"Investigators from the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and the Jackson County Coroner's Office are conducting a death investigation in rural Murphysboro, Illinois." The KFVS news article I'm quoting from is not unlike many top story news articles one reads about, but this one was different in significant ways. Murphysboro is a sleepy little town seven miles from its more well known neighbor, Carbondale. Carbondale is making national news for being the epicenter of the solar eclipse on Monday, Aug 20. The story of these deaths, however, eclipses the solar eclipse by far because the two who died were dear friends and former parishioners of mine. The article went on to say "people in the neighborhood said the family that lived in the home has been in there for more than two decades but no one seems to know much about them." This statement bothered me, because one could not have been around Murphysboro very long without benefiting from the positive influence of Burl and Brenda Ritcheson. While the investigators are investigating the homicide, let me introduce you to your neighbors.
Burl and Brenda's home was the first place we stayed when coming to Murphysboro to candidate for becoming the pastor of what later was to become Christ Community Church. They treated us like kings and fed us with a brand of homemade cooking that was unique to Southern Illinois. I learned what chicken and dumplins were. Over time, she and some of her other family members who shall go unnamed fattened me up. I scored several invitations to their family gatherings which were a highlight for both eating and fellowship. Burl helped set me up in the first home we rented on 15th St. which was owned by Burl's brother.
Burl was involved in the youth baseball programs in Murphysboro and was a gentle teacher of the game. Burl was a man's man. He was a modern day John Wayne type. Instead of horses, however, he liked cars and doing body work on them. Burl, frankly, intimidated me a little because I wasn't as manly as he was.
One weekend in Murphysboro, we had a friend visiting from Missouri who owned a sports car and invited me to drive it. I had never driven a car with such power and I failed to notice as I came to a side street that there was no stop sign and a car ran into the back of this beautiful brand new car I was driving. And then I remembered Burl. Burl laughed at me when I called and he patiently beat and painted that car until it was in new condition. Burl didn't charge me a dime for the work.
On another occasion, I conducted my first business meeting at the church and there was a controversial issue we were discussing and I took a stand for how I thought we should move forward. My plan passed by one vote. Tension was high as the meeting dismissed and Burl sensed I needed a friend. He asked if he could take me to Dennys in Carbondale. He sat across from me and encouraged me and made me feel like I was a great man of faith and courage for what I had done when he knew I was shaking in my boots.
Brenda was one of five sisters whose families were the backbone of our church. Brenda had a beautiful alto voice and sang in the choir. She could read music and tried to help my wife Melanie learn to sing by note which Melanie says was a losing cause. Brenda was one of the people who helped Murphysboro Christian Academy thrive during its early years. She was a regular performer at the L.A.F.F (Laughter After Fifty Five) club that was run by her sister Mary Jane. Brenda had an infectious laugh and when she laughed she literally cried with actual tears and her face turned red.
Life took some difficult turns for Burl and Brenda. Over time, they drifted apart and eventually divorced and went through some painful years trying to rebuild their lives. During this time, Burl lived near my house. One Summer day he saw my wife stuck in the ditch with our riding lawn mower. Burl saw her, stopped his car, and put the mower back up out of the ditch, got in his car and never said a word. It was definitely a John Wayne moment.
After several years, however, Burl and Brenda realized what they had lost and found love with each other again. Walter Bruggemann says that "in the life of faith, we go from being securely oriented, to painfully disoriented, to surprisingly reoriented. They were in the process of reorienting their lives on the fateful day that their lives were cut short. They were looking forward to their daughter Stephanie returning from Peoria and spending time with their grandchildren.
This story, however, does not end in death, It ends in life eternal. Jesus was not only the "author" of their faith, but he was also the "finisher." I imagine when the roll is called up yonder, Burl and Brenda coming in together as Jesus gets to the B's. "Burl and Brenda" he will say, "Well done!"
These are your neighbors, I really wish you had known them.