Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Remembering a Friend

I have thought for awhile that, since many of my chief influencers in ministry are older, I was in for some painful goodbyes in the coming days. Today, God called my friend and former senior pastor Cortez Cooper to be with himself. Corty was eighty years old, and always the portrait of robust health. He modeled that stanza in "How Firm a Foundation,"

E'en down to old age all your people shall prove,
Your sovereign, eternal unchangeable love.

Corty was a modest man, not given to talk much about himself, but every once in awhile, you'd find out interesting tidbits about him. Ronald Reagan used to come hear him preach during his days as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. God used him to bring NASCAR legend Daryl Waltrip to faith, and Corty is the reason Daryl began to drive for Tide. He had pastored First Nashville for ten years. The declining fidelity of the Southern Presbyterian Church, and its impending merger with the far more liberal and larger PCUSA led the church to vote as to whether or not to leave. Though the congregation voted in the majority to leave the old denomination, the session (at Corty's suggestion) had insisted on a super-majority, which they did not give.

Corty resigned, and went to plant a church. First Church wanted to provide finances, and Corty refused their offer. He and several hundred (out of a church of several thousand) went and started Christ Presbyterian, which grew huge under his leadership.

Yet, for all of this, the size of a church mattered not at all to Corty. We first met Corty when I interviewed to become his assistant pastor at Draper's Valley Presbyterian in rural Southwestern Virginia. His wife, Pat, had deep roots in that church. Her father, Preston Sartelle, Sr., and her brother, Preston, Jr., had been pastors of the church. Corty retired from his position as coordinator for Mission to North America. He and Pat now occupied full-time the lovely antebellum home they had purchased while he worked in Atlanta.

When we visited, the Coopers insisted that we stay with them. At first, it might seem strange to spend several days living with the man who was evaluating you for a position, but he and his wife literally met us at the car door, hugging us both. We felt at home immediately.

Corty was planning to retire (again). He wanted a faithful assistant that might succeed him as the pastor of Draper's Valley. This is, in fact, what happened. Though he and I were wired very differently, there was never a moment's friction between us. We went through some very rough times together. He was like a patient grandfather, and I learned a lot from him about how to be a pastor.

His wife, Pat, was a true mentor to my wife. She was strong, and very firm in her opinions, and yet modeled a quiet graciousness. She did not speak much, but when she did, she could cut through a fog of opinion with a simple, poignant question. She was a true help meet to her husband. She is a model of comfortable hospitality --she taught my wife that the house did not need to be perfect in order for it to be welcoming (though hers was both!). She often told the story of phoning her pastor-father from Davidson College saying, "Daddy, I met a boy, but he's a Baptist!!" Well, in God's good providence, he did not stay a Baptist. She is very much in our thoughts today. It is hard for us to think about Pat without Corty, so joined were they.

That said, it would be impossible to measure up for him. He had such a zest for life and a zest for people. He could make you feel loved and at home in an instant --he was a people magnet. When Corty retired and the church called me, he immediately began a string of interim pastorates so that he would be "out of the way" (though I always wished he had stayed "in the way!" We missed them terribly when they left). He served churches in transition. Some of these churches were very small. One was a remnant group of just a few dozen. Others were some of the leading churches of our denomination (Kirk of the Hills St. Louis and Chapelgate Baltimore). He was still doing this when he died.

God brings people like this into our lives as a precious, fragile gift. I do not have a whole host of friends, but the friends I do have are deep wells. I praise God for the elder brothers he has given me along the journey. Part of friendship is pain --deep grief when a friend is called to glory. I lost a friend my age a few years ago --that was painful. I have now lost a friend 40 years my senior --this is painful too. Lord, in your grace let me be just a little like my friend Corty Cooper.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Power of a Living Voice

We had an incredible time on Broadway. Ever since I can remember, I have been a huge fan of the live theater. For a small city, Grand Rapids had a fairly live theater scene, and I was privileged, growing up, to see quite a few shows. Since then, Pittsburgh and its grand theaters have filled the bill on our visits there.

Though I had been to Broadway once before (in its seedy days), I had never gotten to see a show. Through the generosity of some friends, we were able to see not just one show, but three. It was an awesome experience. At one, somehow I managed to get front-row center seats --nothing quite like that. At another, I got to be in the same room with Brooke Shields --Brooke Shields! The third was a lark --we had finished dinner on Monday night, and decided to go to the TKTS booth to see what was available. Most shows are dark on Monday, and we got there about 7:35 (most curtains are at 8). Nonetheless, at that time, the tickets are cheap, and the seats were grand --just one look and I can hear a bell ring, one more look and I forget everything... Pretty fun show.

What is it about live performance that makes it so compelling? Yes, movies can be awesome and profound, but there is something magical about live actors on the stage. Actors develop a dynamic between them and their audience, something that is missing from a screen (and perhaps in acting in front of a camera). Feedback is instantaneous. There is laughter and applause. There is a sense that they are with you or they aren't.

Some have hypothesized that the great revivalist orator George Whitefield was a frustrated actor. There are some similarities between acting and preaching --the great allure of being the center of attention of a crowd. The feeling can be very much like this:

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that lifts you when you're down
The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops
The sheriff who escorts you out of town
The opening when your heart beats like a drum
The closing when the customers won't come...

There is a drama to good preaching, to be sure, and preachers are human and like some measure of notice and acclaim --though of course we shouldn't be in preaching for notice or acclaim.

God puts his word on a printed page for a reason --so it might be a fixed verity, a point of truth, a standard, like the official weights and measures kept under lock and key by the government so they will not be altered.

But, he gives his word a living human voice, in part because he wired us to find this compelling. Ours is not a day of great orators. There are no Bryans on the Platte or FDRs or Churchills on the wireless. Still and all, we love a living voice. Like Nipper sitting on the coffin listening to the phonograph, we recognize our master's voice. "My sheep know my voice and they follow me...another they will not follow."

God spoke through the prophets, and through his son. Now, he speaks through fallible, human spokesmen who are faithful to his word, who can embrace and be embraced, who bleed, who empathize, who fail and make mistakes just like their hearers. On the one hand, it seems so very foolish (1 Cor 1) --but on the other hand, it seems so very wise.