Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
In the early darkness of Monday, February 16, 1998, the Lord took a faithful servant to his eternal reward. Rev. Heys died peacefully after an 11-month stay in Hudsonville Christian Nursing Home where he was living because of complications from a stroke and pneumonia. Rev. Heys would have turned 88 on March 16.
By God’s grace, Rev. Heys labored so that he could hear God say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rev. Heys is survived by his dear wife, Esther (VanBaren); three children: Ardess and Burton VanProoyen, John and Sandy Heys, and Joyce and Sid Niemeyer; and their grandchildren.
John A. Heys was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 16, 1910, to Mr. and Mrs. John and Minnie Heys. John was one of five sons. His father was a carpenter, born in the Netherlands. Minnie was born in Pella, Iowa.
He went to Baxter Street Christian School, and Grand Rapids Christian High School, where he graduated in 1928. From there, John worked at a furniture factory. One wintry day when he was shoveling snow at First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, he encountered the Rev. Herman Hoeksema. When HH asked him what he hoped to do, he said that he was thinking about being a teacher. Hoeksema is reported to have asked, “Why not become the ultimate teacher?” John took the suggestion, studied in the seminary under the tutelage of HH, and began his public ministry of the Word and sacraments in Hope PRC, Walker, in October of 1941.
Two months before his installation at Hope, Rev. Heys married Esther VanBaren. On August 20 last year, Rev. and Mrs. Heys celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary.
Hope PRC was his first charge. He remained there for 14 years, until 1955. From there, the Heys family moved with their three children to Hull, Iowa, where he served until 1959. Next the Lord led them to the hometown of Mrs. Heys, South Holland, Illinois, where he remained for 8 years. In 1967, the moving van went back to Michigan, this time to Holland PRC where Rev. Heys served for 13 more years until retirement in 1980. During this pastorate, Rev. Heys experienced severe heart problems, which led some to doubt that he would live to an old age. But the Lord spared Rev. Heys, enabling him even in his retirement years to be active for more than a decade longer in preaching, teaching catechism, and writing.
Rev. Heys’ love for music is well known to the PRC membership. Every child who knows the Psalter has noticed that the two musical arrangements of the Lord’s Prayer (Psalter numbers 433 and 434) were both by Rev. Heys. An accomplished organist, Rev. Heys played the large organ at First PRC before he became a pastor. One of our older members in Hudsonville remembers taking lessons from the young musician.
A musician. An artist. A photographer. First of all, a pastor and preacher.
In the early 50s, Rev. Heys was asked to teach a course in the seminary in Homiletics, the art of constructing a sermon. One of our older ministers related his memory of Rev. Heys. “When the minister makes a sermon,” Rev. Heys would say, “he must put a cross at the top of the outline, to remind him that Christ must be central in every sermon.”
As a pastor, Rev. Heys loved children. The glorious truth of the covenant of grace, established with us and our children, gripped him, as it should every Reformed pastor. So it’s not surprising that he was instrumental in the beginnings of both Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School in Walker, Michigan and the South Holland Protestant Reformed School in Illinois.
One of God’s great gifts to Rev. Heys was the ability to make the Old Testament historical narrative come alive for the people of God. Rev. Heys’ sermons were like his Standard Bearer articles—colorful and easy to follow. One of the sermons he preached in Byron Center in his last years of preaching was from Jeremiah 48, where Jehovah warns that Moab has been at ease from his youth, has settled on his lees, and has not been emptied “from vessel to vessel.” The remarks of the members, for a long time after that sermon was preached, were evidence of their appreciation for Rev. Heys’ ability to turn a phrase and to make clear and interesting even a seemingly obscure passage such as that.
For many years he wrote articles for the Standard Bearer, especially in the rubric, “The Day of Shadows.” No one who read them will forget his memorable titles. “A Nameless and Shoeless Kinsman.” “The Viper’s Brood Strikes.” “Shameless Nakedness.” His love for the Old Testament brought forth a little commentary on the book of Ruth, a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone studying that book.
Probably the most lasting contribution of Rev. Heys’ pen are the brief devotionals he wrote, at the request of the Hudsonville Men’s Society (and still available from them): Daily Meditations for Spiritual Comfort and Daily Devotions from the Psalms. These meditations—one for each day of the year—are a brief Reformed explanation of the Word of God, similar to Spurgeon’s “Morning and Evening.” Many sets of these meditations have made their way across the continent and around the world.
A perennial delegate to synod, and many times its president (I stopped counting at five as I went backwards through the Acts), Rev. Heys was a servant of the churches, the denomination. Often he served the churches as classical church visitor, sometimes traveling by train to reach the distant churches. His colleague on many of these trips said that Rev. Heys always knew the schedule of every train heading west. In this way, too, all the churches came to know and love Rev. Heys.
While Rev. Heys served the churches in the states, those churches shared his heart with God’s people in other lands. Our visits in his last years would bring out stories of his work in Jamaica and New Zealand. Both of these mission fields were dear to him; he was deeply saddened when the Jamaica mission field was closed. At least nine times he traveled to the Caribbean to help the mission work in Jamaica. One “Mission Contribution” he wrote in 1974 shows his love for the people and the work there. “Beautiful Feet Upon the Jamaican Mountains” relates his joy at the ordination of four young Jamaicans who had been trained by then Missionary Rev. George Lubbers.
What a day it was! I could not help but wish that my congregation (Holland PRC), which so graciously and often has allowed me to go to Jamaica (five times in seven years) could have been there to feel the enthusiasm of these young men, to enjoy their preaching which seemed to come out of their hearts, and to hear these of another race speaking the same glorious truth (and with such conviction) that we hear from Sabbath to Sabbath in our churches.
That trip was in 1974, with Rev. C. Hanko. Nine years earlier he had first gone to Jamaica with Elder Harry Zwak.
On the floor of the Heys home lies a sheepskin from New Zealand, another land that captured the heart of Rev. and Mrs. Heys. On at least three separate occasions, Rev. and Mrs. Heys traveled to the saints in New Zealand to minister to them. Mrs. Heys speaks of the great joy they had in working with the congregation in Wellington. With the love of a missionary heart, Mrs. Heys related: “This small group was strong in the faith and was very active in the study of God’s Word.”
Sometimes little things stick in the memory. The bow tie. The puns. The plays on words. His unique sense of humor. “How are you feeling, today, Rev. Heys?” the nurses would ask. “With my hands, as usual,” he would respond. Two elders in Hudsonville congregation, both former members of Hull PRC, recall Saturday mornings when their minister would come to the basement of Hull church to heat the church for catechism. Dressed in his swallow-tailed black suit, Rev. Heys scooped the coal into the pot-bellied stove and then went about teaching the Word. Nor do they forget that—the Word. Who can forget his reminder that Easter is properly called “resurrection Sunday”? Or his instruction that we are not to pray for our sins to be “blotted out,” since Christ did that on the cross? The Lord used him in each of his pastorates to make a mark on many individuals. Rev. Heys’ ministry was effective but, to use his words, always and only because of the blessing of God.
One of the last sermons Rev. Heys preached (those who attended his funeral will forgive me for repeating this) was on Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to his purpose.” The wonderful truth of God’s particular care, of His loving care, of His all-encompassing care, of His perfectly wise care, for all His children, was embedded on the brother’s mind. When I would visit him and Mrs. Heys and make mention of the difficulties of old age, the sorrows of physical deterioration, the struggles of earthly life, Rev. Heys would never fail to remind me, in his kind way, “But you know that all things work together for good!” What a text to let rule our lives.
If old age sometimes magnifies our faults and weaknesses, the Lord was merciful to Rev. Heys. From the time I became his pastor, until early last Monday morning just hours before he died when he broke into a smile in response to the gospel the last time, the brother’s kindness and quiet spirit made it a joy to minister to him in his needs.
In his later years, Rev. Heys would have fun reminding me that his name was Heys (with an H,) and that he had served in Hope, Hull, South Holland, Holland, and now was a resident in Hudsonville. Another man who once heard him explain this responded, “and your next will be Heaven.” How appropriate.
May God continue to give our churches men who give themselves for the great gospel ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.