It's only three years ago, but if you would ask me to name the students in my freshman English classes from that year, I'd have some trouble. Names fade quickly at my age, even though I could probably list many of the students I faced when, forty years ago this year, I walked into a classroom for the very first time. These days, my students' tenure in my memory is embarrassingly short-lived.
Nonetheless, I remember him. Maybe it's because he distinguished himself on the varsity basketball team, but I've never been a deeply loyal fan. Someone once told me that he was never a starter until he got to college.
To me, that's understandable, really, from the standpoint of the classroom, because he did distinguish himself there by his persistence and his interest. I liked him. It's nice to get a salary that pays for a way of life, but the real blessing of teaching is lively eyes. When you see 'em, you know you're doing something. And his were. That's what I remember. He liked being in class, liked being in school, liked learning.
There are tons of people--including his teammates and his coaches--who knew him far, far better than I did. He was an accounting major, so my guess is that colleagues in that department have more stories than I do.
But what we all share this morning is immense sadness at his death. He was just a kid, a scrapper, the kind of ball player and human being who lived for nothing less, it seemed, than his own pleasure--and I don't mean that in a bad way. I think he was someone who loved life, all of its moments. Why else, I suppose, was he up there on that mountain?
He's gone. Some kind of horrible storm blew the mountain-climbing gang's vacation holiday into madness, and somehow--I don't know how--he fell to his death from a monstrous height.
Why him? Why this good, good kid? If God loves us, why on earth did he grab this kid off a mountain the way he did? Good night, what about his family? I can't begin to imagine their sadness. If God is sovereign, if God operates this world by way of his own loving hand, why slap this kid off a mountain?
There are no answers for such questions--I know that. But it's inevitable that we ask, all of us. If not today, tomorrow. Tomorrow there will be another. Somewhere, not all that far away, I'm sure there is, even today. Bad things happen to good, good people.
I don't know why. No one does. What I do know is that there likely are a lot of kids who feel as if they've been pushed off some cliff themselves by the sudden, awful death of a sweet friend who lived with a vital joy both on and off a basketball court. Tons of people will miss him.
Years ago, when another college kid was killed here, his friends got together in the college chapel, sat up front on the stage, and did little more than bawl. And then, one of them--a kid I met just a few weeks ago again, another former student, a father now, an elder in his church, a high school teacher--got to his feet, wiped the tears out of his eyes, and told the others who'd gathered in the chapel that his roommates had sat around a table grieving and then determined that they'd say, with each other, that rich answer to the first question of the Heidelburg Catechism--that "I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior. . ."
"Why don't we do it too?" he said, standing. And we did--the kids on stage and the people in the pews.
Few memories of forty years in the classroom will live as powerfully in my mind as that one. "I am not my own, but belong. . ." chanted by tormented kids with fistfulls of wet hankies.
I don't understand, and I'm angry. But I also know, by faith--a gift--that I have no other refuge. I hope, even when I rage, that He keeps me there, in life and in death, in his hand.