Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dear John

John Heath is a legend in college student ministry. He was named Director of the Southeastern Oklahoma State BSU (later BCM) in 1962 and served there through the better part of the 1990s. In "retirement," he began a new BCM work at a Vermont college.  Since then, he has served as "Interim" Pastor at Platter, Oklahoma for three plus years now in what has to be the longest interim ever. Even the church painted his name on their permanent sign.

He is hospitalized In the final stage of a rare cancer and additional heart issues  As I write this, he is facing death with grace and cheerfulness, comforting his family and visitors. Hooked to machines and monitors, confined to his room, he preaches while "in chains" to all who come to visit or perform their duties as hospital employees. His health is rapidly deteriorating.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to say thank you and goodbye to him, knowing he would soon enter Glory. It was one of those singular moments of great privilege to hug and kiss and express my love and appreciation to him. Too often, we simply are not afforded such an opportunity.

Last night, a FaceBook page, "Thank You John Heath," was established to give friends and former students an opportunity to write a "Dear John," letter or note to thank him. His family has been sharing these notes of gratitude and testimonies with him. Within one day, about 700 people had signed on to the page. Talk about a far-reaching influence!

Following is my "Dear John," letter:

Dear John,

Though I wasn't a believer as a student, I went to the BSU to learn your name so I could report to my Grandpa who was a preacher that I'd gone. You made me feel welcome and I found myself wanting to go there regularly. Even though you knew I was engaged in stupid activities, you just accepted me where I was. You never freaked out or seemed surprised by us when we messed up. You took the long view. You focused more on our hearts than our behavior. You challenged me to grow, to do better, to mature. You became a role model. You became a trusted friend and confidante.

When faced with a dilemma or adversity, I'd walk down to the BSU and seek your advice. You were always patient. Always kind. Always available. Once, upon learning devastating family news early one morning, my first reaction was to go down to the BSU and see you. You invited me into it your office, saw that I was troubled and asked what was the matter. I spilled my news and began to sob. You got up, came around, pulled up a chair next to me, and put your arm around me. You didn't speak a word. You offered no platitudes. You didn't try to cheer me up. You simply sat with me.

And you wept.

We sat there together for some time just weeping. I learned in that moment to be real, to be vulnerable. I learned the power of a friend in times of trouble. I learned the ministry of presence.  That moment brought great comfort and taught me much about ministering to others at the point of their need. I learned that day to weep with those who weep.

When I joined the faculty at Southeastern, your friendship and encouragement continued. When I placed my faith in Christ, you were there along with Gerald Tidwell, Henry Gold and friends I'd made at the BSU, to disciple and teach me a more excellent way.

When I surrendered to bivocational ministry, you were there to teach and encourage and you were there at my ordination. I'm so very grateful for you. You always made me feel I was worth your time and effort.

I know now, that for all the years of my involvement with you and the BSU, first as a student then as a faculty sponsor and later as a bivocational pastor, I was learning how to love students and prepare them for their own life callings.

And so, my ministry and calling as an educator follows your philosophy. Like you, I choose to take the long view. Like you, I try to accept young men and women where they are, and most things that 18 to 22 year-olds do no longer freak me out or take me by surprise.  Like you, I choose to love them and focus less on their behavior and more on their hearts. Because as you so faithfully demonstrated, they are worth my time and effort.

Your example, your philosophy, your ministry continues through the lives of thousands upon thousands of your students. Even OBU is led by a significant number of people mentored by John Heath including administrators and vice presidents, faculty and deans. They call us alternately the Durant mafia and the magnolia mafia. That makes you the Godfather. I think that's fitting.

I am blessed as are these who have also written. I've said it before and say it again. You made a difference. What you did with your life mattered. Your life, your ministry, your calling and your work were consequential.

Thank you John. I love you.