Just days after Thanksgiving, Wheaton College lost one of its own.
Like many of her classmates, junior Ramie Lynn Harris was returning to campus after celebrating a happy Thanksgiving with her family. Sadly -- tragically -- the plane crashed in a field near Crystal Lake, killing everyone on board: Ramie; her father, Ray; her sister, Shey, and their friend Chris Backus.
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I received the sad news while I was driving home from our own family Thanksgiving in northern Wisconsin. My heart sank when I saw the first words of a text message from one of my colleagues: "Tragic news, Phil."
There is a sense in which every death is tragic -- a reminder of the sad condition of our fallen race. Though we were made for greatness, all of us are mortal.
The tragedy of humanity becomes personal for us every time we learn of the death of someone we love, or someone we know, or someone who belongs to us by connections of church, city, nation or school.
I did not know Ramie well. In fact, maybe the only time I talked to her was a brief conversation about what it was like to transfer to Wheaton from Purdue University. But I wanted to know more about her. What was her relationship to God? What were her hopes and dreams? How well was she prepared to die?
In chapel this fall -- a series called "Kingdom, Come!" -- I have reminded our students that we never know which day will be our last day on earth. If we are wise, therefore, we will make sure we are ready for eternity now.
People who knew Ramie well have testified that she was ready to die. Her mother told me about her daughter's faith journey. When Ramie was a freshman in high school, she had not yet become a fully committed Christian.
That year she was diagnosed with narcolepsy -- a neurological disorder that affected her control of sleep and wakefulness. As she worked through the life implications of this disorder, and the distress it brought, Ramie came to know God in a deep way. She wrote down a Bible verse to carry with her and give her hope as she struggled with her limitations: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
As Ramie struggled with her limitations, she discovered that sometimes God doesn't answer our prayers by giving us what we want for us. Instead, he answers them by giving us what he wants for us. But in his good plan, even our struggles can demonstrate his grace.
There were many things that Ramie Harris hadn't yet decided about life -- things that she didn't need to decide because they weren't part of God's plan for her anyway. But she knew that she wanted to follow God. And she knew that she wanted to go to Wheaton College -- so badly that when she wasn't accepted her freshman year, she came as a sophomore.
Wheaton College turned out to be a caring community where Ramie could grow in her faith and use her gifts. Last April she went on a ministry trip to Wichita, where she learned more about medical missions.
Here is how one of our staff members described her: "I found Ramie to be a thoughtful and earnest young woman who used her spring break to learn how to be of service to others rather than using her break in pursuit of relaxation. A psychology major, Ramie spent part of this trip working in a juvenile psychiatric treatment center. Like the other young women on this trip, she became well-acquainted with the needs of the hurting and broken."
Even a short glimpse of Ramie Harris's life gives us some important things to think about. Am I ready to die? Am I using my time in ways that count for eternity? Have I told the people I care about how much I love them?
I am saddened by the passing of a beautiful young woman who will never walk our campus again. I grieve for those who knew Ramie, her father, her sister, and their friend. I am saddest of all for the great sorrow that has come upon her mother and younger brother.
Yet as a campus we remain grateful for the gift of Ramie's life and her time with us at Wheaton College. And as Christians we believe that her story is not over -- that not even death can separate her from the everlasting love of God.
• Philip Graham Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.