Mike Cope's blog

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

I'm gone this weekend to the Gulf Coast Get-away. I spoke there a few years ago to an amazing bunch of university students from campus ministries all over the Southeast. It has continued to grow--so much so that this year for the first time it won't be in Pensacola Beach. They've had to move it to Panama City Beach, where more students (1600+) can stay together in one resort hotel. Tough gig, I know. But beyond the beauty of going to Florida in the winter and staying on the beach, it is such a wonderful challenge to get to speak the words of Christ to students from all those campuses. I can't even begin to fathom the impact they could have (and are having) in those places. Please be praying for me . . . and for us.

I mentioned that the Gospel Advocate has just published a list of dangerous books. I'd like to add to that list. Here are some VERY dangerous books: Job, Ecclesiastes, Mark, and Galatians. There are others, of course. But these can be particularly upsetting.

I've run a couple articles by Nicholas Kristof on sexual slavery in Cambodia. (See earlier blogs.) Here is his follow-up, explaining that there are seldom fairytale endings. VAY RIENG, Cambodia — Four years of sexual servitude had shattered Srey Mom's spirit and left her with no real family, other than the brothel owner she called "Mother." After I had purchased the freedom of Srey Mom and Srey Neth, the two teenage prostitutes whose story I've told in my last three columns, we took Srey Neth back to her family. Then we had to drive clear across the country to return Srey Mom to her native village. During that long drive, she repeatedly vowed that she would never return to the brothels — but she said it so insistently that the possibility clearly preyed on her mind. "I'm going to go to the pagoda to pray that I never go back," she said, for she had seen other girls rescued from the brothels who ended up ostracized by outsiders and slinking back again. Srey Mom worried constantly during the drive whether her mother would ever accept her again since a stormy relationship with her mother had led her to run away from home at the age of 14. A woman at a bus station had befriended Srey Mom and handed her over to a brothel. The brothel's owner rubbed her with pineapple juice, which supposedly lightens the skin, and sold her virginity to a businessman. Completely illiterate, Srey Mom ended up shuffled from brothel to brothel, continually cheated and mired in debts that left her unable to leave. Over four years of prostitution, her price for sex gradually dropped from $27 to less than $3. As we approached the village, Srey Mom grew excited — and anxious about whether her mother would accept her or beat her. Perhaps children worldwide cannot comprehend how much their families love them, for the scene when we pulled up at Srey Mom's house was the most joyous I've ever witnessed. Srey Mom bounded out of the car and into the arms of an aunt. Both convulsed in happy sobs and shrieks, and other villagers came running over. "We thought she was dead," the aunt said through a shower of tears. Then the grandmother trundled up, wailing with joy. Later, she said, "I've been crying for her every single night, I missed her so much." Srey Mom's mother and father rushed over in disbelief, and Srey Mom fell to her knees and begged their forgiveness — which they happily gave. The family, having given up hope that the girl was still alive, had planned a Buddhist funeral ceremony for her in 20 days' time — and now it would be turned into a celebration of her return. When the tears had slowed, we discussed options for Srey Mom to earn a living. In the end I left the family with $100 for Srey Mom to start a small business selling pork in the market. Since the villagers thought she had worked in a restaurant and didn't know her past, they embraced her return. An experienced aid group would monitor and help her. As we pulled away from the village, I was as happy as I've ever been as a reporter. (To learn more about trafficking by following these two girls in their journey, visit the interactive special report.) I wish I could have ended the column there. But a few days later, Srey Mom quarreled with her mother and fled to her old brothel in Poipet. My interpreter found her there. She still says she wants to leave prostitution, but she also refused the interpreter's offer to take her to a women's shelter or anywhere else. Bernard Krisher, the chairman of American Assistance for Cambodia (www.cambodiaschools.com), a first-rate group that helps Cambodian children, is going to Poipet to meet Srey Mom and offer her a chance to learn modeling or hairdressing, live with a family and begin again. I'm still hoping for a fairy-tale ending. But there are few fairy-tale endings in sexual trafficking (I hope the other teenager, Srey Neth, will have one, for she has now built a tin-roofed shack and stocked it as a grocery, and is proudly earning a living for herself.) Typically, trafficking not only destroys its victims' bodies with AIDS but maims their spirits as well, leaving them feeling so worthless that they can't easily return to normal life. Multiply the dreams and fears of these two teenagers by the global scale of trafficking, 700,000 people per year, and you see why the U.S. and foreign governments have to get serious about stopping this modern form of slavery.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Just back last night from a Zoe conference in Fresno. What an incredible church -- in a couple days I felt like it was another home. Working with Brandon and Zoe, Randy Gill, the Bridgesmiths, Jack and Jill Maxwell -- well, I don't get tired of it! The flight back was glorious--seeing Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon (with the afternoon sun hitting the north wall). Then, we got to the Abilene gate at DFW and there was my oldest son, waiting on the same flight. What a nice surprise. I knew he was away for the weekend (for a training course to teach the MCAT for Princeton Review), but didn't know which flight he'd be on. Randy Harris preached for me. I got this great e-mail from a friend this morning: "For the sake of job security please find replacements that are less competent. I'm only telling you this as a friend." :) (Yes, one of my fears is that one day, someone smart will figure out that they could use all the "replacement preachers" each week at Highland . . . and just pretend I'm away every week.)

Friday, January 23, 2004

We came THAT close! (And maybe we'll still get there.) I couldn't believe Abilene was so close to having a ban on smoking in restaurants. As a lifelong asthmatic, it was almost beyond my highest hopes. But, alas, the Abilene Reporter-News ran an editorial reminding us that we should let businesses make their own decisions, and then let people respond accordingly. If I don't like gagging at Joe Allen's when the smaller nonsmoking room is full, then I don't have to go there. If I don't like waiting at Abuelo's with smoke pouring in from the bar--then I can do the Bueno drive-through. Why not extend the ARN's logic further? Why should we demand that restaurants not use horse meat? Why not let them make their own decisions and then let people choose or not choose to go there? Why have the health department check their kitchens every so often to see whether they are meeting certain standards? Why not just let them decide how clean or dirty they want the kitchen to be, and then let others decide if they want to eat there? And why have fire codes? Shouldn't an owner of a PRIVATE business be able to decide if he wants his joint to be a firetrap or not? The public doesn't have to go there if things like exits and sprinklers are important to them? I'm flying today to a worship conference in Fresno. I get on the plane knowing it will be nonsmoking. Why not let the airlines decide? If AA wants to have smoking, I could chose to take another one . . . or drive. What the ARN editorialist didn't realize is that we do this all the time for matters of public safety. You cannot scream "FIRE" in a crowded theater -- even if it doesn't bother the theater owner and even if you feel that not being able to do so cramps your rights. You can smoke in your home. You can smoke in your backyard. But when people smoke in offices, waiting rooms, stadiums, airplanes, and restaurants -- OTHERS SUFFER THE HEALTH CONSEQUENCES. We asthmatics get ill. And all suffer (knowingly or unknowingly) from the damage of second-hand smoke. (The evidence of second-hand smoke is beyond debate.) This isn't taking away anyone's right to smoke. If they want to kill themselves with cigarettes they have that right. (Don't think we don't pay for it, however. Our health insurance rates would be significantly lower if people quit smoking.) But that doesn't give them a right to smoke around others.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

A thought for the morning from Frederick Buechner: "What man and woman, if they gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise? . . . To suffer in love for another's suffering is to live life not only at its fullest but at its holiest."

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

We're not the only ones trying to figure out how to balance two different opinions about the role of women in congregational life. Check out this Baltimore synagogue.

Here is Nicholas Kristof's follow-up column about the two girls he bought out of slavery in a Cambodian brothel: Srey Neth and Srey Mom were stunned when I proposed buying their freedom from their brothel owners. "It's unbelievable," Srey Mom said, smiling with an incandescence that seemed to light the street. "There's no problem with taking pictures and telling my story. I want to tell it. But I'm a little afraid that if my mother sees it, she'll be heartbroken." After I decided to buy the two teenage prostitutes, as recounted in my column on Saturday, I swore them to secrecy for fear that the brothel owners would spirit them away, rather than let them tell their stories. But the first purchase, of Srey Neth, went smoothly. [For an explanation on how I chose Srey Neth and Srey Mom read my post in the Kristof Reponds forum.] I woke up her brothel's owner at dawn, handed over $150, brushed off demands for "interest on the debt" and got a receipt for "$150 for buying a girl's freedom." Then Srey Neth and I fled before the brothel's owner was even out of bed. But at Srey Mom's brothel, her owner announced that the debt was not $70, as the girl had thought, but $400. "Where are the books?" I asked. A ledger was produced, and it purported to show that Srey Mom owed the equivalent of $337. But it also revealed that the girls were virtually A.T.M.'s for the brothels, generating large sums of cash that the girls were cheated out of. After some grumpy negotiation, the owner accepted $203 as the price for Srey Mom's freedom. But then Srey Mom told me that she had pawned her cellphone and needed $55 to get it back. "Forget about your cellphone," I said. "We've got to get out of here." Srey Mom started crying. I told her that she had to choose her cellphone or her freedom, and she ran back to her tiny room in the brothel and locked the door. In my last column, I described the sex trafficking in places like Cambodia as a modern form of slavery, and I believe that. But the scene that unfolded next underscored the moral complexity of a world in which some girls are ambivalent about being rescued and not all brothel owners are monsters. Some brothel owners use beatings and locked rooms to enslave their girls, but most use debts and ostensible kindness to manipulate them — and the girls are often so naïve, so stigmatized by everyone else and so broken in spirit that this works. With Srey Mom sobbing in her room and refusing to be freed without her cellphone, the other prostitutes — her closest friends — began pleading with her to be reasonable. So did the brothel's owner. "Grab this chance while you can," the owner begged Srey Mom. But the girl would not give in. After half an hour of hysterics about the cellphone, I felt so manipulated that I almost walked out. But I finally caved. "O.K., O.K., I'll get back your cellphone," I told her through the door. The tears stopped. "My jewelry, too?" she asked plaintively. "I also pawned some jewelry." So we went to get back the phone and the jewelry — which were, I think, never the real concern. Srey Mom later explained that her resistance had nothing to do with wanting the telephone and everything to do with last-minute cold feet about whether her family and village would accept her if she returned. The possibility of rejection by her mother was almost as frightening as the idea of finishing her life in the brothel. On our return with the phone and jewelry, the family of the brothel's owner lighted joss sticks for Srey Mom and prayed for her at a Buddhist altar in the foyer of the brothel. The owner (called "Mother" by the girls) warned Srey Mom against returning to prostitution. Finally, Srey Mom said goodbye to "Mother," the owner who had enslaved her, cheated her and perhaps even helped infect her with the AIDS virus — yet who had also been kind to her when she was homesick, and who had never forced her to have sex when she was ill. It was a farewell of infinite complexity, yet real tenderness. So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We'll see.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

While praying about SE Asia, here's an amazing editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times: One thinks of slavery as an evil confined to musty sepia photographs. But there are 21st-century versions of slaves as well, girls like Srey Neth. I met Srey Neth, a lovely, giggly wisp of a teenager, here in the wild smuggling town of Poipet in northwestern Cambodia. Girls here are bought and sold, but there is an important difference compared with the 19th century: many of these modern slaves will be dead of AIDS by their 20's. Some 700,000 people are trafficked around the world each year, many of them just girls. They form part of what I believe will be the paramount moral challenge we will face in this century: to address the brutality that is the lot of so many women in the developing world. Yet it's an issue that gets little attention and that most American women's groups have done shamefully little to address. Poipet, 220 miles on bouncy roads from Phnom Penh, is a dusty collection of dirt alleys lined with brothels, where teenage girls clutch at any man walking by. It has a reputation as one of the wildest places in Cambodia, an anything-goes town ruled by drugs, gangs, gambling and prostitution. The only way to have access to the girls is to appear to be a customer. So I put out the word that I wanted to meet young girls and stayed at the seedy $8-a-night Phnom Pich Guest House — and a woman who is a pimp soon brought Srey Neth to my room. Srey Neth claimed to be 18 but looked several years younger. She insisted at first (through my Khmer interpreter) that she was free and not controlled by the guesthouse. But soon she told her real story: a female cousin had arranged her sale and taken her to the guesthouse. Now she was sharing a room with three other prostitutes, and they were all pimped to guests. "I can walk around in Poipet, but only with a close relative of the owner," she said. "They keep me under close watch.They do not let me go out alone. They're afraid I would run away." Why not try to escape at night? "They would get me back, and something bad would happen. Maybe a beating. I heard that when a group of girls tried to escape, they locked them in the rooms and beat them up." "What about the police?" I asked. "Couldn't you call out to the police for help?" "The police wouldn't help me because they get bribes from the brothel owners," Srey Neth said, adding that senior police officials had come to the guesthouse for sex with her. I asked Srey Neth how much it would cost to buy her freedom. She named an amount equivalent to $150. "Do you really want to leave?" I asked. "Are you sure you wouldn't come back to this?" She had been watching TV and listlessly answering my questions. Now she turned abruptly and snorted. "This is a hell," she said sharply, speaking with passion for the first time. "You think I want to do this?" Another girl, Srey Mom, grabbed at me as I walked down the street. She wouldn't let go, tugging me toward the inner depths of her brothel — but she looked so young and pitiable that I couldn't help thinking that she really wanted me to tug her away. So I did. I paid the owner $8 to spring her for the evening and then took her away for an interview. The owner let Srey Mom go out unsupervised, it turned out, partly because she had been a prostitute for several years and was trusted to return — and partly because her dark complexion meant that she was of little value anyway. The brothel sold her to men for just $2.50, compared with the $10 commanded by the lighter-skinned Srey Neth. I asked Srey Mom what her freedom would cost. Payment of about $70 in debts to her brothel owner, she said. Two girls in her brothel had been freed after they found boyfriends who paid their debts, she said, and she spoke of her longing to see her sisters and the rest of her family in her village on the other side of Cambodia. "Do you really want to leave the brothel?" I asked. "I love myself," she answered simply. "I do not want to let my life be destroyed by what I'm doing now." That's when I made a firm decision I'd been toying with for some time: I would try to buy freedom for these two girls and return them to their families. I'll tell you in my column on Wednesday what happens next.

Please be praying for Brent and Julie Pennington and their children, Ben and Kate. They are now in Thailand, ready to share the message of the kingdom.

From Howard Dean's personal journal (1/20/04): "Remember in the future NOT -- repeat NOT -- to look like a maniac while making a very public speech. Even if emotional. Remember Dan Quayle looking like a high school cheerleader. And for lasting images, don't forget Michael Dukakis in the tank."

Monday, January 19, 2004

"WARNING: These Books May Be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Health." That's the title of an article in the Gospel Advocate--an article that warns about the 10 most dangerous books recently published by members of the Church of Christ. I'm hereby endorsing all ten. (All right, if you pressed me, I'd only really endorse nine of the ten!) UNVEILING GLORY (by Fred Aquino and Jeff Childers), which they describe as "the most dangerous installment," is particularly good. Grab a copy as soon as you can. My biggest beef is that none of my books made the list. But then again, the Gospel Advocate was the publisher of the first three. :)

Congrats to my buddy Phil Ware. He has agreed to be the new preacher at Southern Hills in Abilene. He's been at Westover in Austin a LOOOONG time. It was so wonderful to see people coming into church yesterday wet! It was a long, slow soaking rain, too.

Friday, January 16, 2004

A gem from Nicholas Wolterstorff: "God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. the pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. . . . Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it."

Thursday, January 15, 2004

A note of thanks to columnist Cal Thomas. He apparently has the gift of discerning which political figures are DEVOTED CHRISTIANS WHO JUST MAKE MISTAKES BUT REALLY, REALLY LOVE GOD and which ones are HYPOCRITES WHO JUST USE THEIR SHALLOW WORDS OF FAITH TO GET VOTES. Whew! As a congregational leader, I know how hard it can be to make that distinction. Nice to have someone at a national level who is so sure.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


I guess I missed Brittany Spears' marriage. Leave the country for a week and you miss a whole marriage. She's married one day and divorced (annulled?) the next. Explain again to me the part about why she is a role model for so many girls today.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Don't miss the cover story in Time this week on new directions in marriage "therapy." For so often, too many therapists have focused on trauma: on what's gone BAD in the past and on what's gone SOUR in a relationship. Certainly, it can be helpful for someone to walk briefly through those tender points with a caring friend or therapist. BUT . . . too many therapists have kept people sick or made them worse by helping them stay focused on life's trauma. They keep patients coming month-after-month, year-after-year, as they continue walking back through the past. A much more helpful model is to focus on dealing with life as it is. Some therapists focus on strengths. They teach couples better skills. They accentuate what's healthy. They use HOPE as their trump card instead of trauma. Some who have listened to me have thought I'm against all therapy. Not true. It is true that I think we need friends, shepherds, and guides more than therapists. But there certainly is a place for helpful, trained therapists. What I'm against is trauma-based therapy: therapy that keeps pointing to the past, therapy that believes yesterday is more important than tomorrow, therapy that tries to help people "recover memories," and therapy that spotlights what's broken instead of what might work better. Therapy that tries to work over a short time with people and then sends them out into their world of relationships--well, that can be a true blessing!

Monday, January 12, 2004

Guess what's just been described as "one of the hottest movements on campuses all across the country." It's a cappella music. Check it out at cbsnews.

Looked like a good playoff season for me. We started with four teams I could root for: Dallas, St. Louis, KC, and Green Bay. Can you tell what these four teams now have in common? Oh well, I've gotten used to watching the SuperBowl for the commercials. A thought for the day: A husband is someone who takes out the trash and gives the impression he just cleaned the whole house!

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Counting children, there were about 140 people at the Brazil missions conference. What an amazing bunch of believers who are giving their lives to the proclamation of the gospel in South America. I got to teach a lot (a dozen times), but the places where I really got to know people were over meals and on the basketball court. (I joined the Aggies on the Santiago, Chile team.) I'm not a missionary in South America, but one way I feel like I can be part of several of the teams is to pray through the list compiled by Continent of Great Cities. I intend to keep that list by my prayer journal for several weeks as each day I ask God's blessings on these brothers and sisters. On the last night, there was an EXTENSIVE roasting of the speaker. A couple years ago Jack Reese got the same treatment at the end of the conference. Jack and I talked about it at church this morning, and we agree that we're both fairly easy targets!

Saturday, January 10, 2004

"U.S. and Brazil Fingerprinting: Is It Getting Out of Hand?" This was the headline on p. 3 of this mornings NY Times. I left Rio last night around midnight and arrived here (through Miami and DFW) around noon today. The headline describes the bizarre situation we met when we arrived in Rio a week ago. Here's what the article says: RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 9 — With Brazil and the United States holding fast to their insistence on photographing and fingerprinting visitors from the other country, what began as a minor dispute last week is now threatening to sour relations between the two countries, the most populous in the Western Hemisphere. The dispute grew out of a security program the United States began this week, which applies to all foreigners entering the country who are required to have visas. Comparing the American action to "the worst horrors committed by the Nazis," a judge in a remote interior state ordered that all Americans arriving in Brazil be subjected to the same treatment. It is a classic case of "the law of retaliation." Since the US is now requiring foreigners who enter the country to be electronically finger-printed and photographed (a process that takes about 30 seconds), Brazil has reciprocated. Except they're focusing just on US citizens as payback. When we got to Rio, a customs officer was telling everyone to proceed through except for US citizens. We had to wait single file while they went to get the terminals ONE guy who could do the fingerprints and take a photo. We were told that the last plane took 3 hours to get through. A couple days before (when they first began) some apparently waited up to 9 hours. The fingerprint guy had equipment that looked like a kid's 007 spy kit. It was funny hearing them say that ONLY United States citizens had to go through this. "Jordan? Come on in. Iraq? Enter. Libya? Pass on through. United States? Nope, sorry, we need your fingerprints and your photo." On the other hand . . . everything else was wonderful. More about the missions conference and the wonderful missions teams from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay later. Glad to be back!

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Delayed out of DFW. Familiar story. Into Miami late. I was in time, but my bag couldn't make it on, so they wouldn't let me on the flight. So, I'm waiting in the Miami airport for the next flight to Rio. . . . Watching LSU put it to Oklahoma. Come on, Sooners. If you're going to embarrass Texas so badly, the least you can do is win out!

This afternoon I'm off for Rio de Janeiro for the Brazilian missions conference, where I'll be speaking 11 times. Last night we attended a wedding at the Chapel on the Hill. The young bride and groom are going -- guess where? -- to Rio today. Isn't that just what you want for your honeymoon? To fly from Abilene to Dallas to Miami to Rio -- with your preacher?

Friday, January 02, 2004

A great line from Luke Timothy Johnson's Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel: "The most important question concerning Jesus, then, is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?" That's not a bad question to contemplate as '04 gets underway.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

To follow up on yesterday . . . . Over Christmas, I got to know Maggie. I'd heard a lot about Maggie, but we hadn't met. Maggie is my brother's family's pygmy goat. (Is that politically correct? Maggie is a vertically-challenged goat.) Stands about knee high. Truman is the family dog. From his fenced in back yard, he is a highly-caffeinated protector of the family's house. And to Truman the greatest potential threat to the house is Maggie, as the goat wanders outside the fence on the six acres. All day long Truman is on Code Red, standing at attention staring at the goat. If Maggie moves, Truman runs up and down the fence. Who knows what potential terrors lurk in the mind of that goat? When I say "all day long," I mean EVERY WAKING MOMENT. There is no rest for the weary. Truman has to guard against possible invasion from the pygmy. The fact that the goat has been there a LONG time matters little. Truman seems to believe it's a devilish plan to lure the family into a sense of trust. And then the demon-goat will strike! So he stands alert, staring and barking. All day. Every day. I'll think of Truman now when I read Philippians 3: "This one thing I do." Or when I see City Slickers for the 20th time and hear Jack Palance say to Billy Crystal: "The secret of life is one thing." What's your one thing for this year?