November 11, 2020

Three Lessons I Learned from Alex Trebek

Sunday, November 8, 2020, my mom texted me a note that Alex Trebek, one of America’s most loved television game show hosts, had passed to his rest. My response may have been brief. My brevity is more dismaying than surprising to my mom. But I wanted to let her know how he had impacted my life, so I wrote, “He was pleasant in ways that he didn’t have to be.” Graciousness with strangers was not the only the only thing I learned from Mr. Trebek.

I grew up with Mr. Alex Trebek. Well, we aren’t the same age, but I did grow up with the Alex Trebek that millions of Americans came to know and whose loss we now mourn. Jeopardy, the game show he hosted for 35 years, began running on America’s television screens the very year my parents migrated my little sister and me to the United States without asking our permission. It was also the year I began looking at television screens. I would lie down as close to the old box as possible, watching Trebek out of one eye because of an eye disease my parents had never heard of and simply did not suspect at that point. I did not know that Jeopardy was a new game, or that I would meet its host and participate in his game one day. I would lie there and watch and answer as the questions were raised.

It was all quite fascinating to my parents. “You should go on Jeopardy” was their frequent response to my answering the Jeopardy questions. Decades later, grown and on my own, I took my parents’ urging to heart, made my way to Culver City, California, and became a participant and winner in Jeopardy.

Personal interaction with Trebek showed me that being nice to those you do not know does a lot for them. It reminds me of Jesus’ telling question, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Matt. 5:46, NIV). It was a privilege to be in the company of someone as gracious as Trebek. I would venture that one of Jesus’ dreams for me is to have strangers discover, upon meeting me, what a gracious privilege it is to be in His company.

Trebek’s life also teaches me to focus on my job rather than on any fame or opprobrium that may come my way as a result of my dutiful service. As Trebek himself said, “I've never really thought about the impact the program was having on American viewers. And I've become part of their lives." The best way to impact people’s lives for good forever, to persuade people to make Jesus part of their lives, is not by winning shouting matches over theology. Life is a spiritual matter, sourced uniquely in God, who is Spirit. Trebek knew his job and did it. And millions of viewers took him into their lives. Christians must know their job assignment: “Go and make disciples” for Jesus everywhere (Matt. 28:19). How? By introducing people to God: “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3, NIV). True, Jesus is God’s incarnate Word. But life is not, for that reason, vocabulary sourced. Eternal life is not rhetoric based: “The Spirit gives life” (John 6:63). As we share Jesus faithfully, millions of people will take Him into their lives.

My final Trebek lesson is faithfulness to the end. I may be risking inappropriate hagiography, but the uncompromising resolve that characterized Trebek’s final year of life surely offers a lesson in faithfulness. The rest of that note to my mom said, “It was fairly clear that he had come to terms with [his illness], but I’m still saddened.” Saddened but instructed by the way he dealt with bad news—knowing he was dying of stage four pancreatic cancer but refusing to walk away from his job. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ message to saints in Smyrna. Whether it be persecution for our faith or the torment of personal, physical pain, that word holds good: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. . . . Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown” (Rev. 2:10, NIV).