“Come and get it, Jay.”
Those words, recalled Rev. Jason L. Kortering some fifty years later, were the exact words spoken—at his graduation from seminary in 1960. We’ll return to them in a moment. Suffice it to say, now, that informality seems to have been the order of the day.
Have you been at the seminary on Ivanrest recently? If so, you were greeted by a full-time receptionist. Just to your right, you would have seen an office for the registrar, one of whose duties is the calculating of cumulative grade-point averages and of the regular reporting of them to the students. Going then to your left, you would find yourself in a huge library. Exploring even further, you would find no fewer than five offices for professors—current, retiring, and recently elected.
Now scroll back, if you will, to Jay Kortering’s seminary years 1957-1960. Classroom—last room on the north side of the west end of the single hall of Adams St. School. Library—non-existent. Registrar—what’s that? Students—one, Jay Kortering. Professors—Rev. H. Hoeksema and, till his incapacitating stroke in 1958, Rev. G.M. Ophoff. After that stroke, it was Revs. G. Vos, H. Hanko, and B. Woudenberg, for Dutch, Church History, and O.T. History, respectively, for one year, till Prof. H.C. Hoeksema arrived on the scene in 1959.
What did Jay think of Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff? In retrospect, he said, “old and tired.” But, also in retrospect, he remembers having much appreciated them both. Concerning Ophoff, for example: “I was pretty happy. We worked hard on Hebrew grammar. He couldn’t keep much straight, but in his old age he could sleep Hebrew, I think. So we worked nicely together—even though he couldn’t ever keep the every- day activities straight. If we had finished a unit, and the next day or so I had to have a test, I had to call him in the morning to remind him that I had a test.”
An internship had no part in Rev. Kortering’s seminary training. But he did have opportunity to bring “words of edification” in the churches during those three years. In the January 19, 1958 bulletin of Hope Church (Grand Rapids), there was this announcement: “The pastor is filling a classical appointment today in Kalamazoo. We welcome to our pulpit Student J. Kortering and Rev. G. Ophoff.” Nothing seems particularly noteworthy about that—till one takes note of the date. In January of 1958 student J. Kortering had been in seminary for…one semester.
“Frankly,” said Rev. Kortering years later, “I look back and think that I did not learn really good skills in the seminary training. If I look at the men today, I think, Oh my, oh my. I had nothing. I got caught in the transition.”
“And, thankfully,” he adds, “I made it.” Which brings us back to “Come and get it, Jay”—a fitting conclusion to the ‘looseness’ that characterized his three years of training, during which, he says, he never got a report card. “They reported to synod, evidently, what my grades were, but they never told me. And I was a laid-back kind of guy. If they don’t want to tell me, I guess that’s okay. All the way through, I never got a report card or any information about how I did academically.” A “looseness” that persisted right through graduation. A kind of informality that could have been demonstrated by no one better than Rev. H. Veldman, who as president of the TSC had the honor of presenting the diploma that marked the successful conclusion of three years of study by Jason L. Kortering. (No one who knew Rev. Veldman can read this without a smile!) “Well,” says Rev. Veldman, “we don’t have any diplomas. We’re going to have to get some printed. So, now all we have is a rolled-up blank piece of paper. Come and get it, Jay.” Ah yes, that was sixty years ago. “And I think today,” says Rev. Kortering, “wow, we have really, really dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s and made it really good, made it respectable.”1
In the fall of 1960 Rev. Kortering arrived in Hull PRC in Iowa. His first charge. How will this go—after a seminary training that, as we have seen, included neither an internship nor even a class in Poimenics, but did have instruction from two men who could be described accurately as “old and tired” but were nevertheless ‘master craftsmen’? The fruit of the former showed itself at the beginning of young Rev. Kortering’s ministry, and of the latter, throughout the whole of it.
One example of the former, Rev. Kortering recalled vividly years later. After he had been at Hull for only a few months, he received a telephone call from the mortician at a local funeral home. A stillborn child, he was told, of a member of his congregation. And there will of course be a service…today. This afternoon. “Well, I had had no pastoral teaching [no Poimenics] at sem. And I had no internship.” So…a desperate call from the parsonage in Hull to the parsonage of a colleague in the ministry. “What do I do with this?” “Oh,” was the response, “you read the Bible, pray, and that’s it.” The large family soon gathered in the farmhouse, and the little coffin was carried by the man from the funeral home into the kitchen and all eyes turn to the pastor. “I read the Bible, made a few comments (just ad-libbed something about it), and had prayer. And then, I’ll never forget it, the man from the funeral home says to me, ‘It’s so cold. Why don’t we have the committal here?’ And in my head is: ‘committal—what’s that? I don’t even know what a committal is.’ It was that bad. This is spinning my head. I’m right on the spot. And this has to be right now. So I made some comments from I Corinthians 15, and then just had prayer. And I felt just awful! Just awful! Can you imagine a minister acting that way and not even knowing anything? So I’m a big supporter of internships to help these students.”
Just one more early-ministry experience of Rev. Kortering. This one from his first round of family visitation. One of those visits he recalled clearly, even after 50 years. It was, he says, with a “nice spiritual family—an older couple.” “Are you edified by the word?” he asked. “No!” “No?” “No, you take away all our comfort.” (No wonder that the recollection of that visit remained vivid years later!) “I thought, What? I’m preaching my heart out—and taking away all their comfort?” Not knowing, at the moment, what they were talking about, young Rev. Kortering asked them for an explanation. “Well, they did some explaining. And it went along this line that, ‘when you preach, you call us to do something. And we can’t do anything. So you lead us to complete frustration. We have to do something we can’t do. And we have no comfort.’ I discovered, later on, that that’s very typically antinomian. They saw the Reformed faith to be that Jesus has done it all, and that we have no responsibility. In a certain sense our Split of 1953 had that effect on some people. Rev. Heys told me this. He said, ‘Jay, at the time of the Split, you couldn’t even preach the commands of the Bible without being charged with conditions.’” On reflection, therefore, Rev. Kortering saw the explanation offered by the old couple to be “bad, bad theology. But, as a young preacher, to have someone say that on a first round of family visitation, wow, that set me back. The whole night I couldn’t sleep.”
Hardly was that reaction to Rev. Kortering’s preaching representative of that of his parishioners generally. To be convinced of that, one need only read a few of the expressions of deep appreciation for his ministry by those who profited from it. There is this, for example, from a man in Calvary PRC, concerning sermons preached there after Rev. Kortering’s retirement: “For myself, I must take issue with the old saying that ‘You can’t go home.’ For me to close my eyes, and listen to you begin a prayer, brought me right back to my childhood [in Hull], and the many worship services and catechism classes that I attended, led by you. It was truly a comfort and joy for me to hear the voice of the shepherd that I knew as an immature lamb.”
Rev. Kortering served as pastor in a number of churches in the PRC. After an initial six years in Hull (IA), he was for four in Hope, Grand Rapids. That was followed by another six years in Hull. Then three in Redlands (CA), five in Loveland (CO), and six in Grandville (MI). For a total of thirty years.
Hardly, however, was that the end of Rev. Kortering’s service to our churches. “I had always,” Rev. Kortering recalled, “had an interest in missions. I had always wanted to learn more about missions.” And what he had especially in mind was foreign missions. Twice, he said, an opportunity seemed to present itself, when he was asked by the DMC to go to Jamaica. “But each time my consistory said no.” He knew and understood why they said no but, nevertheless, he was both times disappointed. “I wanted to get some exposure. What’s it like to get into another country, and see what mission work there is like.”
It was during what would be his last year as pastor in the PRC that Rev. Kortering had an opportunity to begin to learn the answer to those questions. It happened that there were difficulties in the ERCS at the time, and the Contact Committee looked for a senior minister to go to Singapore for half a year to render some assistance. They asked Rev. Kortering, and, to his delight, his Grandville consistory was agreeable.
As one who knows Rev. Kortering would expect, he threw himself into that work, which was considerable. But, also true to character, he did not forget his flock on the other side of the world. In what may have been his first monthly letter to his home congregation, he expressed sympathy to a bereaved member, assured another family of his prayers for them in their “special time of need,” congratulated two couples on the births of babies, and expressed his delight in hearing that another member was “recovering well.” All, of course, by name. A shepherd’s heart.
Then in that same letter he told something of his work in Singapore. As, for example, this. At the conclusion of his second lecture, he wrote, “Someone brought a juice to me while I was still standing in the front of the auditorium. Soon afterward,” he continued, “there came [a young girl], with a piece of cake in a napkin, gave it to me, hugged me, and with big round eyes looking at me said, ‘Can you come to my house to tell me about Jesus?’”
There you have it. In his first letter home from afar. A pastor’s heart. And a heart for missions. There’s no way Rev. Kortering would have recounted that one, momentary exchange with a Singaporean the way that he did if he had not by it been ‘touched’ to the core.
Interestingly, there’s one thing that Rev. Kortering did not mention in those letters to his home church. And that is the toll that the work in Singapore took on him. He had been asked to go to Singapore in order to help the two churches there weather a crisis. In his interview with Mr. Mark Hoeksema he admitted, “I came so close to a complete nervous breakdown. I was so weak. That’s when my heart complications were really bad. My Crohn’s Disease was bad. I was having all kinds of problems. It was all stress, complete stress.”
“But,” he added, “the Lord helped us through it.” He made it through the six months of labor in Singapore, returned home—and then was faced with two calls. One from Hudsonville PRC to serve as missionary in Northern Ireland, and the other from Hope PRC to return to Singapore, this time as a minister-on-loan. Singapore?! “I mean, humanly speaking, I would have stayed as far away from that as I could because I had been just [barely] hanging on.”
However, after receiving a ‘go-ahead’ from two key doctors, the heart specialist and the colon doctor, he accepted the call from Hope PRC and went back…to Singapore. “That had to be the grace of God,” he recalled, “for there was nothing, nothing, that had any natural attraction, as far as, personally, what was in it for us. It was a tough call. But we went back.”
Rev. Kortering’s work as minister-on-loan in Singapore is the stuff of a book. In this brief reflection on that service to the churches, let me draw attention to just a few aspects of it. One is his very evident enthusiasm for it. The early interest that he expressed in it quickly became his delight. About the heathen ancestral worship that he observed all around him, he wrote: “They believe if they treat their ancestors well by offering them food, talking to them, worshiping them, then their ancestors will treat them well in return. How desperately poor these people are! They know nothing of the Christian’s joy, of God’s love for us in sending His Son to die for our sins and of living a life of gratitude and praise to God. But what a joy when God calls His own out of darkness into His marvelous light. And that is what we see in the churches here.”
Rev. Kortering could conceivably, as minister-on-loan, have been kept very well occupied with labor in the two congregations of the ERCS and the establishing of the Evangelical Reformed Bible School. He did, in fact, put a lot of fruitful work into those. But that, in it all, missions was always close to his heart was evident throughout his years in Singapore. That could be seen, first of all, in how he went about his work in Singapore itself. He was ‘touched’ by what he observed…and was ready always, where possible, to act on it. In “Focus on Singapore,” a newsletter in our churches in the States, Rev. Kortering wrote, “I always carry in my bag my Bible, basic tracts about the Reformed faith, and my calling card. That way, wherever we meet people, we can share with them the written Word as well.”
But Rev. Kortering, in his zeal for missions, was also always looking beyond. To Myanmar, first of all, but then also to India, and even to Nepal. Nepal? Listen to what he wrote in a report to the Contact Committee and Hope Church Council: “It is heartening to hear that the small congregation (about 15 souls) which worships with Pallab in Mahendranagar has been blessed with one [!] conversion in their first year and a half of worship. This is pioneer missions in the real sense. My soul just yearns to visit with them. [Before he returned home from Singapore, he did in fact find it possible to do exactly that.] It is both a strong Hindu area and in some ways hostile against Christianity. But what an opportunity! God is directing us to many significant areas where not only the Reformed faith is introduced for the first time, but even Christianity itself.” Those words tell it all.
That was in early 1995. Later he traveled to Myanmar to give instruction there. How much did he enjoy that? Let his wife tell us. We quote from a letter she sent to their family at home in early 1999. “It’s Wednesday already, and the third day of teaching is finished. Dad is a good teacher, is having the time of his life and enjoying every minute of it. (He said to me today he wishes he could do this full time—go to all these countries and teach the Reformed faith.)”
Synod repeatedly commended Rev. Kortering for his “energetic labors in Singapore” as minister-on-loan. The energy was indeed remarkable, all the more so for a man nearing retirement age. And especially so because they involved numerous trips to other countries. By the time his term of service as minister-on-loan was completed he had visited the Philippines twice, Myanmar no fewer than five times, India four, and Nepal once. No overstatement was it when the Contact Committee reported to synod that “Rev. Kortering has an extremely heavy workload.”
Retirement did finally come for Rev. Kortering when he and Mrs. Kortering returned to the States in 2002. His emeritation took effect on August 1 of that year. But that didn’t mark the end of the Korterings’ activity in the Orient. Already in 2003, Rev. Kortering returned to Singapore to teach, for several months, in the ERCS’s Asian Reformed Theological School. They returned in August of 2005, for a seven-month stay, and then again for a half year in 2006-2007, during which time they visited India and Myanmar. A spiritual father Rev. Kortering had become, especially to (by then Pastor) Paulraj in the former and Rev. Titus in the latter.
Half way through that last visit to Singapore, Rev. Kortering acknowledged, in an email to the undersigned, that “Jean and I are weary, in that this is emotionally draining…. We look at it as this is now time to close our chapter in Singapore. We are getting too old for such heavy pressures and work.”
That’s what it was. Heavy pressures and work. Even well into his ‘retirement’ years. But his heart was in it. His love for missions never faded. And he kept at it as long as his ailing body would allow it. Those ailments multiplied in later years, until, finally, he contracted COVID-19, from which he would not recover. Not long before he died, his daughter Lori (Gritters) visited him. She shared that experience, in an email, with her own children. First two words are noteworthy: “Beautiful morning.” Not what one would expect. But the reason for it became immediately clear. “Never dreamt that sitting at the deathbed of my dad would be such a positive experience. I feel like I just enjoyed a morning of glorious worship. Mom had a CD of Psalters going, so I started singing along, commenting occasionally on the words. After a while, he joined me singing!! Not just the words, but even the tune. I talked to him about God getting him ready for heaven, and, though it probably wouldn’t be today, it would be soon. He teared up. I said, ‘Are you ready for that?’ His response: ‘I can’t wait!!!!’ I asked what he was looking forward to: ‘Seeing Jesus!’”
And now he has. He has received the reward, the real reward, which has nothing to do with the accolades of men. Though many of those did come. From near and far. From a former parishioner in the States: “We give thanks to God for [Rev. Kortering’s] faithful ministry in the churches throughout the world. He was our pastor twice, and we loved him dearly. He was a true pastor with a heart for God’s people—strong and gentle, firm and fair, loving and kind. And his preaching, well, it was always a blessing to us—truth blended with loving application!”
And from afar. This one from Pastor Paulraj. To Mrs. Kortering. “Dear Mom,” it began. “This is your Indian son in the Lord.” And it closed with: “Take care, Mom. We’ll be missing Dad a lot. Yet we are hopeful of meeting him in glory.” And signed: “Paulraj, Kashturi, Jason (named after Dad), and Joan (named after your daughter).” Such was the affection for Rev. and Mrs. Kortering that was the natural fruit of their labors in India.
And then there’s this one, from Rev. Titus and his family in Myanmar. It, too, began with “Dear Mom.” And went on: “Yes, Dad is my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and my Dad, and you are my Mom. He will be in my heart and our hearts all the time. I was quite sad, the same time happy. Sad because Dad my friend is no more to talk to, happy because he is now in heaven.”
Which was the object, too, of Rev. Kortering’s hope: “I can’t wait!”
A legacy? Yes. What a gift to our churches was Pastor Jason L. Kortering!
1 Lots of quotation marks in this article. A frequent source was the transcribed version of an interview with Rev. Kortering conducted by Mr. Mark Hoeksema in June 2009.