Mike Cope's blog

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ah, "There's No Pulpit Like Home." . . . And, happy birthday to my friend Anna Claire. . . . And, an introduction to Good Soil Ministries, run by my brother-in-law, Steve Meeks. - - - - I mentioned recently hearing Bob Russell talk about the toll that criticism takes over the long haul. He told about an Easter service a couple years ago that he thought was the best he'd ever been part of. Knowing Bob, that means that the resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed clearly. But afterwards, an older woman came up to him and complained that it was the first Easter service she could ever remember where the song "Up From the Grave He Arose" wasn't sung. (So we're not the only ones who sing that song?) He also mentioned a guy coming to him recently after one of his messages and bragging about his sermon. But he said, "It reminds me of the kind of messages you used to preach years ago when we came to this church." Some compliments hurt. Because they are complaints with complimentary ribbons on top. A few Sundays ago, when the second assembly was over, someone came to me and said, "That was great. It really seemed like you meant it today." Uh, yeah. Thanks. I don't usually mean it. This anecdote is so small and insignificant. But Bob was right about the long haul. I'd like to continue growing into the image of Christ so much that some day I can receive every criticism. I'd like to be so centered in my inner being, so reliant on God's acceptance of me, that I could hear the truth in criticism and not be bothered by what's not true. But in the meantime . . . I'll keep reading Henri Nouwen. He struggled with the same thing! - - - - Many of you know that Gailyn and Becky Van Rheenen just lost their son, Jonathan, in a traffic accident. He recently sent out this note to friends under the heading "Unspeakable Pain." With his permission, I'm copying these poignant words here. If you'd like to drop them a note, he can be reached at vanrheeneng@acu.edu or through Mission Alive. We cry sometime every night. Will the tears stop? As many of you know, Jonathan, our affectionate first-born son, died in an accident on the evening of February 12. Jonathan died instantly in the sleeping compartment of his truck when his 18-wheeler rear-ended another truck in slow-moving traffic. His co-driver fell asleep at the wheel. Jonathan died five days short of his thirty-fifth birthday, like a reed cut down by a sickle before its time. We feel unspeakable pain -- a void, an emptiness, a vacuum that will continue until we follow him in death. Children are to bury their parents. . . . Oh, if we could have died for him! Why could not the order be reversed? Jonathan and Nicole married on July 18, 2003, and in this short period of time, had two children, Eli (20 months) and Eva (8 months). Our younger son David commented that Jon was “living the life of his dreams.” All he wanted from God in life was an affectionate wife and healthy children. Phyllis Phillips, Jonathan’s mother-in-law, asked Jonathan what he wanted for his birthday. His reply was “I have everything I want.” He loved all people equally -- whether rich or poor, black or white. While shy and unassuming, he was the consummate encourager. We remember stories of him encouraging the mechanic fixing his truck, an African student struggling to adapt to the USA, and his son while learning to walk and talk. He was a man without guile -- loving, caring, ethical, a follower of “good.” He was a wonderful father, husband, brother, and son. The words of the birthday card that we purchased before his death but never sent expresses our sentiment: Happy birthday, son. You were born to be one of a kind . . . . Since the day you were born, We knew you would grow up to be someone special. Who could have imagined that your love for life and genuine compassion for others would touch so many lives. Our son’s accident closed an interstate highway for five hours. Traffic frozen, lives on hold, thoughts racing. And then, the traffic began to flow again, first slowly, then more quickly, . . . but with a new wisdom. Life is fragile and finite. We are only visitors passing through this world. Wisdom, however, lacks understanding. “Why, oh why, God? What have you allowed Satan to do?” We have tried to put our thoughts, our struggles, our prayers on paper and thus refocus life without our first-born. During our first years in Africa, when Jon was only one year old, we heard the blasts of machine guns nightly as Idi Amin of Uganda eliminated all dissenters. We talked our way through road blocks and made final trips to nourish the first struggling Christians among the Bakonjo people in Western Uganda. By God’s might and power 9 churches grew up among the Bakonjo of Uganda. When our team was forced to flee to Kenya, our partnering elders contemplated bringing us home. But God settled us among the Kipsigis people of Kenya for the next 13 years, where He worked in His mission through our team to raise up leaders to plant over 250 local churches. We remember our time in Uganda as our time to testing: Would we stay? Would God use us in his missionaries in Africa? When we retired from Abilene Christian University to launch Mission Alive, we felt that Becky’s declining eye-sight, a disease we earthlings call Retinitis Pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease involving loss of peripheral vision and night blindness), was our “Uganda experience,” like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [us]” (2 Cor. 12:7). We believe that when Satan saw captives set free from addictions and lostness in our new church plantings in Fort Worth, Austin, and Lexington, and developing plans for church planting in Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Providence, and other places, he has hit us were it hurts most, the death of our child to discourage and distract. It is the nature of Satan to hinder the mission of God. He is the great tempter, hostile to God, and working to overthrow divine purposes. He is the great dragon, waiting to devour the young Child at the moment of His birth. God, however, caught Him away to another land (Rev. 13:4; cf. Matthew 2). After his baptism, he sought to turn back the ministry of Christ through temptations before the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). Satan entered the heart of Judas (John 13:2) and through religious leaders instigated and carried out plans to kill Jesus (John 8:44). Jesus shared in our humanity “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death -- that is, the devil -- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). To some degree we have entered into the grief of God. We know what it means to lose a son. Because we know the battle (Eph. 6:12), we will not turn back from the mission of God. We know that Satan’s work is manifest not only in the world but paradoxically also in the church. Christianity in North America has become tainted: Too many Christians have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). Missional renewal and church planting are desperately needed in a generation in which too many churches have accommodated to the rationalism and life styles of popular culture and do not readily reflect the majesty, glory, holiness, and love of God. We have found this death to be dirty, bloody, foul, an unimaginable separation, soul ripped from body. We have seen churches likewise die because of immorality, anger, jealousy, gossip--the lust of the flesh entering the kingdom of God. We perceive resurrection to be the opposite: glorious, aromatic, clean, unimaginable connection, soul united with its Creator. We have experienced such church renewal through affirmation of spiritual reality, focus on holiness, confession, repentance, turning to and reconnection with God. The badness is eaten up in the goodness. Morality is swallowed into immortality. Resurrection transcends death. Thus we not like those who “grieve . . . without hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). God is at work in the midst of our sadness. Churches of Christ, black and white, were brought together. Jonathan’s co-driver Eric Dickerson, who died a few hours after our son, was in training to become a deacon at the Midwest Church of Christ in Louisville. Jonathan was a member of the Westport Road Church of Christ across the city. Christian leaders from the two churches came to both visitations and memorial services and cried on each others’ shoulders. Nicole amazingly attended Eric’s funeral to give support to his wife Sherri. Black and white, too divided in life, coming together in death! Eric and Jonathan were loving husbands and parents and Christian role models. May they enjoy God’s presence together! . . . We are thankful for the thousands of people who have sent us words of comfort through emails, cards, and telephone calls. You are comforting us through unbearable pain. Please pray for us, Jonathan’s wife Nicole, their children Eli and Eva, and his siblings Rebecca, Deborah, and David.


  • Wow Mike. Thank you for posting that note from the Van Rheenen's. What a powerful testament to the love of God, in many ways. When we show His love in the midst of great grief I believe it goes out in waves thousands of times more powerful than in the good times. God is definitely at work in the midst of their sadness. I pray for the Van Rheenen's to stay strong in the Lord. I definitely see Christ in them. I agree with their statement that "Too many Christians have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5)". I pray that His power and glory will be evident in Highland in the midst of our sadness, too. I believe they and we have entered into an "in our weakness He is stronger" phase.

    By Blogger Candy, at 3/01/2006 05:00:00 AM  

  • There's no doubt that the vast majority of church criticism is at the petty level or beneath. Now, let me follow up that statement about complaints with a complaint or suggestion.

    Lynn Anderson said it best a decade ago in his book "Navigating the Winds of Change" - "the church is often controlled by the dysfunctional few". So....why do elders (and ministers for that matter) spend so much time dealing with petty complaints - at the expense of real concerns over shepherding, maturation in Christ, evangelism, etc. etc.? Every eldership or staff has someone with a talent for deflecting petty quips and critics - let that person handle 99% of 'em - and let everyone else minister.

    And, Mike - I do admire you for biting your tongue over such absurd comments - I could never do that. It is a gift from God.

    By Blogger KentF, at 3/01/2006 05:46:00 AM  

  • I know Gailyn and Becky to be lovers of God. I have seen their lives emulate that of Christ. Even their children honor them in Gods love. There is nothing to say in a time of “Unspeakable Pain” but we love you. May you find the Peace of God.

    By Blogger Clint, at 3/01/2006 06:31:00 AM  

  • Criticism .... We've all seen the statistics about how many compliments it takes to wipe out a careless (or intended) negative word.

    Remember Acts 4:32 "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all."

    That grace was so critical. Believers coming from many nations, backgrounds, philosophies, religious heritage finding that much grace was upon them all. Maybe this grace was supernatural from God -- an "extra dose" of compassion, if you will. Or maybe this kind of grace among one other was (and still is) the natural byproduct of believers being of one heart and mind.

    Just two cents of thought from a layman.

    By Blogger Brian, at 3/01/2006 06:32:00 AM  

  • Powerful words from the Van Rheenens. Thank you for sharing.

    By Blogger D Love, at 3/01/2006 06:40:00 AM  

  • “Our glory is hidden in our pain. If we turn to God, not rebelling against our hurt, we let God transform it into greater good. We let others join us and discover it with us.”

    Henri Nouwen
    “ Turn My Mourning Into Dancing”

    By Blogger Clint, at 3/01/2006 07:45:00 AM  

  • Mike,

    I wanted to let you know that I really enjoy the podcasts that Highland is doing. Every Tuesday morning, at about 4:45 a.m. I drive from Dallas to Abilene for M.Div classes, and I listen to your sermons. So, keep 'em coming!

    By Blogger Matt Tapie, at 3/01/2006 08:10:00 AM  

  • I read "There's No Pulpit Like Home" last night and thought of the great work people are doing in New York and Boston. The idea is not new but quite fascinating that house churches are not an avenue to get people into a "real" church building, but they are in reality, the Church itself. And what if thousands of house churches could donate 90% of their contribution to service and mission work as opposed to the lower percentages of traditional churches. From the article: "Golden Gate Seminary's Karr reckons that building and staff consume 75% of a standard church's budget."

    I like the concept...but then, what would all of us ministers do for a living?

    By Blogger Eli Perkins, at 3/01/2006 08:44:00 AM  

  • I have learned firsthand the direction that criticism can take your life. You begin to be defensive and not live out the true Spirit life that God intends. You are constantly watching your back and questioning the motives of others. I felt myself going there and then felt the joy being sucked out of my life...I knew that a major change had to happen to move out of that pattern. We have made that change and no, it has not been a piece of cake but the joy is back and I am feeling God's presence again. I know that God was always there but I was having a hard time feeling it. There is big criticism and little criticism and sometimes it is the little stuff that pulls us down. It is especially hard when it is your church family that gets pushes you down...you love them and yet they are attacking....and you are left wondering, what was that?

    By Blogger julie, at 3/01/2006 09:00:00 AM  

  • First, thank you for sharing the post from the Van Rheenens. Unfortunately, we know too many who have suffered such tragic loss. May we continue to remember them in our prayers!

    Second, thanks for the excellent observations about criticism. Doesn't it make you wonder when someone walks up to you and says, "I don't mean to be critical, but..."? Probably a cousin to the person who says, "I don't mean to gossip, but..."

    In fact, we are all tempted to criticize and gossip, right?

    The following is a bit verbose, being written in the style of bygone days, but in it Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) seems to shed some light on why criticism is such a popular pass time.

    He wrote:

    Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert some judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of critic.

    Then, again, perhaps this is a bit critical.

    By Blogger Bill, at 3/01/2006 09:08:00 AM  

  • Recently while searching for a church to visit in another town, I came across several church of Christ websites. They clearly fell into two categories: the ones that defined themselves in terms of their ministries and their love for Christ, and those whose taglines were "ONE CUP ONLY" and "we have ABSOLUTELY NO instrumental music."

    To me, there is a maturity gap. Sure, there are things that I grew up with in the church of Christ that make me feel at home, but I don't feel like they are essential for my salvation. To me, loving one another and trying to be Christ to others involves a whole lot more than telling people they can't dance or should put the organ away.

    By Blogger 27th Street, at 3/01/2006 09:12:00 AM  

  • Mike, a back handed compliment, I have had a few...Sometimes a bit of critisism (I can't even spell it) aches my bones a bit. I think that is why I really appreciated Brother Taylor's sermon...I can't be filled or drained from what man says. It is God and only God who can fill me.
    By the way, when you pray that prayer before you begin a sermon,(pour over me the gift of preaching) I am praying that God will teach me through your words. I can't remember a time when your words did not touch my heart..thanks.

    By Blogger Beverly, at 3/01/2006 09:32:00 AM  

  • Now THIS is a good blog post...

    By Blogger Grant, at 3/01/2006 12:05:00 PM  

  • The Van Rheenen's loss resonates today.

    As I write this I'm watching the farm-to-market road in front my house. A deputy has had the road blocked for four hours because of a fatality accident with an 18 wheeler and a pickup truck.

    My son and husband own trucking companies, and I ride with my husband once a month, and log a few hours in the sleeper, although not behind the wheel.

    For the Van Rheenens and all who are experiencing loss, I take a deep breath and exhale in prayer.

    By Blogger Cathy Messecar, at 3/01/2006 12:31:00 PM  

  • Mike, thank you for posting the Van Rheenan's letter. I got it and shared it with a few but a lot more people read your blog. Gailyn and Becky are some of the most gentle, wonderful, godly people on the planet. What a tragedy! May God move to comfort their hearts! My prayers go up for them.

    By Blogger Paul, at 3/01/2006 08:10:00 PM  

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