“Surprised by Grace”

December 21st, 2009

Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

September 8, 2009

It was the unknown coach who got it.  A stranger to us, it was the coach who gave us our perspective back and ultimately set our faith straight.

In the larger scheme of things, the events of that day certainly weren’t a tragedy.  As athletic moments go, though, it was pretty bad.  So many parents know the feeling: your son or daughter is competing, and something goes horribly wrong.  Your heart sinks.  And you’d give anything to undo it.

As parents, we couldn’t have been more proud.  In his first year of college, our son, Taylor, had qualified for the Division III indoor national track and field championships.  My wife Mary and I drove to Indiana, along with Taylor’s brother and grandmother, to watch the race.  He would be running in the distance medley relay (in which four runners from each team each run a different distance).  The first eight of the ten teams competing in the event would be named All-Americans.

Anxiously we waited for the race to start.  In the jam-packed arena, as we tried not to think about it, we found ourselves standing next to a man we had never met.  He was quiet and friendly.  We chatted about training techniques and diet.  We learned about his family.  We never did get his name, but later on, as we tried to recollect the conversation, we thought he said he coached at a Mennonite college.  At the time, it didn’t seem to matter much.  We were focused on the race.

As race time approached, the coach sweetly told my mother he would time Taylor’s split in the relay and let her know.

The suspense built.  Finally the gun fired and off they went.  The first leg put Taylor’s team in great position.  Taylor was to run the second leg, the shortest of the four at 400 meters.  After he had completed the first of his two laps, he was running as well as he ever had.  Suddenly, the runner behind him inadvertently tripped Taylor, and down he went, sprawled flat out on the track.  By the time he got up, his team was effectively out of the race.  They came in dead last.  No All-America status for them.
We were struck dumb.  We were well aware that, on the scale of human disasters, this was minuscule.  While Taylor had lost some skin and gotten pretty banged up, he would soon be fine.  No one had gotten sick.  No one had died.  People deal every day with news far more dire and terrible than this: lost jobs, negative biopsies, addicted children, sudden deaths.  Not to mention the hunger and violence and war that are the real scourges of so many lives.  This fall of his was merely a blip on the screen of losses.  Nevertheless, in the moment it was devastating.  All the team’s hopes were dashed, their dreams cut short by a random accident.

With his fondest athletic hopes out the window, we wondered how Taylor would handle it.  And as his family, we found ourselves looking for a way to get our own bearings.  We knew, at some level, that there had been more than a hint of athletic idolatry in our anticipation.  We knew that we had made too big a deal of the event.  And we knew that, like many Americans, we had elevated athletic success to the pantheon of our concerns.  We knew all that.

Nonetheless, we also knew that, compromised as it has no doubt become, as with all fields of daily activity, that same athletic field could be the site of grace and redemption.  So we looked for it.   In the morgue that passed for dinner that night, with Taylor and his teammates and their families, sparks of grace began to emerge.  Someone teased Taylor about his fall.  His older brother, Alex, heard the tease and said to Taylor, in a low voice, “It wasn’t your fault.”  He wasn’t going to let his brother take the blame.

The next morning, Taylor reported that after his race, the last race of the day, he had noticed a big cleaning machine, something like a Zamboni, going out on the track.  Taylor assumed that it was going to clean the whole track in preparation for the next day’s events.  No, he said with a laugh, the machine went straight to where he had fallen, cleaned that spot, and returned to its resting place.  Taylor noted wryly that the machine was probably cleaning up the skin he had left on the track.  He seemed less devastated than I thought he’d be, and perhaps less devastated than the rest of his family was.  Having put so much time and effort into running, he already was able to say, “If I didn’t have legs and couldn’t run again, I’d be fine.  There are so many other things to do in life.”  We weren’t sure if he really believed it, but we also knew that his aiming toward that perspective boded well.

After we had returned home, something about that coach kept coming to us.  My mother wondered if we might be able to figure out who he was.  Remembering what I thought was his Mennonite affiliation, I did some sleuthing and finally learned, from his picture on their website, that his name was Lester Zook, and he coached at Eastern Mennonite University.

Armed with an e-mail address, my mother wrote him.  “I write to tell you that I shall never forget you and your presence at that event.  You had promised to give me the time of Taylor’s [400 meter] split.  After the shock of his fall you waited quietly next to me and when it was over you said very softly before you left: ‘53.’  I shall never forget it or you.  Actually 53 was pretty good after a fall, right?”

She told him that Taylor’s skin was healing nicely, and she finished by saying, “Fortunate are the young student athletes who perform under your tutelage.  Thank you for being so engaged with us and for your kindness.”

The next day, my mother received this reply from Coach Zook: “Mrs. Throckmorton: Thanks so much for getting in touch.  I admire your persistence; I am beginning to see where Taylor gets it from!  It was delightful to talk with you and your family at the NCAA meet.  I felt horrible about Taylor’s fall; I was stunned when he went down, and I could tell you were, too.  Yet, a 53 is admirable-I told my high school senior son the story and he said, ‘Dad, I can’t run a 53 when I stay on my feet!’  And initially I felt doubly bad that you all were there to see it happen.  But reflecting later, I realized that in fact, that is why you were there.  It is family we need at such times, to remind us, more than teammates and coach ever can, that our value as human beings is deeper and our identity and worth as children of God is far broader than our performance in one race at one meet during one season.  So I believe God had a purpose in bringing you all the way from Maine-it was to be there for your grandson at that moment, and teach him something eternal. . . . At the end of the day and at the end of this life, what do we have but our character, and what we have received by grace?”

Rarely, if ever, have I heard the gospel spoken as clearly, as graciously, as eloquently as that.  He had articulated beautifully the sweet spot of faith-that what we have, we have received at the hand of God, that our worth lies not in what we’re able to accomplish, and that faithfulness to God entails presence and love in the midst of suffering.  When things go wrong, when hopes and dreams are dashed, when nothing goes quite as we’d like it to, the truest beauty is that God is in the middle of it, loving us despite, and even because, of it.  To follow that star of grace, and to stand next to each other at the foot of the cross-that’s fullness of life.  The coach reminded us.

Hamilton Coe Throckmorton is Senior Pastor of Federated Church, UCC, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

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