Here at the beginning of a new academic semester, all the students and professors are full of big plans. We’re going to cover so much material, learn so many new skills, and develop so many relationships. We’ve got a long semester ahead of us, and since it’s a Spring semester, there’s a big graduation at the end of it that the seniors are racing toward. After that, they’ll walk out of college into whatever is next.
What we’re doing here on campus is preparing for what’s next. I teach in a general education program, so my students are drawn from all the different majors at Biola. They’re getting themselves ready to be teachers, nurses, doctors, film-makers, singers, entrepreneurs, politicians, pastors, scholars, missionaries, artists, technicians, parents, and educated citizens.
On December 14 of last year, one of our graduates from the class of 2006 died unexpectedly. Justin Key (1983-2009) passed away suddenly at a young age, and his death puts a question mark beside all the work of preparation we are doing here. Justin was a good student, and from the moment he came to the Torrey Honors Institute, we talked about how the education he was receiving was a foundation he could build on all his life. We constantly used the language of preparation, expectations, anticipation, and futurity. We started with Homer and Plato, worked our way through Dante and Calvin and Shakespeare, and kept building his knowledge base through Socratic discussion of great books all the way into the twentieth century. It was a deep investment in broad-based general education, the kind that is supposed to equip young men and women for a lifetime of intelligent growth.
And then Justin died at age 26. I think the little community of teachers and students who kept talking about laying an educational foundation for the future knew that any one of us could die before reaching that nebulous zone, “the future” that we were preparing for.
But the future we were preparing Justin for was only a few years long. Unknown to us, we were teaching him lessons he would use in the few years left to him after graduation, not in some nebulous land of his thirties, forties, fifties, or beyond. His education with us was one long preparation for big, important things he never got to do. A life that ends so young is thought of as “cut short,” even by those of us who share Justin’s own conviction that the length of his days was in the hands of God, just as his soul now is.
Beyond the grief of losing Justin himself, I learned two lessons from his life and death. That is, I learned one lesson from his life and one from his death; both will stay with me in all my teaching.
First, I learned from his death that while it is wise to prepare for a long and productive life, we shouldn’t pretend that such a life is promised to us, or guaranteed, or certain. This means the time of preparation itself is a real time, a season in which we can meet with God, hear his voice, and obey. If the voice tells us to prepare ourselves, then it is enough that we obey and prepare. The divine command to prepare for the future is not the same as a promise that we will have that future. Justin’s death underlined this for me. He obeyed God and prepared himself; it turns out he was preparing to meet with his God in a future life beyond our imagining. In a class Justin took with me in October 2004, we discussed the attitude that Christians in the fourth century had toward death. In his weekly essay that week, Justin wrote “It seems that Athanasius never feared death, but at the same time had no desire to be killed. He had a sense of purpose and mission in life, and it carried over into his continual flight from persecution. Christians are supposed to live by the spirit. It seems that is also how they are to approach the possibility of death.”
Second, I learned from Justin’s life that we should do what we can right now. Since we will never be adequately prepared for the tasks God may call us to, we need to do whatever we can with whatever we have as we go along. We should do something now with what we know now. There may be time later on to learn more and prepare better. But most of us—I’m thinking especially of my students and colleagues at Biola—have abundant resources.
Justin’s life taught that lesson in various ways, but the most dramatic is his involvement with the California School Project. The CSP is a truly visionary ministry which mobilizes Christian college students to train high school students in evangelizing in California’s schools. Justin was one of the first Biola students to commit to the project, and his early involvement was crucial in the start-up phase of a project that just keeps going. I don’t know how to count the lives changed and the souls saved through this initiative, but it keeps increasing year by year.
In 2006, Justin took my seminar on trinitarian theology. It’s a hard class; we read the most difficult texts that undergraduates could reasonably be expected to grapple with, and they’re all on the difficult subject of the Trinity. At the end of the class, I asked the students to give me an honest assessment of whether all that hard work was worth it. Here is Justin’s last word on the intellectual investment he was making with us at Torrey:
I fully expect our venture into the outermost parts of Christian knowledge of the Trinity to bear fruit in my own life. I have to admit, however, that I am not really sure how. I cannot say that I hung on Augustine’s every word, or that I could follow Aquinas to the rarified heights without, at times, longing at every step to stop. At this point, I am not certain how this journey has benefited me. But I think somehow it has. Thus far, I have enjoyed the concrete B.B. Warfield much more than any other author. His was to synthesize the thoughts of all the other great authors that we read, and in doing so did most of my work for me. I imagine, therefore, that Warfield was only able to do this by first ascending to same the dizzying heights which we have just summited. I hope, therefore, that such a work will benefit me in a similar way.
The work that we do in class, therefore, is worthwhile, and will bear fruit in helping us to understand God. Such fruit, I think, will only come eventually though, in the same way as the worst day of athletic training often becomes a breakthrough into the light. The Trinity is so complex and so unknown that it cannot but require much study before its true secrets come to light. But it is the entity from which the entire world and its inhabitants derive their being, and hence even the most basic truth about it must reveal much about everything else. The highest will always affect the lowest. Our study allows us to see how.