By Barbara Boatwright, Ph.D. and Pastor Mike Cooke, Life Community Church
Recently I attended a packed service at Life Community Church for a memorial service honoring their worship leader, Bryan Cooke, upon the one year anniversary of his death. Bryan’s father, Pastor Mike Cooke, powerfully shared what he has learned about how God redeems tragedy from his personal experience and reflections of the past year. In this sacred season of Lent and Easter, Mike has something precious to share from his perspective of an earthly father who also brutally lost his son. The following reflections from his unwanted journey are in real time, personal, intimate, yes, even holy. The courage and grace this family has exhibited is beautiful and a witness to the reality of God’s redemptive work in the worst of situations- indeed, we do have a great high priest who understands our suffering and never leaves us to face these times alone. Thank you, Mike, for allowing us a glimpse into your journey. It is a gift to anyone who has experienced tragedy and loss.
Each of us, at some time in our lives, may find ourselves facing a tragedy of seemingly overwhelming odds. Fourteen months ago, my family and I faced just such an event. This year, on the one-year anniversary, I gave a message at our church Life Community wrapped around this question - How Can Tragedy Be Redeemed? I would like to share some of this with you as well as open up about the ongoing healing of a father who lost a son.
At 9 A.M. on Friday February 23, 2018, I drove my red Jeep Cherokee ten doors down from our home to pick up my son Bryan. After a quick stop at Lowe’s of Mt. Pleasant, we headed South on Highway 17 to cross the Double Diamonds and then on to I-26 toward our destination in North Charleston. Bryan and I were completing some work for a housing program created to assist deserving Veterans seeking to relocate to a freshly remodeled house to call their home.
It was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day. One you’d call “exceptional” for February in Charleston. Our conversation was light as we drove to our destination. Unknown to us was the trauma this morning would hold. Neither of us could have imagined what awaited us as we pulled into the driveway of that house in a small subdivision just off Azalea Avenue. In just over one hour, Bryan would be shot. And, following that attack which ended his life on Earth, I would be shot five times by an assailant standing a mere 4 feet away from me.
The contrast of light and darkness which the Apostle John often wrote about, became a stark reality in my life as I lay bleeding from gunshot wounds to my abdomen, right arm, and head. For the next twenty-five minutes, I experienced a thin slice of life: the initial mourning of a beloved son of 41 years, the possible beginnings of transition from this life into heaven, the presence and voice of the Holy Spirit comforting me and then challenging me to somehow drag myself outside of the house and call 911.
Fight, flight, or freeze. I have heard of these options one has in times of peril while never expecting to be in a situation where I’d be called on to choose one. Thankfully, it was apparent to me that God was there. The Holy Spirit was dispatched to that small five by seven-foot room where another child of God somehow made such a terribly dark choice to take the life of another human being. The Holy Spirit, the resource of life was there introducing peace even as the shots rang out and coursed through my body, giving me courage to trust him with the outcome, to face death gracefully, to join Bryan, and send comfort to my family.
In recollecting these moments, I am now reminded of the worship song Here as in Heaven… The atmosphere is changing now. For the Spirit of the Lord is here. The evidence is all around. The Holy Spirit’s presence allowed my mind to make decisions. When the shots stopped, the young man ran away through the kitchen and out the back door. I leaned forward allowing a cabinet to support the weight of my body as I continued to compress my wounds. I felt as if the energy of life was rapidly pouring out of me. This, I thought, was the end of the life I had known. I awaited the transition, the glorious moment to be escorted through that “white tunnel” we read of from the accounts of those who have gone through a near death experience. It was during this time, strangely enough, that the pain seemed to diminish, a welcomed change as I prayed what I believed to be my final prayer this side of Heaven:
“Father in your mercy hear my prayer. I know Bryan is with you, and I will be with him shortly. I ask that you take me before the blood rising in my mouth has time to choke me. I pray for Lynda, my beautiful wife of 44 years, that in the moments she receives the news of today she will have alongside her friends who can comfort her. I pray that as she goes to Bryan’s dear wife Jenna and daughter Sophia Grace that she will be strong in the Lord. I pray that my beloved daughter Lauren in New Mexico will have with her, her husband Eric for the support she’ll need.”
Ready now to be taken, I awaited, confident to meet Jesus, family, and friends who preceded my time here on Earth. Instead, here is what I heard from my Father in Heaven - “Mike, why don’t you go outside and call 911?” To which I quickly responded, “Because I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it outside.” And my Father rejoined, “You’re right, you won’t make it if you don’t try.” Having nothing left to share with God in that moment, I rolled to my right, hit the floor, and began a slow crawl into daylight to await the rest of God’s plan for whatever time I had left on earth.
This new life which awaited me began with an army of emergency personnel descending into that small neighborhood where I lay on a concrete walkway. My son’s body rested approximately thirty feet away. I will never forget the police officer shouting to his partner who had reached me, “This one’s gone.” Over this past year of recovery for me and my family, those three words have crept into my mind many, many times. They seem to be a cold benediction to the life of a man who gave away so much of who he was and what he had so that others would know that they were welcomed, they were loved, and they were cared for in Bryan’s world.
Two weeks after the shootings I was rolled out of The Medical University of South Carolina and driven back across the same bridge which Bryan and I had crossed together on that fateful morning. It occurred to me then, that while I was the same man, there was ahead of me and my family a new way to live the life we had remaining. Most importantly, we would undertake the slow and steady work of healing internally. It would be, as they say, “a new normal.” While on the Ravenel bridge, I began to realize there may be many bridges to cross on this path to recovery.
If not before, certainly after the impact of a violent tragedy, we all discover the necessity of community. Unlike anything else, community becomes a gift God freely gives to those who open their doors to fellow sojourners on the path of life. To know and to be known is a basic requirement for every human being who is walking before the Lord in the land of the living. Our family’s journey through this tragic and violent event has been accompanied by hundreds and hundreds of normal people who in their friendship have given deeply of themselves to encourage, to underwrite, and to love us forward into what we can only define as newness of life. Through those who have done this, we have seen, heard, and felt, the amazing grace of God. Grace has so much more of a reality in my own life. And yet, I must be honest here, I’d give anything to have Bryan back. You would too, if it was your son or daughter. I continue to mourn his loss and imagine that I always will. I read in the Scriptures that God’s ways are not my ways, and within those six words I consider, as never before, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.
For me, entertaining the question of How Can Tragedy Be Redemptive? was born out of how Bryan lived his life as he reached out to others. Redemption was always on the table with the God he pursued. In the prologue of his Gospel, John introduced Jesus with two words - life and light. With one word, darkness, he established the antithesis of life and light.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John1:4-5)
Austrian Victor Frankl, a Christian as well as a survivor of the Nazi death camps of WWII, wrote that “The courage to choose the light over darkness helps one transcend their suffering.” Three days after the shootings, Dr. Barbara Boatwright, along with Charlotte Segnious, walked into the ICU unit to begin the long work of exploring and navigating how tragedy can be redeemed. Both of these ladies, along with Life Resources, remain as instruments of the Father in bringing healing. Their work with us has allowed us to begin again. To see a way where we once were unable to see. Father Richard Rohr wrote that in the Old Testament God doesn’t give the Hebrews a strategy, he gives them a promise: I am with you! The attending suffering and grief brought into lives exposed to violence and tragedy isn’t cured by information. It is transformed by the presence of God though Jesus Christ being there. Being with us, being in us, and being for us though the Holy Spirit.
Jerry Sittser in his book - A Grace Disguised writes: “We don’t go through pain and come out on the other side; we live in the pain and find within that pain the grace to survive.” Grace is that fascinating relational concept that was once and forever won for us through the suffering of Jesus as He poured out his life that we may have life. There seems to be no better time to deal with the question of How Can Tragedy Be Redeemed? than during this season where we recall the Crucifixion and Resurrection, of Death that leads to Life, of the Light that Darkness cannot overcome.
In my study, there is a picture of Bryan and me together at an event. I posted this statement just under the photo and read through it, repeating it every day:
“I refuse to allow the tragedy of his death to negate the beauty of
his life and the depth of his impact on my life.”
Where, O death is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?
I Corinthians 15:55
As Mike and I discussed his “new normal,” he expressed something very powerful about being content with where he is and what he holds onto at this juncture in his journey:
“What I do know is what I wrote. God was there, the Holy Spirit was dispatched, life and darkness were in play, death leads to life, and life leads to light which darkness has not overcome, that grace was won for us through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That one terrible day has now begun to reveal hope in ways I could never have imagined. And that hope is drawing us back into the center of life itself.”
Lifeline is written by the staff at Life Resources and guest writers. We are grateful for Mike’s willingness to share his testimony of God’s faithfulness and redemptive work in the midst of his own personal tragedy. To learn more about the services of Life Resources, visit www.myliferesources.org.
As seen in the April 2019 edition of The Carolina Compass.