Tuesday, October 30, 2012

John Withem

Being an outgoing person, I know quite a few people. I'm not sure how many friends I have, according to Facebook, it's somewhere around 300, but that number is not accurate. I actually have very few close friends. You know, the people you would call when you need advice or just to ask how they are, not that I call that all that often.  Don't get me wrong, if a friend calls and needs my help, I'm there. However, if they are waiting for me to call them to check in or talk about their problems, they may be waiting a while. Come to think of it, I am not a very good friend at all. 

On the other end of that scale is my friend John. If someone needs help, they call John. Remarkably, John calls people all the time just to see if they need any help or to check in and say hello. John knows everyone, and everyone knows John, or at least it seems that way. That may be because of his time at Woodland Christian School, and through the churches where he has served in one capacity or another for years. Yes, my friend John is quite a remarkable person. John is also my Pastor.

I have known John Withem for six or seven years now. I met him for the first time at Bayside Woodland as the service was ending. Like most Pastors, they head to the door to shake hands, to say hello, or answer a question, the everyday things that Pastors do. That day I was just another fresh face coming to a new church. Little did I know that my chance encounter with John would change the course of my life.

For many people, life changes come with huge swings and defining moments. For me, I am slow to change. In the way that a ship can turn its rudder all the way, and it takes a while for the bow to start moving. I am kind of like the Titanic, by the time I see the iceberg, it's way too late to steer out of the way. The changes John had on my life were like gentle nudges to the wheel he made in the right direction. Very subtle changes, that over the course of a long voyage, can take you in a completely different direction. That is the very essence of John.

If you know John, you know his absolutely effervescent personality. From the outside, it would be easy to assume that it is all an act, part of his job as Pastor. No one can be that cheerful, no one can by that full of positive energy all the time, John can. 

If you know John, you also know some of  his history. Terminal pancreatic cancer about twenty years ago, that was his situation. The 'get your affairs in order and say your goodbyes' type of cancer. One of the things that has always amazed me is how strong John is. Not only spiritually,and emotionally, but physically. John is a combination of the toughest, kindest, sweetest and most compassionate person I have ever met. John fought his cancer with a tenaciousness that came from wanting to see his two small children grow up with both a mom and a dad. He did. John is a fantastic father, if you need any proof, you can look at Jonathan and Criste. Nancy is proof that he is good husband, as well as proof that John is truly blessed.

Before I knew better, I thought the job of a Pastor was easy. Sitting around, thinking about God all week and then delivering a sermon on Sunday. After having just a small taste of the job, I know that it is a full time job and then some. If there is a downside to being a Pastor, at least to me, it's getting the call to visit people in the hospital. I hate it, I avoid it at all costs. Having spent so much time in hospitals himself, John is quite at ease talking about the medical side of things, as well as providing comfort and hope.

I remember when a member of my family was in the hospital with heart trouble, our whole clan was in the ER waiting room, and of course, John came right down. Knowing just the right thing to say, or to not say a word and just embrace someone who needs comfort; John is wonderful at this. After he spoke with all of us, we all joined him in a moment of prayer. Including the poor guy who wasn't part of our family, but who had a loved one in the ER and was sitting on the benches with us. When John found out he wasn't with our group, he sheepishly apologized for roping him into our prayer circle, and the man said that he didn't mind at all and  asked John to pray for his loved one. John was more than happy to.

John also has the best stories. Meeting really cool people, seeing God work in people's lives, and my favorites, music and sports stories. John plays violin, and in his younger years, he played very, very well. One of my favorite John memories is when he surprised our church and played violin at Christmas with his son Jonathan on drums. John was always so supportive of my son when he started playing guitar at church. When someone of John's musical chops tells you that you have talent, you listen. John is the ultimate encourager. He makes Tony Robbins look gloomy.

I even cut John some slack because of his deprived childhood in southern California; John is a Dodgers fan. He loves all sports, but he's a big baseball fan, and he knows his stats and players. John has also been the spiritual mentor to many of the Pioneer Patriots he met while working with the football team. I'm not sure how many young men he has helped with a gentle bump to the course they were on, but I'll bet it is a good number.

Like I said, I count myself in that number. John's influence on me came through serving on the leadership team of the church with a great group of people. As my friend Leonard says, John's fingerprints are all over this church. John's emphasis on community outreach is always a priority. Church isn't a club, it isn't about us, it's about others, and John always makes sure that is at the heart of everything Bayside does. How many Mayors call the Pastor of a church to see if they can make an event happen when it has lost its funding? How many churches actively support their city's and county's first responders? John is always looking for ways to make Woodland a better place.

On a more personal note, John is always encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, to use whatever God has given me to make a difference for others. I am always embarrassed to say that John is my mentor. I don't ever want my shortcomings, which are too numerous and egregious to mention, to reflect negatively on John. However, I would have never started our little once a month church service in the Capay Valley without John's encouragement. There are so many little ways John's fingerprints have found their way onto my life. I don't think I am alone in being grateful for John's influence. I know I have a long, long way to go, but thanks to John's course corrections, I hope I keep heading in the right direction.

As I write this, my friend John Withem is still with us. I just came from his home tonight to say goodbye. After his long remission, the cancer that John fought long ago has come back. John fought hard again, but this time, his body just isn't strong enough. As I said, I am not good with hospitals and I hate seeing people suffer. However, for the first time since my father's death twenty-one years ago, I went to say goodbye to someone I love. John was resting comfortably at home, surrounded by family and friends. So, so many friends.