I’ll never forget the day I heard about Ezra Flamm.
It was my junior year in high school, and I had just returned from losing the key game at a varsity basketball tournament. I missed a shot at the buzzer that could have won it. I was depressed as I walked from the garage into the kitchen of my childhood home.
My mom immediately asked, “Did you hear about Ezra Flamm?”
Meet Bob Flamm
I suppose every school has that one teacher whom everyone respects but also fears, because you know his class is going to be hard. At my Christian high school, that teacher was Mr. (Bob) Flamm. His tough-to-get-a-good-grade reputation was strangely mixed with a tender heart for students and for God. His signature number-two pencil was always (and I mean always) behind his ear. He was a science teacher whose classroom was filled with skeletons, snakes, and graduated cylinders. This same space anywhere but a school would suggest a mad scientist, if not someone on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Yet here in this science room, Mr. Flamm taught high schoolers about God, his creation, and how it all works. I personally liked Mr. Flamm even as I tried to figure out how to not threaten my GPA by taking his class. Additionally, I was too young to appreciate why he cared so much about memorizing Scripture and the spiritual discipline of fasting. I suspected Mr. Flamm had a deeper-than-normal relationship with Jesus.
Mr. Flamm had a couple of children, including his oldest son, Ezra. Ezra was well known throughout the school. Cute. Tow-headed. Even though he was just a first grader, Ezra had status in the hallways simply because the Flamm name was famous there.
Did You Hear What Happened?
The abruptness of my mom’s question that day foreshadowed the devastating news. Ezra Flamm had died. At that point in my life I didn’t know too many people who had died, and certainly not any children. How? What happened? It was most likely viral myocarditis, though they never figured out the exact medical cause. His heart had stopped while taking a nap. In older men heart attacks are shocking, but in 6-year-old boys they are tragic beyond words.
A pall of sadness descended like a fog on the whole school. I wasn’t equipped to handle the death of a child—and have since learned no one is. I attended the funeral, the small casket silently shouting the absurdity of Ezra’s passing. The Flamms gathered with the rest of us in shocked disbelief. What do you say at such a gathering? What should you think? My 17-year-old self had no spiritual place for anguish like this.
Beauty of Christ in Ashes of Life
Only in later years could I look back to those somber days and realize Mr. Flamm was teaching us his greatest lesson. It wasn’t an insight about the periodic table or a chemical formula, but about spiritual character. It’s been many years now, but I still remember a lamenting teacher returning to the classroom. I remember feeling awkward as he once again stood before us—but now always on the verge of tears. Often they flowed down his face.
Seeing death through the pain of Mr. Flamm and his family introduced me to the beauty and desirability of Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the spiritual maturity back then to put it this way, but that’s one thing about beauty: you don’t have to name it or theologize it to know it when you see it. In Mr. Flamm I saw gospel grit, not bitterness. I saw hope, not hate. I saw fatherly love in a broken human vessel. What was it that I saw? The reflected beauty of divine love in a real human being.
A science teacher at a Christian high school in northeast Iowa may appear small and insignificant. All his petri dishes and Bunsen burners were as normal as normal can be. Yet for those of us privileged to be there in the winter of 1985, we saw the beauty of Christ in Mr. Flamm. The years have passed and many a leaf has blown across Ezra’s grave. What endures in my heart, though, is the refracted light of Christ’s glory that we beheld in those days of mourning.
The Flamms have remained true to their Savior for decades since. Thank you, Bob Flamm. Thank you, Mary Flamm. Those glimpses of shekinah glory shine on as does Ezra’s life, safe in the arms of our beautiful Savior.
You can read previous installments in this series.