Dr. Ethan Schafer pictured above (right) in the Big House.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
James 4:13-14 (ESV)
I lost a friend way, way too soon this weekend.
Ethan Schafer was an exemplary child psychologist and a tireless advocate for the kids and families who crossed his path. He was also a loving and devoted husband and father to his two preschool-age boys (Michigan, Class of ’31 and ’33, respectively). After returning home from an appointment with one of our mutual patients, Ethan went to the emergency room at the urging of his wife, where he went into cardiac arrest following a ruptured aortic valve/aortic aneurysm. He was life-flighted to Cleveland Clinic where emergency surgery was done to repair the aneurysm. Unfortunately, the blood loss was so great that severe neurologic damage was the end result. Ethan was 39 years old when he died this morning.
Ethan and I were nearly polar opposites. He was a Michigan grad…I saw the 1968 National Championship team at my first Ohio State game as a seven year old. He did however express appropriate horror and concern when my oldest daughter submitted an application to Notre Dame. It’s pretty safe to say that we canceled out one another’s votes in every national election. And Ethan was a self-professed atheist.
Ethan wore lots of different hats. He was the chief psychologist at a fabulous private school in our area for kids with ADHD and/or learning disabilities. He established a teaching clinic offering affordable learning assessments for families unable to access what their children needed through the public schools. He divided his time with an elite college prep school for boys where he used his influence to help teachers and staff to create environments where my patients could be successful. During summers, Ethan was very much in demand as a camp consultant. He was on a very short list of “go-to” referral sources of mine for anxious kids with demanding parents because he was an excellent therapist and demonstrated remarkable dedication to his clients.
One late summer day, Ethan arrived for our annual pre-football season breakfast with a very sunburned head. When kids are treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, an essential component of the treatment is exposure…putting kids in the situations where they most frequently experience anxiety and helping them to work through their fears with the techniques and strategies they’ve learned in therapy. Ethan was treating a boy who was afraid to go outside because of his fear of bees. Their most recent therapy session prior to our breakfast had involved a picnic lunch in a public park in early September…a time of year when bees are everywhere and are attracted to food.
The vast majority of professionals in my field…especially those from elite academic institutions such as Michigan run in social circles where Christians and Christianity aren’t held in high regard. As we got to know one another better and Ethan became aware of work we were doing through Key Ministry, he was clearly curious. The concept of 100 churchgoers giving up a weekend night to care for kids with special emotional, behavioral and medical needs didn’t fit with his previous understanding of evangelicals. He volunteered to help Key Ministry with any training needs that might arise. I’m sorry now that we didn’t take him up on the offer.
Ethan’s professional life brought him into regular contact with a number of very mature Christians. One was the director of admissions at the school serving kids with special educational needs. Another was Sherri McClurg…the managing director of our practice group, Ethan’s clinical supervisor when he was in training and interim Executive Director for a faith-based international hosting program for orphaned children. This past December, Ethan joined the Board of the Building Behaviors Autism Center, a Christian-based organization that provides services to families of children with autism spectrum disorders, disruptive behavior disorders, and other special needs started by Dr. Cara Daily where I’ve also served as a Board member.
Our most recent series of phone calls took place around a tragedy. Ethan provided consultation to summer camps when emergency situations arose. He was called in to help after inner city kids on an outdoor camping experience sponsored by a Christian organization witnessed the death of a peer caused by a severe weather event. He wanted to know the advice he was sharing was culturally sensitive to differences in how Christians might process a traumatic event of that type.
I’m blessed to not have had to deal with death very often. In the past 20-25 years, everyone I’ve known reasonably well who died had come to faith in Jesus. My dad was a man of great faith…it was hard to be sad for more than a few seconds when he died suddenly because his life goal was to be in the presence of Jesus. My wife’s grandmother was involved in a personal ministry through which she cared for an estimated 300 foster kids over 50+ years of service. My senior class president and former teammate (a politician) left his hospice to give one final speech for the ages that represented a remarkable testimony to his faith.
Our faith teaches us that our purpose in life is “to give glory to God and to enjoy Him forever.” Death is a cause for celebration within our Christian bubble. It’s so much harder to accept when we don’t have a testimony or baptism on video or a decades-long history of seeing someone live out their faith.
We want people we care about to have hope and confidence about a future with Jesus that we as Christians share. In Ethan’s case, I’m encouraged because he seemed drawn to Jesus as reflected in the Christ-followers he encountered in his clinical and volunteer work. I have no doubt that Ethan would have openly expressed his love for Jesus given more time to get to know Him better. A mutual friend reminded me God was not ambivalent about Ethan and that we don’t know what God was doing in his heart. I’m encouraged that Jesus will cover his situation with the same grace and mercy He’s extended to me. I’m looking forward to seeing him in Heaven…after Ohio State has won another 15-20 Big Ten championships and 5-7 more national championships!
Who’s your Ethan? Who are the people outside of our Christian bubble who you want to experience the peace and comfort we derive from the knowledge of an amazing future in the presence of our Lord? We can’t “save” anybody. But we can initiate conversations in which we share the reason for the hope we have in Jesus and we can seek to be a reflection of Jesus to the people who cross our paths.
I’m glad my friend had the opportunity to see Jesus through the lives of a number of our mutual friends. Don’t wait to introduce your friends to Jesus. Tomorrow is promised to no one.
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
the champions of the West!