Our Christmas Greeting to you

One of the most bizarre aspects of life after the hurricane was announced Friday. They’ve found watermelons growing wild all over St. Charles Parish, which is just west of the New Orleans airport. Apparently the Katrina winds carried the seeds aloft from somewhere and broadcast them all over our area. They are now producing fruit. The agriculture expert said on radio, “I wouldn’t dare eat them, but I’ve never heard of this happening anywhere.”

The winds of Katrina have blown many fascinating tidbits of life our way. We have new friends whom we will know and treasure from here on home. We have been repeatedly blessed in tangible and intangible ways that make us teary-eyed just to reflect on them. Through this invention called “the worldwide web” we have contacts with people all over the globe, all of them interested in our situation, many praying, several giving, and a few coming. I have even met another Joe McKeever. He lives in New Hampshire not far from my daughter’s home. We’re close in age and have the same color hair (is white a color?), the same stocky build, and a houseful of beloved grandchildren. Two extremely blessed Joes.

Last year on Christmas Day, Margaret and I drove to Cheaha State Park in east central Alabama, near Anniston. We rented rooms in the lodge and took our meals in the restaurant and enjoyed hiking the woods and sitting on the bluff where we could look out over 25 miles. Then we had an idea. We made immediate reservations for a chalet for this year. So, Sunday, Christmas Day, we will again drive to that wonderful mountaintop and get things set up. On Monday our sons–Marty from Charlotte NC and Neil from New Orleans–will arrive with their families. We’ve reserved two rooms in the lodge in case the parents want some peace and quiet at night, but the daytimes belong to the villa. We go for walks in the frigid air, then return to the blazing fire and hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows. Grandpa will spin a few yarns for the five grandchildren and we’ll build a lot of memories. We plan to laugh and play games and act silly and hug a lot. Meanwhile, no one will mention the words ‘hurricane’ or ‘Katrina’ and for a few days we will forget that that monster ever existed.

Thanks to our friends who love us and pray for us. Thanks to you who drop in on the website regularly, and particularly for forwarding some of these messages to others you think will appreciate them or benefit from them. Thank you so much to you who have given money to assist us in ministering to the pastors and churches of the New Orleans area. You’re the best.

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Waiting…Watching…Working…

I took one of our local pastors to lunch the other day. He expressed the frustration others around here are feeling in telling our story to outsiders. “Pastors say they want to come help us,” he said. “Then I say, ‘What do you want to do?’ And they all want the same thing. They want to come in and fix up a damaged church, then stick around and help that church get on its feet and get a great ministry going in their neighborhood. That sounds great, of course. I say to them, ‘What if my church doesn’t have a neighborhood?’ They say, ‘What’s that? How could a church not have a neighborhood?’ Well, it doesn’t have one if no one lives there. I’m telling you it’s frustrating.”

Tell me about it.

We basically have two cities: one alive and strong and another dead and vacated. The first one–the living one–is the portion of metro New Orleans that suffered in the storm but has recovered and is now open for business. That includes the “river sliver” from the French Quarter to the CBD and uptown, it includes all of Metairie and Kenner and everything across the river. The second city–the dead one–refers to vast sections of New Orleans lying empty and gaunt and dark, with people gutting out homes and streets deserted and businesses shuttered. Here and there, lights glow where power company workers punch holes in the darkness. Once in a while you’ll find a FEMA trailer in someone’s yard to indicate life on the premises. Even more rarely, you’ll find someone living inside their home. This twilight zone refers to 75% of New Orleans, all of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

Tuesday, two men working in one of our ruined churches sat across the table drinking coffee in another church office. “We’re just about through gutting out the church,” one said. Their buildings had taken ten feet of water, ruining the bottom floor forever. Volunteer groups have toiled ceaselessly for weeks.

“What are you going to do next?” I asked. “Well, that’s our problem,” he said. Without power in the neighborhood and with no one living there, should they restore their church building? What if the government rules that all buildings must be so many feet above the flood plain? What if they rebuild and then find out their area is to be left vacant and turned into a park? What if the neighbors do not move back? In any of these scenarios, their labor and investment would be poorly spent.

“I suppose we’ll close it up tight and wait to see,” he said. Wait to see what the neighborhood is going to do, what the government regulations will be, what their situation will call for. Waiting is tough.

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Whose miracle will the new New Orleans be?

We still laugh in our family about something Erin said. Last summer, my son Neil told his three children that he planned to take them to the park the next day. “Pray it won’t rain,” he said. The next morning, they piled in the truck and were driving across town when he said, “It’s such a beautiful day. Who asked God for this? Grant, did you?” “No,” the eleven year old said. “I forgot.” “Abby, did you?” “No, I forgot, too.” “Oh, good,” said Erin, her 8 year old twin, “then it was my miracle.”

At church, I see Graham Waller, so bravely dealing with the blindness which resulted from surgery for a brain tumor over 4 years ago. We still pray for his healing. I’ve told his parents, Ed and Sherri, that one reason I pray is that when the healing comes, “I want it to be my miracle.”

My college roommate and best man in our wedding, Joel Davis, and his wife Wilma have a daughter-in-law who is fighting a severe kind of cancer. She spends many weeks in Anderson Hospital in Houston, undergoing all kinds of harsh treatments and bizarre tests. I’ve never met Tina, but every time I read an update on her situation, I pray for her again. And I think, “Lord, when she gets well, I want it to be my miracle, too.”

Now, imagine with me here. Imagine a day in the future, perhaps a decade from now. The city of New Orleans is a different place. Perhaps the population is 75 percent of what it was before the storm, but now there are no slums, no hotbeds-for-crime housing projects, fewer drugs, less violence, safer streets, better schools, and Christian churches that are the marvel of the nation, where all the pastors love each other and work together, where God’s people are loving and ministering and blessing. Imagine a new kind of city, one unlike any this country has seen in our lifetimes.

Whose miracle will that be?

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Moving toward Christmas in the Crescent City

After I complimented Mayor Nagin for his warm, pastoral approach in dealing with complaining and demanding citizens, the next day someone called for him to “please start acting like a leader; stop acting like you’re running for office!” In electioneering, you listen and nod and agree, I suppose. True leadership, however, sometimes requires you to tell people when they are out of line and announce this is what we are going to do and that’s how it is, deal with it. For instance, Nagin agreed with the Urban Land Institute’s study that urges allowing certain sections of the city to lie fallow for a time, perhaps turning them into parks with bike trails, then build adjoining planned neighborhoods alongside. He agreed, that is, until citizens started hollering, “Not my neighborhood.” At that point, he decided, “Well, maybe we need to give this some more thought.” So far, according to the paper, Nagin has promised everyone their neighborhood would be coming back, and that is not about to happen.

As of Monday, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission seems to be proposing that rebuilding be allowed in all neighborhoods for the first year, after which we take a look and see where people are not rebuilding. Then, a federally funded buyout program would take over all “moribund” areas. (“Moribund,” an adjective, literally meaning “bound in death,” but basically “dead or inactive.” Use that word in a sentence today and I guarantee someone will be impressed.) This land would be turned into parks with bike and walking paths and devoted to other public uses. “A park in every neighborhood” has become their mantra. They’re promoting a longterm plan for a light rail line extending from Baton Rouge to New Orleans across the Gulf Coast all the way to Biloxi. Originally, there was talk of extensions of the line in other directions, but the commission wisely decided they’d better stay within reason.

“Big aid package nearing House passage,” announces a headline in Monday’s paper. How much money? $29 billion. I would predict this is just for starters, however. Stay tuned, as we say.

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Cold Weather, Warm Hearts, Tough Love

The vertigo that hit me Tuesday morning has slowed down my week. I’ve stayed fairly close to home, keeping only the appointments I needed to. I hated to cancel the flight to Dallas on Wednesday to meet with some of our Baptist leaders, but the doctor advised it. A friend wrote that he spent two days in the cardiac unit of a hospital enduring all kinds of tests, until they discovered he was suffering from vertigo. When my 9 year old granddaughters heard of it, they said, “What–you’re afraid of heights?” I said, “No. I’m just dizzy.”

I “visited” the Bring New Orleans Back Commission meeting Saturday. One of the public access channels replayed their meeting from last Tuesday and I sat through the full two hours of it. This blue ribbon panel, made up of perhaps 15 or 20 of our community’s true leaders, is divided into subcommittees that work in between meetings of the full body. Therefore, the meeting consisted of each commissioner reporting on the special assignment given to the subcommittee to which they are responsible. The meeting was informative and fascinating, and it was long and boring. Just like every other committee I’ve ever served on or tried to lead. Some of the subcommittees seem to have such a broad interpretation of their responsibility, you wonder what they can hope to accomplish. The committee dealing with the culture of the city announced they will be requesting over $400 million dollars. Four hundred million. Stay tuned.

The most interesting was the report on housing from Joe Canizaro, a real estate developer and as articulate a commissioner as sits on the panel. Certain areas of the city, he said, need to be left alone, not brought back for a long time, and those home sites bought up by an independent commission funded with government money. Then, as neighborhoods on higher ground are restored and these less safe areas are found to be secure, large parcels of the land–perhaps hundreds of acres at a time–can be sold to developers who would plan for entire communities, complete with stores and offices within walking distance. The Times-Picayune reported earlier this week that the commission would end up recommending a version of this.

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AND HERE’S THE LATEST NEWS FROM NEW ORLEANS

I sit down at the computer and feel like I’m trying to tell the outside world what’s going on around here. There is so much to be told; I just hit the high points. And occasionally the low.

The bill which would have consolidated all the area levee boards into one, the bill which never made it out of the last legislative system, continues to draw the attention of the citizens. After our legislators saw how incensed the public was that this bill was allowed to die, they started rushing in to change their votes. It turns out that Louisiana has rules allowing state lawmakers to change their votes after a bill is voted up or down, so long as the change does not alter the outcome. That way, they vote a bill down, then change their vote and go home and tell the dumb voters (this is bothering me, as you can tell) that they actually supported it. I predict this is one legislative rule that is going to be changed, now that it has seen the light of day. Representative A. G. Crowe of Slidell wants to change it so that a House member can change his vote only on the day of the original vote. Our editor writes, “That would be an improvement. But the best practice would be to simply forbid vote switching. Lawmakers ought to vote properly the first time around.” Amen.

State Senator Walter Boasso says forget his original bill, the one that would have merged the levee boards. He’s now hard at work with some other leaders forging a stronger, better bill, one that should pass in the next session. “Whatever it takes” is the only rule he’s going by now, he says.

Governor Kathleen Blanco has heeded the suggestion of our secretary of state that the New Orleans elections scheduled for February 4 be postponed indefinitely. They reason that many of our citizens are displaced and cannot vote, plus the registrars and voting places are disfunctional. Mayor Nagin and the N.O. City Council members and other elected officials may now stay in office longer than their original four year terms. A lot of citizens are bothered by this. “You tell the world that New Orleans is open for business,” one resident wrote in the paper the other morning, “You write that we’re able to host a Mardi Gras early next year. You want the tourists to come and people to return home. But now you say we’re not able to even have an election. What’s wrong with this picture?”

Anderson College is in town. Actually, it’s Dr. Bob Cline, who is vice-president of church relations for this wonderful South Carolina Baptist college, his wife Angela, and seminary student son Nathan, as well as 16 college students. They are hard at work helping people clean out their homes in east New Orleans, and staying at night in our Brantley Center, formerly a shelter for the homeless. Bob said it’s nicer than he had expected. Nathan is cooking for the group. Angela raised that boy right. (I told them my wife taught both our sons to cook when they were teens, and one has run restaurants and both love to cook; their wives bless my wife regularly for this small favor.)

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Wondering and Wandering by the Fireside on Cold Evenings

Saturday afternoon, I joined son Neil and his family to see “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the wonderful C.S.Lewis story, now a big-screen movie. Wonderful movie, although a little puzzling for our 9 year old twins. “Grandpa, why is the lion roaring?” “Why did the lion die?” That sort of thing. As we exited the theater, I was remembering how my children were introduced to Narnia and why we did not venture very far into that land of fantasy and allegory.

It was the mid-70s and our children ranged in age from about 7 to 13. Thanksgiving weekend, our family had rented a cabin at the Tishomingo State Park in Northeast Mississippi. The air was wintry cold and just right for a blazing fire. On Thanksgiving morning, while mom was preparing breakfast, I said, “Kids, come here. I have something I want you to hear.” They had no idea what to expect. I began reading page one of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” the first volume in Narnia. We literally had to force them to come to breakfast, they were so caught up in the story. After breakfast, I read some more, then we all went for a walk down the wooded trails. They could not get back to the house fast enough; they had to know what happened next. C. S. Lewis has long been one of my favorites, but more for his theological writings than for the fantasies. The kids, now adults with families of their own, and I have great memories of that time. However, I think, if you asked them, they do not know why we did not progress too far into the ins and outs of the Narnia tales. But I know. They got too complex. Too many characters, too much symbolism, too hard to keep straight.

I admit to being a little puzzled by groups that have printed up religious literature about Narnia to hand out in their neighborhoods and in the malls. I admire their evangelistic zeal, only wonder if they are misreading the curiosity the movie will provoke about its deeper meaning. We remember when Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” appeared, churches set up counseling centers near cinemas and stationed their people near exits, ready for them to emerge with yearnings to know this Savior. In most cases, the response was minimal. Again, I appreciate their willingness to be used of God, just question the effectiveness of these movies in presenting the message of Christ. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the best these movies can be expected to do is stir one’s curiosity so that he will go read the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked out of a theater and gone straight to the library to learn more about the subject. One of the first times was “A Man For All Seasons” about Henry VIII. Later it was “Khartoum” on Chinese Gordon. These days, it happens several times a year. We hope that’s what “Narnia” will produce, people wanting to know more about the meanings of the allegory. If some progress from that to knowledge of the Savior, it will be worth everything.

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WHY DO SO MANY DAYS FEEL LIKE SATURDAY?

When you don’t go to the office, but stay at home and work from the computer and telephone, then hop in your car and meet with people all over town, it frequently feels like Saturday. Since we have not worked in our associational offices since the last Friday in August, most days have seemed like Saturday.

This Saturday–oops–Thursday morning, I had an interesting e-mail from a lady I’ve never met, but who has read these articles for several years and occasionally replies. She went to dinner Wednesday night with a group of Girl Scout mothers, even though she has only sons. “Of the ten present,” she wrote, “I knew only three.” When the meal was served, she blurted out automatically, “Shall we say grace?” Silence prevailed, and then a couple of women said, “Good idea.” So she did. That little event turned the conversation to religious matters. What church do you belong to? they wanted to know. She said she was a “closet Catholic,” meaning a former Baptist married to a Catholic and sending her children to a Catholic school because of a promise she made to her husband. After a bit, two of the women present identified themselves as new in the area and trying to find a church. She recommended they visit her old church, the Baptist church where a good friend of ours pastors. Her note said, “I promised to go to church with them Sunday to help them find it and make the adjustment.”

I called the pastor and shared this with him. He’ll be watching for them this Sunday.

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TO GET THE RIGHT ANSWERS, START WITH THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

This will be about as far as I know how to go in answering the questions about the hurricanes, tornadoes, and other tragedies God allows into the lives of His beloved. At the conclusion, we’ll be glad to receive further input and comments from readers (on our website), particularly insights from Scripture.

Here are some questions we ought to ask when tragedies come, alongwith questions we ought not to be asking.

1. NOT ‘WHY ME?’ BUT ‘WHY NOT ME?’

A year ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, and under the tongue, of all places. If you want to hurt a preacher, that’s the place. The day we drove home from the oral surgeon’s office after receiving the report of the biopsy, I thought, “Cancer doesn’t happen to me. Cancer happens to other people.” That’s how it had been for forty years of ministry. People all around me suffered with cancer and my job was to minister to them. But now, it had become my turn to experience what they had endured.

Asking “why me?” seems to indicate I think I’m better than others. “Why not me?” is the better approach. People far better than I, godlier, smarter, holier, better in every respect, have battled this dreaded disease, some successfully, some not. Did I think I was to be excused from this kind of suffering? Doesn’t the Bible say, “It is through much tribulation that we enter the Kingdom”? (Acts 14:22) Our Lord said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Perhaps the Lord wants His people to pass through the same suffering as others in order to demonstrate the difference His presence can make. The Lord lets His disciples be arrested and thrown into jail in order to have the gospel preached in court. (Matthew 10:18) The authorities in the throneroom or courtroom might never darken the door of a church or accept the invitation to a revival meeting or read a gospel tract. Someone is going to have to be arrested and put on trial in their presence, then tell his story. In the telling of the disciple’s story, in making his defense, the truth about Jesus comes out. That is precisely what happened when Paul stood before Caesar, making his case. It was an awful experience in a hundred ways, especially when the other disciples found more pressing matters to attend to that day. Paul stood alone, but, as He said, “Nevertheless, the Lord stood with me. And He strengthened me, in order that the proclamation (of the gospel) might be fully made through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear.” (II Timothy 4:17)

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How You Can Help

For Katrina Relief, to assist ministers, churches, and church members whose lives were devastated by the hurricane. Send contributions to:

NEW ORLEANS ASSISTANCE

c/o Louisiana Baptist Foundation

P. O. Box 311

Alexandria LA 71309

To help in the rebuilding of churches, send your contribution to:

REBUILDING NEW ORLEANS

c/o Louisiana Baptist Foundation

P. O. Box 311

Alexandria LA 71309