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Remembering 1994

2015 November 21
by Mike

We always pause on November 21 to remember. This is a poem by Wendell Berry, written, ironically (for me), in 1994.

A man is lying on a bed
in a small room in the dark.
Weary and afraid, he prays
for courage to sleep, to wake
and work again; he doubts
that waking when he wakes
will recompense his sleep.
His prayers lean upward
on the dark and fall
like flares from a catastrophe.
He is a man breathing the fear
of hopeless prayer, prayed
in hope. He breathes the prayer
of his fear that gives a light
by which he sees only himself lying
in the dark, a low mound asking
almost nothing at all.
And then, long yet before dawn,
comes what he had not thought:
love that causes him to stir
like the dead in the grave, being
remembered—his own love or
Heaven’s, he does not know.
But now it is all around him;
it comes down upon him
like a summer rain falling
slowly, quietly in the dark.

– from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems

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“Pour Through Me the Gift of Preaching”

2015 November 12
by Mike

It was in the mid-to-late 1990’s when I got up one Sunday in the Highland pulpit with a keen sense of inadequacy. Perhaps it was the lingering fog of grief—a kind of sea smoke that washed over me many mornings. Or maybe it was just a sharpened sense of the awesome task of speaking a word on behalf of God. (“Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” – Isaiah)

Used with permission

Used with permission

But in my prayer that morning, these words came out: “Please pour through me the gift of preaching.” And that might have been the last time I offered that prayer except that afterward Rebekah Zeller came up to tell me how much those words meant to her.

So then I had to actually think about them. And the more I thought about the task of preaching, the more they said just what I believed.

So I started offering that prayer every Sunday, and have now done so for the past nearly 20 years.

I wish I had saved every story parents from Highland told me about children who were asked to pray at dinner or at bedtime and who blurted out those words: “please pour through me the gift of preaching.” I love that! The rhythm and regularity of worship had settled in their hearts. And I love it whenever I hear a young minister offer the same prayer.

The words continue to express a deep mystery that I don’t fully understand. Preaching involves deep study, prayer, rumination, and imagination. But in the end, it is the Spirit of God who blesses the words and again speaks afresh from the Word of God to the people of God.

Newsworthy With Norsworthy Podcast (PBL 2016)

2015 October 14
by Mike

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 6.50.56 AM

Judgment-Free Disagreements: A Response to Matthew Morine

2015 October 8
by Mike

Many years ago, I got to be part of a small group of ministers who spent a few days with one of my ministry heroes, John Stott. During one session, Stott asked people what their current ministry challenges were. Someone began talking about the challenges they were facing in their religious tribe and in his church in particular as they began including women in all roles of ministry.

A megachurch pastor broke in: “I’d like to know why anyone thinks it’s all right to twist the word of God just so they can please culture!”

Stott turned to him and kindly said, “I think what you meant to say is this: ‘I would love to know more about how this brother who loves Jesus and scripture as much as I do could come to such different conclusions on this issue.'”

In the most recent edition of the Gospel Advocate, Matthew Morine has written an article entitled “The Feminist Agenda Within the Churches of Christ.”

Matthew is an effective minister at the Castle Rock Church of Christ in Colorado. He is a gifted, devoted Christ-follower who is passionate about his faith. You can read the full article either in the Gospel Advocate or at this link.

Matthew has expressed dismay that he has received “a lot of hate” from “the progressive side of the church” in response to the article. I hope that isn’t the case. I certainly haven’t seen anything online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that was hateful. There were strong reactions, though the strongest seemed to come from people outside Churches of Christ.

However, it isn’t surprising to me that some have felt the need to respond—especially given the tone of the article. Here is how the author characterizes those he writes about:

– “Instead of following the plain teachings of the Word of God”

– “This disregard for the intent of the word of the Scriptures”

– “The feelings of those promoting women into leadership are fickle”

– “Hidden forces are at work seeking to corrupt your congregation and lead it into an unfaithful direction”

Perhaps the most provocative claim is that those wanting change are hypocrites: “The church leaders appealing for unbiblical expansion for women’s roles are being hypocrites.” One piece of evidence he cites is that most of the preachers in the more inclusive churches are male. But does that prove that these leaders are hypocrites? I think perhaps all it proves is that they are not the Popes of their churches. The fact that many are in congregations that are less inclusive than they believe those churches should be isn’t a sign of hypocrisy.

He also cites the hypocrisy of Pepperdine’s “Next Gen Preacher Search.” While this isn’t my project, it does come out of my office at Pepperdine, led by Jeff Walling. “Also, if you noticed the ‘Next Gen Preacher Search,’ a few ladies participated, but none of them made it to the final four contestants. Those who say they believe in women preaching are still holding women back from this role.” It seems that the implication is that Jeff or the vast group of judges intentionally rated the women lower. I hope that isn’t what he’s saying, but I don’t know another way to read this.

I remember now the words of my father: “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Don’t complain when people push back when you’ve accused them of ignoring the plain teachings of scripture, said they have a disregard for the Word of God, called them fickle, and boldly and baldly called them hypocrites. It isn’t hate that’s coming the author’s way (at least not that I’ve seen — and certainly not what this post is about); rather, it’s people defending themselves from unjustified criticism.

I believe he is wrong on this issue. But I don’t think he has a disregard for scripture; nor do I believe he’s a hypocrite. I just disagree with his understandings.

The people I know who believe in the expanded ministry of women love Jesus and love scripture just as much as he does. Some know scripture less than he does; others know scripture better. What’s different isn’t commitment to scripture or willingness to study scripture but conclusions about scripture. And you can be sure of this: no one can avoid the task of interpreting scripture. There is no one here who is “just reading scripture” without interpretation.

Can we come to different conclusions without calling each other hypocrites?

For me, coming to this new understanding was a painful journey. I changed my opinion on this a long time ago not because I wanted to cave in to culture or because I didn’t care what scripture said but because this is where my long study of scripture led me. (I also know others who know and love scripture as much as I do who disagree with me.)

This sermon is a decade old, but it explains how one devoted to scripture can come to an egalitarian position. Also, for further study you can refer to resources like these:

John Stackhouse, Finally Feminist
Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet
Stanley Grenz, Women in the Church
Alan Johnson, ed., How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership
Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives
Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity
William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals
Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church, Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity (vols 1, 2)

This is not a matter of disregard for scripture; rather it’s an issue of different interpretations and different conclusions.

If you make the kind of bold claims about your opponents that the author makes, you will be overwhelmed with people cheering you on. “Thank you for holding to the word of God!” “Thank you for caring about truth!” “Jesus was attacked, too!”

But that doesn’t mean you were right.

A Plea for Political Civility

2015 September 18
by Mike

Recently when Jeb Bush was asked about President Obama, he replied that he thought that Barack Obama is a good man who cares deeply about America. Then he went on to explain that he thought his vision and policies were wrong.

Used with permission

Used with permission

That’s really what I want in politics. Adults at the table. People who can disagree with one another over how to accomplish good ends. People who can disagree vehemently with the policies of another person without attacking their religion (“He’s a Muslim!”), their nationality (“He’s a Kenyan!”), their political inclinations, or their character.

I know Christians who HATE George W. Bush. And I know people who HATE Bill Clinton. Ironically, the two men seem to like each other. Just like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal were drinking buddies and like Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy vacationed together with their families (taking a break from heated arguments with each other in the Senate—see the clip below of Hatch speaking at Kennedy’s funeral).

We live in an age of Fox News and MSNBC. An endless supply of anger and rage for fuel. I have found it helpful the last few years to refuse to watch both networks (except on rare occasions for something special).

I agree with Jeb Bush: Barack Obama seems like a good man—a loving husband, a doting father, a caring leader. That doesn’t mean I think his foreign policies are going well. And from everything I’ve seen, I think it would be enjoyable to spend an evening with George W. Bush. He, too, seems like a man with a sense of humor who loves his family and friends.

But somehow in our current political climate, it feels like you’re supposed to pick one of them to hate.

Our churches are filled with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. In largely Democratic churches (and yes, I know some!), Republicans may feel like they can’t say anything lest it seem that they don’t care about equality and justice. In largely Republican churches, Democrats may feel like they have to bottle up their thoughts and plaster fake smiles on their faces lest others accuse them of not caring about liberty and Christian values.

I once had a church leader tell me he didn’t know how you could be a Christian and a Republican. A few years later I had an elder in another church say he couldn’t fathom how you could be a Christian and a Democrat.

Can the demonizing please end? Can the character assassinations cease? Can we have sane political discourse? Can we find arenas where spirited arguments about policy and means can take place without assuming the other side hates our country?

And, while I’m at it, can we please remember that our true “citizenship” is in heaven (Philippians 1:27; 3:20) — and that our true “city charter” is the narrative of one who emptied himself, served, and died (2:6-11)? Politicians, policies, and even nations come and go through the centuries. But the in-breaking kingdom of God continues to invite us to the way of Christ.

Teaching Your Kids to Dance

2015 June 30
by Mike

The Rhythm of Grace

June 7, 2015 "Teaching Your Kids to Dance – Part 1 – The Rhythm of Grace" – Mike Cope from GCR Church on Vimeo.

The Lead of Guidance

June 14, 2015 "Teaching Your Kids to Dance – Part 2 The Lead of Guidance" from GCR Church on Vimeo.

The Spin of Fun

June 21, 2015 "Teaching Your Kids to Dance – Part 3 The Spin of Fun from GCR Church on Vimeo.

The Lift of Wings

June 28, 2015 "Teaching Your Kids to Dance" Part 4 The Lift of Wings from GCR Church on Vimeo.


ACU Trail – A Spiritual Exercise

2015 June 26
by Mike

The Lunsford Foundation Trail around Abilene Christian University is my default jogging path when I’m in Abilene. It has become a sacred space for morning exercise and devotion.

Before I begin the 1.84 mile trail, I pause briefly at Jacob’s Dream.Jacob's Dream I remember well the first time Jack Maxwell described the project to our little covenant group. I’ve been there for devotionals, weddings, baptisms, and photoshoots. It’s a perfect spot to pause for a moment as the morning light shines through the stones, the space creating a sense of seeing the cross in the east.

From there, I walk down the sidewalk to where it hits the jogging trail, turning south (right) to run counterclockwise.

The first lap is a time to meditate on the many scriptures that line the path.

The first comes immediately at .07 mile (marking from where the sidewalk meets the trail). Matthew 6:33 – What a powerful way to start the day—by focusing on a passionate pursuit of the kingdom.

Next comes Psalm 103:12 (at the .35 point): a chance to soak in the constant forgiveness of God, the one who removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.

The third scripture (at .50 mile) is Psalm 121:2. Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. As another psalm says, some trust in horses and chariots (and other human weapons), but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

What an appropriate time to join the Psalmist in saying (at .70): “Bless the Lord, O my soul. And let all that is within me bless his holy name!” (Psalm 103:1)

The fifth scripture (Psalm 119:105) celebrates the constant blessing of God’s word—which is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (1.01 mile).

We return to praise next with Psalm 135:3 (at 1.26), declaring the Lord’s goodness, knowing that it is pleasant to do so.

The seventh scripture in the path appears at mile 1.37 and is the longest quotation (from Psalm 18:32-35). Once again we remember that our hope and confidence are anchored in God, who arms us with strength and keeps our way secure.
#7 (Psalm 18)

The final two passages come from Paul’s writings. The first, Colossians 3:23 (in the context of addressing slaves), reminds us that whatever we do, we should work at it with full devotion, knowing it’s ultimately for the Lord. (at 1.47)
#8 (Col 3)

The final one, Ephesians 6:2-3, seems like an odd choice—a reminder of the fifth commandment to honor our father and mother—until you remember how many university students are on the path. Some come from wonderful, affirming, life-giving homes; others came from homes where shame and blame were the name of the game. But all of us have to learn ways to honor our parents. (at 1.79)
#9 (Eph 6)

Besides the passages in the sidewalk, there are engraved stones that I sometimes take in (depending on the pace!): 2 Chronicles 16:9 (at .43), John 3:16 (at .61), Proverbs 16:3 (at 1.37), and Romans 12:12 (also at 1.37).
Stone Engraving #4 (Romans 12)

On my second lap, I enjoy praying for the mission of Christ around the world nation-by-nation, with the help of the many banners that line the course. Even though many are for ACU promotional branding (including 34 of 42 which announce that “There’s a new cat in Division I”), the others bear the names of countries. I’ll choose one of the promotional banners to pray for students, faculty, and staff of the university. But then I pray for the other countries, including friends I know in some of them—like Antenor and Phyllis Goncalves (and others) in Brazil.

At the end of a second or third lap (full disclosure: if I do a third lap, I’m pretty focused on running; not much praying going on at this point), it’s a brief walk back to Jacob’s Dream to remember that in baptism I’ve been called to a new life, a new hope, a new mission in Jesus Christ.
Baptismal pool

Eldership Catch-22

2015 May 30
by Mike

“I thought elders were supposed to lead! This isn’t a democracy where they take a congregational poll!”

“They seem to have no regard for the opinions of the church. They just decide and move on without considering the church!”

Used with permission

Used with permission

It isn’t easy being an elder. So often, they just can’t win. I’ve heard the above comments from the same members—at different times over different issues. The position they express (Lead more! or Listen more!) depends on which side they’re on.

If it looks like the elders are going to make a decision that I agree with but that many in the church disagree with, then I’m leaning into their responsibility to lead. Shepherds lead the sheep!

If it looks like the elders are going to press forward with something I don’t like, then I’m going to squawk about how they aren’t dictators. Shepherds don’t trample over the sheep!

Alas, it’s hard to win this one as elders.

The truth is that elderships must do both: they must stay in close touch with the church. They must listen to the voices of all the sisters and brothers in a church. Discernment is an important part of the process of decision-making. AND they must eventually decide. And it seems increasingly (as with American politics) that there is fall-out with every decision. It’s too much. Or it isn’t enough.

This is the point in a great blog where a seasoned minister gives the answer to this dilemma.

I don’t have one. If I did, I’d open a consulting business and get rich.

I’m only pleading with people to see the challenge. And perhaps be a bit more compassionate. Press hard. Pray hard. Make your case. But do your very best to make the hard work of leading a joyful one.

And I know: it can’t always be.

Anonymous Letters

2015 May 27
by Mike

A popular Metroplex minister’s rant about an anonymous note he got has become infamous. One professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has pointed to it as a model of how to deal with such critics. The preacher leads into it with these words about the challenging life of a pastor:

“The Shepherd rarely gets to play in the middle of all the healthy sheep when they’re having a bar-b-que and playing a volleyball game. He’s on the fringes where the wolves and the sheep with rabies are. So a great deal of my week is spent walking through the tragedies, heartaches, and sins of other men and women.”

I’ve been to a lot of bar-b-ques and volleyball games as a minister, but I digress. The big problem is that he has to deal with “sniper shots from those who disagree.” Specifically, he mentions: “I got this real hateful little spiteful email this week.”

Then in a voice that builds to Driscollesque screaming (because screaming carries more pastoral authority), he says:

“We have not created a system here that hides from you. We’ll receive any bit of rebuke and any bit of critique. But you sign your name when you send stuff in, you immature, weak little cowards! You sign your name, you silly, pathetic little boy! You don’t take jabs behind an alias. Who does that? So in any realm we’re not above reproach. In any realm you can question, you can come in and have your questions an——Don’t take jabs at us behind some alias where you sit in the crowd and do nothing, you narcissistic zero! Sign your name!”
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I get it. Anonymous notes are frustrating. I remember as a young minister that I took a good bit of pride in refusing to read anything that wasn’t signed.

And then, one year, I decided to get well. I decided to deal with my anger.

A spiritual guide told me that my attitude toward anonymous notes was problematic. Those notes said less about the people sending them than they said about me. Why did people feel like they couldn’t sign their name? Why did they think I wasn’t approachable? How had I sent signals that it wasn’t safe to come to me (despite what I might have said)?

Oh, sure. It probably feels good to scream. And all the other angry young guys will high five and give an “attaboy.”

But I think the old schoolground taunt may be right: “What you say is what you are!”

In my own life, if there was an immature, weak little coward, it was me. I wasn’t brave enough to hold onto myself emotionally and spiritually to have respectful conversations with critics. If there was a silly, pathetic little boy, that was me, too. Too pathetic to grow up and handle conflict like an adult.

It’s more fun ministering after getting well. No ranting is necessary. No cheap shots. While I don’t welcome anonymous notes, I now read them carefully and prayerfully, looking for insight and wondering if I’m still sending signals that I’m not safe.

The truth, however, is that as I’ve learned to welcome criticism, the anonymous notes have pretty much stopped.

Interview With Dr. Kent Brantly

2015 May 16
by Mike