This is the end—for me the beginning of life (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
My friend Dr. Javier Garcia died while surfing on Saturday, June 19, 2021. (You can read more about his life in these posts from his institution, George Fox University). He was full of life and definitely too young to die. I met Javier a handful of years ago while I was his colleague at GFU. He lived in Newberg (Oregon) and I lived in Portland. Whenever I drove down to Newberg, where he lived, we would get coffee and talk about many things: teaching, books, our scholarship—but especially Bonhoeffer. Javier was a real Bonhoeffer scholar (Ph.D. Cambridge), I am just an armchair enthusiast. But we would often chat about our favorite works and quotes. In fact, sometimes when we were saying goodbye we would recite to each other one of Bonhoeffer’s most famous statements: Only the suffering God can help. Javier published his dissertation with Fortress Press in 2019 (Recovering the Ecumenical Bonhoeffer) and served on the board of the International Bonhoeffer Society (English Language Section). He was writing his second book, a sort of guide to Bonhoeffer’s works (for Baker Academic Press). Every time we met for coffee or dinner, we would talk about his progress. He had his whole career ahead of him and he was excited to become a more seasoned writer.
Just as I was a Bonhoeffer enthusiast, Javier was similarly interested in New Testament studies. He would ask me what books to read, sometimes I lent him or gave him books. Javier told me New Testament professor John M.G. Barclay (one of my doctoral advisors) was one of his favorite scholars. Javier’s work with the GFU Honors Program always had him reading broadly across time, traditions, and cultures, and he loved it.
During the pandemic, Javier sold his house and moved to Portland to enjoy the city more, which meant he was much closer to my house and he would come over on a regular basis for dinner, a movie, or a chat. He quickly became an uncle to my kids and a close family friend.
I am still grieving, so I am not interesting in giving cold-hearted “theological” answers to questions about why Javier died at such a young age. It’s not right. But I find it fitting—and also comforting—to read through Bonhoeffer’s words about death in his “Circular Letter to the Confessing Churches (August 1941).” Bonhoeffer addresses the death of Christian friends in war time. He urges us to put out of our minds speculation about why God would do this: “We should put an end to our human thoughts, which always wish to know more than they can, and cling to that which is certain.” Physical death is an event completely out of our control, but as we have a living faith in Jesus Christ, God uses our daily death, dying to the flesh and self, as a way to fill us up with Christ’s own life. “Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without.” Bonhoeffer means that, though death is a part of living in a sin-ravaged world, God is in Christ taking over the power of death to redeem his world and to redeem us.
From where I stand on earth, it is good and right for me to mourn Javier’s death. But I also know that Javier is in the good hands of the Jesus that he knows and loves, but more importantly who loves him. We love you, Javier, and we miss you. Don’t read all the books in heaven before I get there.