My Favorite Name is Jonathan
A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a relaxing evening in a cozy home in The Netherlands. It was an ambiance of dimmed lights, candles, blankets and music with some precious people I consider to be dear- part of my Dutch family. We started talking about the church we planned to visit a couple days from then. I felt they were being generous with their Sunday morning time, knowing my faith is something I value and want to share. I mentioned having reached out to this basically unknown church via social media and my having received a warm reply from someone at the church named Jonathan.
And then I paused and looking into my teenage “relative’s” eyes, I softly said, “Jonathan is my favorite name.”
That teenager, Dagmar, made some humorous quip about the names of my four children none of which include a Jonathan to which I’m pretty sure I responded with a sarcastic remark about my husband and his annoying veto power when it came to naming our children. But then I told her, her mom and her mom’s boyfriend about a Jonathan that changed my life. And I couldn’t help but think as I was telling them about him, that a major reason I was even in that room, sharing my testimony with people from across the world, was because of the man I was telling them about.
I asked, “Have you ever known someone who was just the embodiment of love?”
Jonathan Schmidt was my youth pastor when I was a teenager. To me and I believe to many lives he touched, he was perhaps the closest personal example we’d ever seen of Jesus Christ.
I was thirteen when I first started getting involved with a growing youth group at our church. It was a season in my life, where I had started realizing I didn’t need to be a Christian. I didn’t have to follow my parents’ expectations of me. I could make up my own rules. But Jonathan’s example and the love I felt from him, his wife, other leaders, and peers in the youth group impacted me. I remember having my insecurities drowned in love and acceptance and joy. Simply put, I wanted what they had. If Jesus Christ treated people the way Jonathan did and filled my life with joy like it did his, I was all in.
I went on a youth group road trip to Colorado the summer after seventh grade. I was the youngest one on the trip. But it didn’t matter. I remember Jeaneece, Jonathan’s wife and strong ministry partner, coming up to me while we were in Colorado and encouraging me. She asked if I’d like to be part of a drama skit they were putting together for the conference we were at. Somehow she knew to pull me in. I loved that she saw me. And that’s how Jonathan and Jeaneece’s ministry worked- they saw people and pulled them in with love.
Over the next three years, the youth group grew. In the small town of Snohomish, nearly 200 kids showed up every Wednesday night for the Impact youth group. There would be countless activities like lock-ins, 30 hours fasts, and early morning discipleship groups. And there would be lots of trips including to the mountains for Snowblast , worship events, large gatherings at the huge Free Methodist Church in Wenatchee, missions trips to a remote Canadian camp called Esperanza. When I was sixteen there was a dramatic second trip to Colorado with a flash flood and lots of crazy memories. But my favorite trip was the one that was a year in the making.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, a representative from Youth With A Mission, came to our church and spent a week with a large group of teenagers. We were trained in a one hour mime production called “Toymaker and Son.” The plot was an allegory of the Gospel. It involved music, costumes, makeup, props, and about 30 teenagers. It was quite an undertaking, (but when I was a teenager, I didn’t even think about things like that). And not only did we learn the production, but then we went around and performed it for months and then, with the help of a large crew of adults, an amazing lead pastor who had grown up in the Philippines, and Jonathan Schmidt, we all flew to the Philippines and spent three weeks touring the country sharing about Jesus Christ.
My mom told me at the time it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I would never forget. She was right.
I remember a night at the University of the Philippines where around 80 Filipinos responded to an invitation to follow Jesus. Afterwards, in debriefing later, Jonathan reminded us that we did not sow the seeds. And then he explained. He said others had poured into those students’ lives and for whatever reason, God had allowed us to see the harvest that night. Jonathan’s favorite verse that he shared over and over with us kids throughout his ministry was Galatians 6:9, “Do not grow weary in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Jonathan believed in discipleship. He believed in being loving and vulnerable and authentic. He shared his own struggles in a way that encouraged others. Even today, when people post articles about the progression of Christianity and the problems with growing up in the church in the 90s, I cringe. I cringe because I can’t imagine a more loving example of how to love people like Jesus. Jonathan and Jeaneece weren’t just youth pastors on Wednesdays and Sundays. They lived their faith as servant-leaders 24/7. They were constantly investing and pouring into young people and their parents. They were a team, deeply devoted to God, each other, their children, and the people in their path.
So a few weeks ago, when I told Dagmar, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend just a little bit about Jonathan and the choices I made as a teenager that impact why I still follow Jesus today, I shrugged as I got up to go to bed, “I don’t know why I just shared that with you…”
I had no idea that that less than a month later, Jonathan would die in a tragic car accident.
I found out yesterday.
I still feel numb.
When we got back home from the Philippines when I was fifteen, I felt alone. I remember feeling like no one who hadn’t experienced it would ever know… They would never understand how it felt like to be there, to be serving, to be loved and to love in that time and that place... And that’s kind of how I feel now.
Today, when I first shared with a small group of friends about my youth pastor’s passing, it felt like such an understatement. How could a life that touched so many so powerfully be articulated in a just a few sentences? I did my best to explain. In some ways, I feel I had to write this post today, so I could put words, although not enough, to some of these thoughts.
I wrote about Jonathan in the book I’ve been working on about getting up and doing something with our faith. It’s because of him, that I prayed for a burden for the lost. And it’s because of him, that I think I work with teenagers and invite them into my home. And I’m pretty sure it’s because of him that we host kids who don’t know Jesus from across the world. The name Jonathan means “gift of God.” And that is what he was- a gift to anyone who knew him. I wrote a letter to him in 2013 that said, “I want to live a life that glorifies God and serve him wholeheartedly. And when I think of people who do that- it is you and Jeaneece who always come to mind.”
And last night, as I was going to bed, I was feeling a little mad at God. I was mad because Jonathan was too young. I was upset because Jeaneece is injured, without the love of her life, and in the hospital. I hurt for their kids and grandkids. I was hurting over my high school friends who were also deeply touched by his life. I was frustrated I will never see him again this side of heaven. I was mad at myself for not reaching out to him about what I had written about him when I thought of it a few times over the past few months. I was just sad.
And late last night while my heart was aching, I followed an electronic rabbit trail, I came across a sermon Jonathan preached a year ago. And as I watched some of it, I wept like a baby.
Here is the link for anyone interested in watching it. Jonathan’s message starts around the 20-minute mark. You’ll know why I cried within five minutes of watching. Jonathan speaks of what he wanted to be known for when he died. He also talks about getting back to the basics of knowing how much God loves us so that we can love God and love others.
Today, I find myself trying to process. I find myself wondering why. I find myself in shock and disbelief. I find myself feeling alone and wishing I was in Snohomish, surrounded by people who know Jonathan and Jeaneece and could share their memories too. I find myself constantly checking social media wondering if I’ll see an update on Jeaneece’s health, or an announcement about a memorial.
A few weeks ago, when I asked Dagmar if she knew anyone who was an embodiment of love, she indicated me. Which honestly, feels laughable most days. But I can’t help but think that the seeds Jonathan planted in the hearts of so many people are still growing and as those he mentored and invested in, we have a responsibility to continue the goodness and love he poured into us. Perhaps much of the harvest is still yet to come.