The Sting

Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters in London, 2008.
Dr. Harrist taking us to visit the Amnesty International Headquarters (London, 2008).

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.

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Relentless Lenting

Tulips

Spring has sprung here in Atlanta. The birds are chirping, lawnmowers are running, and the pollen is everywhere. Even as I sit on my back patio to write this post, a fine layer of that allergy-inducing dust is already settling on my computer. But as much as I hate the pollen, I can’t help but love this time of year, especially in the South. The weather is beautiful, the flowers are blooming, and the city that hid away during the “depths of winter” is finally coming back to life.

Spring also means the beginning of the most important season in the Church calendar: Easter. Although the toy and electronics industry will try to convince you that Christmas is superior, Easter is more significant because it’s when we celebrate the death and resurrection of our Savior.

But I have a confession to make. I don’t always love Easter. Yes, I understand its theological implications. Yes, I intellectually grasp what it means that Jesus died and rose again. But if I’m truly honest, this “holiday of holidays” usually just passes me by, lost in the pollen-laden (and paper-writing) sands of time at the end of the school year. Life in the spring is especially hectic, and I don’t often manage to pause long enough to make Easter meaningful.

Back in the day, leaders in the Christian church recognized that this might be a problem for people like me, so they instituted a season called “Lent” leading up to Easter. During these 40 days of fasting, Christians are asked to make space in their lives to contemplate their own mortality and focus on God. As we “sacrifice” (by not eating chocolate or drinking coffee… or the other 99 things on this BuzzFeed list), we are called to remember Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.

This year, I tried really hard to observe Lent. I went to Ash Wednesday services, I gave up Facebook, I added more time of silence and contemplation into my schedule, and I even picked up a copy of Great Lent by the orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. I so badly wanted to make Lent meaningful, so that Easter’s celebration would be that much sweeter to me. But try as I did, nothing “worked”:  The silence I sought soon filled up with noise. I only made it halfway through Great Lent (and of what I did read, I barely understood any of it). And even though I did stay off of Facebook, I only succeeded because my mom had changed my password; on my own, I would have never had the self-control to make it. In the end, instead of becoming more focused on God, I just became more discouraged and distracted.

Sure enough, despite all my attempts at relentless “Lenting” (pardon the terrible pun), Holy Week managed to sneak up on me—and fill me with dread. Here I was, a week away from Easter, and I didn’t feel any closer to Jesus than when Lent had started. I’d griped my way through most of Lent, lamenting my workload far more than my sin. I felt like the disciples on that last night of Jesus’ life, when He asked them to stay up with Him to watch and pray. But over and over again, they fell asleep; they couldn’t do the one thing He asked. He needed them, and they failed Him. That’s exactly how I felt. Jesus had asked me to journey with Him during Lent, and—on the days I actually managed to peel myself out of bed and walk—I only managed to trip over my own feet. What an epic and miserable failure.

Still feeling discouraged last Wednesday, I hauled myself to church for our monthly evening of worship and prayer. During this time, we literally create space (by clearing out a lot of chairs) for people to (surprise) worship, pray, and spend time with God. As I sat there journaling, venting about my frustration and discouragement, writing about how stuck I felt and how my faith felt like a dead end, I suddenly stopped… and began to doodle.

Here I should pause and say that I never doodle. I tried when I was a kid and I got so disheartened by my abysmal stick figures that I quit. So sat there last Wednesday and felt the inexplicable urge to doodle, I couldn’t help feeling curious about what would happen.

No, the result wasn’t the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t even much of a drawing, per se. On the paper were two curvy lines, like a mountain range with the sun coming up over the ridge. (Or at least, that’s what I interpreted it to be; again, I am not artistically gifted.) And on top of the sun (or what looked like the sun), I wrote the phrase “new mercies.” Despite its childish simplicity, the image stirred something in me, and I thought of Lamentations 3:22-24,

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for Him.’”

Ever since last Wednesday, I’ve been pondering this passage, and over and over again I am struck by its beautiful simplicity. God is faithful. God is good. And His compassions—His mercies—are new, not just when first meet Jesus, not just on Easter, not just when everything is going our way or we are following Him perfectly, but they are new every morning. He loves us, truly and deeply loves us, and because of this we have hope and victory, rather than defeat. So even when I feel spent, even when I’m in a terrible mood, even when I don’t manage to follow Lent, He is still abundantly, absurdly, extravagantly compassionate, faithful, and good.

This, my friends, is the hope we have in Jesus. Even when we weak and full of frustration, brokenness, distraction, and shame, God meets us daily with His new mercies. He is just that good. No, my Lent didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped, but He managed to redeem even that disappointment this week—by reminding me again of His unfailing love. Just like He proved on Easter by raising Jesus from the grave, our God brings life to the dead and lifeless places inside each of us.

Amen and Amen.

Now, where can I find some chocolate to celebrate? 😉

Stone Mountain Sunrise :)
Stone Mountain Sunrise 🙂

A Bit “Wordy”

Words are spiffy.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit nerdy (okay, really nerdy), but I love words. A lot. Like, they make me super happy. I become almost bizarrely excited when I learn a new word. I become even more bizarrely excited when I manage to use that new word correctly in a sentence. Although I enjoy many different words, some of them hold very special places in my heart for various reasons.

Some words are awesome because they are really fun to say. “Onomatopoeia” is the perfect example. For those of you who are a bit removed from your freshman year English class, onomatopoeia (pronounced “on-uh-mat-uh-pee-uh”) is defined as “the formation of a word, as cuckoo  or boom,  by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent.” In my opinion, though, onomatopoeia is the best example of onomatopoeia. No, there is no specific action or thing that sounds like this word, but if there were, it would be the coolest thing ever. So I think onomatopoeia should be granted honorary onomatopoeia status.

Others words are cool because of how they are spelled. My current favorite is “awkward”. A “k” surrounded by two “w’s”—don’t you imagine that the “k” feels cramped and out of place? Like he accidentally showed up at the “w” party that he wasn’t invited to and the “w’s” just kind of stare at him like he’s a moron. Or maybe the “k” is on a trans-Atlantic flight, and he got stuck sitting between two oversized letters that are taking his elbow room. I bet he feels awkward. See? The spelling perfectly matches the word. I love it.

Still other words are nifty because of their ability to accurately express their meaning. One of my favorite examples, though, doesn’t come from English. In German, the word for “hug” is “Umarmung” (pronounced “oo-mar-moong”). It literally translates to “around-arming.” And that’s exactly what hugs are! How fun would it be if your friend were to say, “Has it been a rough day? You look like you could use an around-arming.” I think it could catch on. 🙂

Unfortunately, although I definitely have an affinity for words (isn’t “affinity” a cool word, by the way? I thought it deserved a shout out), I don’t always use them correctly. In English class my sophomore year of high school, I wrote an essay about one of my all-time favorite books (the abridged version, at least) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I was trying to say how the poor people in France were destitute and had been deprived of the things they needed to survive. So I expressed this idea by calling them “depraved,” which actually means that they were morally corrupt. Although that might have been the case (as the Thenardier family in the story demonstrates), my teacher responded with a big red question mark. Oops.  Recently, I discovered the word “proverbial”, and I now try to use it on a daily basis, but I’m honestly not sure if I use it correctly. But as Abraham Lincoln proverbially said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” A few weeks ago, I realized that stigma and astigmatism are not synonyms. Thus, there cannot be an “astigmatism” associated with being in a sorority. Eye problems are not endemic to Greek life. Ha ha.

My love for words also surfaces in my relationship with God. For example, I enjoy mulling over and pondering the various names of God. Or when I discovered the Greek word Splagchnizomaito, it completely changes my perception of compassion. Overall, the more I learn about the original languages of the Bible and the shades of meaning in the words, the more I am blown away and left completely and utterly in awe of God and who He is.

There is, however, one exception.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be blasphemous, and I don’t want to be excommunicated or burned at the stake as a heretic. But I think there’s one particular instance in the Bible where the word choice wasn’t quite, well, up to par. And unfortunately, this deficient phrase is one of the most common in all of Christianity.

The Good News.

Yes, this the phrase that we use as synonymous with “the Gospel.” The word “Gospel” in the context of Christianity refers to the truth that Jesus Christ—the Son of God and God Himself—came down from heaven, lived a sinless life, and at the age of thirty-three chose to endure the most painful, excruciating, humiliating death on a cross as a replacement for our punishment. In essence, He died so that we could live. But more than that, He rose from the dead three days later, conquering the Devil and Hell and death itself once and for all. He loved us so much that He gave up everything, so we could belong to Him. And we call that “good news”?! Good news? That’s the understatement of eternity! What we really should say is “unbelievable news,” “incredible news,” “earth-shattering news,” or “news so amazing that it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops and proclaimed in every single aspect of our lives.” This isn’t just good news; it’s the news that has the power to change everything. It’s the only news that’s worth your life, your everything. No, “good” doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Today is Easter, which is the holiday when we celebrate Jesus’ victory on our behalf. What better day to pause and ponder what this (grossly understated) Good News actually means.

Yes, I know I just called it the “Good News.” Okay, so maybe “good” isn’t such a terrible description after all. It’s on the right track; it just doesn’t go quite far enough. It’s not just the “Good News;” it’s the BEST NEWS. Nothing, not even onomatopoeia or a really great Umarmung, can compete with that. 🙂