Len Hoppe—A Friend Remembered

April 15, 2006

I can’t remember the first time I met him. I know it must have happened the first time I visited Calvary, months before I became the pastor, but the precise moment has passed from my memory. That little fact doesn’t matter because you never simply “met” Len Hoppe. You encountered him. And when you encountered him, you never forgot it. Not the first time, anyway. And I do remember the first time I encountered Len. It happened during the grueling four day ordeal that the Pulpit Committee put me through when I came as a pastoral candidate in late 1989. At one point during that weekend, I met with a group of men in the pastor’s office. We must have been there for at least an hour so they could question me about this and that. The men were taking turns going around the circle asking me questions. Everything was routine until we came to Len. He leaned forward, fixed me in his gaze, and said he had some hard questions he wanted to ask me. I took a deep breath and waited. He asked me about how I handled sexual temptation. He wanted to know what I did to protect my relationship with Marlene. He asked me how I was doing in the area of purity. And he kept on asking questions until he was satisfied. I couldn’t put Len off with a quick one-sentence answer. H was intent on finding the truth, and he would not stop until he felt he had found it. Finally, he said Okay, and the questioning passed to the next man.

Such was my introduction to Len Hoppe. I suppose I should add that I cannot remember anyone else in the room or anything else they asked me, but Len and his questions and his earnest gaze—that remains with me seventeen years later. I didn’t meet Len that day; I encountered him. Reader’s Digest used to run a series called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” That was Len Hoppe to me. An unforgettable character.

It Doesn’t Seem Like Ten Years

In the kindness of God Len and I became friends, then good friends, and eventually we became very close friends. It just occurred to me as I write this that I only knew Len closely for about five years because for the last several years of his life, he lived in Memphis and I didn’t see him often. Five years isn’t much as the world counts time, but five years can be a lifetime, and that’s how it feels to me. As if I knew him forever. Those who have come to this gathering tonight are here because ten years have passed since he died. I suppose all of us have said to ourselves, “It doesn’t seem like ten years.” No, it doesn’t seem possible that ten years have come and gone.

On the day I was installed as pastor, he gave me a plaque that he had made especially for me. He took the prayer at the dedication of King Solomon in 2 Kings 8 and inserted my name. It was his prayer for me and my ministry, that God would bless me, keep me, guide me, and give me good success. That gift from Len stayed on my wall the entire time I was at Calvary. When I finally took it down, I knew it was time to go. And I knew Len’s prayers for me had been answered.

Len was on the church board when I came to Calvary, and I immediately discovered that in Len I had a friend. Any pastor will tell you that he hopes and prays that God will give him a couple of guys who can stand with him and help him through the hard times. Len was such a friend to me. He was the one who started the tradition of coming to my office and praying with me on Sunday morning, a tradition that continued until my very last Sunday at Calvary. Len was the one who said, “We need to get the church off the credit drug,” and so we started the GOOD campaign. And Len and I got up one night and like some two-man comedy team, we sold the congregation on the importance of getting out of debt. Once when I was very upset about something that had happened at the church (I can’t remember what), I met with Len and Dave Hoy in the pastor’s office, and they patiently heard me out and then prayed with me.

I remember going out with Len on his big boat on Lake Michigan. We were up around Benton Harbor and Len had some jazzy sonar/radar thing that he wanted me to see. So we made our way out into Lake Michigan with most of the kids on board. Len was happily at the controls, talking a mile a minute, telling stories, and showing me how his whiz-bang sonar/radar thingamajig could tell him exactly where he was on the lake and in the channel.

Len helped introduce me to golf. When I attended my first Golf Retreat in Cincinnati, I didn’t have any clubs because I had never played before. Stan Utigard gave me a partial set of clubs, and Len gave me a driver. I was never very good at golf, but I used that driver for years. Danny taught me how to play Bingo, Bango, Bongo. And Len tried to teach me how to hit it straight. I never did learn, but he never stopped trying.

He and I spent hours talking about how Calvary needed a board of elders. We prayed about it , talked about it, and he said he would support me in that desire. Those were days of swirling controversy about the role of women in the church and about contemporary worship. The whole church seemed to be roiling and boiling and stirred up all the time. There were factions and groups and people writing letters and making phone calls. This is what I remember about Len. He was right in the middle of it. I wouldn’t say that Len loved controversy—that wouldn’t be true—but I would say that he didn’t mind it either. He enjoyed spending hours talking to people, answering their questions, and getting involved personally in solving the problems of the church.

Len at His Finest

So it came as no surprise that when the new constitution finally passed, Len was elected to the first board of elders. He was there along with Dan Hoeksema and Ian Smith and Dave Hoy and Dick Jahns and Bruce Lavenau and John Sergey and John Tahl. God put the elders to the test early on when we learned of a moral failure in the congregation. Everyone on the elder board knew those involved. I had promised the congregation that godly elders would provide wise leadership in a time of crisis. Now that crisis had come sooner than we expected, and in a way that we did not foresee. When the elders heard the news for the time, we got on our knees and began to pray. Hearts were broken as we cried out to God for help. Len was in the group sent to talk to the man involved in the moral failure. I will never forget that night as long as I live. Len was obviously troubled by the sin of someone he considered a friend. He did not come with a haughty spirit nor did he come determined to let the man off the hook. I was there and listened as the man made excuse after excuse. Len pulled his chair close to him so he could talk to him directly. He loved his friend so much, he would not let him hide behind his own sin. It was a long, long night but when it was over, Len’s tenacious, winsome courage had prevailed. The man stopped making excuses and fully confessed his sin.

That was Len at his finest. As I thought about it, I realized that that night represented what I came to love and respect about Len Hoppe. He was intense, passionate, persistent, committed, generous with his time and money, willing to help anyone, any time, unafraid to confront, loyal to his friends and willing to stand up for them, and yet if he thought his friends were in the wrong, he told them so and made them feel loved anyhow. He was utterly unique in combining so many admirable qualities. Yes, he could exasperate Roberta. Yes, he could keep hounding away at the same point. Yes, he could drive us all nuts sometimes. But he did what he did because he cared so much. That’s what we loved—and that’s what we miss so much tonight.

I remember when he called me and said he was worried because some gangsters had threatened him and his family. He and I had talked about it ahead of time, and I said I would be glad to come over if he needed me. When he called me, I called Gary Olson and we met at Len’s house in River Forest. We talked with Len and prayed and told him to go to bed. Late that night Gary and I sat outdoors talking and occasionally walking around the house to make sure everything was safe. About a week later he called me again because there had been other threats against the family. This time I called Dan Hoeksema and we met at the house and again told Len to go to bed. Dan and I stayed up past midnight talking and patrolling the property. Dan told me to go get some sleep and said he would stay up the rest of the night. I found out later that in true Chicago fashion, Dan was packing heat that night. But the bad guys never came. Later Marlene and I and Dan and Linda were with Roberta when Len went to meet the gangsters in a sting operation. We prayed and worried and prayed some more. Then the call came and it was all over. Len had pulled off his part in the sting, and the cops had nabbed the bad guys. When he came home alive and in one piece, we cheered and he told us the whole story, talking a mile a minute.

“The pier/ced hands of Jesus”

Just before leaving Chicago to move to Memphis, he gave me a handwritten letter, the only one I ever received from him. In two or three pages, he reminisced about the good times we had serving together at Calvary. Near the end he said something like this. “Pastor Ray, you and I are friends for life. If you ever need me, I’ll be there for you. Call me day or night. If you need someone to take the hit for you, let me be the one.” And he meant it. That letter remained in a special drawer in my desk at church until the day I cleaned it out for the final time last September.

At his final elder meeting, he thanked us for the privilege of serving as an elder, and we thanked him for his service. Then we laid hands on him and prayed for him, asking God would bless him as he moved to Memphis. I still remember John Sergey saying in his prayer that Len had the ordination of the pierced hands of Jesus upon his life. Only he pronounced pierced in two syllables: peer-said. “The ordination of the pier/ced hands of Jesus.” That phrase has stayed in my mind all these years.

Once when Len and Dan were back in town, the three of us were eating lunch at The Pines in Forest Park. I told Len and Dan that I felt robbed a bit because I had been counting on twelve years of elder leadership from them–six from Len and six from Dan—but they up and moved away. I think if they hadn’t moved, it would have happened.

“Ole, Get on Up Here”

When Len was diagnosed with cancer, we saw him and Roberta quite a bit because they were traveling back and forth from Memphis. In the closing days of 1995, it became clear that surgery was the only hope of saving his life. One night just before Christmas the elders and their wives met with Len and Roberta at Dick and Sharon’s home in Elmhurst. Len made a speech and thanked us for coming. Then in typical Len fashion, he challenged us by asking if we really believed God was going to heal him of cancer. He went so far as to say he didn’t want anyone praying for him who didn’t believe he would be healed. That wasn’t presumption. That was a godly man fighting for his life. I was sitting next to Gary Olson when Len said that. He looked at me, and I looked at him and shrugged. There was no way we weren’t going to pray for Len that night. So we did, and we fervently cried out to the Lord on his behalf.

He truly believed he would be healed. Even on the day of his surgery, he still believed God would remove the cancer miraculously.

But it was not to be. God had other plans for Len, and he called him home to heaven.

At the funeral service, Gary Olson said that Len had called him from the hospital and said, “Ole, get on down here. I want to see you.” Gary went on to say that he could almost hear Len speaking to him from heaven and saying, “Ole, get on up here. It’s great.” A few years later Gary would indeed “get on up there” and join Len in heaven.

Now a decade has passed since Len left us. Three of the children are married and Roberta is a grandmother. Time rushes on, the world goes on, and for those of us who knew him, there is a sadness that nothing can take away. Len was a presence who filled every room. You never had to wonder where Len was because when he entered the room, you knew it. Some men pass through life leaving barely a ripple. Others leave the world a better place because they were here.

Len was like that. He touched us all and helped us to laugh and love and he showed us how to draw close to Jesus.

It’s Saturday … but Sunday’s Coming

And so it is Saturday night, the night before Easter. In the Christian calendar, this is often a forgotten day. Yesterday was Good Friday, tomorrow is Easter Sunday.

On Friday Jesus died.

On Sunday he rose from the dead.

But on Saturday Jesus was in the tomb. In the church calendar, this day is often called “Holy Saturday.” While there are services on Friday and on Sunday, this day is traditionally a day of preparation.

A day of waiting.

A day of remembering.

A day of preparing.

The message of Holy Saturday is, “Get ready. Something is about to happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

There’s only one problem with Holy Saturday. It seems to last so long. It’s feels like Sunday will never get here. The hours seem like years.

It’s been ten years since Len died, and those ten years have seemed like one long Saturday. I have some good news for you tonight. I discovered that as we meet here tonight, waiting for the morning of the resurrection, even though it’s Saturday in Memphis, it’s already Sunday on the other side of the world. Get this. While it’s Saturday night in Memphis, it’s already Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Easter has already arrived, and it’s coming in our direction.

Thank God, we’re not moving back toward the crucifixion. We’ve moving toward Easter, and it’s coming our direction, closer all the time.

It’s Saturday … but Sunday’s coming, and it’s not far away.

All we’ve got to do is hold on for a little while and Sunday will soon be here.

Roberta, you have done magnificently in the years since Len left us.

Nicole, Sara, Brian, Linnae, your father would be so proud of you. I have no doubt that up in heaven that he is so proud of you.

It may seem like it’s been a long time, but that’s only as we count time. Ten years is less than a blink of an eye to the Lord.

Hold on. Keep believing. Never give up. Remember the life that Len lived before us.

He showed us to live. He showed us how to die.

It’s Saturday, but Sunday’s coming soon. Hold on for a little while longer.

And to my dear friend Len, I simply say, “Rest well. Death will not have the last word. We will see you again.” Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?