My Friends Toby

The other day, Freddie Arnold was telling the pastors about the iron bell his wife had bought at an antiques store years ago and how it was the only thing he had salvaged from his flooded East New Orleans home. When he finished, I told my “bell” story.

My parents used to have this large cast iron bell mounted on a post behind their farmhouse. About 15 minutes before time for lunch, someone would go outside and pull the rope and ring it. The sound carried a mile in every direction, so my mule and I could hear it way down in the bottomland we were plowing. Now Toby, my mule, knew what the bell meant. His ears perked up and he wasn’t worth shooting after that. As long as he was pulling the plow toward the exit, he made double time. But if I was trying to complete this section and still had a few rows to go before knocking off for lunch, he resisted all attempts to turn him.

Finally, when I pulled his harness off and whopped him across the backside, he literally ran up the long hill toward home, displaying more energy in a few minutes than he had expended all morning. By the time I arrived at the house, Toby would have eaten the nubbins in the trough which someone had laid for him and was rolling in the dust.

In Isaiah 1, God said, “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey knows his master’s crib, but Israel does not know. My people do not understand.”

Some people are dumber than a mule. They’ve gotten themselves lost and do not know how to get to the Father. It’s our job to find them and show them the way. The Lord Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost.” And, “As the Father hath sent me, so send I you.”

After the meeting, Tobey Pitman approached me. “So you had a mule named Toby.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you spell yours T-o-b-e-y and my mule spelled his T-o-b-y.”

Tobey Pitman is a career NAMB missionary who has directed the work of the Brantley Center–sheltering, feeding, and discipling the homeless of this city–for several decades. These days with so few homeless in the city and due to the low water pressure downtown, the center is closed and Tobey is overseeing Operation NOAH Rebuild for the North American Mission Board. And for the Lord, of course. And for us. He’s a great guy and we are all so indebted to him.

Last night my phone rang. “Hi Joe. This is Toby.” I paused. “Toby?” “Yep.” “Toby Wood?” I thought I recognized that voice. “Of course, how many Toby’s do you know?” I said, “Oh, three or four.”

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Who We Are and Why This Matters

Updated 9/29/06: Please note the correction at the bottom of this article.

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Wednesday morning at our weekly pastors meeting, we began with a question: Who’s not sleeping at night? Or, Who keeps waking up in the middle of the night?

We handed the microphone to the half dozen who raised their hands. “Family problems,” one said. A daughter with medical needs and a son who needs to get his life right with the Lord, then marry the mother of his child. “The world situation,” another said. A third said, “I’m lonely.” His wife is in Heaven and he lives alone. “I lie awake thinking about Heaven,” he said, eager to be there.

I didn’t go into my reasons for waking up in the middle of the night, but I expect they are typical. I lie there thinking of what I need to do the next day, of tasks I did not complete the day before. Sometimes I get up and make a list of people to call and work to do, and it seems to settle my mind. This morning, I rose and wrote two letters and drew a cartoon that was on my mind–is there anyone else on the planet, I wonder, who wakes up with a cartoon bugging him?–and by then, it was time to get up anyway.

The cartoon? I had been half awake praying for the meetings we’d scheduled for today, one at 8:30, the pastors at 10, and another session after lunch. I asked the Lord to give me good recall for names, and this came to mind. A group of people are sitting around a boardroom table. One fellow is saying, “I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, so tell me again: who are you people, what are we doing here, and why does it matter?”

Okay, I was gone only one week, but it felt like a month.

Anxiety and worry are types of fears. And we know what the Word says about fear, don’t we. “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.” I call that the PLUS of Christian living: Power, Love, Sound mind. II Timothy 1:7.

We’re not to fear the forces of darkness; He has given us power.

We’re not to fear other people; He has given us love.

We’re not to fear the unknown; He has given us a sound mind.

How many times in Scripture do we read the command, “Fear not”? You’d think we’d get the idea.

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More Tuesdays Like This, Please

Margaret and I returned home from New Mexico Monday evening about suppertime after two of the smoothest flights on record. Julie and the three grand-kids met us at the airport with the kind of welcome every human on the planet should experience at least once. On the streets, I noticed gasoline had dropped by ten to twenty cents. Several stations were advertising $2.05 for regular, which I never expected to see again.

While we were out, elves came in and transformed our house. It’s mostly brick, but there’s plenty of wood trim which needed painting badly. It was a soft green, now it’s bright white and the front door a dark burgundy. These elves, known in life as my brother Ron of Birmingham and his terrific son-in-law J.P. Hollingsworth of Warrior, Alabama, had made repairs all over the house and replaced the fold-down attic door. They even painted the patio swing. It’s like a new house. Best of all, we did not have to endure any of the clutter. Our “helpers” arrived a few hours before we left last Monday and departed the following Saturday before our return Monday.

The weather was cool. The house is wonderful. Later that evening, the Saints blew the Atlanta Falcons away in the “brand new” Superdome. Gas is affordable again.

The grandchildren watched as I opened a week’s worth of mail. “Let’s see if anyone sent me any money,” I said. That drew them in closer. Money they know about. “Ah, here’s a check for…four hundred dollars.” They clamored, “Let me see,” and started reaching. To my amazement, below it was another for seven hundred. And another for three hundred. And more after that. This little windfall was actually refunds from our health insurer and I’d been expecting it. But it was sure nice to see.

Quite the welcome home. We may go out and come in again.

In New Mexico, I spoke at a pastors conference hosted by WordSearch, the computer software company serving ministers. These had to have been some of the nicest people on the planet. When old friends–such as Nashville’s Windy Rich–heard I was bound for Glorieta, the envy was palpable. Anyone who has ever spent a week at this incredible conference center has vivid memories of its mountains, wooded hillsides, cool air, worship services in the huge chapel, and lasting friendships formed.

While we were there, another conference was being held on the grounds at the same time. ARMM is a ministry of the Nazarene Church for their retirees. As I recall, it comes out to “Association of Retired Ministers and Missionaries.” In the large dining hall, we shared meals with veteran missionaries to Iran and American Samoa. I suggested tongue-in-cheek that they begin an organization called “Ladies Elegantly and Gladly Glorified,” which would give their denomination an ARMM and a LEGG.

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Rewriting the History of August 29th: A Prayer

Ruth Hernandez of our Louisiana Baptist Convention office in Alexandria sends this along:

Rewriting the History of August 29th: A Prayer

Thank you for letting me understand homelessness, living without power, without television, without cool air in the heat;

Thank you for letting me understand hunger, the leisure of dry clean clothes and the relief of a place to sleep.

Thank you for letting me understand the deep and overwhelming sadness when forces, beyond our personal control, take the loved, the familiar, the usual.

Thank you for my needfulness and for my newfound empathy for those homeless before the storm and homeless now and for those hungry anywhere, for those in need everywhere.

Thank you for the opportunity you provided to help my neighbor, to be my brother’s keeper, to serve food, to patch roofs, to clean yards, and to start mending that which was broken.

Thank you for the chance to change ourselves,

for a reprieve from the normal, commercial day,

for teaching us to make do,

to get by,

to improvise,

for drowning our conceit,

complacency,

callousness,

for silencing the noise,

for stopping the clock,

and for the chance to act our best

when the worst occurred.

Thank you for the people who reached in, pulled out the living, cradled the dead, comforted the broken and torn apart, wept for the splintered and uprooted. Thank you for the people who didn’t wait to come right away, who opened their homes, who emptied their shelves, their closets, who cleaned, fed, healed, held us, who told us our spirit was amazing, and who keep on coming.

Thank you for the people who measure their faith by their actions, and measure their actions by its consistency with their faith.

Thank you for all the people we have met, who are new friends, new Loved ones, new brothers and sisters, new neighbors.

Thank you, KATRINA.

Not for the wind,

not for the water,

but for the appreciation of the things no storm can shatter,

no water can wash away,

no wind can move.

Written by Tom Teel and Reilly Morse

Tom Teel and Reilly Morse are local attorneys in Gulfport, MS.

Faith is not believing that God can. It is knowing that God will.

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It’s a God thing!!

Steve and Ann Corbin are MSC (to Southern Baptists, that means “Mission Service Corps”, self-supporting) missionaries, natives of South Carolina, working with Global Maritime Ministries in New Orleans. They are such an inspiration to us all.

This is their most recent newsletter to their friends and supporters — Joe

It’s a God thing!!

Had to tell this story. Steve and I have been praying about how to reach the port workers with the gospel. Seafarers are one thing. They generally want to come to the center and hang out and therefore we can talk with them about Christ. However, the port workers are a different story. We generally only see them when we check in at the front gate and their schedules are rarely the same each week. It may be a couple of weeks or more when you can see them again. In other words it is hard to establish any type of relationship. Our church has just started the study, “The Purpose Driven Life” and it dawned us that this would be a great tool to reach out to them. The book speaks to life isues and very plainly presents the gospel in an easy and understanding way. The guards(who we mostly come in contact with) have a lot of dead time, especially at night, when they would be more willing to read and ponder the questions at the end of the book.

Now to the good stuff!

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God’s Call to Serve the First United Baptist Church, New Orleans, LA

Gilbert Taeger is pastor of the Morningside Baptist Church in Yuma, Arizona. Recently, he and several members of his church spent a week in New Orleans on a mission trip, working with Pastor Marshall Truehill and the First United Baptist Church. After their return home, he wrote up a report and shared it with their congregation. I thought you’d be inspired by it as I was — Joe

God’s Call to Serve the First United Baptist Church, New Orleans, LA

Henry Blackaby says, “You can’t join God where He is working and stay where you are at spiritually in your life and mindset.” Certainly for Morningside Baptist Church we could not join God where He was working and where He had called us to join Him, and remain spiritually and geographically where we were. So August 21-28 our second mission team traveled to New Orleans, LA to serve the people and community close to First United Baptist Church.

Shortly after hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, Morningside received an offering for our Disaster Relief effort as a result of Katrina. The folks gave $4,300.00 to send on to help our Disaster Relief teams have food and needed supplies to help the hurting people. We, with determination, said yes to our North American Mission Board to adopt a church suffering from Katrina’s destruction. This was on October 2, 2005 our church made this most important decision. Our giving and generous people, even before we knew the name of our church’s assignment, pledged $1,000.00 each month for the next year above our budget and other offerings we normally receive.

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The Local Situation re: Gutting Houses

People who’ve been to New Orleans to help and some headed this way shortly read this blog to keep up with the local situation. Which makes me want to say two things: 1) what you read here is a tiny sliver of the way things are here. Sorry. So much is going on all the time. And 2) I try to sift through everything and report the most important.

The headline in Monday morning’s paper reads, “Need for house gutting seems endless in N.O.” I’ve reported here that Steve Gahagan and Tim Agee of NAMB’s Operation NOAH Rebuild are no longer taking requests for house gutting. They say we have a backlog of hundreds and finishing them with volunteers will take months. Steve adds, “We don’t want to promise something we don’t do. If we agree to gut your house, we want to be faithful.”

Stephen Bradberry of a community activist organization called ACORN was on radio recently offering their free house-gutting services. Since then, they have received a thousand requests, on top of the thousand or so homes already on their waiting list. A thousand homes is a full year’s work, he said. But they’re still accepting applications.

Reporter Valerie Faciane writes, “Phones are ringing at other agencies offering the same services, but many have had to close their waiting lists for lack of volunteers, raising the specter that ruined housing is going to be a feature of the New Orleans landscape for some time to come.”

Bradberry says he is convinced that a lot of displaced residents learned for the first time by his radio broadcast that the city had imposed an August 29 deadline for homeowners to start the process of rebuilding their homes or risk having them demolished.

At the moment, volunteers are almost non-existent in the city. The United Methodist agency here has gutted 185 homes and has 994 on a waiting list, but does not have a single volunteer scheduled for September. They say at the current rate, completing the houses on their list would take 3 to 4 years. The good news is that 20 volunteer teams have signed up from October through December. More are needed.

A spokesman for Operation Blessing, the relief agency of Pat Robertson’s Virginia Beach ministry, blames mainstream media for distorting the situation on the Gulf Coast. People throughout America think no progress is being made because the media does not report the success stories. Some are led to believe people in the affected areas do not deserve help because they’re not helping themselves.

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All the King’s Men and Women

Some of the leaders of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention are in town this week, I hear. Executive Director Emil Turner and DR leader Darwin Bacon have been some of New Orleans’ best friends over the past year. I regret not being around to welcome them. (see below)

“All the King’s Men” is the title of the Robert Penn Warren prize-winning novel of a couple of generations ago based loosely, we’re told, on the life and career of Louisiana’s Huey P. Long who was gunned down in our state capitol in 1935. Saturday night, a premiere of the new movie based on that book was staged at Tulane University’s McAlister Auditorium. Crowds lined the streets and cheered Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, James Gandolfini, and New Orleans’ own Patricia Clarkson whose mother Jacqueline Clarkson served as a New Orleans Council member until being defeated this year.

A few years back, Louisiana figured out some things it could do to make movie-making here easier and cheaper, so we’ve had a steady influx of Hollywood folks ever since. One day this week I noticed an item in the newspaper that a new Rob Lowe film is needing extras and citizens are invited to apply.

I suppose this is a good thing. Depends on the movie, I guess. Movie-makers hire locals and stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and that puts money into our economy which can use all the help it can get. On the other hand, this may not be the best time to remind the nation of Louisiana’s tradition of political deal-making and money-grabbing as held true in the Huey P. Long era. As a teenager, I read a magazine article which called Long the only dictator America has ever had.

Drive around the New Orleans area and one thing that hits you is the loss of trees, one of the most distinctive aspects of this city for generations. They’re still here, but certainly not in the profusion we formerly enjoyed. The storm destroyed thousands of trees, then those that survived became victims of overzealous utility workers who disfigured them clearing out rights of way for the powerlines. (Eventually, the government had to step in and order this abuse to stop.) In some cases, homeowners decided the trees in their yard would be detriments in the case of another hurricane, so had them cut down.

Sunday’s Times-Picayune has tree professionals and forestry activists calling for the community to get busy protecting our trees by putting new regulations into place and adopting a zero-tolerance policy regarding tree-maiming. This should be a critical area of recovery, we’re told.

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Why, Certainly You’re Invited

We expected the attendance at Wednesday’s pastors meeting to be down since some 15 of us were attending the “Standing Strong in the Storms of Life” retreat in Mobile. Freddie and Elaine Arnold drove to the retreat Tuesday but there they were in our meeting this morning, along with Alberto and Romy Rivera, all of whom had driven the nearly three hours from Mobile in time for our ten o’clock beginning. We started the meeting with 20 present and soon had about twice that number.

Freddie reported on the retreat and announced that he and I will be out some this fall, attending state conventions and associations to encourage volunteers to come help rebuild this city. The final figures on Ridgecrest on the River: 289 registered, all of whom gave glowing evaluations on the conferences they attended. He urged churches to turn in their Annual Church Profiles, which is the means of our association and the denomination knowing attendance numbers, varieties of ministries, and names of leaders of our churches.

Alberto Rivera: We now have a great opportunity for church planting in this region. We held a Bible study in an apartment complex Saturday where lots of Mexican workers are living. If you have an apartment complex or hotel near your church, look for an entrance to begin reaching the residents. Do a windshield survey of your neighborhood. Drive around and see who lives there and what they are doing. Find people we can target as a focus group.

Alberto continues to promote the October 5-6 “Vision Tour.” Outside pastors and potential church starters will join us on the tour of neighborhoods needing new churches. On Thursday, October 5, we’ll cover Baton Rouge, Denham Springs, Hammond, and the area north of Lake Pontchartrain. On Friday the 6th, we’ll begin in Slidell and move into the New Orleans area. We need some local pastors to be hosts and consider co-sponsoring new churches. Contact Alberto in our associational office.

Linda Williams: In November, I’ll be speaking to a group of pastors’ wives in Oklahoma who want to minister to the wives here. I’m asking the pastors to get me information on their wives, preferably a short bio and a photo. The Oklahomans will pray for them and occasionally write them notes of encouragement.

Joe Williams: Any pastors interested in the ministry fatigue workshops, contact me. We can hold them on a Sunday or any convenient day. We just finished one (“Preparing for Storms in a Post-Katrina World”) for the members of Edgewater Baptist Church, and have another scheduled for the community this Sunday. The last date for possible workshops will be November 5. You need to allow 3 hours.

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A God Who is Near

One of the ways I know when the Lord is working overtime to get a message across to me is when He sends the same word by different means.

I’ve mentioned here about the time some months ago when I was driving to our associational offices along Elysian Fields Avenue and began to weep. I said, “Lord, it’s not just that drug store or that fast food place. It’s not this house or that house. It’s the whole thing. It’s just so overwhelming, and I don’t know what to do about it.” At that moment the Lord spoke to my heart: “This is not about you. It’s about me.”

I cannot put into words how liberating that was.

I mentioned here that last Saturday, Dr. Gary Frost of New York City brought a message to our conference at First Baptist Church-New Orleans entitled, “It Ain’t About You.” The very same point the Lord has been emphasizing to me.

Then Monday night, it came again. Dr. Wayne Barber, pastor of Albuquerque’s Hoffmantown Baptist Church, was bringing a Bible study to a group of our Gulf Coast pastors and spouses at the Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile. About 15 couples from our New Orleans association accepted the invitation for two nights, three days, and I went over for the first 24 hours. Tuesday, Freddie Arnold drove over and took my room and I returned home. I’ve known Wayne since he and I were staffers at neighboring churches in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1970s. He’s as fine as they come. We share one other thing in common. We both write (and I draw) for Pulpit Helps magazine, a pastors’ monthly, whose parent company, AMG International, co-sponsored this retreat.

Wayne took his text from Galatians 2:20. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

“You can’t, but He can,” Wayne told the ministers and wives, most of whom had lost their churches and homes in Katrina, and are facing mammoth tasks of rebuilding homes, restoring churches, and reviving their communities. “You can’t, but He can–because He lives in you,” he said. “We lose heart and quit when we lose our focus.” The exact point Gary Frost made repeatedly Saturday.

We hear you, Heavenly Father. Loud and clear.

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