I had the deep privilege of giving the tribute for my believed friend and colleague John Starkey on the occasion of his Memorial Service, January 19, 2020 in the Chapel at Oklahoma City University.
(Following the reading of John’s obituary)
Like all of you I so deeply cherish the personal connection I had with John Starkey, and I know that he deeply cherished the personal connection that he had with all of you. I have been so fortunate to know John since the fall of 1992 when we were both graduate students at Boston University. John was 13 years my senior and already had many years of high school teaching experience during and after his years with the Jesuits. Unlike so many graduate students, John already knew how to teach, and this experience along with his many years under spiritual direction in which he engaged in deep spiritual discernment made him a natural mentor for many of the younger graduate students like myself, though he never made any of us feel as if we were not his equal. That being said, it only takes a little time reading his doctoral exam papers or his eloquently written dissertation to quickly realize that very few persons could match his academic prowess or the depth of his theological engagement, much less the immense skill of his teaching. Like so many of his students for years to come, John’s graduate student colleagues were in awe of his gifts and filled with gratitude to be in community with him.
When I came to teach full time at Oklahoma City University in the philosophy department in 1996, I certainly had the hope of staying engaged with John and at least seeing him from time to time at annual American Academy of Religion meetings or at other conferences. But as very good fortune would have it, two years later after John had completed his 800 page doctoral dissertation (yes, 800 pages) on the resurrection of Jesus, I received a call from John asking me about the theology teaching position opening in the Wimberly School of Religion, and in fall of 1998, John, Dr. Starkey, returned to the state of Oklahoma where he had lived a number of years as a boy when his father was stationed at Fort Sill, and began his new career as one of the most beloved college professors on the planet.
John was a former Jesuit who became a Quaker who lived much of his last 21 and half years in service to Methodists both at OCU and through teaching in United Methodist camps and churches. John practiced and taught the best of what he experienced in these spiritual communities, and he loved and sought deeper understanding of his siblings from many other faiths and from those who oriented themselves in different ways to religion.
John loved the classroom and his books, but he was equally at home and happy enjoying the beauty of nature as could be seen when he would take his St. Francis like walks on campus finding beauty in the trees, flowers, and the native plants. He also spent many days hiking in the Green and White mountain ranges of New England with his dear friends. John found joy in nature. One of his students noted that “the way Starkey looked at trees is the way we looked at Starkey.”
As some of Dr. Starkey’s students reflected on their memories of him, here are some of the things they said about John:
“He would listen to everyone and engage them as they are.”
They said Dr. Starkey told them “I give everyone an opportunity to say what they believe.”
“Dr. Starkey loved the arts, loved to sing, supported all of his students by going to their plays, recitals, and performances, and he cherished the artwork that students created for his classes.”
The first question he would ask students at their religion scholarship interview was (religion majors say it together with me) “What do you like to read?” And throughout students’ time at OCU, he would continue to ask them “What are you reading?” And he would expect a good answer.
Dr. Starkey was a master teacher. As one of his students recollected, “He could always find the best way to explain something for everyone in the room. He explained things three ways: advanced, commonsense, and funny (not necessarily in that order)” Many students referred to Dr. Starkey as their Yoda, not the baby Yoda, but rather the fully matured Jedi Master Yoda. John was our wise spiritual guide and sage, connecting heart and mind in the example of his own life.
When commenting on his students’ papers, Dr. Starkey used green ink to avoid what he jokingly referred to as the violence of the red pen and the appearance of bleeding on the page. I have to say that I corrected my errors in this tribute in green pen, and I felt much better about the mistakes I made. In addition to the many insightful theological papers and presentations Dr. Starkey wrote and gave at regional and national conferences and the scores upon scores of wonderful Sunday School lessons he left with us, John probably wrote volumes of theological works on his students’ papers with his now famous green pen and in his many notes of encouragement to current and former students.
I have thought more than once that If Mr. Rogers had chosen to become a college theology professor instead of a Presbyterian minister and children’s show creator, he would have been a lot like John Starkey. Both of these gentle men would say “I am proud of you” in a way that made a permanent imprint on your soul. Both of them found creative ways to let people know that you are loved and accepted “just the way you are.” Both of them gave the people around them deep encouragement to face the world, even in the most difficult and challenging of times. I cannot imagine a better neighbor to have in this journey of life than John.
John loved God deeply and lived the way of Jesus’ love and justice with integrity and authenticity. He gave all he could for others as long as he could, and when he did not have the energy or the health to give of himself as much as he wished; his family, friends, students, and colleagues carried him through his last days in their arms of care and love, and he felt deeply loved by the outpouring of care he received. In his life, in his death, and now as we come to together to mourn but also to celebrate John’s life, he continues to remind us that we are meant to live together in beloved community.
John once wrote a student these words, and they summarize beautifully his way of being in the world in a way perhaps only John himself could do. He wrote: “I cherish my premodern heart, which is where the feelings live. I cherish my modern mind, which is where the thoughts live. I cherish my postmodern skin, which is where I am open to all the input of all the world, including all the cultures with all their religions, and all the arts with all their insights, and all the sciences with all their stringent criteria. It is not easy to live this way. But I wouldn’t want to live any other way either.”
John went on to write, “one of my favorite scriptures is Luke 7:35 – Wisdom is proven right by all who are her children.” All of us who knew and loved John have no doubt that he was a child of wisdom and that his life has proven wisdom right. And now that John has found rest in his eternal skin in the loving arms of God, his wisdom will continue to teach us all, even though it may no longer be through the temporal green pen.
As we grieve together the loss of our beloved John, our beloved Dr. Starkey, perhaps we might find some comfort and courage in the words of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who once wrote, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” Amen