Last Saturday, Mike Stohlmeyer went to be with the Lord, succumbing to the Chrohn’s Disease that had ravished his body for the previous 39 years.
Mike was my first home group leader when I joined the church in 1975. I was quite honored when he asked me to lead a small group called a Personal Growth Team (PGT) the next spring. He sent me a little hand-written note, which I still have memorized almost 4 decades later: “As you are faithful with the little flock that God has entrusted you with, he will entrust you with more and more people to care for.” The confidence that he showed in me as a young man had a huge impact on me. Words of affirmation and expressing a belief in someone that they have what it takes to succeed, especially from a leader, can be extremely powerful and life-transforming.
Mike was a very gifted Bible teacher. He loved God’s word and studied it extensively. His teaching was relevant, easy to understand and entertaining. Because he was an artist, he would draw people and concepts while he taught, which helped truth leap off the pages of the Bible into our hearts.
Mike’s teaching was a great help to me. In 1983 I went through a crisis, which I created myself because I was more interested in the performance of those around me than I cared about them personally, and relationships don’t go well when they are based on works instead of love. I sank into despair, not understanding what was going on or what to do about it. Mike had taught a series in the book of Galatians, and I got the tapes and listened to them over and over. “O you foolish Galatians…having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Through this series, I started to really learn about grace, not just in my head but in my heart. God saved me from failure, and he used Mike to do it.
In the mid-80s, Mike’s Chrohn’s Disease deteriorated to the point that it disabled him and he had to resign from being a pastor. For the next three decades, Mike would suffer greatly, in excruciating pain and constant hunger. At the funeral, Dave Bovenmeyer shared how Mike had few pleasures in this life: he couldn’t enjoy food, he was mostly confined to his home, he was very limited in being able to interact with people, so he didn’t have the pleasure of lots of friendships.
But God used this great suffering to drive him to Himself. He found comfort and pleasure in feasting on God’s word, spending hours each day meditating on the scriptures, in praise and thanksgiving, and reading the works of great theologians. Here is the amazing thing: Mike had more joy in his life than most people who are blessed with good health and all the pleasures of this life. Although God allowed most everything else to be taken from him, God gave him himself, and Mike learned contentment with that. Mike has said on many occasions that although his suffering has been great, that the result has been so good in his life that he wouldn’t trade it for health. Now that is faith! That is living with an eternal perspective!
One of Mike’s favorite passages was 2 Cor 4:16-18 and he certainly lived it out: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
He never complained or felt sorry for himself. Steve Hogan talked to him on a regular basis, and he shared at the funeral how they would chat a bit about Mike and his trials, but Mike would want to talk about what he was learning about God and have that be the focus of the conversation.
Mike also used his gift as an artist to worship the beautiful and glorious God through his paintings. He used a lot of light and the beauty of nature in his impressionist paintings. His paintings are an outward expression of beauty and peace, which are all the more amazing when you understand his personal suffering.
God in his sovereignty could have chosen any of us to go through this kind of suffering, but he chose Mike. Those of us who knew Mike in the 70’s and 80’s had a tremendous respect for him, and he had a elevated platform for us to observe his life. He was on stage as the rest of us watched him pursue God in spite of his great suffering. Mike taught us how to suffer well. Over the years, as I have gone through sufferings large or small, I have always been inspired by Mike’s example.
Those of us who knew Mike in the ‘75-85 era are now in our late 50’s and early 60’s. If we live for another 30 years, if we are like most people, we will encounter greater health challenges and suffering will become an increasing issue over time. I have often wondered why God designed life this way; why suffering is often the last chapter before we go on to glory. But when I look at Mike’s life, I see that his legacy is that he taught us to suffer well. There are hundreds of us who will be thinking of Mike’s example, even 30 years from now, and thanking God for his example, inspiring us to suffer well also.
I would encourage you to listen to the funeral if you didn’t get to attend. Scott Hansen has posted the recording of the funeral at:
Mike was a great fan of John Piper. Here is a link to a tribute John had for Mike, which also contain links to some interviews they did with Mike in 2007.
Here is a link to Mike’s web site. When you get there, links will take you to his artwork site and his blog, Anchors of Faith: