Tragedy Strikes Kevin Harris Family
DR. CRAIG: In 2015, the Reasonable Faith family was struck by a tragic event which was the untimely death of Kevin Harris’ son, Tanner. Today we want to talk about Tanner, his death, and your reactions, Kevin, to it and how you’ve coped with it and are coping. I have to say as we begin that this is not something that I have ever experienced or can imagine in my own life. Having one’s parents die at a ripe old age is a world apart from having a son suddenly and unexpectedly taken in the prime of life. So if I make a misstep in these questions or ask a question that is insensitive or inappropriate I trust that you will forgive me. But I am sure, Kevin, that talking about this will be of great interest to our listeners. Many of them have had probably to deal with the loss of a spouse perhaps or a loved one or another family member. Tragedy strikes many people’s lives in different ways. We need to learn how to deal with it as believing Christians. Perhaps we could begin by your telling us how you first heard of Tanner’s death. How did this come to you?
KEVIN HARRIS: It was very traumatic how it happened. Tanner was 18. He was a senior in high school. He was on a motorcycle. He was very safety-minded. He was wearing a helmet. He studied safety. He loved things. Anything that goes fast, since he was a little kiddo. But he did fail to negotiate a car pulling out in front of him, and he died instantly. It was in our neighborhood. My wife, Kelly, we have three children – Kody (who is 20), Tanner (was 18), and my daughter Payton (who is 14), she heard him come by. She heard the accident. This is one of the worst parts of this. She knew immediately that this must be what it is. She heard the motorcycle passing the road out in front of the house, heard the accident, and goes running down there. By the time that she got there police were already on the scene. EMT (emergency tech) came up. But he apparently died instantly. What is hard about this, Bill, and she called me immediately . . . I was on an errand and came rushing that way.
DR. CRAIG: So you got a cell phone call?
KEVIN HARRIS: From my wife, from Kelly.
DR. CRAIG: What did she said to you?
KEVIN HARRIS: “Kevin, I think Tanner has had a wreck. I’m running that way right now. I heard him go by, and I hear police cars coming. It was his motorcycle and I’m running to where I think the wreck occurred.” I rushed to get there. By the time I had gotten there they were trying to revive him. They wouldn’t let us go near. I was too busy comforting Kelly and also just starting to go into shock myself when I saw him laying over there. They were unable to revive him. The police officer came over and said he didn’t make it.
DR. CRAIG: Those were his words? “He didn’t make it.”
KEVIN HARRIS: Kelly and I had to literally hold one another up. We just sank to the ground in despair. I want to tell you that the police officer on the scene – the first one on the scene – is also a part-time pastor. He immediately came up and grabbed a hold of us and began to pray for us.
DR. CRAIG: Really?
KEVIN HARRIS: He immediately established that we were believers. His body cam caught all of this. A police officer who is an atheist was later watching the body cam of this officer prayer for us and said, “You know, that makes me want to believe in God because, despite the pain that I saw in those parents’ faces, when you began to pray something came over them.” Bill, we were sustained – I didn’t feel a sense of peace or anything like that – but apparently there was a visible change when he began to pray. We’ve gotten to know this police officer. We’ve gotten to know him – this pastor – we’ve attended his church since then. He spoke at the memorial service.
DR. CRAIG: Is that right?
KEVIN HARRIS: Twenty people made decisions for Christ at the memorial service, as far as we can count. It was packed with students and people – my son had a lot of friends. He actually spoke as well as my brother who is a part-time pastor. It was really providential that this particular officer was there to hold us up, grab us, and literally pray for us as we were collapsing.
I don’t want you to be afraid, Bill, as so many people are, of saying the wrong thing because obviously we don’t know what to say. My experience has been despite the fact that you always hear, “People don’t want to hear the clichés like ‘it is God’s will’ and ‘he’s in a better place,’” while that may be true, don’t worry about saying the right thing – saying “I’m here. I am praying with you.” Or even saying nothing at all. Just being there has been tremendous comfort.
The outpouring from people who listen to Reasonable Faith, from people in our community, that have heard about this have prayed and prayed and prayed for us. It brings up something as I’ve contemplated this. God could bypass all those prayers and his power and sovereignty and however he does just directly comfort us if he wanted to. But God has ordained prayer as a means of doing this and others as a means of doing this. We have felt the prayers. We have been sustained by the prayers and by the visits and by a note and by a word and by knowing that people are thinking of us. God, because he wants us to be participants in this, has ordained that we pray for one another and that we are there for one another even though he could directly do all this. You know what I mean?
DR. CRAIG: Yes, I do.
KEVIN HARRIS: So at times when I feel, when we are weeping and we are crying and going through the grief, we’ve never grieved without hope. Suddenly when it feels like the world is too bleak or this is just too hard to take (and it is the worst thing in the world – it is as bad as they say to lose a child), but suddenly this bubble (is all I can describe it as) of hope that kind of comes up from nowhere. Not in an artificial sense, not in a way of anesthetizing you, but suddenly a sense of hope kind of comes in and you feel encouraged. That has just got to be God the Holy Spirit. We have both experienced that. I think it is worse on a mother than it is on a father, as bad as it is on both of us. I have seen her sustained even though we’ve lain on the garage floor in tears wondering how we are going to make it and praying. Suddenly there will be a sense of hope that comes up.
DR. CRAIG: Was Tanner living at home at the time?
KEVIN HARRIS: He was. He was still a senior in high school. I’ve got to say that since he was a kiddo he liked everything. He was an adrenaline junky since he was a baby. He liked things that were fast. He was a storm chaser. We’ve gone out; we’ve filmed tornadoes.
DR. CRAIG: In Texas chasing tornadoes?
KEVIN HARRIS: In Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas. Whenever there was a tornado he would say “Let’s go” when most people are going the opposite direction. A television station picked up the story on Tanner as a young storm chaser. He knew a lot about meteorology. He wanted to be a pilot. Anything that was dangerous and fast and would kill you, that’s what he liked.
DR. CRAIG: He lived on the edge.
KEVIN HARRIS: He did, but he wasn’t reckless. Maybe there was something that was reckless that he has done here but we’ll never know.
DR. CRAIG: I take it then the motorcycle struck the rear end of the car that pulled out in front of him?
KEVIN HARRIS: Struck broadside of the car. No one else was hurt. There were two children in the back of this truck. They were not harmed. The man was not harmed. What is difficult now is that we still live in that neighborhood and it is too painful to pull out of the neighborhood because we have to go past the place where it happened. In the grieving process, and we are reading a book on grief, we are also in a support group of bereaved parents with our church. We are going through that grieving process. You and I have done a podcast where someone asked, “If you guys as Christians believe that they are in a better place and that you will see them again and that Jesus defeated death, why are you so upset?” Because we miss them so badly! That was my boy, my son. We had a great relationship.
DR. CRAIG: Tell us a little bit more about that – your relationship with Tanner.
KEVIN HARRIS: I tried to enter his world. He was hardheaded. He had to have things his way. I was trying to let him be a man at 18 even though he was still living under our roof. I was trying to find that balance of “you are still under my roof, you are still living at home” but “you are 18 now and I want you to make good decisions, but I am also going to be making certain demands on you as you live at home.” He was beginning to feel that tug of not wanting to be under our roof anymore. Eventually I said, “You will be on your own.” What I would find I would do is I would enter his world a lot in order to have that relationship with him. I went storm chasing with him. I helped him research meteorology. I helped him with this motorcycle. I do want to say that this motorcycle was way too fast and that your first motorcycle, if you do want one, ought to be when you are older and not one of these that is just really, really fast.
DR. CRAIG: Are you struggling with guilt feelings about allowing him to have a motorcycle?
KEVIN HARRIS: Yes. Kelly and I stood in the kitchen and said “We are not going to blame one another. Let’s make up our mind now that later when we are angry, later if we are going through grief, that we don’t blame one another.” I wanted him to get rid of that motorcycle and his mom did, too. It was just too fast. It was one of those rocket-looking bikes that he bought and paid for himself. He worked at a local restaurant to pay for it. It solved a transportation problem for us and things like that. But I wanted it to be a project of his and mine to get rid of that bike and get to something more conventional or a car, but I didn’t do that in time. I do feel guilty that I allowed him to have such a fast bike.
DR. CRAIG: Yet, with an emerging adult like an 18-year old, if he wants to have it . . .
KEVIN HARRIS: He wouldn’t hear of it. I am trying to find the balance of being firm but I was also saying, “Tanner, we really ought to get rid of this. It is extremely dangerous.” He would show me videos of how not to wreck these things and things like that. I said, “If you really want to go fast, we’ll go to the track. But this is going to be bad.” I remember we were standing out in front of the bike, I said, “Tanner, if you die on this thing, it is going to kill us.”
DR. CRAIG: You actually said that?
KEVIN HARRIS: I said, “When that police officer comes and knocks on our door, do you know what it is going to do to us and to your mother? Do you know how bad it is going to be?” This was six or seven months before. He said, “Dad, I’m going to be very, very safe.” I said, “Do you know what that would do?” Bill, that happened. I was working at a Christian radio station. We did fundraisers where volunteers would come in. Some of those volunteers have lost children. It was almost as though God were preparing me in a sense because I heard from them how God has sustained them through the worst of these tragedies. People losing toddlers, children when they are 4 and 5, when they are older, when they are teenagers. Whenever I hear of anyone losing a child in my area I make it a point to contact them now just to say I’ve been there, too. This is still fresh. The grieving process is very, very difficult. But we are trying to do the right thing. We may move from that home. That is what we are planning to do. While we can’t run from the grief because it will only pop up later, there is a sense though that we do need to move out of that neighborhood where it occurred.
DR. CRAIG: You and Kelly have experienced this terrible loss in your lives, but listening to you hear today it doesn’t sound as though this was a crisis in faith for you, that it occasioned doubts about the goodness of God or the existence of God. It sounds as though right from the time that policeman prayed with you that there was hope and comfort. Is that correct?
KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, it is correct. That is why what we do at Reasonable Faith is so important. Because we lay some real groundwork upon which to build so many things in our Christian lives. I found myself falling through every cliché I’d ever heard or uttered. I found myself falling through my favorite scriptures and them shattering as I fell. I found myself falling through all my philosophy and through everything in a free fall. But I find myself landing on my back on a two and half to three ton stone that was rolled away from the tomb. And laying there on that hope. As we heal and recover, I don’t know how long that will take, it does get better with time. So many have told me who lost children. You will never get over it, but it won’t be as raw and sickening and you will be able to kind of build your foundation again and kind of get into the new normal. But we stand on the rock. Plus, just experiencing God’s comfort which I just can’t explain otherwise even though he allows us to go through a grieving pain.
I have wrestled with God, but I’ve always stood firm in the fact that I didn’t have a crisis of faith. It will rock your world. If somebody does, that is understandable. A lot of people who are very strong in the Lord get very angry at God. “God, why have you asked me to do this? I know I will see him again but this is too painful and too hard.” We shouldn’t say God will never allow anything to happen to you that you can’t handle. That is not true. He allows plenty of things to happen that we can’t handle. There is nothing that will happen to us that his grace will not get us through. I do want to emphasize that.
I want to emphasize one more thing, if I could. It is maybe part of the work that we do here at Reasonable Faith, as well. I find Christian people and others who, at times like this, we say trivial theological things that Walter Martin called hillbilly theology. In other words, we say things that is almost like a gallows humor like, “Right now he is riding that motorcycle with the Lord” or “Right now he is playing on that great golf course in the sky” and things like that. We say things like that. We actually say them at funerals. I haven’t really experienced that here. I’ve heard it before. But I want us to be careful of that for two reasons. One, if we say it even though we are just kind of kidding around or trying to lighten the mood, we don’t really believe that if we reflect on it. I think if unbelievers hear us say things like that that they will say that is preposterous. What is this – some big golf course in the sky that he is on right now? That is not true. Do you know what I am trying to say here?
DR. CRAIG: Yes.
KEVIN HARRIS: We don’t know. All that stuff may be there. This is prior to the new heaven and the new Earth. There is apparently an intermediate state that my son is in – he is in the very presence of the Lord. I do not know if that is in a disembodied state or if there is some kind of a body. I have never worked my theology completely out on that. I just know that he is with the Lord, and I know that there will be a resurrection of the body and a new heaven and new Earth. We tend to say things that are rather nonsensical at times like this.
DR. CRAIG: Well, Kevin, thank you so much for sharing so personally about this painful subject. We do pray that God will continue to give you and Kelly healing as you go forward. Are their any sort of lessons that come out of this experience? We’ve already talked about some, but is there any overriding lessons that you want to just leave with our listeners that might prepare them for this sort of unexpected eventuality?
KEVIN HARRIS: Yes. And that is, I can testify that no matter how bad it gets in this fallen world – death is still an enemy, it is a defeated enemy but it is still something that is part of this fallen world and it is painful – there is nothing that God will not get you through. You really do need to turn toward him though as best you can. Even with people praying for you and helping you, you still have the freedom to just turn away from all that and spiral downward. Let God sustain you. Don’t try to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. There will be times in the future when you can be stronger. Right now it is a time to be sustained by God. Second of all, we need to be very sensitive to people who lose their loved ones because as we all know it is painful but when you lose a child it is especially painful. Those persons really need your prayer and support.
DR. CRAIG: Thank you, Kevin. This has been good talking about this with you.
KEVIN HARRIS: Thank you, Bill.
 Total Running Time: 25:40 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)