Tuesday morning my husband and I woke up to the news that a dear college professor of ours had passed away suddenly from a heart attack on May 14th. At 68 years old, he was scheduled to leave the following day to go overseas on a mission trip to Madagascar. Instead, God took him on a trip to heaven.
Pastor Norman Johnston had a huge impact in mine and my husband’s lives before we were married, came to our wedding (also on May 14th), and has remained a constant encourager in our 13 years of marriage and ministry. Pastor J (as he is affectionately known) came on staff at our college two years into my tenure there, and the first class I ever had with him was Missionary Ethics. He was real- no sugar coating or false pretenses. He was heartfelt, and every word was spoken with deep compassion, grace, and often tears (especially when he was talking about missions.) Pastor J served in Korea, Canada, and PA as a missionary/pastor for many years before becoming a college professor. Even while teaching, he started Every Nation Baptist Church, his passion for the Gospel still driving his endeavors. His life experience gave depth and sincerity to his classes, which were more like personal conversations than they were ever like lectures.
Several years before pastoral ministry in Canada was even on our radar, Pastor J shared his heart in Missionary Ethics class about his own experience in Canada. He told of ministry heartbreak and of passion to reach the lost, specifically the Korean nationality, for whom he had a special place in his heart. His candid honesty about the dark side of ministry has stuck with us for years, and come back to us many times when we, too, were in those dark places. Yet his effervescent hope and joy in Christ was overflowing, and it was clear that He loved the Gospel enough to suffer for it at times. He absolutely beamed the love of Christ.
Pastor J and his wife Joy had an open door policy to their home. During our college years, their home was crawling with college students at pretty much any given time, and it was evident that they loved it that way. Their home was one of our first exposures to pastoral hospitality. For one of our first off campus dates, we went to their home to help paint the inside (I know, so romantic) a wonderful shade of yellow- so fitting for their beaming personalities. We still have a pic from that day, and from other days when the Johnstons were in the middle of a gang of college students, always smiling. Their hearts were as open as their home, and they served as mentors to many. They gave us sound marriage advice and were always open to having a meaningful conversation.
One final memory- Shortly after coming on staff at our Bible college, Pastor J preached in chapel. The title of his message was simply “Jesus Loves Me.” I remember thinking that his train of thought was a bit off that day, as I was having trouble following his track. I stayed with him, though, and when he tied it all together at the end, I was left in absolute awe. He wept as he tied it all together, and I wept at the beautiful, vivid picture he had just painted of the love of God. It came at a pivotal time in my life when I needed nothing more than to know that Jesus loved me deeply, unconditionally, and forever. I would come to learn that Pastor J’s sermons were all ones where we needed to engage and be thinking as he spoke. And we waited with baited breath to hear the conclusion, which never failed to blow us away with its utter simplicity and accompanying depth.
He was a student of the Word, a prisoner of hope, and an ambassador for the Gospel like few other pastors I have known. He was a true shepherd of hearts, consumed with the Good Shepherd and a channel of Christ’s love to many sheep around the world.
I’m finding it hard to imagine him anywhere other than earth, yet he is enjoying a reality that is much stronger than ours. Farewell, Pastor J. We’ve caught the torch and will carry the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, beaming with hope as we do.
“All the cities, all the towns
Every need as it is found
All the people, every one
All my heart, until it’s done.” ~ Pastor J