Forty Years Ago: Back to Where We Started Tony Cooke
As Lisa and I prepare to celebrate our 40th anniversary in ministry this year, we do so with some really great memories. When we finished our first year of Bible school in the spring of 1980, our very first venture in ministry was to Australia. It was quite an initiation into faith and ministry for us at that age (we were 21 and 22 years old at the time)!
We had one contact in Australia, but we had never met him. It was just a pastor’s name and address that someone had given us. Of course, at that time, there was no Internet, so we couldn’t look them up online or send a quick e-mail. So we wrote him and told him we had it on our heart to come there, and he responded, asking us to send him a cassette tape of one of my sermons.
I don’t think he realized I was completely inexperienced and did not have tapes of any sermons. Thankfully, though, the audio technician at the church where Lisa and I served as janitors allowed me to record a sermon in the sanctuary after we locked up the church following the Sunday morning service. Lisa was the only person in the entire sanctuary, but I preached as though there was a full house.
We sent that pastor the cassette tape; he listened to it, must have thought it was OK, and invited us to come to Australia for the summer. He said he would line up an itinerary for us and would loan us their ministry van to travel to the various meetings. We used most of the money we had to purchase round-trip tickets to Australia, and were on our way. I think we had around $800 cash on hand when we began our seven-week trip. We slept overnight in the Los Angeles airport because we wanted to make our money last.
When we arrived at what would be our base, Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, I quickly began to feel insecure and intimidated. I think they thought that I was some kind of close disciple of Brother Hagin, and didn’t realize I had never even met him. I was just one of nearly 2,000 students at Rhema that year. My feelings didn’t improve when some of his staff showed me the filing cabinets containing that pastor’s sermon notes. This minister was an experienced, prolific teacher, and it seemed like he had taught a 32 part series on just about every Bible topic imaginable.
Feeling a lot of pressure (self-induced) to perform and impress the people, I prepared what I thought was going to be a masterpiece sermon. I took class notes from three lessons from a Rhema course, and blended them into a single message about an Old Testament character named Mephibosheth. This is embarrassing to admit, but I remember thinking, “I bet they’ll be impressed when I teach a lesson about someone from the Bible that they’ve never heard of.”=
Unfortunately, God wasn’t interested in them being impressed with me, and when I got up to deliver that message, it was (in my estimation), a total flop. What was supposed to be a full-length message fizzled after a short time, and feeling quite humiliated, I took my seat. Even Lisa, as gracious as she is, acknowledged that it wasn’t very good. It was pretty tempting to find a flight back to the States, but we stayed, and it seemed like the Holy Spirit used that as a teaching moment. I realized that it wasn’t my job to impress people, but to bless people.
That was the first of twenty-eight messages that I would preach on that trip, and after that, I stayed with simpler topics and simply tried to share truths that would truly help the people. Lisa had her guitar with her, and she sang practically every time I spoke. Speaking of Lisa, she was an absolute trooper. We stayed in a hostel, in several pastor’s homes, and even in a tiny little camper in the mountains (our summer is their winter) that had no heat. Actually, it had a small space heater, but the wiring was completely frayed, and it seemed like it would burst into flames at any second. With several inches of snow, it was so cold that we slept with our clothes on.
Our host church in Wagga Wagga was gracious and loaned us a van for the seven weeks we were there. We preached in places with names like Tumbarumba, Wodonga, Wangaretta, Ardelethan, and Myrtleford. Lisa drove because she knew how to drive a stick shift, and I did not. We also had to drive on the left side of the road, so I helped to navigate. Some of the churches gave us an offering for preaching, but I remember one pastor simply taking us to the gas station, filling our tank with gas, and wishing us well as we headed to our next meeting.
Not one bit of what I’m sharing is a complaint; we were so grateful to have had the opportunity to preach the gospel. Looking back on that, I’m shocked that someone was kind enough—having only listened to a single message on tape—to invite us to come for an entire summer, and to provide us with an itinerary and a van. It was an initiation into traveling ministry, and something of a foretaste for what Lisa and I have now been doing for the past eighteen years. The experience we gained that summer was absolutely priceless.
We did have one incident when we had flown to the city of Mildura to attend a ministers’ conference. The pastor who was driving ran a stop sign, and our car was hit broad side by another vehicle traveling at a pretty high rate of speed. Lisa and I were banged up, her more than me, and she spent one night in a local hospital for observation. What was interesting about that situation is that I had an unusual experience the day before the accident. We actually drove by that hospital, and I distinctly sensed what I now believe was the Holy Spirit saying, “Before you leaven this town, your wife will be in that hospital.” Instead of praying (I now believe the Holy Spirit was trying to warn me), I reasoned it out in my mind, figured Lisa was in fine health, and dismissed the experience. That was a huge lesson to me to really pay attention when the Holy Spirit impresses something on my heart.
When we returned to Tulsa, the church where we had been janitors during our first year of school asked if I would serve as their “Minister of Evangelism.” I did that for a total of three years and three months, including the time I was finishing my second year studies at Rhema. Then, after eighteen and a half years of serving on staff with the Hagins, we stepped back into traveling, and we continue to love what we do. The assignment the Lord gave us was a simple one: Strengthen Churches and Leaders. That is what we devote ourselves to, through traveling and preaching, through books, and through our website.
We look back now and see that the Lord was really directing our steps—from leaving our homes in Indiana, moving to Tulsa, sitting under the Word of God, learning how to serve in the local church, taking a step of faith and going overseas, and all the subsequent steps that followed. We typically never knew what was next; we just endeavored to be faithful and productive with what was in our hand at the moment. We see now that all of the experiences were contributing to our development, equipping us for what we are doing now.
We feel so privileged to be able to come alongside pastors and missionaries around the world and encourage them in the great works they are doing. Every where we go, we see the grace of God operating not only through leaders, but also through everyday believers who are serving in teamwork and partnership to further the gospel and to help develop the Body of Christ. I was 21 when Lisa and I left for Australia in the summer of 1980. I turn 61 later this month. My enthusiasm and joy in ministry has not diminished the least. As a matter of fact, I think I’m more excited about serving God today than I was then.
We are grateful for those who have helped and encouraged us over the years. One of our greatest joys has been watching others flourish in serving God. We are mindful that we are part of a huge family, and that every member is valuable in the sight of God.
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Tony Cooke Ministries
PO Box 140187
Broken Arrow, OK 74014-0187