Tuesday afternoon as I was leaving the office, an email message from a friend in Texas delivered the news that Kathleen Baskin-Ball had died earlier in the day. Kathleen was a pastor in the North Texas Conference, the mother of four-year-old Skyler, and Bill’s wife. She’d ridden the roller coaster ride of cancer treatments for many months, suffering and celebrating through all the ups and downs. The report I received from friends a couple weeks ago was that things looked dim for Kathleen, that options were increasingly limited, and that time was short. Even knowing this, nobody thought this day would come so quickly.
Many people reading this knew Kathleen far better than I did. Ours was a mutual respect and regard from afar, a tacit but deep understanding that we were kindred spirits, that we valued many of the same things and shared a common vision about the most fundamental issues of life and ministry. It’s hard to describe. Even though our conversations were few and brief over many years, she always impressed me as someone I wanted to know better, to work alongside more closely, to learn from and grow with, and I always suspected she felt the same toward me. I was not alone in feeling this; this was an effect she had on many, many people. In every setting I ever saw her, she evoked from people a kind of confidence in her leadership, a trust about her competence and motivation that was unquestionable and genuine. Her ministry was the real thing, rooted in a rich interior life and a deeply personal faith in Christ and pouring herself out in ways that changed lives and mobilized people. Through lives shaped by her spirit and nurtured by her leadership, neighborhoods and communities were transformed. In the manner of Paul, she willingly became “all things to all people” in order to reach others with the gift and demand of God’s grace: learning Spanish to serve cross culturally, working in the inner city to break through walls of race and class; serving with equally wonderful effectiveness and fruitfulness a progressive, edgy church and a suburban growth congregation. Two days before her death, she baptized a room full of babies, blessed friends, and offered encouragement to the bereaved that came to share their love for her.
Hearing of her passing brought forth in me a rush of feelings and stimulated a host of memories of other colleagues in ministry, and their deaths too young: Rev. Eric Anderson, with whom I played basketball in seminary who was shot in his church office, leaving a wife and four young children; Rev. Mary English, who died in an automobile accident just hours after we enjoyed lunch together; Rev. Susan Monts, a member of our seminary supper group who lost her struggle with cancer on the same day my father-in-law died; Rev. Jim Cloninger, whom I was just getting to know, appreciate, and learn from when he died in a car crash. Part of the tragedy in each case was the sense of unfulfilled promise, a gnawing, smoldering feeling of unfairness, that they, and we, and all who loved them, and all whose lives they would certainly have touched in the future had been unjustly robbed, wrongfully plundered of an unfathomable treasure.
I last saw Kathleen at Jurisdictional Conference in July. Her on-going health struggles and the experimental quality of her treatment were no secret. We were in the large crowded banquet hall as the conference delegates moved toward a brief break. We pulled aside from the crowd for a few minutes of personal conversation. I felt the need to say something about her illness, about her being in my prayers, about my grieving her not being among the candidates for bishop, about my hope that one day soon she’d be past all this and that we’d have more enjoyable conversations in the future. It felt awkward, and my words didn’t flow as smoothly as I would have wanted, and emotion caught my throat up tight. I knew. She knew. This would likely be our last conversation. While I was still stammering to say what I needed to say, she looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “You know, Robert, it’s going to be all right. I’m at peace.” My sputtering attempts to somehow minister to her ended in her ministering to me. The awkwardness disappeared. I relaxed. We chatted for a few minutes more. We talked about family and ministry and mutual friends. We parted with a firm embrace, and expressed our mutual desire to one day have the chance to spend more time together, work alongside each other, and get to know each other better.
Eric, Mary, Susan, Jim, and Kathleen all lived lives that were so much bigger than their untimely deaths. They knew “the life that really is life,” they tasted of its abundance and shared in its delights. They knew what it is to love and to be loved, and to find a sense of satisfaction and meaning in their contribution to the lives of others. They laughed with those who laughed and cried with those who cried. Through all their steps forward, sidesteps, missteps, detours, and false starts, they endeavored to follow Christ, and our lives have been made richer by their sharing their journeys with us.
Frederick Buechner placed these words on the lips of an aged monk who had outlived all his friends and family and was asked about the grief he had tasted so many times in their passing: “What’s lost is nothing compared to what’s found, and all the death there ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
Thank you, Kathleen, for your life, your ministry, and your friendship. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of life unending and eternal, and for the witness and ministry of Kathleen Baskin-Ball.
Yours in Christ,