I found out Sunday on Facebook.
I was procrastinating on some work, per usual, by scrolling through my Newsfeed when I saw that one of my OSU professors had been tagged in a photo. As I read the accompanying caption, my heart sank. After 5+ years of fighting, Dr. Steve Harrist, professor of Educational Psychology and one of the kindest and most patient people I have ever met, had lost his battle with leukemia.
I didn’t study Educational Psychology, but I had the good fortune of taking a summer course with Dr. Harrist after my freshman year. Although the class only lasted two weeks, the final project extended well into the fall, with each student writing an original research paper. Because I was only a sophomore, I had never written a substantial college-level research paper. And so, even though summer had long since ended, my visits to Dr. Harrist’s office continued, as he patiently guided me through the process of brainstorming a project, asking good questions, sorting through sources, and articulating my findings. With his help, I later applied for a Wentz research grant to fund a follow-up study, which I would then complete with a history professor during my junior year. When I look back on my college career and think about my trajectory into graduate school, Dr. Harrist’s class stands out. Because even though he wasn’t a history professor, he taught me how to ask valuable questions and discover the answers.
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up with Dr. Harrist very well the last few years. I knew his cancer had relapsed, but I had no idea how sick he was until he was already gone. And now my heart hurts. For his wife, for his kids, for his extended family, and all his friends. For his students, for his colleagues, and for all the countless other people whose lives this kind man touched. I am sad, and I am angry. Because Dr. Harrist was an incredible person, and he of all people should have lived a long and happy life. But he didn’t, and that feels wrong. So very, very wrong.
And although I’m not an expert on death and grief, I would hazard to guess that loss always feels that way, at least to an extent. Even when people live to old age and die peacefully in their sleep, we who are left behind still feel the injustice and tragedy of it. My mother’s parents passed away several years ago, both at fairly old ages and having lived fairly happy lives. But that knowledge, though helpful, falls short in comforting me. Because even though they both died long ago, I still miss them. My heart aches because they are not here, and I feel like they should be.
I’m fortunate in that, apart from my Nana and Opa, death has largely not left its mark on my family or my close circle of friends. But I don’t have to look very far to find friends or acquaintances for whom this is not the case. Since my cohort began grad school three years ago, 2 of our 7 students have lost their fathers. In my Kansas neighborhood, two children died tragically in freak accidents in 2013. I can name several people who have lost children, siblings, or parents in head-on collisions. The list goes on, and it will only continue to grow. Because as much as it sucks, death truly is a part of life on this earth. And, try as we might, there’s nothing we can ultimately do to prevent it.
But even though death has become normal in this “circle of life”, death was not part of God’s original plan. And I think that’s why naturally feel so angry, confused, and broken by death when it touches those around us—we know deep down that this isn’t right; this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Jesus even experienced this when his dear friend Lazarus died. If you’ve hung around the Bible trivia circuit long enough, this story probably makes you think of the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” But if you’re like me until recently, you probably never noticed that, before Jesus wept, he became livid. Most English Bibles translate this as “moved” or “deeply troubled”, but the more accurate translation is that He “snorted with anger”, like a war horse charging into battle. Yes, Jesus wept, but He wasn’t just sad. He was ticked. Death was not part of how His Father’s good creation was supposed to operate. Jesus not only knew in the sense that He is God and knows everything, but He acutely felt it when He lost His friend—even though He would bring Lazarus back to life just a few minutes later.
So if the world isn’t as it should be, why doesn’t God just fix it right now? I don’t have a good answer. The problem of evil and suffering is complicated, and theologians have spent thousands of pages and (literally) tons of ink to try to explain it. And while I too have attempted to tackle this question before, my reason for writing today is different. You see, I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately, not just because of Dr. Harrist’s passing, but also because of Easter. Let me explain.
In Atlanta, I attend an Anglican Church, and we follow the liturgical calendar. That’s Christianese for saying that we have special names for different times of the year or “seasons” in the church. For instance, during February and March, we were in Lent. Right now, we’re in Pentecost. And for the 50 days before Pentecost, we were celebrating Easter. And during Easter, we talked a lot about the Resurrection of Jesus and what this means for us as Christians and for the rest of the world. In the process, I ended up reading a book by NT Wright called Surprised by Hope.
While I don’t know if I would recommend this book from a pleasure-reading standpoint (Dr. Wright’s writing can be a bit dense at times), the former Bishop of Durham has helped me to rethink the idea of heaven and resurrection. Using a lot of Scripture as well as information about orthodox Judaism and first-century paganism, Wright argues that Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection not only happened, but was a complete game-changer. By coming back to life, Jesus inaugurated a whole new world, a whole new type of existence in which God’s future Kingdom is already begun here in the present. And moreover, just as Jesus was raised to life—physically, literally, bodily raised to life—so too will we be raised. Although I don’t know how this will work or what it will look like, I do know this: death is not the end of our story. Paul refers to the resurrected Jesus as “the first fruit”, the beginning or the down payment on this new world He is creating. And someday, though I have no idea when, God will finish what He started with Jesus 2,000 years ago. He will raise all believers to new, unending, and perfected physical life, in which we will never experience pain, decay, or death again.
That’s why Paul proclaims boldly that death will be “swallowed up in victory” and asks provocatively, “Death, where is your sting?” Yes, death does sting very painfully for those facing it and those touched by it. But its victory is only temporary, for as John Donne so perfectly wrote,
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!
For those who are in Christ, this is our hope. Yes, death is horrible, tragic, and heartbreaking, but it is not our end. For those of us who know Christ will also be raised with Him into a new world and a wholly remade creation. And in this place, He will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more.” So while we grieve, suffer from, and mourn over the loss of those we love, we do not have to lose hope. For as bleak and tragic as this world may be and our lives may become, our story will not end in sorrow. The hero will win, and the happy ending—or according to CS Lewis, the “happy beginning”—will be ours through Jesus Christ, who already defeated death. Amen.