Last week Wednesday afternoon Facebook lit up with posts written about Jake Hiemstra. Friends and family were calling out for everyone to pray. Jake had a massive stroke. I joined in the conversation and started praying for this giant of a man. To be honest, when I first heard the news, I assumed Jake would be okay. Of course he’d be okay. Recovery may take some time, but he’ll be back at the All Ontario Youth Convention hovering in the back putting his arm around someone who just needed to have an arm around his or her neck at that exact moment in time. He’s always been larger than life. What is he, like 9 feet tall? But Jake was human. Wednesday evening, I received the following note, “Mark, Uncle Jake has passed away.”
When I was a teenager, this huge man nicknamed ‘Big Jake’ pulled me aside and started investing in me. It started more generally after youth services in Listowel, Ontario. Youth packed that huge sanctuary every month. These services helped my faith grow tremendously. I fed off these services for years. At the same time, my extroverted self couldn’t wait until after the service though. After the youth service, the youth ventured out another 20 minute country drive to “The Hiemstra Farm.” Oh, the iconic Hiemstra Farm. I remember my mom dropping me off for the first time. As we drove up the lane, my eyes widened at the hundreds of teens on the property. Jake had carved out a section of his cornfield to make a baseball field. He chose to forego the revenue of corn in order to make a play ground for the likes of me. Jake created his own Field of Dreams, and his dream was to see youth experience fun in a safe environment where Christian leaders would disciple teens. My eyes widened further when I saw the pool and hot tub. Jake and Wilma regularly opened their property for hundreds of youth. At the funeral, it was mentioned how Jake would randomly ask Wilma to pick up 300 hotdogs in order to feed a ‘slew’ of teens popping over. With a smile and without a blink of an eye, Wilma would go to the store and pick up what was required. Amazing tag team, those two! They hosted other events to, including a concert of a popular Christian rock band. They even hosted a dance in their chicken barn.
What made me feel so special was how Jake eventually started investing in me as an individual. One day he approached me and said he wanted to mentor me. I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time. What’s a mentor? What that meant for us was that he would take time for me. He would sit and listen and also talk and sometimes gently rebuke. He would listen well and share lots. He attended gymnastic competitions and events like my profession of faith. I remember one summer evening I meet him at his farm. At this point he had been mentoring me for some time already, and I was getting ready to fly off to college. Jake and I sat down in the backyard with the sun setting on a late summer evening. It was just Jake and me, which meant I was at peace with the world. After a time of him gently encouraging me to follow Jesus closer, he suddenly remembered that he had this CD he has been meaning to give me. He walked into the pool house and, when he returned, gave me a new CD: Revival in Belfast by Robin Mark. I’ll be honest, at first glance I thought the CD was simply uncool. Little did I know that I would eventually fall in love with my God more by listening to that CD. Little did I know that I would be playing guitar alongside Robin Mark 15 years later at Immanuel Christian Reformed Church. The Spirit blew especially strong at that unpublicized Sunday morning worship service!
When I attended seminary, Jake challenged me. Jake attended my bachelor party, and as he was leaving, he took me aside and gently suggested the following: “We invested in you as a teen. You have to come back to Ontario here and invest in other youth. We are losing you guys and we need you back.” That voice never really left me throughout the calling process of choosing to serve a congregation. Sure enough, Heather and I moved to Hamilton, Ontario. A large part of my job at Immanuel was youth ministry. I had the privilege of working alongside Jake to get the Ontario Youth Ministry Team off the ground. By creating that team, Jake got to see the All Ontario Youth Convention become an official ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. That was really cool to see happen, and I feel so privileged to see that become a reality with Jake.
Jake was so good at giving encouraging advice or even critique. When we first moved to Hamilton, Heather and I had the privilege to attend the Trillium League Youth Retreat. Trillium League was the title given to a grouping of youth groups from several Christian Reformed Churches. It did not include the area of Hamilton. But being that we were now back in Ontario, I thought it would be fun to attend another Trillium League retreat as a leader. How cool would that be, to reminisce with all friends who have also become youth leaders! So I went.
Jake pulled me aside that weekend for a talk. Again, I’m in my comfort zone and all was well with the world. But Jake had a special challenge again for me:
“Mark, I’m going to ask this question carefully, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?” “Uhhh, what do you mean, Jake?” “Well, I love to see you, of course, but there are thousands of youth in Hamilton needing to experience what you experienced as a teen here in Trillium League. Hamilton is a sleeping giant of youth, and you are called there.” Jake pauses then slowly and warmly says, “You aren’t called here anymore, Mark. We invested in you so that you will invest in others where you are called.” Gulp. I never attended another Trillium League retreat.
I share this particular moment hesitantly because it was a powerful moment for me personally. However, it has served as a powerful teaching moment for me, and hopefully it helps others.
So when I heard that Jake died, the question was not do I go? The question was how do I get up there? Heather knew I had to go as well. So I drove 13.5 hours up to Drayton last week Friday and attended the funeral on Saturday.
The funeral was called a Celebration of Life. Not for Jake’s life, but for Christ’s life and the work Christ has done through Jake. For 2.5 hours, we celebrated the life God gave Jake. People and more people stuffed the sanctuary and foyer.
We got to clap joyfully, sing deeply, cry emotionally, and laugh from the depths. Part of the service included speeches by Jake’s five children. What amazing people! Their testimonies were so powerful, beautiful, tear-filled, passionate, joyful, and heart-broken all at once. One daughter shared how much Jake helped construct the new church building. Trinity Christian Reformed Church of Goderich moved into their new building three months ago. Before that, Jake was constantly there helping out with his handyman expertise. A grandchild called the church ‘Grandpa’s House’ because he was always there. Can you imagine an unpaid volunteer leaving that kind of legacy?
Pastor Steve is the pastor of Trinity. He shared how just a week before Jake passed away, Jake pulled him into the sanctuary for the sacred experiencing of watching Olympic hockey. They got to watch Canada beat the USA on the big screen in the sanctuary. Jake always had these epic ideas! Wilma, of course, made soup for them to eat while they watched.
The girls shared more. They shared that Jake would give each of them $100 if they drank coffee everyday when they moved to college. Why? Coffee means investing in relationships. Coffee means stopping and conversing and investing in others.
While in the hospital, while Jake is literally dying, Jake continued to invest in his daughters and, by extension, their families. While the girls sat by his bedside, they held their hero’s hand. Jake, in return, played with their wedding rings. As he passed into death and into resurrection life, Jake continued to encourage those who meant most to him.
Rodney, the only son, spoke last. If I had his manuscript, I would paste the whole thing right here. He is such a grand communicator. I can’t do justice to his writing skills, but I will share how he described his father. He said how everyone can be compared to different airplanes. For example, some people are like fighter jets. Jake, his hero-father, was like a passenger plane. He wanted to take everyone with him for the ride of their lives. Inside the plane, you need a flight attendant able to serve all those inside. That’s his mom. It’s true, Jake brought so many up. Up in faith. Up in self-esteem. Up in hope and comfort. Up in discipleship. Up in leadership.
As a teen, I always wondered how much time Jake had with his own kids. He spent so much time with others. His kids proved that as he loved his children exponentially and spent even more time with them. How he did it is a mystery. In fact, after the funeral, this point was brought up more than once in conversations: How did he have so much time with other people?
Wilma also spoke. What a blessing her words were to us! With her children and spouses standing behind her, Wilma shared her soul. She brought up with her Jake’s Bible, and it turns out that he also spent many hours with the Lord by reading his Bible. Wilma said she isn’t a snoopy person, so she never paid too much attention to what Jake wrote in his Bible. What she has now in that newly bound Bible is a treasure trove of Jake’s thoughts and prayers.
Wilma looked down to read one of the color-coded verses: And I- in righteousness I will see your face; When I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. Psalm 17:15 Wilma looked up to the crowd and said, “Jake wrote in the margin: This is me when I die.” Such strong and simple conviction coupled with such clear comfort. Jake is with his Heavenly Father. He does see His face. As was mentioned more than once, Jake gets to finally receive that hug that fully embraces him. Being so tall, he couldn’t get the same type of hug he gave so many others. Today, right now, Jake is embraced within the presence of Almighty God.
Jake passed away on February 26, 2014, exactly one year later. On February 26, 2013, Jake wrote me his last email. Heather and I just arrived in North Carolina to start a new church. He was excited for us to leave Hamilton, and he spoke words of commission when I told him we were leaving. That was especially encouraging for me as I got the sense that he felt my work was done in Hamilton. In the email he gives me advice. He gives me advice at how I should talk about mission and vision with other people. He tells me which pastor to connect with in Charlotte. He also shared with me how I could use gymnastics as a tool to get to know the community in Holly Springs. Here’s part of the letter: Gymnastics; I couldn't help but think… You are going to the States where gymnastics is a much higher profile. Mark, maybe you have thought of it already, but is this where you could volunteer and teach gymnastics to get into the community? These are just my thoughts… These words of advice were right on, and for those of you who have been reading my blogs know how great of an experience coaching gymnastics has been for me. Jake was incredibly bright. I never knew just how bright until I worked with him in ministry as a pastor in Hamilton. He was a visionary and way ahead of his time. He mentored before mentoring became a vital form of discipleship in my tradition. He thought outside the box and pushed the limits. He loved God. Loved the church. He absolutely loved teens! He loved their enthusiasm and energy, and fed off them up to the day he passed away. But next to his love for God was his relationship with Wilma and his family. His priorities were perfectly in line with what Scripture commands.
I’m going to end this rather lengthy blog post with words from Jake’s email. These words are special to me, because they are the last ones he ever typed to me. But I don’t want to keep them to myself. I want to share these words to help all of those who grieve Jake’s death. These words therapeutically wash over me as I have to remember Who really is in charge and how mysterious God’s plan is. Jake wasn’t supposed to die at age 62. He had too much to give, too many ideas to see come to fruition. However, God’s thoughts are not my/our thoughts. And we have to somehow be okay with that. So hear these words, as if these words are spoken to you by Jake’s empathetic voice: I pray that you may feel and see God's presence… Is. 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Love you, Shalom Jake
This was the last photo of Jake on Jake and Wilma’s Facebook page before people realized Jake was in the hospital. The caption read: “Grandpa is in heaven with double baby snuggles.” So true.
They played this video at the funeral by the incredible band The Rend Collective Experiment. It was so refreshing seeing some of the All Ontario Planning Committee walk to the front and praise Almighty God!