And the hits just keep on coming

“Joe, I might be late for the pastors meeting Wednesday morning,” the e-mail note said. The writer, one of our displaced pastors, explained about his wife’s surgery and the death in his family. His job is in jeopardy and he still doesn’t have direction on what to do with his flooded church, which has been gutted by teams of volunteers and needs to be restored internally, but what’s the point if no one lives in the neighborhood.

Now–not knowing any more about him than this–would you say there’s a brother who needs your prayers?

Last August, one of our pastors evacuated the area ahead of the storm and found shelter in his home state, only to see both his daughters in car accidents and his father come down with a serious disease and die a few weeks later. Internal stresses with his congregation led him to resign and take a temporary position in another church.

One pastor who lost both his home and his church had a stroke and while he was in the hospital recovering, his mother died.

Want me to go on? I could. I can tell you of another dozen New Orleans ministers who have come through the storm and its devastation only to turn around and find more trials coming, one after another, each one worst than the one before.

We keep asking for prayer for our ministers down here. Only the Lord knows what pressures each one is enduring and only He has the resources and strength to get us through this.

I’ve been camping out in Psalm 84 lately. I was first attracted to that short passage several years ago when a college-ministry committee I was chairing met in a classroom at the old First Baptist Church of New Orleans on St. Charles Avenue. Someone had gone to the trouble of cutting out large letters and stringing on the walls around the room verse 11 of that psalm: “The Lord God is a Sun and a Shield. The Lord gives grace and glory. No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” I sat there transfixed, drinking that in, thinking, “What a great verse. What a wonderful praise, what an incredible promise.”

Continue reading

Discoveries we have made since the hurricane

(Twice in North Carolina on Sunday, January 29, I told my tarheel friends some discoveries we are making post-Katrina. I keep tweaking that message, and today–February 5–I’m sharing it with the folks at the First Baptist Church of Luling, on the west bank from New Orleans, and this week with the directors of missions at the Texas Baptist evangelism conference at the FBC of Euless.)

“How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the highways to Zion! Passing through the valley of Baca (weeping), they make it a spring… They go from strength to strength.” (Psalm 84:5-7)

1. Everyone down here was affected by the hurricane.

At first, we thought you had to have at least some building damage to be among the suffering. Of course, hundreds of thousands lost their homes due to the flooding that followed the hurricane, but another hundred thousand or more in the western half of the metro area had typical storm damage caused by wind and rain. What we’re finding out, nearly six months post-K, is that every single person down here was affected.

Every church lost some members, every church had members who suffered, every person has friends who were hurt. Every business suffered and many thousands remain shuttered. And in the rare case of a citizen who came through unscathed and knows no one who was hurt, whose business is prospering and whose church is normal, they still see the devastation of New Orleans every time they drive that way and they hear of it continuously. It’s all the news there is in the Times-Picayune and on the radio talk shows. Everyone is affected. It follows therefore that…

2. Everyone is sick and tired of the subject.

On the NBC Nightly News the other evening, Brian Williams told of some critical letters his network is receiving because of the on-going coverage of the rebuilding of New Orleans. “Enough with New Orleans already” and “Give it a rest” were typical. He explained that since millions were displaced by the two hurricanes, the coastline of the USA was rearranged, a major city was devastated, with hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, and billions of government money being spent to reclaim the area, this was a major story which they intended to cover to the completion, and how people feel about it is beside the point. I wrote him an email that evening thanking him and said, “We surely understand the people who are sick and tired of the subject. We are, too. We’re ready for it to go away. We wake up every morning wishing it had all been a bad dream. But there it is.” The result is a witch’s brew of depression, sadness, the blues, fatigue, and who knows what all else, all of it poured upon this entire population. No one is unscathed, everyone has been affected, we’re all weary.

When Emeril Lagasse pleaded stress as his excuse for saying some negative things about New Orleans, columnist Chris Rose answered, “Hey, this just in: we’re all stressed out.”

A friend said, “Out where I live we have a saying: ‘Too blessed to be stressed.'” I respond, “We’re blessed also. But is it possible to be blessed and stressed at the same time?”

Continue reading

Who’s under stress? I said WHO’S UNDER STRESS!!!

Severe storms tore through this part of the world early Thursday morning. The headline in Friday’s paper read, “Tornadoes knock down what hurricane didn’t.” I confess that I’m not much of a Christian because, as the storm raged outside, I lay in bed feeling snug, thinking that my house is strong and the roof is new. Only later did it occur to me that thousands are living in flimsy, FEMA trailers. Some took a lot of damage. A friend arriving at our airport Thursday morning said it’s the first flight he’s ever had where people screamed. “The bottom would drop out and the plane would fall. It was really scary.”

Local celebrity Emeril Lagasse has been in the news, slamming his adopted hometown. I must have missed it, but according to columnist Chris Rose, Emeril was being interviewed by New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams. He told her, “The mayor’s a clunk. The governor is also a clunk. They don’t know (blank-blank) from a hole in the ground. All my three restaurants got hit. I’ve reopened Emeril’s, but only a few tourists come. There’s no tourists. No visitors. No money. No future. No people. It’s lost. It’ll never come back.”

Emeril was already under fire from a lot of local citizens for his absenteeism in the weeks and months following Katrina. His people said he had a heavy schedule of appearances that had been booked in advance. And now this. Chris Rose writes, “Nobody is asking Emeril or our politicians…to be civic-boosting automatons. No need to be in denial about business prospects here. No need to say what you don’t believe.” But how about a little common sense, he asks. “To tell the country’s most famous gossip columnist that New Orleans is dead is not wise. Particularly if you own three restaurants here.”

In his defense, Emeril said he was stressed out when he said that. Rose writes, “Well, this just in: We’re all stressed out. Particularly those of us who have been here and not spending time in New York City or touring for our book.”

I told some friends Friday that much of my stress is probably self-induced. I wake up in the morning, overwhelmed by a city that is almost empty and the political land-scape in disarray, the news all discouraging, and wonder what in the world I can do to make a difference. I make a few phone calls, answer dozens of e-mails, spend a few hours in the office, visit a church where volunteers from a church in another state are working, and at the end of the day ask myself what possible difference anything I did made today.

Continue reading

Two men, two vastly different perspectives on New Orleans

Ken Taylor has pastored our Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church for the past 18 years, watching it transition from suburbia to inner city without moving an inch. He has seen the neighborhood deteriorate somewhat over the years, yet has steadily led his members into the community with loving ministry and the truth of the gospel. All the time, he has served as a professor at the nearby New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Right now, he’s on campus teaching Monday and Tuesday classes, then in North Alabama where he evacuated with his family until his residence on campus is made habitable again. I received an interesting report from him Tuesday afternoon.

In an internet spot where Ken’s classmembers register their comments on his classroom material, a student waxed eloquent on the depravity of New Orleans. He said, “I found New Orleans utterly disgusting in almost every facet. I wouldn’t deny a few aspects of the city will be missed; but on a scale of overall good versus evil the city was clearly due for destruction. After being there for three years, living on campus, and discovering how ineffectual the Christian community appeared to be, the best thing that may have ever happened for the souls in New Orleans was to be disbursed.”

Ouch. That was brutal.

(Incidentally, the student probably did not mean ‘disburse,’ which means ‘to pay out,’ but ‘disperse,’ meaning ‘to scatter.)

Ken responded on the site, “I react strongly to the words ‘utterly disgusting,’ ‘clearly due for destruction,’ and ‘ineffectual Christian community’ applied to New Orleans and to its churches. Clearly there was the disgusting, and the evil, and the imperfect church…. I challenge anyone to show me a city that does not have great evil. Were (this) to be the determination of what or who was to be destroyed, how many of us…would be saved?”

For two more pages, Ken gently and kindly answers his student. He tempers his words and softens their impact by explaining that he has mulled over the student’s comments during his 380-mile drive that afternoon to North Alabama. “Nothing personal is meant by this response,” he cautions, “so please do not feel that I am attacking you.”

You are too kind, Ken. So, let me do it for you.

Continue reading

God is at work in this place

Wednesday’s pastors meeting was attended by forty to fifty pastors and guests. Among the developments we are rejoicing in are the resumption of worship services on February 12 in three places.

The Baptist churches of Chalmette will meet for worship on Sunday, February 12, at 10:30 am in Chalmette High School. Paul Gregoire (St. Bernard church) and John Jeffries (FBC Chalmette) and possibly others are working together to pull this off.

Same day, same time, Poydras Baptist Church, a few miles further downriver, will be having its first service since the storm. Pastor John Galey is excited to be getting back in business. Last I heard, there was still no electrical power down there, but adopting churches have worked hard to restore the church sanctuary.

Same day, but not sure of the time, Edgewater Baptist Church on Paris Avenue in New Orleans, will hold its first service at the church site, outside in a tent. They’ve been meeting in the West Bank home of Charlie and Cheryl Ray until now.

I have passed along to the Baptist Press a couple of stories we learned of Wednesday which I’m eager to learn more about, and which everyone will find fascinating.

Alberto Rivera, pastor of the Getsemani (Spanish) Baptist Church on Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans–the church with “1 DB (dead body) in rear” spray-painted on the building by the National Guard–has been leading worship services at Frost Chapel on the seminary campus while workers have been restoring his buildings. Some of the thousands of Mexicans who have come to help rebuild the city have been attending these services. One Sunday recently, they entered the chapel in soggy clothing. “What happened to you?” Alberto asked. They were sleeping in small tents on the parking lot of Community Grocery across the street, and it had rained the night before and drenched them and everything they owned.

Continue reading

Getting away from it all: five days and 1800 miles

I left home last Friday morning driving toward Charlotte. “Why don’t you fly?” asked a friend. “You can be there in two hours, for Pete’s sake.” She didn’t understand. Getting there was only half the point. Getting away was the other.

A longtime friend on the staff of First Baptist-Statesville, NC, had invited me to preach Sunday morning. And since our granddaughter Darilyn had recently made her profession of faith at their church in Charlotte, Idlewild Baptist, we asked Pastor Keith Whitener if I could baptize her Sunday night. “You can,” he said graciously, “if you’ll preach for us.” So I was headed north.

I love to drive, and love the solitude in the car. Once when my car radio broke, I went for a year without getting it repaired. I think out loud, pray, recite Scripture, and do nothing.

We could call this by many names. De-stressing. Finding yourself. Resting the mind. Restoring the creative impulse. Escape, maybe. Whatever.

At times, driving along the interstate, I worked in a blacksmith shop shoeing horses. I sweated across burning western deserts while buzzards circled above and Apaches lurked behind every rock. I fought it out with bad guys in saloons and led cattle drives up the Chism. All of which is to say, I listened to a package of Elmore Leonard’s Western Stories on CD, read by actors like David Strathairn and Tom Wopat.

For a while each day, I was a teenager back on the family farm singing gospel songs at the top of my lungs, heard only by my mule and ten acres of knee-high corn we were plowing. I turned up the volume and let the car vibrate with the sounds of “No Other Name,” the incredible Nashville trio which has blessed me so much lately. I wept a few times and laughed at others, and worked at finding my harmony line on the choruses.

I memorized the 20th Psalm. Ever since Pastor Greg Morrow of California, Missouri, sat in our conference room two weeks ago and read all nine verses to New Orleans Pastor Lionel Roberts, I’ve been stunned at how perfectly it fits our situation, and convinced that it is medicine to the burdened to have it blessed upon them. I’d copied it out by hand on a huge sheet of newsprint so I could read a verse at a glance and not endanger anyone on the highway.

Continue reading