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EASTER CELEBRATES TRIUMPH FROM TRAGEDY

At Easter we celebrate new life arising from the grave. Christians proclaim it as God's evidence of immortality.

Devout Jews, observing Passover, commemorate deliverance from Pharaoh's bondage some 3,400 years ago.In hatching eggs, sprouting bulbs, greening fields, butterflies soaring into splendid flight from their earthbound cocoons, the physical world provides visual accompaniment to these themes of renewal, deliverance, resurrection.

It is the recurring story of death and new life, tragedy turned into triumph. The human experience. On grand and minor scales, we each can reflect upon moments when hopes were crushed by personal disaster. Dreams buried. Doors closed, only to lead us down new corridors that opened upon vistas far broader. Haven't you sometimes wanted something badly, been denied, discovered in its very denial the best thing that could have happened to you?

I have, repeatedly.

In the fall of 1937, the apex of my ambition was to be a football coach. In my hip pocket, I carried a little notebook, each sheet containing the diagram of a football play. I was forever inventing new ones.

Early in that season, a high school junior, I suffered a chipped cartilage in my right knee. The sliver embedded itself in the joint, rupturing blood vessels when I put my weight upon it. Unwilling to be sidelined, I kept playing. The knee swelled, had to be lanced and have fluid drained off; it was put in a cast for most of the season.

The coach, a man named Bob Harris, sympathized. Sensing my disappointment, he turned me in a new direction.

"What we really need, even more than a good halfback," he said, "is somebody to represent our school in debate. You're the best prospect we've got."

Maybe a nice way of telling me, I reflected much later, that I wasn't likely to become All-America, even all-conference, halfback. About all I had going was desire. I ran harder. That's how I busted up my knee.

Buoyed by Coach Harris' confidence, I plunged with equal vigor into new ambitions: to win debate tournaments for the school and make top grades in Harris' world history class. In adolescent non sequitur, I thought if my hand was the first raised in response to every question, he'd let me start all the games in my senior year.

In the process, I got hooked on history. It was powerfully seductive. Studying the period of World War I, I was seized by the conviction that the Senate had bungled it for all of us by rejecting the League of Nations. If we could talk out our problems, I reasoned, we wouldn't have to kill each other. I began to read Woodrow Wilson's speeches.

In 1920, Wilson had warned that rejection of the league would result in another, more devastating war in 20 years. In that spring of 1938, I could see Wilson's prophecy reaching fiendish fulfillment: Japanese armies overrunning Manchuria; Mussolini's troops crushing pitiful Ethiopia; Hitler's legions blitz-krieg-ing their way into the Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslovakia.

Clearly, Wilson had been right. Isolationists in the Senate had been tragically wrong. Because of their folly, my generation would have to perform anew the task undertaken by my father and his contemporaries of World War I.

I came to believe there was something even better than being a football coach: to go to Congress and help build the basis for a peaceful world. That ambition never changed.

A life's goal, born from a football injury. Many times in subsequent years I would find fulfillment arising from the tombs of ambitions denied. In college, I wanted to be president of the student body. That honor eluded me. Almost as a consolation prize, I became editor of the college newspaper. This challenge was, for me, the most fulfilling of my student career.

One day, exasperated by my flowery phrases, journalism professor Sam Householder said: "The purpose of words, Jim, is to reveal thought - not to conceal thought."

Maybe that's why one of my valued friends over all these decades has been a Methodist preacher named Ervin Gathings. If he hadn't bested me in the election for student body president, I never would have had that great experience.

In 1961, overambitious and underfinanced, I barely lost a race for the Senate. My future, I thought, was behind me. That loss, too, in the long run, was providential. Had I succeeded, I never would have been speaker of the House of Representatives.

In 1989, I resigned from that post - frustrated, broke, accused of things I hadn't done. Friends considered that a tragedy. Then came cancer. Had I still been speaker, I'd surely have procrastinated about getting treatment. Instead, I'm well, productive, writing and teaching - better off physically, financially, spiritually.

From tragedy, triumph. That's the story of Easter. In the Sermon on the Mount, we're told that God knows what we have need of. If your child asks of you a fish, would you give him a serpent? Of course not. But suppose he asked for a serpent?

Our lives abound, if we can see it, with blissfully ungranted prayers.