He was a colleague, my boss, my editor and, for a long, long time, our neighbor and good, good friend. From just across the street, we watched him grow up as a father with all those kids—six of them—some of them good friends of our kids. And there was Donald the cat and Max that sweet farm dog too. For some crazy reason, I’ll never forget their oldest daughter, all fancied up, getting picked up for her first high school prom. In a way, that night seemed the sweet end of childhood in the neighborhood.
Our long-time neighbor, John Kok was only recently struck by some massive, evil staph infection that took him so quickly it seems impossible today to imagine him somehow gone. Wednesday was his funeral, in the age of the coronavirus, by invitation only. We were there. We are grieving.
As a young man, thirty-some years ago, in his first years on the campus where both of us taught, Professor John Kok had all the boldness of an Old Testament prophet, armed with “a kingdom vision” he picked up during his undergrad years at Trinity Christian College, a neo-Kuyperian sense of things that its advocates referred to as the college’s own “perspective,” a theological dynamo with myriad philosophical implications and modalities. He was a pitchman. one of the “three philosophical Johns,” we used to call them, who kept the rest of us orthodox by their relentless advocacy and sheer intellectual strength.
Back then, Dr. John Kok could be intimidating–tall, imperially slim, deeply committed, a gifted teacher with a European philosophical Ph.D. He rose quickly to authority, even smoked a pipe. Parties at their house some nights were an intellectual feast with guests from around the world. He loved such events, loved hosting them, loved serving up food and drinks.
His kids took some edge off, as they can and do. There were seven in all, including the first-born who died of SIDS while they lived in the Netherlands. Eventually there were a half-dozen others, each coming into the world with the same genetic cocktail, but no two of them the same. Lord knows it’s possible for parents of any vocation to simply look past their kids, but their father never did or could and would. Over time, their separate lives and stories mellowed the prophetic and broadened him into a priest. Instead of ideas, he served people, his own and others.
At school, his strengths brought him out of the classroom and into administration, where Dean Kok’s authority in the structure meant even more accommodation. It was important for him to listen to those he served, to empathize, to help solve problems that weren’t his and wouldn’t be cleared up by a theory or abstraction. His late ’60s passions, like so many of ours, were being slowly cured.
On his own, he became an editor, a one-man publishing house, Dordt College Press, turning out books and translations almost single-handedly, books he deeply believed the community he served and often led needed for the tough tasks of stewardship. With age and experience, the prophet may well have morphed into a priest, but the Jeremiah in him was never left behind. Editor Kok, in his own quiet way and corner, turned out lots of books, some of them mine, all of them, he believed, necessary.
The picture way up top is Lake Michigan, and it really makes no sense. It’s far from the emerald edge of the Great Plains where he lived or the Chicago of his youth. Besides, Professor John Kok was a true citizen of the world, a man who’d spent years in Europe and adored world travel.
But I chose that picture for a reason.
We have all kinds of trouble with the meaning of “kingship.” The office of believer is three-fold, we like to say: we are prophets, priests, and kings. But how exactly can we fulfill that last office if we don’t know how? It’s troublesome to be a king when you’re a citizen of a democracy. We have a sense of how to be prophetic, and we know how to be a priest, even if it’s not easy. But how on earth can we be kings anyway?
I knew John in many ways, but I never saw him as happy as those summer days when he’d tell me about his family’s vacations on what we Wisconsinites used to call “the big lake.” As many as could make it would be there–kids and grandkids, boyfriends and girlfriends, all of them on the beach, that huge loving family from all over the States and even the world. There they were, together. Dad Kok was no autocrat; there with his loving wife and children all around, he served those he most loved as king.
Here they are, ankle deep in the big lake.
In whatever sweet abode John Kok’s spirit now abides, I can’t believe that God’s loving grace doesn’t provide for him the treasures that picture still so divinely delivers.