There’s nothing quite like playing a game with a kid. Pull out the equipment, explain the rules and you’re off!
When they’re small, you may need to correct them, re-route them, or help them a bit. As they grow, you may show them a few tricks and, every now and then, have to caution them when they get too rough or bend the rules in their favor. But somewhere along the way, if you’ve played your cards right, they start teaching you new ways to play the game. That’s when the game becomes theirs.
Two years ago our church experienced a terrible tragedy in the death of 14 year old Bennett Rill. Two weeks ago we christened a basketball court in his memory. Of course, you don’t christen a basketball court with a bottle of champagne, you cut the ribbons and play 3 on 3, as hard as you can, then shake hands, and go have some refreshments.
A bunch of us sat on the hillside to watch and cheer the competitors. Benny t-shirts were everywhere. Derick, Bennett’s Dad, was working the crowd, shaking hands and slapping high fives while Mom Carolyn was receiving congratulations and thanks for a day of community basketball that was truly a celebration of their son.
I’m wondering how this family does it. They have experienced something no one should ever have to go through, and they’re honest about how it’s going. “Bennett is still gone and our pain remains as sharp as ever,” Derick offered in his opening remarks.
Each day is hard and it isn’t getting any easier. They’re not pretending otherwise. Thank God! This family is living their mourning among us in order to help us all deal with this loss. Most especially the young friends of Bennett’s as well as his teachers, neighbors, and teammates.
The Rills, in their great compassion, have created a living, working, playing place where they can gather and remember Bennett in the way he would have wanted. By playing the game he so loved, in the way he loved to play it — as hard as you can until you’re completely spent and then go have a cold drink and remember the three-pointers you drained, and the lay-ups you can’t believe you missed.
The court was built with some of the funds donated to the Bennett Rill Memorial Fund for Student Ministries, the rest of which will support 6th – 12th graders at Floris to bring in speakers, sponsor events, send them on trips, and support them in mission work. But the court speaks fellowship. It beckons kids of all ages to come play on it, come enjoy each other’s company, and come get to know why it was built in the shadow of a church.
That’s the thing about a game. It invites you to play.
This court, with the number “21” painted in the far corner, memorializing Bennett’s favorite spot to shoot three-pointers, isn’t a sad place to remember loss, it’s forever game day, to remember victory and a remarkable young man who left us way, way too soon. But not before he showed us his love for God, family and friends and his fearlessness to share that. He was the “real deal.”
As I watch Derick and Colin cut the ribbons that bar the entry to that court and welcome it’s first “official” competitors to the championship game with high fives all around, there’s no sadness on any face, just pure delight. They’re here to play “Holy Hoops,” as Derick would say. He has opened the gate.
The Rill family hopes that court will get lots of use in the days to come and become a place for kids to congregate, get to know each other and themselves better. They’ll play some games of “H-O-R-S-E,” which on this court is re-named, “J-E-S-U-S,” and in the process they’ll come to know Him in fun, fellowship and the spirit of competition.
I can just imagine Bennett, who’s spirit is surely more alive here than ever, asking his buddies if they want to come shoot some hoops over at his house and giving them the church address to meet up. Bennett would probably greet them in the parking lot, usher them down the hill to this treasure of a court and then beat them with a shot from “his” 21-spot at the imaginary buzzer.
After they’d exchanged high fives, Bennett would smile and wait for the inevitable question. “So, Benny, where’s your house?”
“Right there,” he’d say. “That’s my Father’s house. Wanna come in for a drink?”
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love
his faithfulness continues
through all generations.
~ Psalm 100: 4-5
We lost a young man in our church last Tuesday afternoon. He died as the result of a tragic accident. Suddenly. On the day he graduated from 8th grade. He was a good kid but not perfect – an adventurous boy, a reliable friend, a brother you could count on, a loving son. He regularly humbled his father at 1 on 1 basketball and whispered “I love you” in his mother’s ear. So said the preacher who solemnly remembered him to a packed sanctuary yesterday.
Bennett Rill was 14 years old.
He had just been confirmed in the church. That means that he had completed a 4 month study program, been mentored by an adult in our church and been interviewed by one of our pastors about his readiness to answer the question, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
He answered yes. That ‘yes’ didn’t prevent the accident which ended his life. That’s a tough one. Lots of questions hover – the why’s, the what if’s, the where were you’s. I suspended those questions as I sat in the sanctuary and listened to the story of Bennett. The kid who lived life all out. The kid who wasn’t afraid to love and to say so. The kid who competed for the complete joy it gave him, not to impress but to give his best when his best was needed.
They called him the “real deal.” That is, not just the kid who says the right words but the one who does the right thing. That lives his life and his faith just the same. The one you have no doubt about – he’s telling the truth. You can see it. Not just in church. Not just in school. Not just at home. But on the field of play. And for a 14 year old boy, that’s where life gets real.
A cousin (and pastor) said of him, “He was stoked for joy.” I love that. Stoked. Prepared. Ready to go. Looking for the action. His coach said, “Bennett was ready in season and out. There was no off season.” He was ready. We weren’t ready for this.
Still, as Christians we are meant to be ready. Ready to give the reason for the hope that we have. And so I sit with this tragedy and the reading that comes close to hand. Madeleine L’Engle has written,
“mediate is part of the word immediate, the place of now, where past and future come together.”
The Great Mediator reaches back into our now. Back from the future that he has already defined but where He has promised not to intervene and, I expect through great tears, He sews and mends and heals. Time and space are not linear to Him. They don’t happen in our order. This is what makes the impossible, possible. In that mediate space, chronos (our time) and Kairos (God’s time) converge.
I conclude this because I have seen it before. Some years ago when my brother died suddenly and without warning I asked in my grief, “Where were you, Lord? If you had been there my brother wouldn’t have died.” And He showed me my journal of a few days before where I had written those very words from John 11:21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I had concluded that we were foolish to suppose He wasn’t there for Martha or for us. Three days before I knew I would need these words, God had provided them.
But now Bennett…and I walk into my neighborhood Starbucks, searching for words to share with this family. Suddenly, coincidentally, God-incidentally, I see three young men standing near a beautiful arrangement of pink flowers. “They are for our friends, the Rills,” they tell me.
I ask about their friend Bennett and they tell me the story of the roof and the friend who fell and the voltage. “We were with him,” they say. “See, look at the marks on my hands.” Sure enough, there are burn marks across the fingers of one of the boys. The Truth is standing before me.
But they echo in my mind in a different voice. They are the words Jesus spoke to his doubting disciple Thomas.
“Put your finger here; see my hands… Stop doubting and believe.” ~ John 20:27
And there Hope was, standing before me, in a rising 9th grader, speaking words thousands of years old that he may never have heard or read.
Even in tragic death there is hope. The decision is less to cling to life than to cling to the Lord of life, who has conquered death and written a much greater story. CS Lewis writes it so beautifully at the end of The Chronicles of Narnia:
“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
What a glorious image. May it settle upon this family and this community and lead us forward.