Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
This is an especially tough post to write.
One week ago a dear friend of mine died, and I’ve been struggling with the best way to remember him. At best, my recollections will be imperfect as I may have gotten some of the information wrong. If I have made errors, I apologize in advance and I will gladly correct them.
I first met John Westhaver almost 9 years ago. Martha introduced him to me – he was the pastor of the church she was going to. “Pastor John” or “PJ”, as he was known, was an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists) as well as a member of the American Baptist Conference. When I met him, he’d been at his church for about 6 years. His wife, Karen (who I occasionally talk about or reference in this blog) was the Director of Music.
Since then, I’d gotten to know John – not incredibly well, but I think well enough to get a pretty good measure of who he was. And I am amazed – I probably always will be, in fact – when I think about where he’d come from, what he did, and the life he led.
He was born in Melrose, Massachusetts – something I did not know. I did know that he grew up in Franconia, New Hampshire and Cazenovia, New York, along with a brother and two sisters. He served in the US Air Force as a young man. He was trained as a Russian linguist; this was a subject that he and I had many conversations about as I have struggled to learn that language off and on for a number of years. John still spoke it – rather fluently, in fact – and he was able to help me with some of the finer aspects of the language. I still don’t speak it well; as it is, I have trouble with in under any circumstances. If nothing else, his advice helped me learn to listen better. At least now when I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with one of my elderly Russian patients I can sift through what I don’t know to pick out words I know with a little bit more accuracy than before.
Because of this skill, I have no doubt there are things he took with him that will only be shared between him and God Himself, mainly because He has the security clearance to discuss them.
He studied at Boston University with the intention of going to Law School afterward. However, he was called to go in a different direction. So he enrolled at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree (an M.Div., as my friends in the Catholic clergy like to call it). He was ordained to ministry at age 28, and it took him to many different places, from parish churches on both coasts of the United States as well as to places in between. It took him back to the US Air Force. He served a tour as a chaplain in Vietnam – something else I didn’t know. His service was actually rather extensive; I don’t know all of the places he’d been, but I do know that he retired serving the members of both the New Hampshire Army and Air National Guard. And he was involved in the civil rights movement in this country due to his association with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He worked as a counselor for a time. Karen, his wife, was the director of a Christian counseling service where he worked, and he was well-respected both for his listening skills and his insight.
Mostly, I remember him for that ability he had to listen. I remember his manner: he could be incredibly forthright and outspoken when circumstances called for that (when this happened, it was something you probably didn’t want to be the object of), but he was also one of the gentlest human beings I have ever encountered. He would often listen to me just run my mouth, and he would offer his encouragement just by letting me do that. And I appreciated his ministry, much more than I would ever admit or let on. He didn’t care about my Catholic background; he welcomed me into the community he led without judgment or prejudice.
He officiated Martha’s and my wedding ceremony. That is something that I will always be grateful for.
He baptized Peyton, my grand-daughter.
He ministered to me personally when I was injured. On the Easter Sunday that I was laid up in a hospital bed he came to visit me, and he brought Communion to me. We chatted for a few minutes afterward, and he was surprised (pleasantly, I think) that I recognized the liturgy he used, as it was from the Book of Common Prayer. It wasn’t hard to spot for me; I was brought up on it.
Up until about 3 years ago – I’m not sure of exactly when things started to change for him – he’d been an active, healthy individual. But he’d gotten sick through contact with someone that passed a virus to him. It affected his heart, effectively bringing on an onset of Atrial Fibrillation and enlargement of his Right Ventricle. Over time it had gotten to be more pronounced; he’d had to start a regimen of anti-coagulant drugs an be outfitted with a pacemaker. Gradually it had gotten to where his heart just couldn’t meet his body’s demands, and he went into failure.
I visited with him the Thursday prior to his death. He was an in-patient at one of the Manchester hospitals, and it had been decided that he’d be going to a hospice for whatever time he had. For what it’s worth, I was able to look at him from both a clinical and a non-clinical perspective. Clinically, it was clear that he was failing; he had fluid accumulation in his lungs which I could hear when I sat next to his bed. The Coumadin that he was taking had definitely affected his circulation as he had bruises on his arms that were visible. He was on supplemental Oxygen and yet he was still slightly cyanotic around his mouth. And he looked incredibly tired.
On the other hand, I took in his sense of peace and his resolve. He was awake and alert, and he knew what was coming. And he told me – quite directly, in fact – that he was ready to go.
The following day he was transferred to one of the hospice facilities in our area, and the day after that he slipped into a coma. Two days later, he passed away.
He has gone to the Kingdom of Peace.
Rev. John D. Westhaver, Jr.
December 4, 1935 – May 31, 2011
Peace I leave with you, My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.