Procedural Note — If you’re wondering why there are five people per team, it’s simple … basketball was my favorite sport as I was growing up, and since the rules of basketball (last time I checked) allow five players per team on the court, I’m going with five-person teams.
Since the Rio Olympics are underway, it’s an appropriate time to replay the Olympic-themed post I wrote four years ago this month in conjunction with the London Games — in fact, it’s the post that launched this blog. (Full disclosure: I’ve revised the below version slightly in a few places.) The story is essentially timeless, and I hope you find it worthwhile.
Originally Posted: August 2012
PREGAME TALK — Welcome to A Slow Life in the FAST Lane. The stars of this blog, faith and sports, need no introduction. And for those who think, “I’m not a person of faith and I’m definitely not religious” — that’s an understandable sentiment, but think again!
Consider these dictionary definitions: Religion is “something of overwhelming importance to a person: football is his religion.” Further: Religion is “something a person believes in devotedly” — and aren’t we all devoted to someone and/or something? I think so. …
Once more, welcome — read, vote, comment as you wish … and
TWO DECADES LATER, a riveting Olympic story still resonates.
This story echoes like a starter’s gun across the tracks and fields of time, signaling dreams deferred and shattered — and then, after the heartbreak, dreams somehow restored and reborn.
This story pulsates with an afflicted runner’s energy, reverberates with raw emotion, celebrates the never-give-up Olympic ethos.
This is the true-life tale of Derek Redmond.
The setting: the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The event: the 400-meter dash (semifinal).
The backstory: Redmond’s career was beset by Achilles tendon injuries and surgeries, and at the Beijing Games in ’88 a tendon injury forced him to withdraw moments before his first race. Four long years later, some considered the 26-year-old British sprinter a medal favorite…
The TV coverage leading up to Redmond’s semifinal reminds viewers how he missed the ’88 Games and documents how hard he trained to return to Olympic glory.
Redmond starts strong — but after about 150 meters injury strikes again, this time a torn right hamstring. Devastated, he kneels on the track. When medical staff come to him, he decides to keep going. Rising to his feet, he begins to hobble along — and I mean hobble.
“The thought that went through my mind — as crazy as it sounds now — was, ‘I can still catch them,'” Redmond says. “I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to stop. I’m going to finish this race.'”
What happens next is an indelible Olympic moment.
A man descends from the stands to the track and, getting past security, chases Redmond from behind. A crazed spectator, perhaps?
The man catches up with the limping sprinter … and puts his arm around Redmond’s shoulder.
The man is Derek’s Dad.
“The old man went to put his arms around me,” Derek says, “and I was just about to try and push him off because I thought it was someone else — I didn’t see him, he sort of jogged from behind. And he said, ‘Look, you don’t need to do this. You can stop now, you haven’t got nothing to prove.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I have — now get me back into Lane 5. I want to finish.’”
Jim Redmond wants his son to stop in case he’s able to recover and compete in the 4×400-meter relay for the British team that won gold at the ’91 World Championships.
But Derek is determined to complete the course, so his Dad says, “Well then, we’re going to finish this together.”
Derek continues his strange and moving race, with his Dad’s arm draped around him (and vice versa). As they walk around the track together, Derek is overcome by the emotion of the moment and his tears flow freely. He sobs at intervals, leaning on his Dad’s shoulder.
“You just knew how destroyed he was and just how much that race meant to him,” says Sally Gunnell, the British women’s team captain in ’92 who won gold in the 400-meter hurdles. “It’s … a picture that just stays in your mind forever.”
Meanwhile, 65,000 fans stand and applaud — and some weep along with Derek. When father and son reach the cusp of the finish line, Dad releases his hold and Derek crosses the line solo.
In a postrace interview, Jim Redmond says, “He had to finish, and I was there to help him finish. … We started his career together, and I think we should finish it together.”
A standing ovation.
Why such rousing applause for an injured athlete who won neither a race nor a medal? The answer, I believe, is simple: This story reflects the deep yearning of the human heart.
Twenty years ago, I was awestruck at the glimpse Derek Redmond’s story gives into the message of the Christian faith.
Yes, I grew up in the Church, and I’m persevering in the Church. As someone who subscribes to the historic Christian faith, while aiming to avoid its caricatures and counterfeits, I believe there are solid reasons why a genuine biblical worldview makes all the sense in the world. Yet I also continue to wrestle with questions — by the way, I reckon I’d have questions whatever worldview I embraced — and one of them is the timeless query that’s older than Mount Olympus: What, really, is the meaning of life?
Naturally, the world’s various faiths, worldviews and philosophies all give an answer, and so do people who consider themselves nonreligious — and while everyone is at it, could someone also answer the mystifying question of how on earth the Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS? No MLB team had ever surrendered a 3-0 series lead before. It still seems surreal — are we sure it actually happened?
But I digress … back to the standing O for Derek and his Dad: Do the messages of other worldviews elicit such a deep human response?
Let’s imagine a couple of parallel-universe versions of Derek Redmond’s story.
After his hamstring snapped, what if Derek had sat on the track and penned a poem about the meaninglessness of life, or cursed his fate, or smiled in the face of his misfortune — and then hobbled into the tunnel under the stadium, never to be seen again?
Spectators might have considered him stoic, perhaps quasi-heroic — but would they have been moved to stand and applaud with abandon? If each human being departs into nothingness, as atheism proclaims, is the human heart moved to high praise?
What if Derek had sat on the track, accepted his suffering bravely, and disappeared into the stadium tunnel … and then another sprinter emerged from the tunnel? But an announcement was made that this new sprinter was Derek in another form. And this occurred over and over, a la some types of pantheism.
Spectators might have been heartened about Derek’s ever-new opportunity to run the race. Still, do New Age philosophies and pantheistic religions such as Hinduism — replete with the professed hope of reincarnation, yet also the apparent loss of individuality — provide a personal narrative that moves people to weep openly at a father’s intervention?
What of Christian theism — does it furnish a framework for a resounding ovation as a father’s heart responds to his child’s pain?
The parable of the Prodigal Son gives us more than an inkling.
In the incarnation, God enters the arena of human history, coming alongside hurting human beings and offering to guide us home. In the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth experiences human suffering as the Son of Man and the Son of God, sharing all our wounds and heartache while enduring hamstring (and heart) replacement surgery for our sake, sans anesthesia. In the resurrection, Jesus achieves brand-new life — physically, athletically and otherwise — on the other side of the finish line called death.
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once declared: “Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”
That statement resonates with me. True, Derek Redmond’s Olympic moment doesn’t answer all my questions about the meaning of life, but it does offer a clue — some athletic forensic evidence in the case of a lifetime … a case about which we all will make a decision.
Do you think God speaks through Derek Redmond’s Olympic story? Or do you believe such occurrences are unlikely or impossible? Does a Creator exist, and if so, does He speak to people through the world of sports?
This blog aims to investigate such questions.
You are invited to join me on this journey to discover the answers that can be found at the intersection of sports and faith…
P.S. A few observers have dismissed Derek Redmond’s actions in Barcelona as melodramatic and attention-seeking. I’ve watched the video, and I don’t see an act. For my money, his 400-meter race is the signature moment in the history of the Olympics.
The signature accomplishment in Olympic history, in my view, is the remarkable four-gold triumph of U.S. star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Does anyone want to be holy? After all, why would anyone want to be holy?
Perhaps many associate the idea of holiness with a religious context. And yes, the dictionary goes there too, using definitions such as sacred and consecrated. So anyone turned off by religion may likewise be turned off by the mention of holiness.
By the way, if you’re in that category, you’re in good company. Ironically, you’re in the company of someone who is considered a classic religious figure: Jesus of Nazareth was known to be turned off by religion — or at least the Pharisees’ expression of it. His followers, though, say He is far more than a religious figure.
But the dictionary also dives deeper in its examination of holiness. Analyzing root words in Middle English, to be holy is to be healthy and whole. Perusing root words in Greek and Hebrew, holiness means being set apart and distinct.
So how about a revision of the above questions, with a new take: Who wouldn’t want to be holy?
Those root word definitions resonate with me. Let’s take a look at the latter pair.
While I have a desire to be connected with family and friends, I also long to be distinct — for instance, via excellence in my work. To rephrase the line of questions once more: Who doesn’t want to be distinct?
The world of sports gives a compelling glimpse into holiness — what it means and why, apparently, we crave it.
In “The Natural,” the classic baseball movie, Robert Redford portrays Roy Hobbs, an extraordinary hitter whose budding career became tragically sidetracked until he embarked on one magical season many years later.
In a scene toward the end of the story, Hobbs is speaking with the woman who was his hometown sweetheart, Iris Gaines (portrayed by Glenn Close).
Hobbs tells Iris, “I coulda been better. I coulda broke every record in the book.”
Iris says, “And then?”
Hobbs replies, “And then? And then when I walked down the street, people would’ve looked and they would’ve said: There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.”
Holiness — that’s what Roy Hobbs wanted. To be set apart, to be distinct, and to be recognized as such.
For further examples, let’s stay in the baseball realm — ’tis the season, after all. Clayton Kershaw, a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has won three Cy Young Awards and a National League MVP Award. This season he has added another remarkable accolade to his resume: He is the first pitcher in baseball history to reach the 100-strikeout mark in a season with only five walks, according to MLB.com.
Through the month of May this season, Kershaw had 105 strikeouts and, yes, five walks. That’s holiness — distinctiveness of the Clayton Kershaw variety.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “When you put it into context … when 2-to-1 is a pretty good strikeout-to-walk ratio, and now you’re looking at 20-to-1, that’s something you don’t imagine.”
Said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis: “That’s a big unfathomable number right there, that ratio.”
Something you don’t imagine … unfathomable … holy.
On a major-league team level, the New York Yankees have won 27 World Series, setting the franchise apart — though their archrival, the Boston Red Sox, have a 3-1 edge this century in world championships.
If Yankees fans protest and say their team has two titles this century, I’m not counting their World Series win in 2000 because that actually came in the previous century. In other words, in each century we count to 100, starting at 1 and ending at 100, and 100 is part of that century, not the next century. Even an English major like me can handle that math!
But 27 championships? That’s distinctive — the most titles, by far, for a franchise in American professional sports. And it’s a prime example of being distinctive and set apart … of being holy.
Based on this evidence — and there is so much more evidence if only we had the time — it appears that a longing for holiness is in our DNA.
Most of us won’t experience the baseball distinction — the baseball holiness — of Roy Hobbs or Clayton Kershaw or the Yankees (or the Red Sox, if you prefer). But how can we find the distinctiveness we desire?
P.S. Speaking of distinctions: While Roberts is the Dodgers’ manager now, he was a player for the Red Sox in 2004 when he made the biggest — and holiest — steal in Sox history. His ninth-inning stolen base in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series helped the Sox rally versus the Yankees, who were on the verge of a sweep.
After Roberts stole second against legendary closer Mariano Rivera and scored the tying run, Boston won Game 4 in extra innings and ultimately took the series — the only time in baseball history that a team has overcome a 3-0 series deficit. Yes, Red Sox fans, you’re right: On that count, the Sox are holier than the Yankees. Boston then won the World Series for the first time since 1918.
And yes, Dave Roberts is a popular guy among Boston sports fans. Surely, in that arena, he’s one holy dude.
Your arrows have pierced me. Scorn has broken
My heart. You’re close to the brokenhearted.
“I will remove your heart of stone” (token
Of fall) “and give you a new heart” (started
Before world was fashioned) — for cold heart’s blight
Is congenital, deceptive, beyond
Cure or hope or might … yet darkness is light
To You. Take dark heart from me — this free bond,
Blown boon, renegade risk, haunted home, torn
Tune, charred star — can’t be done, You say? No way,
Nohow, not now — save Your die-to-be-born
Way. Create in me a clean core — safe clay.
You are greater than my heart, and You know
All … search me, grow true me — old throw, new sow.
• This sonnet employs a number of scriptural statements about the heart and related topics in an attempt to explore the nature of the human condition — namely, the crushing concept of the old nature and the hope of the new nature as espoused by the Christian worldview.
• Since this blog focuses on sports-and-faith issues, each sonnet I’m posting has at least an oblique sports connection. Here the connection comes in the first line, though it may have been elusive: archery, of course!
• In my book, the sonnet is the ideal poem for residents of the time-challenged 21st century — rather than long-winded free verse, the sonnet features 14 concise and power-packed lines.
• This is a Shakespearean (or English) sonnet — a 14-line poem comprised of three four-line stanzas and a closing couplet, with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. In places, though, this poem departs from the classic rhythm of the English sonnet, iambic pentameter. Such a departure is common enough, to my knowledge, but I include the caveat for the sake of any sonnet purists who have ventured to this post.
• Let me know your thoughts, however brief, in the comment section. Thanks for stopping by — I hope you’ve found your time here to be worthwhile.
Ricky Burns — boxing
Mike Fiers — baseball
Jakub Kindl — hockey
Justin Smoak — baseball
Shona Thorburn— basketball
• “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already
Austin Daye — basketball
Briann January — basketball
Brandon Morrow — baseball
Jeff Saturday — football
Kevin Weekes — hockey
• “And remember that I am always with you, until the end of time.”
Wayne Hedgpeth — boxing
Mollie Pathman — soccer
Tuffy Rhodes — baseball
Huston Street — baseball
Wayman Tisdale — basketball
• “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father
except through me.”
The first team in this post — the All-Art Team — is in honor of the Master Artist as springtime displays its splendor here in New England and elsewhere. Yes, I’m referring to the One who is known as the Maker of the universe and whose museum is that very universe.
Of course, not everyone agrees about whether a Creator exists. Yet while I tend to find God tough to discern, the art of springtime gives evidence of His goodness and reality … in the midst of other evidence that calls His goodness and existence into question.
The key, it seems, is following the sometimes conflicting clues to an accurate conclusion. With God’s help, I hope and pray that you and I reach the correct verdict about springtime beauty — and the less-beautiful realities of life.
Bruce William Deckert
All-Art Team 1
Jeff Brushie — snowboarding
Robert Gallery — football
Curtis Painter — football
Matt Painter — basketball
Nate Potter — football
All-Bird Team 3
Jennie Finch — softball
Sylvia Fowles — basketball
A.J. Hawk — football
Brad Peacock — baseball
Frank Wren — baseball
All-Construction Team 1
Bobby Carpenter — football
Skylar Diggins — basketball
D’Brickashaw Ferguson — football
Mason Plumlee — basketball
Kevin Towers — baseball
Unintentional humor from the Internet journalism realm — actual excerpts in bold (though the all-caps headlines are mine):
SUPER BOWL: THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE
The NFL announced … that Super Bowl 50 will be graphically represented using numbers instead of Roman numerals, which the league has been using since Super Bowl V in 1971. … The league started using the word “Super Bowl” for the third game in 1969.Note: This news went public long before this year’s big game.
Let’s note the absurdity of what this excerpt actually says. First, a numeral is, by definition, a number. So the initial sentence above says: …Super Bowl 50 will be graphically represented using numbers instead of Roman numbers.
Yes, this is nonsensical. Adding one word, however, would make the sentence work. Which word would you add? I’m going with Arabic, to wit: …Super Bowl 50 will be graphically represented using Arabic numbers instead of Roman numerals.
How about the second sentence? Specifically, this reference: …the word “Super Bowl.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the name “Super Bowl” contains two words.
To fix this in accord with Logic 101 standards, I’d change one word: …the term “Super Bowl.” If you’re skeptical, here’s the Dictionary.com definition of term: “a word or group of words designating something, especially in a particular field.”
DEPARTMENT OF THE REDUNDANCY DEPARTMENT
Look for Taj Gibson to remain a big part of the Bulls … as a sixth man off the bench.
Apparently, this sportswriter needs to review some basketball basics: Five players start for each team, which means that a sixth man always begins the game by coming — you guessed it — off the bench.
Hence the inclusion of the above excerpt in the Department of the Redundancy Department. You know, because it’s redundant. And unnecessarily repetitive. And … oops. Never mind.
TWO TEAMS, ONE NASTY TRIP TO THE BATHROOM
Arsenal and Manchester City have thrown up some spectacular games in recent seasons.
Let’s keep it simple: Please, use a different choice of words than, you know, thrown up.
MORE REDUNDANCY FOLLIES
Why he’s No. 1: In summary, a combination of athleticism and upside helped Josh Sweat edge out a competitive group to land in the top spot. … Sweat is a talented prospect who has demonstrated a competitive nature…
For the record, the context here is the realm of college football recruiting. First, we learn that Josh Sweat is ranked No. 1 in the nation (at the DE position, by the way). Then, we read this: Sweat is a talented prospect.
Since he’s among the very best prospects in the country, is it necessary to say that he’s talented?
I don’t think so either.
Unfortunately for Mexico, one of their strongest players in terms of blunting the attacks of opponents is Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez. His persistent play and constant movement in games were key for Mexico in the group stage, but he will miss the match against the Dutch due to yellow-card accumulation.
Huh? So let’s get this straight — the first sentence here says it’s unfortunate for Mexico that Vazquez is one of their strongest defensive players? Yup, that’s what it says.
I’ll make a suggestion: Move unfortunately to the second sentence, right after but — and call it a day.
P.S. Or, if you want to avoid editorializing, simply delete unfortunately.
“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” — an angel to Joseph (per Matthew 1)
“You will … give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High … his kingdom will never end.” — the angel Gabriel to Mary (per Luke 1)
All-Christmas Team 4
Kenjon Barner — football
Santi Cazorla — soccer
Demarcus Christmas — football
Noel Mazzone — football
Quevyn Winters — basketball
All-King Team 2
Prince Amukamara — football
Royal Ivey — basketball
Tavarres King — football
Kliff Kingsbury — football
Epiphanny Prince — basketball
Once upon a couch, I fell asleep watching the pregame show before the final game of the 2000 World Series (the Mets-Yankees Subway Series). Soon I descended into dreamland and learned of the soon-to-be events of September 11, 2001. Now, some dream friends and I hope to help Flight 93 above western Pennsylvania…
… Iron Man soars beside us, coming from the other side of the zooming plane. He nods to our right, toward the cabin: “It’s clearly a hijack situation, Max. Your intel was correct. I could see four hijackers in the cockpit, and they’re in control of the flight. I believe the pilots are dead — there were bodies on the cockpit floor.”
Ashen-faced, Miracle Max says, “It’s just as we feared. What can we do to help?”
Iron Man looks at Max and says, “Like I said, I could—”
“I know, I know,” Max interrupts, presumably referring to a previous discussion I wasn’t privy to. “But Iron Man, if you break into the cockpit and puncture the exterior of that plane at this altitude and speed, you’ll risk the lives of everyone on board. Yes, there’s that true story about an explosion that tore a hole in a big jet plane, and the plane was able to fly for miles and land safely — but those were different circumstances. It’s like I said before: If you break into the cockpit and kill the hijackers, you’d surely doom the passengers and crew too.”
“Hold on,” Iron Man says.
“We’re already holding on,” Max replies, exasperated. “Not everyone can fly as fast as you, pal.” Max and I are tightly grasping the airliner’s left wing or else we’d be left behind. His flowing white hair is shining in the sun like a crown.
“No, I mean wait a minute — I’m picking up phone transmissions from the plane,” Iron Man says, his computer in high gear. “It’s a passenger speaking with his wife on the ground. She’s telling him about the terrorists who crashed the other jets into the Twin Towers — listen to this.”
We hear a man’s voice emanating from the speakers in Iron Man’s high-tech metallic suit:
“We’re going to rush the hijackers,” the voice says. “We’re going to attack. I’m going to put the phone down. I love you. I’ll be right back.”
A different man’s voice comes from a different phone conversation as he talks with his wife many miles away: “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”
A moment ago, the sun was radiant, brighter than a million lit-up Christmas trees. But now it has ducked behind some clouds, and glancing far below I see shadows from high billows that darken the patchwork farms-and-fields quilt like stains on a comforter.
Then we hear another man’s voice on another phone line — can’t tell who he’s speaking with, but soon he pauses and apparently turns to some fellow passengers: “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.”
Next we hear a woman’s voice on yet another phone call. She’s talking with a man who must be a loved one somewhere on terra firma. She says she’s filling pitchers with boiling water — it sounds as if she’s a flight attendant. She concludes abruptly: “Everyone’s running to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.”
“I’ve got to go too,” Iron Man says. “Got to take some action. Wait — I’m picking up some transmissions from inside the cockpit. It’s the hijackers. They’re speaking Arabic, so I won’t put on speaker but will translate for you.”
So Iron Man translates what the terrorists are saying to each other: “They’re trying to get in here. Hold, hold from the inside. Hold.”
“Some men are there.”
“Trust in Allah.”
“Is that it? Shall we finish it off?”
“No. Not yet.”
“When they all come, we finish it off.”
As Iron Man translates, the airliner rolls violently from side to side, and then up and down. Max and I barely maintain our grasp of the left wing as we ride this insane, fiendish roller coaster.
Iron Man continues translating: “Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.”
“Is that it? I mean, shall we pull it down?”
“Yes, put it in it, and pull it down.”
Iron Man shouts, “I can’t stay here with you — time for Plan B, Max. Farewell, my friend, and I’ll see you on the flip side.”
Max and I let go of the wing as Iron Man rushes to the front of the plane. Suddenly, Flight 93 nosedives toward earth at an unimaginable speed, and Iron Man holds on to the jet’s nose, trying to prevent the descent.
“He ain’t the captain, kid,” Miracle Max says softly, “but he’ll go down with this ship if he can’t save it.”
Max reflexively reaches into his pocket, perhaps searching for a magic pill or elixir to save the day. His hand comes out empty — and United Flight 93 plummets, and plummets, and plummets … and crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside. Blood stains the comforter.
We had begun our aerial journey like three kings, beckoned from afar, apprehensive yet hopeful that we would somehow assist the safe advent of this fragile flight. Now we are like deposed monarchs — powerless, empty, brokenhearted.
In front of me, in midair, flashes a blue sign (with a gold border) that I’d never seen before. These words stand out to me:
Welcome to SHANKSVILLE
‘A Friendly Little Town’
Shanksville Honors the Heroes of Flight 93
(I’m not sure whether I’m seeing the actual sign — perhaps an image of the sign is being broadcast to my eyes.)
Later, I learn that a field in the town of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, became a makeshift graveyard for the people of Flight 93. A shank to the heart and soul, indeed. But the heroic actions of the passengers prevented the plane from being used as a missile in the manner of the planes that hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Their bravery saved many lives that day.
The blue Shanksville sign fades away into another blue sign — namely, the bold blue sky that Miracle Max and Iron Man and I have been soaring through. Now, though, Iron Man has perished trying to rescue Flight 93. And Max and I are slowly losing altitude.
Then a rush of rage — at the terrorists — surges through my heart and mind. In my next breath, the rage is followed by familiar questions and sentiments upon such a tragedy: How could God allow another horrific event like this? Why didn’t He do something to help these people? And actually, is God even there?
Typhoon waves of despair engulf my soul. An abject sense of meaninglessness mangles my vision. Doubt wraps around me like a python and begins to squeeze.
Miracle Max and I are descending, yet for some reason the descent is slow — but Miracle Max? An acid steam of bitterness rises in me … what a joke of a name! Max had no miracles for these people. He should be stripped of that moniker. But I don’t voice this. For one, Iron Man was also unable to stem the terrorist tide. And after all, it was Max who enabled me to glide through the air (along with himself) and get to Flight 93, to give us at least a chance to help.
“Max,” I say, “do you believe in God?”
“Yes, I do,” he replies, though now I notice a nuanced change in Miracle Max — he still looks and sounds like Max, but it seems that perhaps someone else is talking to me. “It’s tough not to when you look at the design of everything from the stars to the human body. You really think the universe happened by random chance?”
“But even after senseless tragedies like this?” I counter — I, who have grown up in the church and believed in God since childhood. “How do you explain that and make it fit the paradigm of a loving God?” I quickly add: “I mean, I have some thoughts, but I’m wondering what you think.”
“Paradigm — look who’s using the fancy words,” Max says. “Well, kid, presuming God does exist, He gives people choice, right? And the key to choice is love — God wants people to love Him. For that to really happen, they gotta have the power to choose. You know, that free will thing. Love from a puppet or a robot — obviously, that’s not true love. By the way, my friend Westley — my buddy from ‘The Princess Bride’ — he knows something about true love: ‘As you wish.’ I think that’s exactly what God says to people. And God wants people to say to Him: ‘As you wish.’ That’s true love. But it means people are able to choose harmful wishes and actions.”
I protest, “But why does free will automatically mean some choices will be harmful? Why can’t everybody just make good choices with their choice?”
“I don’t know for 100 percent sure, kid,” Max admits. “But I think it’s ’cause human beings can choose what they wanna choose. Being able to choose only good wouldn’t really be a choice, now would it?”
I start to say something, but Max looks up and continues: “Plus, there’s this: God gets harmed too. He hurts too. Yes, we human beings know a thing or two about suffering, but God? We can’t pretend to know what His suffering is like. Whether you’re talking Jewish theism or Christian theism, God grieves, hurts, suffers like no other. And why? It comes back to true love. God wants our love, kid. Look, here’s a scene from the best movie of all time — yeah, of course, ‘The Princess Bride’ — and it sums up what I’m trying to say about how God hurts as it pertains to the humans he loves.”
A large, dark screen appears in the sky — looks like a movie screen — and from it emanates a piercing, anguished cry. Now we see Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, and Inigo says, “Do you hear that, Fezzik? That is the sound of ultimate suffering. My heart made that sound when Rugen slaughtered my father. The Man in Black makes it now.”
Fezzik says quizzically, “The Man in Black?”
Inigo replies, “His true love is marrying another tonight, so who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?” Then the screen vanishes.
“True love,” Max says. “It’s the best, and it’s the worst.”
The golden-and-green fields and farms below get closer as we drift downward.
“The other thing I wonder about,” I observe, “is that they say God is omnipresent, everywhere at the same time. But maybe we misunderstand what that means. Maybe it means He’s everywhere by His Spirit, but He also has a — a locational presence. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, God sometimes speaks to people in a certain place, and then He leaves that place. So maybe God is everywhere by His Spirit, but His distinct presence isn’t everywhere simultaneously—”
“I hear you, kid,” Max interjects.
“—and maybe that’s why He doesn’t intervene more often. Because He isn’t everywhere locationally. Of course, that’s a lot of maybes.”
“I got one more for you: Maybe all these maybes are all we got, when you boil it down,” Max says wistfully. “But some maybes are better than others: Give me the maybes that are true, kid.”
Suddenly, a specter floats toward us, appearing out of the sky. It resembles Max, actually — ancient face, wild white hair, frail frame.
“It’s my alter ego,” Max says matter-of-factly. Turning toward the phantom, Max shouts like a New York cabbie, “Hey, whaddaya doin’ here?”
The specter of Miracle Max points into the sky and an image appears. A family opening presents around a Christmas tree. A Mom, a Dad and three children. Laughs, smiles, an occasional hug.
Smoke obscures and dissipates, and we see another image: the same family around a Christmas tree. The Mom and the three children — but the Dad is missing. Faint smiles followed by quivering, heartbroken faces.
Max — the real one, not the specter of Christmas future — says quietly, “If those heroes on Flight 93 hadn’t taken action, this family would have lost a husband and Dad. Maybe, my friend, that’s the best answer to these questions.”
I object reflexively, “But why did it have to happen at all? Why couldn’t everyone survive?”
“Can’t really answer that — I just don’t know.”
“And anyway,” I resume, “maybe this family would still be together regardless. How do you know this guy is still alive because the passengers on Flight 93 fought back against those terrorists?”
Miracle Max replies, “Trust me, kid — I got a good source.”
Once upon a couch, I was home watching the pregame show before Game 5 of the 2000 World Series — the Mets-Yankees Subway Series. But I fell asleep just before the first pitch, and soon I started to dream…
… We continue our aerial journey, heading west above Pennsylvania — amazingly without the assistance of any aircraft or hot-air balloon or the like. We’re seeking Flight 93. Above and behind us, the sun is climbing high in a clear September sky. Below us, a city bustles with Matchbox cars and minute pedestrians.
The city is far smaller than the one where I was recently parade-going in the Canyon of Heroes in the dead of night. If New York City is the Himalayan mountains, this city we’re soaring above is Jersey’s Kittatinny Ridge. A river runs southeast through the metropolis.
“That’s Harrisburg, the capital of good ol’ PA,” says Miracle Max (of “Princess Bride” fame) as he gestures downward, reprising his role as aeronautical tour guide. “And that is the Susquehanna River.”
I peer down again, as does Iron Man, the newest addition to our expedition.
“Did you know this little factoid?” Max intones. “The Susquehanna River is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Bet you didn’t know that.”
“You’re right, I did not know that,” I say.
Max smiles. “You know where I learned that? Google. Such a perky search tool.”
“I did know that,” Iron Man says in what seems a bored tone. “I can access Google as I fly, you know — and a whole lot more — on my high-octane onboard computer.”
“Of course I knew you knew, Iron Man,” Max replies, his white hair catching the sun’s brightness. “I was talking to this kid over here. He’s from Connecticut and grew up in New Jersey. I don’t think he’s been in this neck of the woods before.”
Am I dreaming? I must be … no human can soar like an eagle in waking life, and the presence of Miracle Max and Iron Man bear a distinct resemblance to characters in dream land. According to the information I gleaned at the bizarre parade in NYC, it is nearly a year after I fell asleep before World Series Game 5 in October 2000. To be specific, it is September 11, 2001 — and following Miracle Max’s lead, we’re heading toward United Flight 93, which he claims is winging over western Pennsylvania.
As we fly west of Harrisburg, we essentially follow a highway, though we take a more direct course than the interstate’s natural loops and contours.
“That’s the Pennsylvania Turnpike, kid,” Max says, anticipating my question. Iron Man nods in geographic agreement.
The blue-stained sky is resplendent. The sun is radiant. My colleagues reflect the brightness in their distinct ways — one via ancient hair, the other via modern red-and-gold armor. What awaits when we reach Flight 93?
“My intel has informed me,” Miracle Max says, as if on cue, “that Flight 93 has been hijacked, just as the other planes were — the ones that hit the Twin Towers earlier this morning. We’re going to do all we can to help the passengers and crew of United 93.”
Iron Man interjects, “I’m picking up an airliner on radar. It’s coming our way at 477.3 miles per hour.” It occurs to me that we must be flying (or gliding) at a much slower speed.
Without warning, Iron Man races toward the unseen plane, jetting ahead of me and Max. “Hey, what’s going on?” I ask. “Why’d he take off?”
“He’s following orders,” Max replies. “It’s the emergency plan we discussed earlier — before you were in the picture. He’s no stranger to hijacking and terrorist attacks. And he can fly like a rocket — just a bit faster than me, kid. Iron Man will scout the situation and do what he can until we join him, and then he’ll give us the lowdown on what exactly is going on.”
I stare ahead into the sky, the roaring sun behind me. No plane, nothing. Nothing visible to the naked eye, anyway.
By the way, the fact that we’re airborne has nothing to do with my skill and everything to do with Max’s astonishing ability to catch wind currents and take flight (which he is somehow transferring to me).
Then I see it — an airliner in the distance, rushing toward us like a relentless bird of prey.
“Listen carefully, kid, “ Max says with greater urgency. “You need to stick with me, ’cause that’s how you’re flying — but you already know that. I can’t glide nearly as fast as a jetliner, but we’ve gotta be able to keep up with Flight 93. So when we meet the plane, you and I are gonna grab one of the wings — but make sure you don’t get too close to the engines!”
My eyebrows rise involuntarily — in this case, a kneejerk terror reflex.
“Don’t worry, partner, stick with me,” Max reassures. “I can’t fly that fast, but remember, I’m a miracle man extraordinaire. You stick with me, and we’ll both be able to hold on to that wing and ascertain the best course of action.”
I nod, getting tenser now that Flight 93 is an imminent reality. The airplane is getting larger by the moment.
“Get ready, kid,” Max says. “Follow my lead. If anything happens—”
And then, suddenly, United Airlines Flight 93 is upon us, speeding east.
After some intense aerial gymnastics, Miracle Max and I are able to grab hold of the jetliner’s left wing. I’ve heeded Max’s sage advice, with his help, avoiding the engine on the wing with its cuts-both-ways power.
Iron Man soars beside us, appearing to come from the other side of the plane. He nods to our right, toward the cabin: “It’s clearly a hijack situation, Max. Your intel was correct. I could see four hijackers in the cockpit, and they’re in control of the flight. I believe the pilots are dead — there were bodies on the cockpit floor.”
Ashen-faced, Max says, “It’s just as we feared. What can we do to help?”
Iron Man looks at Max and says, “Like I said, I could—”
Bruce William Deckert — Bio
Journalism career capsule
• Journal Register Co.
• SPJ award-winner — as you can see, I'm not listing the non-award moments ... presumably, we all have them, but go figure — we don't mention them on résumés!
As you read the blog, you’re invited to listen to a song I’ve written…