Thursday, May 30, 2013

Confronting Our Past to Forge a Better Future — Reflections on "42"

Recently, our family saw the movie 42, which tells the story of Jackie Robinson, who broke through baseball's "color barrier" with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Despite the language, we felt this was a good movie for our kids to see.  Certainly, 42 reminds us of a rather unpleasant chapter in our history—one some would probably just assume forget about, while others claim they had “nothing to do with.”  But we need to remember the darker aspects of our past, else how can we hope to be better in the future? 

This movie presents us with what we once were as a society, and our kids, need to see that past, so they can learn from our mistakes as they seek to forge a better future for our world. 

Before Branch Rickey made the bold move to bring Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, baseball, like the rest of society, was divided along racial lines. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land—and the unwritten rule of Major League Baseball and other team sports. It was "normal" and "accepted"—especially if you were white and lived in the South. It was what you knew, what you grew up with, and, in 1947, the average person didn't really question it.

In one poignant scene from the film, a young white boy watches a game with his father. When Jackie Robinson comes to bat, the white fans—including his dad—begin to heckle Jackie and shout racial epithets at him. The boy hesitates at first, but eventually, as if to "fit in" with the guys, decides to join in the derogatory onslaught.

And so the vicious cycle of learned hatred perpetuated. Segregationist views passed from generation to generation as parents passed the language and attitudes of racism to their children. And we hardly gave it a second thought; it was just, "the way things were" in America.

But what Jackie Robinson accomplished on the baseball diamond helped to begin to change all that. The crossing of baseball's "color barrier" was the vanguard for changes that would eventually sweep across the broader post-World War II society leading to the end of segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation in the 1960s.

Though his motives were not completely altruistic, in the film, Branch Rickey was portrayed as something of a visionary for his day. He saw a new era was coming for baseball, and he faced the same choice we all face when change confronts us: resist it or embrace it. Deep down, Branch knew in his spirit that the "segregated status quo" in baseball—and in society—was neither sustainable nor moral.

Despite the doubts of friends and family, Branch chose to embrace change. As the film begins, he announces his plan to bring a to bring a black man to the Major League. Branch was a Methodist, a man of principle and deep conviction, who sensed the time had come for an end to division based on race, and set forth to affect change in the one place he could—the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

At one point Jackie asks Branch why he is doing this, and Branch replies that he saw, "something unfair at the heart of the game he loved," and reached a point where he could no longer ignore it.  

Branch knew that whomever he chose to break the "color barrier" would take abuse. They would need to be a strong man in every way—i.e., not just a great athlete but a man of impeccable character who could stand firm in the face of trial. As he said it in the film, "I need a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."  In Robinson, Branch thought he found that man, someone who would have, "the same strength our Savior had—the strength to turn the other cheek."  Jackie Robinson would prove Rickey's hunch right over and over again.   He was willing to, "submerge himself to serve something greater." And the world is a better place because he did.

But as Branch predicted, it was not easy; in fact, at times it was gut-wrenching for Jackie. The film shows the verbal abuse Robinson took from fans opposing players and managers—and even his own teammates. At times, what is being depicted on the screen is hard to watch. It's hard to accept that such racist views were once commonplace. Now, they seem so "wrong," but then they were "normal".

Slavery may have ended in 1863, but in many ways, segregation perpetuated many of the racial divisions in our country.

In one particular scene later in the movie, Jackie and Branch chat about all the abuse Jackie is enduring. After one particularly difficult game where the opposing manager unleashes a barrage of hate-filled vitriol, Jackie is starting to falter and lose heart. He is ready to lash out in anger. Who can blame him, really? Branch tries to encourage him to hang in there. He admits that as a wealthy white man, he doesn't know what Jackie is going through, saying at one point, "You are the one that's living the sermon," and likening Jackie’s struggle to break through the “color barrier” to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Nevertheless, he pleads with Jackie to remember the "greater good" he is working toward. He offers a number of good arguments, but what seems to have the most impact on Jackie is when Branch tells him that while driving to the stadium today, he saw a white boy pretending to be Jackie. 

My kids didn't understand the significance of this statement. In fact, I'm not even sure I fully "get it." I was born in 1970—and on top of that, I am a white male—so I know very little of what it was like to live under segregation.

But Jackie “gets it;” he has lived the painful reality of "segregation" all his life. In 1947, right after World War II, patriotism was high.  America was “on top of the world,” and claimed to be a great beacon of freedom and democracy.  The problem was that most people seemed to think that freedom was only for those whose skin happened to be white.  The average person was comfortable with team sports being “separate but equal.” 

The notion that a black man would play on the same team as white men made a lot of people fearful and agitated—and, as the film illustrates, human beings can get downright nasty when we’re scared and upset.

So you can see why, given that context, the notion that a little white boy playing baseball in his backyard would imitate the stance and swing of a black athlete would have so much impact.  What Branch shared made Jackie realize that what he was doing was truly making a difference.  It would take time—lots of time—but eventually the scene Branch witnessed would become much more “normal.”

And since then, because Jackie was willing to take a chance, myriad other non-whites have been given a chance to “play ball.” And the game is so much stronger. Robinson’s pioneering risk changed baseball forever—and, in time, changed the world of his day.  The crossing of the "color barrier" in baseball set the stage for broader desegregation in society. To this day baseball remembers what Jackie Robinson did—#42 is the only number "retired" by all Major League teams.  Not only that, the world remembers his courageous actions. We tell our children why he matters—and they continue his legacy.

Flash forward almost 70 years to the present day.  My son Brady is playing baseball right now and having fun on his Little League team.  He loves to practice hitting and pretend he is a baseball player.  The morning after we saw 42, Brady was in the living room, and I overheard him say to his sister: "Look Becca, I'm the brown guy!"

Brady was pretending to be the baseball player he saw depicted in a film, who happened to be an African American.  Skin color was simply a descriptive term for him—nothing more. 

When I saw that scene unfold in my living room, I couldn’t help but think back to Branch and Jackie’s conversation in the movie.  In 1947, the idea that a white boy would emulate a black athlete seemed revolutionary, but now it is much more commonplace.  Today, many of our greatest athletes are non-white—but kids don’t seem to care.  Even our President is African American—voted in by people of all races.  

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
made history together when Robinson
broke baseball's color barrier in 1947
and played for Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers.
While we still have a long way to go in terms of living up to our ideal of being a nation that offers, “liberty and justice for all,” a movie like 42 is a good and uplifting reminder that we have indeed made progress toward that vision. 

I’d like to think Jackie Robinson looked down on Brady that morning and, as perhaps he has done many times over the last six decades, smiled at yet another little white boy pretending to be him.  Maybe he thought: “This is why the struggle was worth it.”  Then, I imagine Branch Rickey walking up behind him, putting his arm around Jackie, giving a grin, and saying: “Yes son.  My hunch was right.  You were the “right man”—and you done good!” 

And then I imagine another individual standing in the background—unbeknownst to the other two.  He too is a “champion of the underdog,” who broke down “barriers” that divided people wherever he went.  He offered the ultimate example of “submerging himself to serve something else,” when he died on a Roman cross.  He was the human embodiment of what it meant to “have the guts not to fight back.”  And the world was changed because he did it…

The third man is, of course, Jesus, and as he quietly watches a white man and a black man embrace, he is smiling too.  He is happy, because in a moment like this, the Divine dream inches a little closer to coming true. 

This compelling vision of all God’s people playing for “the same team” and working toward the common good was what inspired Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson to do what they did in their own time and place.  That same dream continues to inspire us today, and by God’s grace, what will inspire children for generations to come.

Monday, May 6, 2013

More Surprises

Something happened this weekend that doesn’t happen to me all that often—I cried.  I guess I’ve learned that since tears are more of rarity for me, I should pay attention when they do come. 

We went to Hope’s grave yesterday.  As anyone who has lived through the loss of a child can attest, it’s not something you ever want to do…   Even after five years, it seems cosmically unfair that we have to do this, but alas, we do.   How you handle grief is very personal—and unique.  There is no “right” way… you have to figure out what works for you—and let others deal with it.  As for me and my house, we have chosen to try and focus on living. We do not to visit the cemetery often—but we do go on special occasions to honor our daughter’s memory, and, sometimes, we take our children along.  (It probably helps that she is buried at a cemetery about 45 minutes away from where we live.)  We don’t want to deny the reality of what happened.  Hope is part of our story, and we want our children to know.  

This past Saturday marked five years since Hope died, so it seemed appropriate for us all to go and visit the cemetery.  We got a pretty floral cross to put at the grave.  Laurie had a Conference meeting during the day Saturday, Brady had baseball, and Becca went to an event at church, so we didn’t go up to Huntingtown until late afternoon.  We decided we would drive up to the cemetery first, and then grab a bite to eat afterwards.  It was a beautiful day—albeit slightly cool for May—with bright sunshine splashing down through the trees that stand near where her earthly remains reside.  We said some prayers and I sang a chorus to a song or two.  I am not really good with feelings, and I’m not really a musician, but sometimes the words someone else writes “speak “to me on a soul level.

Visiting Hope’s grave is always interesting for me.  Overall, I’m not an emotional type.  Oy!  Is that an understatement?!  (Ask any who know me well.)  When I look at that tombstone, with my daughter’s name on it, I have to admit that it can be hard for me to connect.  All my life I’ve learned to avoid dealing with life’s pain and unpleasantness.  For various reasons, I think I had to bury my emotions to survive my childhood.  I’m all grown up now and in a different place, but, sadly, old habits die-hard.  It’s hard to trust that feelings are “safe”.

Brady & Becca at Hope's grave 
May 4, 2013
So, when I go to the cemetery, I usually just stare at that stone and have this sort of empty feeling within me.  I’m pretty sure that pang in the pit of my stomach is how I experience grief and anger over the whole situation.   I hold it inside me—until I can’t anymore.  From the very beginning what has bothered me most about our loss was the feeling of being out of control—I’ve always hated feeling out of control. 

Hope died, and there wasn’t a thing that I, her dad, or anyone else could do.  Not only that, but she was robbed of her chance to experience life, and not only was she robbed, but so was the rest of our family—and even the world. 

No one gets to know who Hope Marie would have been.  Laurie and I were her parents, and we lose out on having another daughter to love this side of eternity; we lose out on getting to experience what it is like to have identical twins—after having worked so hard to prepare for them.  Brady loses out on having a sister. 

And maybe the “biggest loser” in this tragedy is Becca May, whose sister—and identical twin—was taken from her.   She instinctively “knows” something—someone—is missing from her life.  I suspect even if we had not said a word, Becca would still know.

Yesterday was certainly not the first time we thought about this, but it seemed like it hit everyone in a new way.  In particular, it seemed like Becca really connected to her loss in a way she hadn’t before.  As we were getting ready to leave after our visit, she sat there and lay on the gravestone and said, “Mommy, I don’t want to leave Hope here.”  Then, after we got back in the car, she started to cry— a very deep guttural cry.  It was hard to console her and hard for her to express what she was feeling, but on the other hand, it probably doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure it out.  She was sad about her sister. 

Simply put, Becca misses Hope and wishes her sister was here to play with her.

Becca cried… Laurie cried… but stoic Alan still held it all in—that is, until we got to the restaurant parking lot.  Laurie and I were trying to console Becca, and I played a song on my i-Phone called Safe in My Arms—by Plumb. I have sung this song to Becca many times the past five years.  She calls it “baby blues”—from the first line in the song.  Its haunting lyrics began to play:
Your baby blues… so full of wonder.
Your curly Q’s… your contagious smile.
And as I watch you start to grow up.
All I can do is hold you tight.
At that point I reached out for my daughter and took her in my arms.  And then came the chorus—and my tears.
When the clouds will rage.
And storms will race in.
Still, you will be.
Safe, in my arms.
Rains will pour down.
Waves will crash all around.
But you will be.
Safe, in my arms.
As I have so many times these past five years, I tried to reassure her—and, I think, reassure me—that whatever she (we) felt about Hope was okay, that it was okay to be sad and upset.  But I also wanted her to know, she would be okay—she was safe in dad’s arms… and ultimately, we would both be safe in God’s arms.
Castles they might crumble.
Dreams may not come true.
But you are NEVER all alone.
I will always… always love You!

Our family has gone on living and loving her and her brother, however imperfectly, and trying to launch them into this life.  We will focus on living and honoring Hope’s memory with the life our family builds together.

This was not the first time Becca connected to the fact she had a sister who died, but it was certainly the most emotional response I’ve seen to date.  And I think seeing my daughter react helped me connect what is buried in me—that which I manage to keep just under the surface most days. Since I don’t cry often, I feel a bit strange when I do—like I need to apologize for tears.  I try to be the strong presence for my family.  But I didn’t apologize yesterday—and I don’t think anyone expected me to.  No, I think I needed my tears on Saturday just as much as Becca needed hers.  I think they are an important part of my continuing to grieve—and heal. 

*****     *****     *****     *****

The other scene that struck me yesterday was that as we were standing at Hope’s grave, there were kids playing nearby.  Her grave sits on the edge of the cemetery, near a fence, and on the other side of the fence is a house where children live and play every day.  Somehow that image comforted me.  Hope’s earthly remains lie near a place where children play.  While I know her spirit is not confined to that place in the Earth, there was some sense that it was fitting that her resting place is so near where other children are growing up.  Surprise! Again, a song lyric came to my mind.

Hope's rest.

What shall we do with life’s surprises?
Like a swing set [near] a graveyard.
Or a bloom in the desert sand.
Look at my tremblin' hands.
Then it hits me like lightning.
That love has got to keep fighting.
And somehow, every time…
Love is gonna’ break through.
Chris Rice, Love is Gonna Break Through

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Rebecca May is five today!!

What shall we do with life’s surprises
Like a swingset in a graveyard.
Or a bloom in the desert sand. 
Rebecca May Ward posing with her Rebecca
Reuben doll on her 5th birthday.
Yes, the outfits match! 
Look at my tremblin' hands.
Then it hits me like lightning.
That love has got to keep fighting.
And somehow, every time…
Love is gonna’ break through.

Chris Rice, Love is Gonna Break Through

Life is full of surprises.

I waited a long time to find the love of my life.  I wondered if I would.  But then in God’s time… keystrokes led to a connection, and within a year, a wedding…   Surprise!

When we decided to have children, we had to pursue IVF. Our first pregnancy went surprisingly smoothly for us.  Ours seemed like a textbook example of how fertility treatments could work.  We worried two embryos wouldn’t be enough.   Nevertheless, we offered what we had to God.  Surprise!  Nine months later, our son Brady was born. 

We decided Brady needed a sibling.  We pursued IVF and got pregnant again.  We found out on Mother’s Day.  All seemed well.  Imagine our surprise when only a few weeks later Laurie had a miscarriage.   

A trip to Spain, followed by another round of fertility treatments during the summer led to a surplus of embryos and another pregnancy.  Then came that first ultrasound—a day I won’t forget.   Surprise!  Two heartbeats….  Twins!...  

We weren’t expecting this “bumper crop” of blessing, but we did our best to embrace it.  We tried to do all the right things to prepare.  We got all the right care, and all seemed well. We went to the hospital that morning prepared to welcome twins.  We had no idea what would unfold in the next 48 hours.  Rebecca would be fine, but Hope was very sick.  Surprise doesn’t do this one justice—more like complete shock.

How would we respond?  What would we pray? 

A chorus from a song called Trust came to my mind.  A friend had written it a few years earlier and shared it with the world when he lost his daughter in a car accident.  We had sung it more than once during our marriage, but we needed the words to be true now—more than ever before…
Yes, Lord, we trust you.
No matter how hard it might be.
Yes, Lord, we trust you.
Even though we’re blind and can’t see
For you are our God
And you know the way
No matter what happens, with you we will stay—and trust.
Two days later, we gathered in the NICU at Johns Hopkins Hospital to baptize our daughter Hope Marie, and let her slip from life support to life eternal.  Surprises even then.  God’s grace surrounded us and helped us do what needed to be done—even though it was the hardest thing ever.  (The NICU staff later told us they were surprised at how peaceful the whole scene was.)  That was not us… that was God.

God was there in the days that followed, as we said goodbye to Hope Marie, as my wife, the Pastor, became the grieving mother, and as I carried Hope’s tiny casket and laid it on God’s altar—making the ultimate sacrifice any parent can make.  God took on human flesh that day in the form of friends and family that came together to weep with us.

God was also there on a day later that summer, when we had a joyous celebration and baptized Rebecca May.  The same pastor (Laurie’s friend and mentor) baptized Rebecca that had baptized Hope.  Some of the same people who wept with us in May, now rejoiced with us in August.  The Apostle Paul would be proud. J

God has been there on many bittersweet days since then as our family has gone on living, trying to reconcile the fact that as Rebecca passes life’s milestones, only a gravestone remains to mark Hope’s brief earthly life.

And yet her life left an indelible mark on us.  I venture to say we are all different because Hope lived. I know her death altered the plot of my life. I am different as a husband, father, and human being, because of her.  Each day, I become a little more the person God created me to be.  I continue to be surprised by Hope. 

And I am certain that more surprises lie ahead for us. They seem to be woven into the fabric of life.  As much as we might wish otherwise, surprises are unavoidable. The question then becomes:  What will we do with them?

Our family chooses to believe that God will continue to guide us safely through all of life’s surprises. We trust that God will help us navigate the unexpected twists and turns of daily life and lead us safely home

Firm in that hope, today, we celebrate the life of Rebecca May Ward! Over the past five years, we have watched her grow from an infant into a little girl with who carries the “spirit of two” inside her.  We also honor her sister, Hope Marie, whose memory lives on in us and who is reflected daily in the face of her twin sister Rebecca. 

In the face of Rebecca we always see Hope.

Thank you God for all of life’s surprises—the good and the bad; the ones we get, and especially, the ones we don’t.  Help us trust, though we may not perceive the pattern from our vantage point, you are weaving all the surprises together into a tapestry of faith, hope, and—the greatest of all—love.  It will be a fabric with such beauty that, when we finally see it, it will take our breath away.  In the meantime, as we try to figure out our place in what you doing, help us trust that in the end: Love is Gonna Break Through…  AMEN.

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