Better Living through Linear Thinking

At Jim Nason’s funeral in Montgomery last Monday afternoon, his former wife gave the eulogy. “This is a first,” I told Anne. “Oh? Maybe I shouldn’t do it,” she said. “Oh no,” I reassured her. “I’m just saying I’ve never preached a funeral where the ex-wife paid tribute. I think it’s just fine.” And it was. She and her former sister-in-law had wonderful things to say about his life and character.

Back in the early to mid-80s, Jim Nason had served as our maintenance supervisor at the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, where I pastored. If ever a man was over-qualified for a position, he was that one. At various stages in his life, he worked as a commercial pilot and flight instructor and any number of other jobs. “He was a perfectionist,” Anne said, and told of the time he was teaching her to fly.

“He reached over and shut off the engine,” she said, “while we were taking off. It was so frightening. Later, he explained that he was trying to prepare me for emergencies. I said, ‘Well, the least you could have done was warn me.’ Jim said, ‘Emergencies never come with a warning. They happen when you least expect them.'” Anne considered it one of the best lessons she ever learned.

While Margaret and I were in Alabama Sunday through Tuesday, I was interested to see that New Orleans’ plight is still being kept before the readers of the Birmingham News and USA Today. The only time I read the latter paper is when I’m out of town, it seems. Among other things, the Birmingham paper had articles on restaurants that have reopened and those that haven’t, while USA Today was running an editorial page invitation for residents in our part of the world to write a letter with their Katrina story; several letters were run. I’m considering sending mine.

Tuesday night back at home, I sat at the table with a bowl of my favorite food and read the Times-Picayunes I had missed Monday and Tuesday. Whereas the papers I had read in Alabama had a little Katrina-type/New Orleans coverage, the local paper was saturated with post-hurricane-rebuilding stories. Welcome home. It’s the major fact of our existence down here. One feature was calling on residents to be prepared for the next hurricane.

They used to tell us that hurricane preparedness meant stocking up on canned foods such as vienna sausage and potted meat, jugs of water, and such. Occasionally, someone would add, “My daddy always told us to keep a hatchet in the attic.” In case they were stranded inside and had to hack their way out to the roof. Like there’s a likelihood of that happening, most of us know-it-alls thought, back then in the antediluvian days.

These days, hurricane preparedness is not about staying, but leaving.

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Four Seasons Sounds Good To Me

Chris Rose writes a column in the local paper which used to be funny. Since Katrina, he has become deeper, more serious, and a lot more insightful. Recently, in this blog, I mentioned that locals are wondering where Mayor Nagin is, that he seems to be more interested in the celebrity aspect of the mayor’s office than actually running the city. That he seems to think, like a lazy preacher, if he speaks on a subject he has done something about it. In Sunday morning’s paper (which arrives at my house Saturday night), Chris Rose said it like this….

“(At his inauguration, Nagin) stood with the two men (Congressman William Jefferson and State Sen. Cleo Fields) made infamous by their wads of suspect cash, which they both told us they would one day explain how they got–but…did I miss that news conference? No doubt, with billions of federal dollars ready to roll into this city, we can all be confident of its proper use.”

“And then (Nagin) disappeared. Back to Neverland. His Isle of Denial. City Hall is on Perdido Street and perdido is Spanish for ‘lost’ and isn’t it fitting?”

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What It Means to Love New Orleans

People are wearing pins on their lapels, a large crescent on which are the words “I know what it means,” underwhich is a heart with a fleur de lis inside, underneath that is “New Orleans.” It’s a song, you no doubt remember: “I Know What It Means to Love New Orleans.”

Love is something you do, Scripture teaches. When David Crosby came as pastor of the FBC of N.O. 10 years ago last month, he led the congregation to post banners up and down St. Charles Avenue with their theme: “Love This City.” These days that church is leading out in a hundred ways toward the rebuilding of this city, particularly in the Baptist Crossroads project of erecting 40 new Habitat homes in the Upper 9th Ward. Thousands of our friends from all over the country are giving much of their summer to make this a reality.

Meanwhile, other churches are on the front line doing all they can. Keith Maddox at West St. Charles Church in Boutte wants you to know that they have facilities for housing groups up to 50 with showers and everything. After the present group leaves, they’ll be ready for your team. Boutte is some 20 miles west of New Orleans on U.S. Highway 90; that was my seminary pastorate 40 years ago and I do love this church. Churches like Oak Park, Metairie, and Highland are also capable of housing groups. Anyone needing contact information on these churches may call our associational offices at 504/282-1428.

Today, Saturday, is the kickoff for the Volunteer Village, a wonderful site for housing groups of church workers coming to help. We’ve spoken of this before (; scroll down a couple of days), and continue to be excited about their capacity to put up 500 people at a time, three meals a day, etc. Maybe the most attractive thing about the VV is that it’s at the foot of Canal Street, right on the river, meaning that when volunteers come in and get their showers, they are close to great restaurants, the Riverwalk shopping center, the Aquarium of the Americas, a movie theater, and some great antique shops.

A fellow named Ricky Graham is tickling the funny bones of locals, teasing us about our accents and mannerisms. Anyone knowing this city and enjoying it for any reason will get a kick out of some of his insights.

“We’ve been through hurricanes, floods, fire, Kimberly Williamson-Butler–what else can we take? Locustses?”

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Off the Canvas

We told you about the cars donated by DaimlerChrysler to the City of New Orleans sometime after the hurricane, and how some of the cars were diverted to personal use by city council members. Now the FBI is getting involved.

DaimlerChrysler AG gave the city 40 vehicles and Ford Motor Company donated another 15. Some were trucks and the rest were sport utility vehicles. All were designated for the use of public agencies and government units such as police and fire departments. Dave Elshoff, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler, said those instructions were given in writing and were stressed verbally to Renee Gill Pratt, city councilwoman who signed for 20 of the cars when they were delivered to Baton Rouge. She kept four for her own use, and gave two each to the remaining council members.

Now, eight months later, it comes to light that Gill Pratt arranged for her four vehicles to be donated to two charities with whom she has close ties, Care Unlimited and the Orleans Metropolitan Housing. The other council members say they scattered theirs around, too. Jay Batt gave one to the Audubon Nature Institute and one to the Lakeview Crime Prevention District. Jacquelyn Clarkson gave one each to St. Paul Lutheran Church and Greater St. Mary Baptist Church, saying both churches were deeply involved in disaster relief. Eddie Sapir gave his cars to Citizens Against Crime and Friends of NORD, both charities. The other councilmembers have kept control of their vehicles, saying they’re used for running errands and such. One of the pastors who received a car said he could never get the title transferred, so the expensive vehicle sits in the church yard unused.

What happened to the other trucks and SUVs? Most are being used as the donors intended, by police and fire departments, parish officers, and the like.

The New Orleans City Council–several members are brand new on the job and were not recipients of those vehicles–have called for the cars to be returned and for the local FBI to take a look. In Friday’s paper, the FBI admitted it is indeed getting involved. Jim Bernazzani, special agent in charge, said normally they would not make a public comment, but in this case the public interest has been aroused to the point he wants everyone to know they are investigating. However, he pointed out, “Being incredibly selfish is not a criminal act in itself.”

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Tough Decisions

Thursday, I ran into Jeffery Friend in the lounge of the seminary’s Hardin Student Center. Wife Stephanie is working at the Lifeway Christian Store just on the other side of the glass, and he seemed to be studying. “I’m working with Jeff Box at Suburban Baptist Church,” he said. East New Orleans. Chef Menteur Highway. “Three blocks away, the flooding started,” he said.

They alternate preaching and leading in the worship services. “We both are used to running the show,” he smiled, “so it’s a learning experience for each of us.” Two pastors, an African-American and an Anglo, leading a damaged church in its rebuilding and restoration. Big task.

What percentage of people in that area have not even touched their homes yet? “Maybe 60 percent.” Lots of FEMA trailers? “All over the place.” Suburban is running 50 or so in attendance. “None of them attended this church before the storm. They’re all new.” A few are members of Jeffery’s flooded church, Hopeview in St. Bernard Parish, who drive in from out of the area.

In the Lifeway Christian Store, manager Brantley quickly agreed to my request to set the stack of cards on “How to Pray for New Orleans” by the cash register for customers to take. He led me into the back of the store where he has stacks of books ready to give to our pastors. “Lifeway sent these to professors who lost their libraries,” he said, “and these were left over.” I assured him if he will bring them to Oak Park Baptist Church next Wednesday at 10 am, not one of those books will be left behind. Many of our pastors lost their libraries and are eager to build new ones.

Recently when talking with New Salem’s Warren Jones, I asked what all the volunteer groups coming to his church were doing. “Rebuilding this church, working in the neighborhood,” he said. I said, “Where are you living?” In a little room near the church, his family still in Texas. I said, “Warren, ask the next group to work on your house. Believe me, friend, these good folks will count it a privilege to bring back your home. They will do it like they were building Jesus’ home.” And they are.

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Wednesday’s Potpourri

Ask a local what “potpourri” (pronounced PO – purree) means and he or she will say, “A little of this, a little of that.” Which is a good description of our Wednesday pastors meetings at Oak Park Baptist Church.

Beginning, I told the pastors and guests of a preacher who had declared bankruptcy recently and how upsetting that was to his members. “Anyone can have money problems,” I assured them, then backed it up with my own tales from the early years of our marriage when neither Margaret nor I wanted to pay the bills because there was never enough money in the bank. “You need help. Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs, because He knew each one needs a buddy. You cannot do this by yourself. You need a friend, a counselor, someone to help you in a crisis.” Pastors are often isolated and bear both their burdens and their joys alone. Then wonder why they get into trouble.

Freddie Arnold presented information on how churches can start home Bible studies, taking advantage of the receptive climate God has given us. He promoted the September 9 “Ridgecrest on the River” when New York’s Gary Frost will be the keynote speaker.

Rudy and Rose French have returned from six weeks in Canada, seeing to some medical needs. “We were shuttled from doctor to doctor,” Rudy said. “It was enough to make you think FEMA had been managing Canadian Health programs.” One result of the runaway heartbeat he’s dealing with these days, Rudy says, is facing his own mortality. “I’m 57, and at the most, I may have 30 more years left. What to do with the rest of my life is a great question.”

Tobey Pitman, project director of Operation NOAH Rebuild, said, “God is so good. Last week I mentioned we need a volunteer to coordinate our food services for the next two years. And Cherry Blackwell stepped up and volunteered.” This Saturday, they are opening Volunteer Village in the World Trade Center downtown, floors 3, 4, and 5 with full accommodations. “We have 400 guests already lined up for next week,” he said, “making this a baptism of fire.” They still have to get the kitchen up and running. It has not been used in five years and needs work. “We need an ice machine,” Tobey said. “Time is of the essence.” He added, “We need a volunteer who can take over the renovation of that kitchen, and getting it inspected and licensed.”

Once everything in Volunteer Village is operational, the cost will be $20 per night per volunteer. This covers 3 meals, badges, supplemental insurance, and parking.

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How Things are in New Orleans

The French Quarter merchants say their business is off 70% from pre-Katrina. When they re-opened following the storm, construction workers filled the gap. Months later, tourists came. Now that that’s slacking off, they’re turning toward the community, asking residents to help them stay afloat. For those who do not know, only a small portion of the French Quarter businesses are the sleazy joints you hear so much of. Most are restaurants, antique shops, t-shirt and souvenir sites, that sort of thing.

One store-owner said, “This summer will tell the tale as to how many businesses down here survive.”

The mayor and city leaders keep saying the city is able to host conventions now, and urge tourists to come in large numbers. I asked a friend who attended a convention in our city recently to tell me her experience. I’m editing it a little.

“The city was in better shape than when we saw it 6 months ago, but it’s plain to see there are still years of work to do here.

“Our room at the Hilton Riverside was $189 per night. We paid $22 per night to self park, leaving us a great distance to walk to the elevator, then even farther through the garage to find our car. The breakfast buffet was $19. The shops in the hotel were closed most of the time while we were there.

“A breakfast meeting where I spoke at the Hilton Garden Inn charged $12.50 for a continental breakfast, all pastries, no meat or eggs.

“The convention printed up a nice map marked with area hotels, restaurants, etc., for all of us. The restaurant list was very short!

“One night after supper, we decided to go to Cafe Du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets. We waited 45 minutes for the trolley and were pleasantly surprised to find it was free. As we walked back to the Hilton Riverside through some of the French Quarter area, we noted the many, many empty or closed businesses. I prayed that Christians would move into that area and put in wholesome stores. We stopped at the Jax Shopping area for the restrooms. Even though it was only 6 pm on a Monday night, the businesses were all closed and the restrooms were locked.

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Making Plans, Getting Wet

Our friend Cathy Pate is visiting, making her annual “Fourth of July” trek to New Orleans. Cathy was in medical school in the late ’80s when I became her pastor in Charlotte, NC. She loves to travel, loves New Orleans, and we enjoy her company. After her arrival Saturday, we gave her the obligatory tour of the devastation of the city, then bought po-boys at Mother’s (that’s a famous restaurant) on Poydras and brought them home. Sunday morning, we worshiped with FBC of New Orleans. Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was just ending their twice-a-month worship service there when we arrived, with members standing in groups, hugging, saying their goodbyes.

Pastor David Crosby introduced two large groups of youth who are spending a week in our city helping to build the houses of the Baptist Crossroads. The worship service was warm and joyful, David’s sermon on “Rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” was first-class, and we all were blessed. “I’d join this church in a minute,” Cathy said.

We ate lunch at the Bourbon House, a nice restaurant one block off Canal Street downtown. Just after we were seated, the bottom dropped out of the heavens and we were treated to a downpour accompanied by all the sound effects of lightning, thunder, and heavy rain. Planted before a large plate glass window, we New Orleanians who have been suffering a drought, enjoyed watching the rain fall, curbs overflow, and tourists scamper up and down the streets, running in and out of cover. Alas, when we arrived home in River Ridge, not a drop had fallen.

Monday morning, David Crosby pulled together several pastors to plan a Prayer Rally for Tuesday evening, August 29, the one-year-anniversary of Katrina’s fateful visit to this part of the world. As the program firms up, we’ll pass along the plans. Right now, we want everyone to calendar this date, for the 7 pm rally at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans on Canal Boulevard.

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It’s hot. Outsiders who take their long weekend to come to New Orleans to help gut out and rebuilt homes are our heroes.

Saturday’s “above the fold” front page headline was “New doctors follow their hearts to N.O.” With Tenet Healthcare putting four of their New Orleans hospitals on the market–the Lindy Boggs and Memorial (Baptist) centers have never reopened since Katrina–doctors who have lived here for decades are departing for greener pastures. But, wonder of wonders, other doctors are coming to town and filling the void. Nicole Giambrone, an LSU resident in pediatrics, says, “It’s an adventure. How many people can say they were here when the city was rebuilt? How many people can say they helped rebuild the health system infrastructure?” Good for you, Dr. Giambrone!

Something similar is happening, I’m confident, with our seminary students. Some are not returning because they have no investment in this city and no reason to want to live in an island of green surrounded by miles of deadness and vacancy. But others are taking the challenge, recognizing that this is the place where God is at work, He never said it would be easy, and by spending two or three years of their seminary training here, nothing about their future ministry will ever be the same. To those churches and parents watching their “children” move to New Orleans to begin their ministerial preparation, we say: encourage them; brag on them; pray for them; support them.

Visitors to our city driving on Interstate 10 in East New Orleans notice off to the South a massive amusement park. Six Flags New Orleans has been lying there vacant and unrepaired since Katrina drowned it in 12 feet of floodwater, creating a big question mark about its future. Saturday, the owners have announced plans to shut it down permanently, in spite of their 75 year lease with the city.

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