Essay

John Henry Kok — 1948-2020

By July 10, 2020 12 Comments

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. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

12 Comments

  • Pam Adams says:

    Amen.

  • Tom Eggebee says:

    Folks come along and pass our way, and leave a mark of goodness upon us. Your tribute to this man touches me deeply. To give thanks for folks who grace our world, with the passion of a Jeremiah, the kindness of a gentle touch, and the ability to lift our vision beyond ourselves, ennobles us. And they stand as a reminder of a life lived under the counsel of God, and serve as an invitation to strive for the best we can be. Thank you for sharing this tribute, and God bless your grief in the loss of a friend.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    En waar gij heen mag spoeden,
    Zal eeuwig u behoeden.

  • Jim Dekker says:

    Thank you, Jim. John and i went to CCHS together, he a year behind me, but not a year younger–a quirk of different birthdates for starting school at our respective elementary schools. Your abd Bob Sweetman’s tributes and memories are spot on. I always looked forward to speaking in his classes when on deputation feom Central America, b/c that world-embracing aura you describe helped our worlds mesh in missions, faith commitment, and activism. I was stunned to hear of his death. We live in Hope to meet again.

  • Kevin Caspersen says:

    “Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” Flavia Weedn

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Your tribute makes me wish I had known him. In that way, you’ve shared with others the gift that he was to you. Thank you.

  • Judith Hardy says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. John was a gift to our sister and their kids and grands, but also to our whole family. And to the much wider family of God.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Your tribute is an amazing gift. One I hope you share with his family. And one I hope that someone one day might offer about me. You honor him, and inspire me. Thank you.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    Thank you for this tribute. John published a book my husband Robert VanderVennen wrote on the history of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. He knew John well from other contexts, but especially appreciated this collaboration between publisher and author. I pray God’s blessing on his family and the many people who will deeply miss him.

    Mary VanderVennen

  • Patricia Gates says:

    A most incredible man created by God and incredible parents who molded into who he was to become. I knew them as Uncle Herm and Aunt Jean.

  • Bernard Weidenaar says:

    Dordt was an unknown to me when I started teaching in 2000. But then I met and worked with John Kok, Charlie Adams and Mike VandenBosch and their contributions were gifts from God.
    Bernie Weidenaar

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