Monday, March 1, 2010

Ryan at the Bat

Danny knocked on the door, opened it and said, “John, you’ve got an emergency call.” I was meeting with somebody at the time, but an emergency is an emergency. We were wrapping up anyway, so I excused myself. I took the call standing up; I finished it sitting down. After identifying himself as the Coroner for DeSoto County, Mississippi, and telling me how he got my number, he gave me the news that dropped me into my chair: “I really hate to tell you this news but Ryan White was killed in a car wreck this afternoon.”

“What? … Who?”

“Ryan White. I understand you know him and that his parents are members of your church. I didn’t want them hearing from a police officer or hearing it over the phone. So I’m asking you to let them know.”

“Oh, no … not Ryan.” But a pastor has to put off his own grief so he can help others process theirs. I got a little more information, called two of the White’s best friends, and asked them to meet me at the school to let them know. A third friend who had heard the news by way of Mississippi connections joined us there too. We told them. And so began what became a sad week for our whole community.

But as I reflect on that week, it’s not the sadness that will linger in my memory; it’s the sustaining love God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness and whose grace is sufficient for every need. Ryan loved God with all his heart. He learned that from his parents, Tommy and Jan—devoted Christians, lovers of God, and dependent on Him too. God promised He would carry His children in times like these, and God is keeping His promise. There is still much grief to process, many tears yet to shed, still some wrestling with God to work out over this unexpected tragedy. But God will be as faithful in days to come as He has been in the first week since Ryan’s death.

A lot of folks are going to miss Ryan. He was only 27. He was the baseball coach at Senatobia High School in Senatobia, Mississippi. Ryan loved baseball—always has. When he was in first grade he tried to change the spelling of his name from R-y-a-n to R-y-n-e for Ryne Sandberg, famous second-basemen for the Chicago Cubs. I’m glad his mom and dad didn’t let him get away with that. Ryan didn’t need to be anybody else. He was a star all by himself, and pretty much all of us who knew him are part of his fan club. Ryan still holds several batting records at Arkansas Tech where he played his college ball. He coached Legion teams in Hot Springs—one of them to a state championship. He’s been an assistant coach at Ouachita Baptist University—helping one of those teams advance to the 2008 NCAA Division II College World Series. He lived and breathed baseball. But those of us who knew him weren’t just members of his baseball fan club.

We were fans of the way he lived his life. Ryan had more friends than just about anybody I know. His positive Christian influence extended not only to those younger than he was but to those older as well. There were well over 1000 people who attended the visitation Thursday night and around 1000 who attended his funeral on Friday—some traveling from very far away to be here. A unique thing about Ryan is that almost every one of us at the service felt like that on some level we were a friend of Ryan’s too.

Ryan was also a friend of Jesus. He trusted Jesus when he was in first grade. Then, year by year, he grew in his faith and in his understanding of who God is and what God wanted to do in and through his life. And Ryan lived that as best he could—serving as a positive influence for Jesus in the lives of others, doing what he did to the glory of God. And people noticed—not just Ryan, but Jesus in Ryan. I remember reading about an evangelist who was approached by a little boy who had heard the evangelist preach all week long. The little boy explained his dilemma to the preacher: “Since Jesus is a man and I’m a little boy, if I ask Him into my life won’t he stick out?” The preacher thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Yes, son. That’s the idea.” Jesus stuck out in Ryan’s life: in his love for people, in his dedication to family, in his zest for living, in his joy of baseball and play. One of Ryan’s friends and colleagues, Matt Teale, wrote a tribute to Ryan in which he stated, “You only get to live one life, but if you live it right, one is enough. Ryan lived his life the right way.” Amen, Matt.

And now Ryan is with Jesus. He didn’t get as many innings as most, but he made the most of the innings he had. And I suspect when he crossed home plate and trotted into heaven he was met there by his Uncle Jerry and his grandparents and many others who high-fived him, doused him with Gatorade, and celebrated the victory that was Ryan’s life in Jesus Christ our Lord. In spite of the fact that we miss him terribly, for those of us who know Jesus, we live with the gratitude and joy that we have not seen the last of Ryan White. When it comes our time to round the bases and make it all the way home, we will enjoy his smile again. We will laugh with him again. We will chest bump and forearm bump and embrace him yet again. We will take infield and play catch and hit pop flies with him again. Playing ball with Ryan is over for just a little while. Enjoying his company is over for just a bit. But absence won’t get the last word; presence will—present with Jesus and Ryan and all who know and love the Lord. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. “He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. He who lives and believes in me will never die.” Praise the Lord for eternal life! Praise the Lord for heaven and hope and sweet reunion on the other side!

1 Corinthians 9:24-25 says, “You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for crown that will last forever.” Ryan enjoyed his share of crowns in this life, but now he wears the crown that lasts forever. And of this I am sure: he is wearing it well.

In Ernest Thayer’s famous poem, Casey at the Bat, there was no joy in Mudville because when they needed him most, the mighty Casey struck out. Our joy is taking a bit of beating right now too. But in spite of our sadness over Ryan’s passing at such a young age, there is still some joy in our hearts and even the hint of a smile on our face because we know this: even in the short life God gave him, the mighty Ryan hit it out of the park.


  1. Thank you, John. Great words for an exceptional young man.

  2. John, I know Ryan's parents will always cherish these beautiful words you have written about their son.

  3. Beautifully written. I did not know Ryan but I know his parents and can only imagine the wonderful son they raised. Pastor John, you did good!!! - Vicki Stanley