One of the great tragedies of life is that we can be living in the middle of an epochal moment and take it for granted, pretending the moment somehow will live forever or that the people with whom we share life will continue in their station unabated. We are prisoners of the present, even for those of us who are conscientious about the past. Yet at that moment when the past enters the present, through another epochal reminder, the tragedy of our forgetfulness comes pouring into our senses and we see clearly that we had the privilege of living through, and with, an epochal shift in life.
This week, I was reminded of an epochal shift, one marked not by a large impersonal universal event, but one marked by the impact of a life that had been shared with me for a few brief years.
You see, an epoch is a period that denotes change, and when I heard that Richard Harper had passed away, I quickly realized he had been an epochal moment in my life, a moment of subtle shaping, as a river shapes rock after years of continual flowing.
This is the beautiful tragedy of an epoch: even as we are witness to it, living through it, we are only aware of the change it has pressed into us when it is over.
When Richard came to Cleveland I had not long been out of seminary, graduating Mercer in 2008. As one trained to be a pastor, and Richard being a pastor, we had much in common. It was not hard for my 30-year-old self to befriend 70-year-old Richard and I could tell he was eager to take on another pupil. In a world lacking mentors, Richard embraced that role and felt it was his calling to stand alongside of young pastors.
Rather than reinforcing a cultural wall of separation between seniors and young people, the decades and generational differences seemed to be the magnetic ingredient that brought us together, connecting two pastors born 5 decades apart (He in 1938, myself in 1981) yet intimately interested in becoming all that God had created us to be. At the time, I was ignorant of this Epoch, but over the next several years I found myself as a part of a sort of ministerial dream team, surrounded by men of wisdom, meekness, understanding ministry, and an uncompromising commitment to Scripture.
Richard had a saying, and of course it was a literal Proverbial one, “Iron sharpens Iron, “hearkening back to old Hebrew Wisdom found in Proverbs 27.17.
He had a calling to not only shape others, to change others for the sake of the Gospel and with the Gospel, but also to be shaped by the Gospel and by others. He firmly believed that through one another God is making us into the people he was calling us to be.
With this conviction, we had a season of several years in which Richard led a team of pastors in the area through morning meetings. Sometimes the gatherings would consist of the team at our local Cleveland Nazarene Church, sometimes it would include us and Nazarene Ministers from the Chattanooga area, but always it was meant to be an occasion of iron sharpening iron, our hearts and thoughts tempering one another within the warm grinding of our words.
As we met, Richard would usually start us off with a topic or he would ask if anyone had anything that we wanted to discuss, and from there the fireworks would be organic. I can see Richard now, as he leans over the table, grinning ear to ear, talking about the ministry and putting a finer edge to a point he had perhaps never seen before. He was an animated speaker, an active listener, and a constant encourager. He wanted to include as many as possible in these groups in which we would discuss culture, salvation, sanctification, preaching, etc. You name it and we probably covered it in those meetings. Those meetings were gifts and they were started by Richard. He was the spirit of the meetings, and when he and Roberta moved to Jackson they ceased, but the indelible impression left on those of us who participated in them cannot be understated.
One of the things that made Richard a powerful role model and attractive to many, a person worth listening to, was his humble spirit and desire to grow spiritually. He was in love with God and he was in love with scripture. He was desirous that all would find themselves so in love and his life pointed you in that direction.
Contrary to the image of the older Christian curmudgeon who is set in their ways, only wants to fight culture wars, and has crystallized their own sense of doctrine and knows the meaning of every single Bible verse, his life was a deconstruction of this very image. In my early 30’s I had never met an older Nazarene pastor that was as humble in his spirit and as open about his quest to know more, and learn more, than Richard Harper. How much more wisdom and insight could he gain after nearly 50 years of walking with Jesus and being in ministry? Yet, he had not arrived. His singular focus was to know God more deeply and he encouraged everyone around him to dive deeper into that well of living water.
I have sat at the feet of Richard as he provided keen insights and heard him preach many sermons, but there is one lesson that stands out amongst them all: salvation and holiness is not a fixed moment in time; it is a daily deeper walk with Jesus. This is a lesson that is easy to comprehend, but it is quite another to see it lived. I believe Richard would like to think I remembered a thing or two he taught me, but I believe he would be most pleased that his life was the best example of all.
I am still lost in wonder that a man born in 1938 was not stuck in the era in which he grew up. He was conditioned by his life experiences, but he did not let vestiges of bygone theological and ministerial eras stagnate his spirit. Coming from an era in which many of his peers would have understood walking with God in a momentary and transactional way, even quite legalistically, Richard embodied what it means to be holy. For him, holiness did not mean he had arrived at the pinnacle of Christian experience; it very literally meant his heart was now receptive to hearing God speak more softly. Holiness was the fine tuning of the spirit, not its final formation. Richard understood sanctity as a constant quest, a constant submission to God, and he was transparent about the obstacles posed by his own humanity.
He had an active faith and as such was a walking saint, even though at the time I only knew him as Richard.
One of my fondest memories of Richard was when he was present on a morning I would be preaching. I would often stare into the congregational sea of faces, and there, on the left side of the church, would be Richard and Roberta sitting beside one another. He was often in deep thought considering my words, smiling in agreement, or maybe even considering how crazy I was. If it was the latter, he never let on. Afterward, he was the first one to meet me and I can hear his voice even now.
He would approach me with his perfectly manicured silver hair, Elvis-like in orientation, often wearing a tie, and holding in his holster a firm handshake, and he would extend his hand to mine and say “Wow. Wow. Wow. If we could only grasp the implications of that scripture! That was the truth! Great Job!”
The entire time Richard would be smiling, putting his hands on my shoulder, and affirming the Word I had been given. I was not deceived into believing that I was the second coming of Billy Graham, after all I still have a day job, but what these moments did for me was confirm my calling and my intuitions.
As a young minister with much to learn, Richard was there to offer words of encouragement and to grow along with me. I had many supporters in my ministerial team in Cleveland, but chief among them was Richard Harper. He undoubtedly thought better of me than he should have. He was a father figure, placed in Cleveland by God, iron placed to sharpen iron.
Earlier this week, I received an email from Richard’s account. I looked down in puzzlement wondering if Richard had set up a posthumous message in the event of his passing. He was one of the most thoughtful persons I had ever met, so this would have surprised me little. It was his son Scott, whom I think I have only met once, sending us a final email from Richard, bringing closure to an electronic correspondence that Richard would send his fellow pastors and friends from time to time.
In much the same way that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in his absence, so Richard would send us what he called “one pagers,” in his absence. Though he had gone to Middle Tennessee to be with family, he would be present with us left behind in his “one pagers.” In these documents, Richard would extrapolate in detail the things he was learning, new “light” being shown to him by God, scripture he was considering and its implications. At the close of a “one pager” was always an encouragement to go further into faith, to step into a deeper part of Gods pool of refreshment. I did not respond to many of them, but I read them and often let Richards devotional time become mine.
As I read this final “one pager” written by Scott, I thought to myself, “This could have come directly from Richard…” It sounded just like him. What a powerful final thought given to us, by Richard, through his son.
So to Scott specifically, I want to say especially on this day…I mourn with you, but be encouraged, the apple does not fall far from the tree. You are his son. You carry him with you forever. Thank you for sharing him with all of us and thank you for these very fitting final words. I pray God’s peace be extended to you and your family in these coming days and years.
The Gospel of John notes there many more things that could have been written about Jesus if only there had been enough pages to contain them. Similarly, I am certain it would take many books to fill the pages with Richards 81 years of life. My words are but hints toward the fullness of the epochal change that has been left in the world because Richard live in it.
Today, the church and his family will bury some of the grace given to us known as Richard Harper. To use an image given to me by Scott, today the road will meet the heavens.
To Richard I say, “Thank you for being a friend, mentor, encourager, an example of Christ, and a model of what the Christian life should be. May God embrace you with his spirit, may his love consume you as you enter his rest and may that which you so vigorously pursued now burst in your sight!”
I was witness to the epoch Richard Harper. Richard was witness to the Epoch of Jesus. May we all live from this day forward as people who have encountered them both.