John Jernstrom was born on December 21, 1966 — the winter solstice, the first day of winter. He arrived on the scene in the middle of a blizzard; with all the ice and snow, it was a miracle his Mom and Dad made it to the hospital in Newton on time. When mother and son were discharged two days later just in time for Christmas John was wrapped up inside a big, red hospital-issued stocking, which every year from henceforth would be John’s Christmas stocking.
John was a quiet child who, from an early age, would sit at length captivated by the sight of his father at work at his crafts: his woodworking, painting, and especially his slot cars. (The baby pictures show him holding cars, the beginning of a life long love affair with automobiles.) John was always so full of curiosity, intent on learning, an observer, not a grabber, someone in whose presence it was easy to be. From his father he inherited the creativity that would characterize his whole life. One place this creativity found expression throughout his life was the kitchen. From early on in life he would be there at his mother’s side, learning the art of cooking, offering his help.
John’s sister Jennifer was born when John was four, and from the very beginning they were very close — each other’s constant playmates.
It was a pretty idyllic childhood that John and Jennifer shared growing up in a tight knit neighborhood in Sparta, living in the same house for the next 34 years — a house with wonderful Lake Mohawk sitting right smack in the backyard. The lake was, as Jennifer said to me, the setting for a “boatload of happy memories.” Summertime were spent swimming at the beach with the other neighborhood kids, and as years past there would be fishing, catching minnows and frogs, boating, and biking around the lake. The dinner bell calling the children in was an unwelcome sound, for being outdoors by the lake with their friends interacting with nature was the best. John considered the fish and other lake creatures to be his own personal pets. A turtle, for instance, would be taken out of the water for a time of play, returning it safely when the play time was done.
In the wintertime there was ice skating and hockey on the lake, and hot cocoa provided by Mom to warm up with. John and Jennifer’s grandparents lived on an island in the lake, and they would walk across the frozen lake to visit them and to sled down the good hill on their property — Jennifer riding atop her big brother’s body.
Other childhood pleasures included archery at his grandparents house, and playing tennis with his Dad. Christmas and Thanksgivings were simple but full of gratitude. The family never had a lot of money, but the lake afforded pleasure and delight beyond measure, and the community of Sparta provided John with an abundance of friendships and opportunities to serve and find his place in the world. There were the boy scouts, and later the fire department, and the ham radio network John helped to found with friends for the sake of the community known as the Northwest Emergency Communications System.
In high school John enrolled in a vo-tech program to learn more about the art of cooking, working as a professional chef for the next 13 years in various local restaurants.
In 1995 Jennifer married Dave, her college sweetheart, and Dave became one of John’s closest friends. After thirteen years in the chef business, John was being worn down physically by the demands of the work and was ready for a career change. In 1996 Dave helped John get a job as a computer consultant at MBH Solutions where Dave worked. John had little formal training for this work; he was largely self-taught from years of tinkering around on the computer on his own.
Together John and Dave revived one each other’s passion for slot cars, expanding their collections, becoming active in a monthly gathering of slot car fanatics.
Friendship was a big theme in John’s life. He was a good and devoted friend — loyal to his friends long term. There was Chris and Pete and others whom John had known back from Middle School and High School, Brendon from his cooking days, Andy and Eric and all the guys who shared together the Ham Radio passion. There were friends from the firehouse, and friends from the monthly meetings of the slot car races where John served on the rules committee. Together John and his friends would make it a point to regularly “bust each other’s chops.”
With his wonderful creativity, John found great pleasure in developing web-sites, and if you go out into cyber space you will find several expressions of his creativity, not to mention his wacky and wonderful sense of humor. One web-site (http://www.iron-stream.com/harrga-flarrgen/) is devoted to informing the general public regarding what John called “Harrga-Flarrga”, John’s inventive name for squirrels and other annoying rodents. Apparently John had it out for squirrels big time because they would take over his birdfeeders, (he called the birdfeeder gatherings “Harrga-Flarrga festivals”.) On this web-site you will find advice regarding how to deal with these diabolical creatures, complete with diagrammed photographs. Its a riot! You will see a photograph of John’s hand holding several ice cubes which he is about to throw out the window at the Harrga-Flarrga. You will also find samples of John’s creative writing, as well as contributions from his niece Megan, who apparently penned the dissenting point of view of the Harrga-Flarrga themselves. If you will allow me I want to quote extensively from a piece John wrote for the web-site entitled “Three Boys, an Attic and a Family of Harrga-Flarrga”, for it gives you a taste of his delightful off-the-wall humor, as well as a sense of the happy camaraderie John experienced growing up with his buddies in Sparta.
“It is all such a clouded memory — so long ago I cannot remember the year or the time, but I remember the people. I also remember the horror. Then again, who wouldn’t: this was the first official major conflict with Harrga-Flarrga. I, the author of these pages have the privilege of remembering this tale. Sorry, there are no pictures.
Long ago in my parents’ house in a lake community of Northern New Jersey we had some visitors in our attic. With a plethora of trees about our house, we had some intuitive Harrga-Flarrga who decided to build themselves a home inside our house and raise a family. The location was the ceiling above our sun porch. I could hear them running about as I sat watching TV. I would purposely wake them up by tapping the ceiling with the handle of a broom at night. This, however, did not change their minds — they were determined to stay put.
It wasn’t much later that myself and two friends, Chris and Lance, decided to take matters into our own hands. I grabbed my trusty bow and a few field arrows — either Chris or Lance had a slingshot, I think. It was either that or some cheesy bb rifle I had that sucked royally. We made our way up the stairs, into the attic, across the nailed down floor and onto the rafters. It was a little warm up there in the Summer months as a sweat broke out upon our teenage faces.
We got into battlement positions, three of us side by side. We could see the hole where a gutter should have been — we could see movement in the nest. One of us was the point light carrier, I had the bow, and the other had the other weapon. We decided to coordinate a shot rally with an awakening flurry of fluff and ordinance. I got ready to fire. The warning shot was sent followed immediately by mine, while the flashlight illuminated the startled Harrga-Flarrga family.
In a rush of gray-colored fur there was much scrambling, in which at least two of the Harga-Flarrga escaped out the hole. One, however, decided to have the gall to return an attack. I still recall seeing a gray thing come flying towards us in the light of the flashlight, disappearing in the darkness as we scrambled desperately across the rafters, past the chimney and down the stairs to seal up the attic. I think I dropped my ammo up there, two or three arrows — otherwise we had all our equipment. (John goes on to describe his mother’s hysterical laughter at the sight of the three bewildered boys.)
The day soon came when we decided to have the job professionally handled. Zimmy, who lived two doors down, came over with his pellet gun. A short while later, Zimmy returned from the attic: “Job’s done. I think we got ‘em all,” he said, as he cinched the neck of the plastic bag that held a carcass of Harrga-Flarrga.
John was always there to offer his help to those for whom he cared. He would wander into the kitchen when his mother or sister were cooking to offer suggestions about how to bring out the flavor of a meal. He was grateful to the persons who had mentored him in his life, and he was always on the lookout for ways to give back what he had been given. Those whom John loved, he loved big time. He watched out for their safety: John wouldn’t let the car move until everybody on board had their seat belts on.
But despite the best of precautions, dangerous stuff happens in life. In 1997 John became very sick with a viral pneumonia which unfortunately invaded his heart, causing permanent damage — the damage that would come to mean that John would not to get to live into old age in this world.
Nonetheless, the last nine years of John’s life were in certain ways the very best years of his very blessed life.
It was in 1998 that, through the marvel that is Match.com, God led John to meet Sarah, and in short order he was head over heals in love, having found his soul mate and life companion. His friends noticed how absolutely gaga John was over this woman — the irrepressible glow he gave off. After a year of dating John proposed to Sarah on a weekend trip to Cape May, and she gladly accepted.
Sadly, it was during this time that John’s father succumbed to a long illness, but fortunately not before he had gotten to meet, and love, his future daughter-in-law. In the years that followed his father’s death, John would often have the feeling that his father was still close at hand, wishing him well, offering him and Sarah some sort of guidance.
After a two year engagement, John and Sarah were married with John’s beloved Lake Mohawk serving as the backdrop for the exchange of wedding vows. The date was September 29, 2001. The last month before the wedding had been a hard one: In late August John had found himself lying in a hospital bed with a worsening of his heart condition. On September 11th, Sarah, at work at her job in New York City, watched helplessly out the window of her office as the twin towers collapsed from the terrorist attack, while John waited helplessly back home for Sarah to find her way out of the city.
And so on that late September day, acutely aware of the fragility of life in this world, John and Sarah stood beside the waters of the lake, before God and many witnesses — many of us are here again today — and promised their love to one another. It was as tender a moment as there can be.
In the first year of their marriage, John and Sarah took on the challenge of being the advisors to our church youth group. John had a natural rapport with these kids, being particularly good at connecting with kids who felt awkward and out of place at first. John and Sarah provided these teenagers with a safe space to talk about the stuff that really mattered in their lives, and it was a great satisfaction for John to watch as they came out of their shells and grew as persons and in their faith over the course of the year. John felt regret — a sense that he was letting the kids down when John and Sarah were obliged to give up their work with the youth group after one year, but there are certain responsibilities in life that trump other responsibilities, and the responsibility of a new baby is one such case. John remained connected to the kids, serving, for instance, as Jon Keller’s confirmation mentor.
It was in Cape May that John proposed to Sarah, it was there they returned for their honeymoon, and it was on yet another trip to Cape May to celebrate their first anniversary that Sarah and John discovered they were pregnant. Baby Zak was on the way! From Cape May they brought back a souvenir gift tee-shirt from “Uncle Bill’s Pancake House” as a way to break the news to Sarah’s brother Bill that he was about to become an uncle. From what I’m told, Bill was a little slow on the uptake, but eventually he caught on.
On May 22, 2003 Zak was born, filling the hearts of John and Sarah with wonder and joy. When Zak was just an infant, John would often serve as Zak’s bed — Zak falling asleep warm and cozy on John’s broad chest as John sat reclined in his easy chair — John soon snoozing as well — father and son one in a shared bliss.
John found in his son an endless source of enchantment and amusement. Zak would climb all over the mountain that was his Daddy as John sat on the living room floor, sliding fearlessly upside down in the protective arms that would always keep him from falling.
John was also an awesome uncle to Jennifer and Dave’s two girls, Zoey and Jamie as well as to Bill and Joannie’s kids, Megan and Matthew.
John connected easily with children in general, being, as he was, “a little boy stuck in a big boy’s body.” It wasn’t a good day if time wasn’t found for play — which generally meant messing around with his slot cars. He gave Zak his own special box of cars, some of which John’s father had given him, and together father and son would race their cars on the tracks in John’s special room.
John was sensitive and sentimental, a writer of poems and lovingly written letters long hand. With those with whom John was the closest, he wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was the one in the family who kept alive memories of loved ones who had died or simply moved away. John was always careful to find just the right card to mark a birthday, anniversary, or Valentine’s Day. He couldn’t bear to get rid of a card he had received. When the cards piled up and space got scarce, Sarah would have to sneak old ones away when John wasn’t watching to alleviate the clutter. He loved the magic of Christmas and delighted in passing that sense of wonder on to Zak. John was the “keeper of traditions” in the family. He loved his lasagna and garlic bread on his birthday, made first by his mother, later by Sarah, and the Christmas tree cake for dessert.
John’s health continued to struggle. There were kidney stones, as well as a diagnosis of diabetes in August of 2004, adding another layer of challenge to John’s life.
In March of 2005 the family moved from their cramped house on a busy road in Rockaway to a larger, more kid friendly house and neighborhood outside of Sparta, in part so John could reconnect with his beloved roots in the community. John, essentially a homebody, loved his new house. It gave John great pleasure to be able to host his family and friends in his home. This past Thanksgiving seventeen family and friends sat down together to give thanks and eat turkey. Nobody could make gravy like John.
Looking back, there was indeed the sense that God was at work, providing special memories in the important relationships of John’s life during these last months of his life. This past November there was a week that Sarah and Zak accompanied John on a week long trip to Maryland while John received training for his work during the day. In December, John’s friends at Church were blessed by having his company for an evening as he served in the kitchen during a dinner we hosted for Methodist clergy. Joannie and Bill remember a recent party at the house where John made the fondue. And just two weeks ago the family gathered for a very happy time celebrating Zoey’s sixth birthday at Jennifer and Dave’s house. His mom remembers the big bear hug his son gave her as he said goodbye that day. Nobody could give a bear hug like John. He was a big tender teddy bear.
It had been a good day this past Tuesday. John had recently made a transition at his job that led him to spend more time interacting with clients, for which John, with his innate kindness was naturally gifted. At 11 a.m. he gave a very successful presentation to the big boss at work, during which he had felt unusually calm and confident. Late that afternoon when Sarah went out of the house with Zak for an hour, John was sitting down to his desk, about to log onto his computer. Instead he quietly put his head down in the cradle of his arm, and passed into eternity. God had called him home.
We are all this close to eternity; we just don’t realize it. The most mundane moments of our daily lives — the moments where we log onto our computer, turn the ignition of our car, get the ingredients out to make supper — they could be our last here on earth. Who knows? Only God knows. So be awake.
Life is precious, which it seems, was something John realized intuitively to a greater extent perhaps than the rest of us. Life is fragile; handle with care.
As I mentioned, one of the principles by which John lived was the principle of “giving back.” It implies, on the one hand, being conscious and grateful for what you have been given: the blessings of your life, the grace that has enveloped your life, the love that has been showered upon you. John was quite conscious that he had been deeply blessed. His was a childhood that every kid should get to enjoy: a loving mom and dad, the best sister, grandparents, lots of good friends, and the constancy of the beautiful Lake as the backdrop of everything — he really had it all. He was privileged later in life to find his soul mate with whom he got to share a tender and passionate love, and together they were so fortunate as to watch the miracle of life come forth from their union in amazing little Zak — the very spitting image of John.
And yet, there is something almost scary about realizing how truly blessed we are. It make us extraordinarily vulnerable. See how good it all is, and the possibility immediately arises that we can lose it all — a fact that has been thrust in our faces, this past week. The scariness of it all leads us to find ways to shut our eyes, shut our hearts, stick our heads in the sand, so to speak. It takes courage to be awake to how good it all is. Can you hear the angels whispering to you what they said to Mary at the tomb, when she wept for her beloved Jesus? “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
And it is scary as well because we are aware of a claim upon our life that the gift presents us with — the need to give back, to find some way to be of service in this world, and when we see the blessing in its fullness, we may doubt we will ever succeed in responding adequately to this claim. “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.” John knew this. As I said before, he was constantly looking for ways to give back what he was given.
And so, to put it quite simply, God gave us a gift when God gave us John — this gentle giant of a man. A question before us is: how do we give back? Or perhaps more accurately, how can we “pay it forward”?
In big ways, but mostly in small ways, by little acts of gentleness and kindness to the people God gives us to live our lives with in whatever number of days we have left in this world. To practice love in various ways — to forgive one another, to laugh and cry with one another, to be there for one another.
One of my favorite verses is one we read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans in the eighth chapter: “I consider that the sufferings of the present life in no way compare with the glory that is to be revealed to us…” John knew his share of sufferings in this life through the physical challenges he experienced in his body. When, this past Tuesday, John entered the dimension beyond ths life what he encountered there was so very beautiful that in comparison it made all the sufferings he bore in this life seem like a little drop of water in comparison to all the water in Lake Mohawk.
There is no way to adequately express how wonderful the light and love of God is in heaven. I thought about that beautiful image of baby Zak sleeping in his fathers warm and tender embrace, but even that falls short, because in this new realm I believe John is fully awake — more awake than ever — and fully conscious to the gift he has now been given. The Great Giver is not done giving to John, nor to us. Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned… Trust in God. Trust also in me.”