Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Decade without Big John

I have no idea where to start this post. The subject is incredible and tragic and mind-boggling. But it is true, that 10 years ago today I, with hundreds of others of my classmates from Lawrence North High School, witnessed in shocking fashion the collapse and death of our friend, Big John Stewart. We witnessed it at an emotional high for well-meaning high school students in the state of Indiana: the beginning of a run to a likely basketball state championship. We witnessed it as fragile, sensitive, young, inexperienced kids. We witnessed it as fans. We witnessed it as teammates, classmates, and friends. And we have never been the same.

Personally, my spiritual growth since then has been monumental and already adequately covered on this blog if you have been a part. I don’t know that I would do justice to the experience of March 1999 with the in depth theological, psychological, or emotional explanation that I could attempt to offer here of my perspective of this tragedy. That it was a pivotal (even arguably the pivotal) event in my testimony of conversion to Christianity is an understatement.

What I thought I would do instead in remembrance on this, the 10th anniversary, is list some of the most memorable parts of the experience for me, which hopefully many of you reading can specifically identify with. I remember some of the details so well. And then also, share with you the youth sermon I gave at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church sometime late spring 1999. I was 18 years old, and although this may sound strange to some, not a converted believer and follower of Jesus Christ. Looking back, if I were to give the same sermon today, I would maybe change some things, and maybe go more in depth with the theological implications of some of my points, but in general, the clarity, faithfulness, and consistency to Scripture in it blows my mind to this day. The words were not entirely my own.


- Sunday, March 14, 1999 deciding and leading through tears and confusion how to handle coverage of the tragedy in The North Star, our weekly high school newspaper.

- Nathan Proud, our mascot, leading prayer with the student section at the game while John was still on the court, unconscious.

- Finding out from a journalist outside the arena after the game that he had died (we had no idea), and the individual (and very different) reactions of the friends I was with at the time: Scott Shadiow, Bryan Sirbu, and Alaina Williams.

- Big John laughing at me before the game because an underclassman was in my seat, and wondering what I was going to do about it.

- 22 points and 13 rebounds in less than 3 quarters.

- Talking to my parents, while they were in bed, late that night after all the events at the school, after the game, had ended, and being at an utter loss for words.

- Hugging my friends and John’s teammates at the school after the game, and feeling a very unique bond that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. There seemed to be a shared, equal emotion among those who knew John very well, very little, or not at all.

- Hanging out at the school the next day also, because nobody wanted to do anything else except talk, remember, laugh, and grieve with our friends.

- Seeing some of the most popular, athletic, and masculine boys on the team and in the school, cry uncontrollably.

- The face of my good friend Pam Bender, a year older than me, at my door some days after, who had experienced the joys and struggles of Lawrence North basketball and a connection to John and the team in the years prior, at a level to which few can compare.

- Hearing the high school fight song at his funeral as his body was carried out of the gym by his teammates


God, grant me the wisdom to think, speak, and act each day as You want me to. May I never question Your wisdom or teachings. Amen.

On March 12, 1999 I experienced two simultaneous, indescribable tragedies. In a matter of a couple minutes not only did the high school basketball season that was responsible for my ideal senior year come to an end, but so did the life of a young, incredibly friendly and remarkably talented man named John Stewart. I never thought I could go from a period of being so happy to being so sad in such a short time. The emotions I felt those next couple of days were difficult to describe; mostly because they were difficult to diagnose. I honestly had NO idea how to react. As I look back on that depressing week, I think that I can probably consider it the low point of my life. But, I also think I can consider it the turning point of my life, because of the wisdom it instilled in me concerning the importance of faith.

I would like to share a short poem that was found in the pamphlet at the funeral of John H. Stewart III:

“The call was sudden, the shock was severe.
We never dreamed such grief was near.
Only those who have lost can tell,
The pain of parting, without a farewell.
We miss you now, our hearts are sore,
As time goes by, we’ll miss you more.
We cannot Lord, Your purpose see,
But all is well that is done by thee.”

As an 18 year old high school student I have experienced a lot in my life. But on March 12, 1999 I discovered that I have also not experienced a lot. On this day, not only did I experience the unexpected death of a friend for the first time, but also, I witnessed it first hand. Every night, before and since that day, I thank God for all my blessings; and the wisdom I gain each and every day is included as one of those blessings. I suppose the death of my classmate John Stewart made me a wiser man, as hard as that is for me to think about. And I suppose his death strengthened in me, the most important aspect of wisdom: my faith in God and the Lord our Savior Jesus Christ.

It seems mildly ironic that tragedy and the loss of life can strengthen faith in God in your own life. But, the way I look at it, this is the only rational reaction. As it is said, God works in mysterious ways. Faith did not promise to be easy, and completely free of sorrow. But faith does promise to bring eternal life. It seems to me that we have to feel glad for victims of tragedy because of their entrance into eternal life, and almost look forward to our chance to do the same, without, of course, forgetting to get the most out of every second we are here, and remembering not to take advantage of the blessings God has given us; most important of which, LIFE. Physical and mental existence in itsef should never be underrated.

When I think of the poor students from Littleton, Colorado, and the horrendous tragedy that they all experienced, I once again wonder and angry and confused, “why?” But I also, without taking any sorrow away from the situation, remember what I believe and have learned about God and the importance of faith.

The night of John Stewart’s death, my dad wrote the following selection:

“Maybe God fears that when we begin to feel immortal, we will lose faith in Him. And sometimes, He must make us realize how fragile we are; how truly mortal we are. It forces Him to cause us to grieve for a mortal life He has taken to join Him in eternal life. He reminds us that our earthly life is short, and that we must have faith in Him, through Jesus Christ, to share in His eternal life.”

A couple years ago Rev. Earl Whepley gave a sermon I will never forget. In his sermon he offered a refreshing explanation for tragedy and a comforting answer to the much-asked question “why?” He explained that in the after-life, those who believe in God and His Son Jesus Christ, are handsomely “paid-back”, if you will, for the lack of a joyful life on earth. Or, in simpler terms, he explained heaven as a luxury that all who believe in Him have the opportunity to experience, and that it is SO great, that it wipes away even the most horrendous tragedy experienced on earth.

In today’s reading from 1 Peter it says:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad, and shout for joy when His glory is revealed.”

I have no doubt in my mind that God has a detailed plan for all of our lives. And in my opinion, the death of John Stewart presented further evidence to support this conclusion. The father of a friend of mine from school noticed that John played for exactly 5 minutes and 35 seconds of the third quarter of the basketball game which he collapsed and never regained consciousness. He decided, out of divine intuition perhaps, to look up the Bible verse John 5:35. What he found was shocking. It says, “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.” Further, the King James translation reads, “He was a burning and shining light, an ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.” The connection was unbelievable, to say the least.

Like I said before, I am young, and have not experienced death to the extent others have, and to the extent that I know I will have to one day. But, I will not let myself be afraid of death; whether it be death of a loved one or my own. Because faith provides the opportunity not to be afraid.

It is reasonable to say that faith can prove difficult in certain situations. But it is in these times when it is the most important. I’ve always believed that life is only as complex as a person is willing to make it. And Christianity offers a very simple promise: Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and have faith in God and you will receive eternal life. As the youth minister at my friend’s church would say, “How can you say no to that?”

God truly does work in mysterious ways. We, as mortal beings, cannot question those ways, but respect them, and most importantly, be thankful for them. Amen.


What I have learned since then, among other things, is that John Stewart, somewhat like John the Baptist, was a lamp, which burned and gave light for a time, in his own unique, comfortably awkward and uncompromisingly friendly way. But the next verses in John 5 is what really matters, and is what I leave you with today. You were, and are, my friend, larger than life, and we will remember you.

“I (Jesus) have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.

I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”


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