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.

Catching Sunsets

Kansas Sunset :)
Kansas Sunset 🙂

98% of the time, I love living in Georgia. Autumn lasts for months, and is absolutely gorgeous. Spring is beautiful, and all the plants are covered with pink flowers (a color which I don’t claim to love, but apparently I do: my backpack, water bottle, and cell phone cover are all pink. When I wear my one pair of pink pants, I become hopelessly monochromatic. So much for my “professional” image.) Winter is quite mild… although the very mention of “snow” can shut the city down, as this past January and February proved. (I heard there were 800 car accidents, 2000 abandoned vehicles, and at least one baby born on the highway. We even got featured on SNL’s Weekend Update. Welcome to the South.) And in my last two years here, I’ve found the people to be incredibly friendly. It would seem that the phrase “Southern hospitality” exists for a reason.

That being said, Georgia has a few quirks that, although I’m learning to tolerate, I don’t particularly love.

  • The traffic. It’s awful. Atlanta has the worst traffic of any city I’ve ever seen. Depending on what time you leave, a drive across town could take you 15 minutes or days. Okay, more like an hour and a half. But that’s still a really, really long time. On the upshot, though, living here has made me significantly more punctual. If I want to be even remotely close to “on time”, I need to build in a 20- or 30-minute buffer for Atlanta’s roadways. And public transit isn’t much better: while there are a few trains through town, most of the city is only accessible by bus. And buses, as you know, must drive on roads… where there is traffic.
  • The humidity. Sometimes it’s so bad that, after going for a run, I look like I’ve been swimming. I gave up straightening my hair because by the time I walk the half-mile to the bus stop, it’s already wavy again. And although summer is obviously the worst season for humidity, it lasts all year long. So even though the winter temperature only gets down to, say, 35 or 40 degrees, the moisture in the air makes it feel significantly colder. Forget “wind chill”; Atlanta has a “humidity chill.” Brrrr!
  • The lack of sky, or rather, the inability to see it. In case you’ve never been to Georgia, it’s basically like living in a jungle with pine trees. They are HUGE!!! I’m not kidding. Most of them are between 90 and 110 feet tall! And while that’s great if you’re looking for shade to escape from the humidity-filled heat, it’s less awesome if want to see the sky. And as a Kansas girl, I really, really like to see the sky. Aside from the traffic, that was my biggest adjustment when I moved to Atlanta: from having tons of wide open space above me to experiencing tree-induced claustrophobia.

The worst part about this isn’t the phobia, though. It’s missing the sunsets. You see, I’m a sucker for sunsets. If I had to make a list of my ten favorite things, sunsets would be toward, if not at, the very top. When I was an undergrad at Oklahoma State, sometimes I would drive to the end of a street that faced west (and, incidentally, intersected with a road called “Western”) just to watch the sun go down. I call this “catching sunsets.” When I worked at Kanakuk Kamps, I would occasionally sneak away to the top of a waterslide, so I could watch the sun go down over Table Rock Lake. When I visited Kamp this summer, I went down to the waterfront and caught one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen.

K-Seven Sunset :)
K-Seven Sunset 🙂

But alas, since moving to Georgia, I’ve only caught a handful of noteworthy sunsets, and these were mainly when I was weaving my way through traffic on the highway—not exactly an ideal place to stop and enjoy them. Bummer. There has been one exception, though. And if you keep reading, I’ll tell you about it.

Last Wednesday, I was driving to my weekly Bible study meeting. The day, like most of them lately, had been pretty rough. I’d spent another nine hours cooped up in the library, reading for my comprehensive (ie awful) exams in November. And as usual lately, I was in a rather terrible mood. Studying all day can have that effect. Anyway, as I was driving along, I happened to look up at the sky, and the top of an obnoxiously tall pine tree caught my eye. It was glowing—truly glowing—an incandescent shade of orange and yellow. “Hmm,” I thought, “that’s pretty. The trees don’t normally glow like that.” I kept driving, winding my way around the traffic, down a hill, and through a neighborhood, until I emerged at the roundabout right by campus. And that’s when I saw it—one of the most stunning, vibrant, and gorgeous sunsets of my life. If I hadn’t been driving, I would have stared at it for a really long time, or at least taken a picture. But even that brief, few-seconds glimpse was enough to leave a huge impression. It was absolutely spectacular.

After exiting the roundabout a few moments later, I caught a glimpse of another glowing-topped tree and a thought popped into my mind: the sunsets are always there. Even the trees are obscuring my view and I can’t see them, they are still there. And that’s when it hit me: God’s love is like the sunsets.

My life has a lot of trees right now: the 400+ books I need to know for my exams (let alone the pressure of passing those tests!), grants to apply for, papers to write, and so many things to do. And in the midst of the pressures of being a grad student, it’s easy to get worn out and discouraged. When life is difficult and demands are high, it’s easy to lose sight of God and His goodness, just like when trees block out the sunsets. It’s in times like these that I need to trust that He is with me, that His love is constant, and His grace is sufficient. This can be really challenging, especially when my sunset-glimpses seem so few and far between. But I suppose that this is point of faith: believing even when—especially when—we cannot see.

I’m thankful for my glimpse the other day, and I’m praying that God would give me grace to keep going. And that He would remind me to look up to Him, so I can catch, rather than miss, His sunsets.

Georgia Sunset
Georgia Sunset

Cotton Bowling

When I was growing up, my family took our share of road trips. Most of these were to visit family in St. Louis or to enjoy Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. A handful were to more exotic places like Colorado, Virginia, or the Grand Canyon, but the vast majority were short and within easy driving distance of home. Overall, though, my family tends to be “home bodies,” especially during Christmas break. We enjoy lounging in our lounge pants, eating far too much chocolate, and watching the entire previous season of shows like Lost or Once Upon a Time. So when my mom told me at the beginning of December that we would be going to a bowl game, I was more than a little bit surprised; I was borderline flabbergasted!

If you’ve been reading my blog for any extended period of time (or you know me personally), then you are aware that I am a proud graduate of Oklahoma State University. What you may not know, though, is that my younger sisters followed me to OSU. They are currently seniors (crazy!) and will graduate in May. Although my parents both went to KU and remain loyal Jayhawk basketball fans, they have definitely discovered their inner orange. (In fact, they might even own more orange clothing than I do!)

These combined factors—our love of Cowboy football, my sisters’ impending graduation, and the preponderance of orange in our house—prompted my family to venture outside of our chocolate-filled, lounge-pantsed, Christmas break norm. We bought tickets to the Cotton Bowl! Bright and early on January 2nd, we left in our rented SUV and headed south for Dallas. Our four-day adventure included exciting highlights such as the following:

-cheering on the OSU football team as they walked out of their meeting room and through the Gaylord Hotel (according to the Alumni Association flyer, they were supposed to board buses and leave for dinner. Instead they just reached the end of the hallway and turned around, which was a bit anticlimactic. Oh well).

-seeing a Christmas tree made entirely out of cowboy boots. #onlyinTexas

-buying discounted child-sized OSU jerseys… and having them actually fit!

-designing and creating the most clever sign in the stadium (although I’m afraid that “What does the Fox say?” may be stuck permanently in my head now. Haha, whoops.)

-meeting former OSU Heisman candidate and pro-running back Thurman Thomas. He was really nice and very amused by my sisters’ twinnyness (Yes, that is now a word, haha).

-and, of course, watching the Cowboys play their hearts out in the Cotton Bowl.

Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys did not win. While they played incredibly well and “left it all on the field,” they came up short, losing to Missouri with a final score of 41-31. I don’t want to rehash the game (as tempting as it is to decry the official review that ruled our interception for a touchdown as a pass interference), but I would like to share a few thoughts.

You see, I love Cowboy football. I’m not as avid a fan as many of my friends, but when the Pokes are playing (and I have access to cable TV), I get really into the game. The Cotton Bowl last Friday was no exception. I wanted them to win so badly that I lost my voice from cheering and was moderately sick for the next three days. But they didn’t. Whether due to poor officiating or poor playing (we may never know and I don’t care to speculate), they lost. And that loss was very disappointing.

I know that football is not the be-all-end-all-of-all, and I realize that the Cotton Bowl was just a game. A big game, yes, but still just a game. Life goes on. A year from now almost no one will remember who played, let alone who won or lost. Yet while sports aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things, I also believe that God can use anything—including football—to teach us about Him.

Right before I started graduate school, a dear friend of mine gave me the book A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. This little-known text contains a prayer for morning and evening for every day of the month. After the Cowboys lost, a portion of one of these prayers came to mind:

“Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin. Let me use disappointment as material for patience. Let me use success as material for thankfulness. Let me use suspense as material for perseverance…”

Looking back on that game (and on the other heartbreaking losses in Cowboy football history—we’ve had plenty), I have found myself thinking a lot about disappointment. Life doesn’t always go our way. You can “give it all you’ve got” and still come up short. How do we deal with that? Do we curl up in a ball and cry? Do we give up? Do we complain and blame? Or do we “use disappointment as material for patience”, as Baillie so aptly prayed?

As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t usually handle disappointment in healthy, God-honoring ways. I tend to complain or blame (or after the pass-interference call, I’m ashamed to say that I even booed). Instead of seeing things from God’s perspective, I get caught up in my own, and I become very discouraged. I need to lift my eyes, as the psalmist says, and look to the Lord. In our lowest moments, this seems all but impossible. But when we ask Him, He helps us. Only by giving our disappointment to Him can we find peace, hope, and the courage to move forward.

Fortunately, the rest of our family road trip was far from disappointing. We reconnected with old friends, visited my collegiate stomping grounds in Stillwater, and we even stopped at Pop’s, the famous soda joint on Route 66. (I can officially check that off my bucket list. Yay!). But now that we’re back, I think I’ll change back into my lounge pants and call it a day. Can you pass the chocolate? 🙂

Loyal & True

“Don’t do it, Steffi. Ahh, don’t do it…”

But it was too late. The Alma Mater started and, as if on cue, tears began streaming down my cheeks. With my diploma case in one hand, I slipped my arm around my friend Natalie and swayed alongside my fellow new alumni. As quickly as my college career had begun, it was over. This chapter of my life was officially complete.

I learned a lot in college. For instance, don’t take a Calc II class just “for the fun of it”… especially on MWF at 7:30 in the morning. Llamas will spit if you stand too close. Climbing a fire escape at 2 a.m. is rarely a good idea. Always, always, always carry your dorm room key, because the one time you don’t bring it, your roommate will lock you out… especially if it’s raining. Sometimes ice cream breaks are more important than studying. A sturdy umbrella is a good investment. Don’t wait until the week of a deadline to ask for a letter of recommendation. Make sure you have your football ticket before you walk to the stadium. Don’t put flannel pajamas in the dryer. And some of the best memories happen by accident.

I could go on and on and on about all the goofy and serious little lessons I learned in college. I could probably write a book of them (hmmm… that’s an idea. Maybe I will). But in this blog entry, I think I’ll focus on the most important lesson I learned in college.

God is good. Always.

Looking back over my college career, I can’t help but be amazed by just how good He really is. For instance, He brought me to OSU in the first place. My senior year of high school, I applied to eight universities around the country, and OSU was not one of them. But at the end of March, my top choice schools were out of the picture, and suddenly I had no prospects. Until my mom stumbled upon OSU, that is. I finished my online application, five minutes later hopped in the minivan, and five hours later arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma. As soon as I set foot on OSU’s campus, I knew I was home. This was exactly where I needed to be. Now in hindsight, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else, and I thank God every day that He brought me to Oklahoma State University.

That August, I went through Recruitment or “Rush.” I knew nothing about any of the sororities, and I had no idea what to expect. All week long, I prayed that God would give me wisdom. As I trudged from chapter to chapter, positively dripping with sweat (Why does Recruitment always have to be the hottest week of the year?! Not cool. Literally.), I asked Him to show me where He wanted me. And as the week went on, one house stuck out in my mind: Kappa Delta. Somehow I knew that Kaydee was the house for me. Obviously, being a Kaydee definitely had its ups and downs. But now looking back, I know beyond all shadow of doubt that God brought me to this house, to these girls, and I am so thankful for it.

Now that I was a college student and a sorority girl, it was time to find my niche. Where should I invest my time and energy? A year earlier, my dad had taken me to a movie screening at our friend’s church (“Dragged” would actually be a more accurate word. I really didn’t want to go, but he made me. haha). This film was produced by the Christian singer/songwriter Sara Groves and recounted her journey to Rwanda with an organization called the “International Justice Mission” or IJM. This video was my first exposure to global injustice and to IJM’s work, and it stayed in the back of my mind for the next year. I knew I wanted to get involved with IJM, but I wasn’t sure how. Unfortunately, though, OSU didn’t have an IJM campus chapter. I could start one, I supposed, but I was already busy with so many things—schoolwork, sorority stuff, other organizations—that I wasn’t sure if I had time or it would be the right thing for me to do. Then my advisor gave me a nugget of advice: The only difference between dreamers and ambitious people is action. In other words, don’t just sit around waiting for something to happen; just do it. So I did. To make a long story short, God provided for and blessed our IJM group in unbelievable ways. Now, three years later the OSU IJM chapter is thriving and is excited to continue raising awareness about injustice and helping those who are suffering. To date, we have raised around $4,000 to benefit IJM’s work around the world. I have been so incredibly blessed to work with such amazing and passionate people. They constantly inspire me, and I am so grateful to call them my friends.

And then I went to Austria. Ahhh, wonderful Austria. The land where the hills are alive with the sound of music, where Milka chocolate comes in half a million flavors, and people wear lederhosen to go grocery shopping. My exchange semester in Graz, Austria, was the greatest adventure of my life thus far. Yet again, God proved His faithfulness. He blessed me with incredible friends from all over the world, with the opportunity to travel around Europe, and most importantly to grow closer to Him. While in Austria, I learned to trust God like I never had before. I discovered that my identity rests in Him alone, and that He holds my life in His hands. Through the friendships I formed and the conversations and experiences I was able to have, I could see Him working in my life, shaping it, guiding me, and most of all using me. It was both amazing and life-changing, and I am so grateful for it. And even though I still miss my friends like crazy, I am so thankful that God chose to intersect our lives for those six wonderful months, and I have faith that He will cross our paths again. Love you all.  (Follow this link if you’d like to read more about my experiences in Austria).

Last but not least came my senior year at OSU. I learned that reverse culture shock stinks, but time heals all wounds; the best friendships often come by surprise, and the road to your dreams may contain potholes and detours. But God always knows best. His plan may not always match ours, but in the end, He works things out beautifully. As King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He also set eternity in the hearts of men, but they cannot fathom what He has done from beginning to end.” In short, God is good. All the time.

Last Saturday marked the end of this book in the series of my life. As I swayed during the Alma Mater, trying in vain to blink back my tears, my mind flipped through the figurative pages of my “college book.” And though there were painful moments mixed in with the good, though sometimes the tears seemed to douse out the laughter, and though I didn’t always understand why things happened as they did, the story was beautiful–just as God had promised. In the midst of my tears, I felt a smile overflow from my soul onto my face. My God is “loyal and true.” And though this part of my life has ended, my adventure with Him is only just beginning.