We gathered at the Lakebay Church in late July to celebrate the life of our friend Howard Johnson (see “One Dead, One Injured After Fire Destroys KP Home,” KP News, Aug. 2023). Among all the tributes and memories, we heard many stories of the lives Howard touched through his kindness and generosity. His life made a difference in this world.
Howard was born in the backwoods of northwest Montana, between Libby and a little town called the Yaak. Most people have never heard of it, but it is the same town my father called home as a child, an area where I spent many happy days as a teenager roaming the woods, stalking elk and fishing the Kootenai River.
Both Howard and my father eventually left Montana for Washington. Howard moved to Auburn and then the Key Peninsula while my father moved to Rosedale and later Seattle, with a few stops in between. These two Montana boys never met until I became Howard’s pastor and made the connection, but when they got together they often talked about growing up in the deep forest of the Rocky Mountain foothills.
Howard’s life was marked by hardship, much of it self-inflicted. Hard living and hard drinking led to suffering and pain. Libby’s legacy of asbestos production scarred his lungs and made his breathing difficult. Howard and his wife Diane lost a son to drowning and they knew profound grief. Eventually, he found sobriety and he and Diane found hope in their love for Jesus. From that place, they began to give back.
Since his death, I have heard from people up and down the Key Peninsula whose lives were touched by Howard’s compassion. He led recovery groups and was a supportive ear to people battling addiction. He provided food to hungry families and prayed for everyone he met. He had an impish grin and was an encourager who never spoke a critical word. He sought out people on the margins of life and loved them in simple and practical ways. The overflow crowd at his funeral was a testimony to his influence in our community.
My father’s life took a different path, but he left a similar legacy. He was always ready to offer a helping hand to people in need. He sat with people in their darkest moments, offering encouragement or a silent space to process their pain. In his retirement, he started visiting the King County jail, building friendships with inmates to support their rehabilitation. When he passed away five years ago, we heard from countless people around the world who told of the ways Dad touched their lives.
When I stood to speak at my father’s funeral, I remarked on the way this little boy from Montana left such a huge mark on the world. When I welcomed everybody to Howard’s funeral last month, I said that he would have been a little surprised at all the accolades. He was, after all, just a simple man who tried to do good by all he met. I think neither one of these Montana boys realized the difference they made to those around them.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have an impact on the world. Sometimes it is tempting to think our little lives don’t count for much, but every word spoken, every act of kindness, our very way of being changes and influences the world around us. It may feel like we are not doing much, but it all counts. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God being made up of seemingly small and insignificant things: yeast, mustard seed, children. Over time, he said, these small tokens move the world.
Both my father and Howard remind me that we can all make a difference far greater than we will ever understand. A meal shared with a stranger, a kind word offered to a neighbor, a prayer for somebody locked in grief, a listening ear, an encouraging smile: they can all change somebody’s life. Years ago, two Montana boys figured that out, and we are all the better for it. May we continue their legacy and be a blessing to the world around us.
Award-winning columnist Dan Whitmarsh is pastor at Lakebay Community Church.
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