This week I had a crisis of faith. It came not from any theological epiphany or some obscene example of man’s inhumanity towards man. It didn’t come from a killer tsunami or avenging tornado or some nightly news account of starving children in the Sudan. Rather, my crisis was the result of the simple cruelty of gravity.
The Texas Rangers were playing a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics and there in the front row in the left field bleachers was a 39 year old firefighter and his 6 year old son. The two of them were a fixture at the ball park and everywhere else it was learned later, inseparable father and son taking in a game in the bright sunshine of Texas summer. His fellow firefighters would later say that Shannon Stone would often bring his son to the firehouse on his day off where they would just hang out. “They did everything together”, they would all say. On this particular day he had called his wife to tell her where they were seated so she could look for them on TV. She had stepped out of the room when left fielder Josh Hamilton caught a lazy foul ball down the left field line for the third out of the inning and nonchalantly turned towards the stands, spotted the father and son team and flipped the ball to them graciously. Only the toss was a little bit short. Stone instinctively lunged for it at the rail, lost his balance and in the blink of an eye plunged headlong over the rail and out of sight behind the wall, hitting the concrete floor 20 feet below. Josh Hamilton froze in his tracks, 25000 fans let out a gasp, and Shannon Stone’s 6 year old best buddy stood helplessly screaming at the rail. On the way to the hospital he died in the back of the ambulance with his son riding in the front seat.
It is this sort of thing that has always paralyzed my faith. I can deal with the existence of evil in the world. I can grapple with the challenges that science makes to the nature of faith and its dependence on the supernatural. But when a father trying to catch a baseball for his boy freakishly falls to his death on live television, leaving behind a forever scarred and tortured 6 year old, there is a sound something like rushing wind of the breath leaving my soul. Then something rises up to fill the void, something like fury and anger. After that passes, emptiness and sadness come. I want to pound on the gates of heaven and demand an explanation. To those who chime in piously with the always reliable, “ God works in mysterious ways” I want to scream, “ Tell that to the kid!!” There’s nothing mysterious about the law of gravity. It is inexorable, relentless, and it works every time. Is this the way God intended for Shannon Stone’s life to end? Is this the way God drew it up when he was knit together in his mother’s womb? Or is it all a huge crap shoot where one false move and all of our plans for a long and fruitful life vanish into thin air?
This being America, I know how this story will play out in the weeks and months ahead. The Ranger organization will set up a scholarship fund for the boy. Major League baseball will order a game-wide safety review that will end up erecting giant nets in ballparks all across the country. Some lowlife bottom-feeding lawyer will exploit the family’s grief and bring a 20 million dollar wrongful death suit against the Rangers. Ballplayers will never again flip balls into the stands, another time honored tradition of the game gone. And at some point one of my more grounded, clearer thinking Christian brothers will explain it all to me and I will move on. In the meantime I will try to get the image of 6 year old Cooper Stone crying at the rail out of my head. Josh Hamilton was Cooper’s favorite player. He even had his jersey. I guess I’ll say a prayer for Josh Hamilton while I’m at it.