eslinger said. (Her "Shalom to You" blessing is number 666 in The United Methodist Hymnal). "This is the dominant image for life and ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ, not busyness which cancels our very message."
Cindy Solomon is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Franklin, Tennessee.