Changing Times

The paper says residents of the Lakeview section of New Orleans fear “mansionization.” As flooded, ruined homes are demolished, some people are buying up two or three adjacent lots and building large estates on the property. In most cases, homeowners would welcome that in their neighborhoods. All it does is skyrocket the values of existing homes. Problem is, say the Lakeviewers, the character of our beloved neighborhood would be changed. We want the casual middle-class neighborliness we had before.

And down in St. Bernard Parish, authorities are still trying to keep homeowners from renting to anyone except family members. We don’t want to lose the identity of our neighborhoods, they say. They fear outsiders buying up large sections of the city, then renting out to whoever.

Change is difficult, particularly change that involves our homes and the surrounding community. And our churches.

Every church in metro New Orleans is in the midst of monumental change. Some are embracing the change, some are fighting it, some denying it and some sleeping through it. To paraphrase II Corinthians 5:17 slightly and use it out of context completely, “Old things have passed away and everything is becoming new.” Churches are losing pastors, staffs, key leadership, Sunday School teachers, and financial supporters as they decide to move closer to family or relocate for their jobs or simply get out of Dodge.

Meanwhile, their communities are being transformed as longtime residents move away and outsiders flow in, many of them speaking Spanish or Asian tongues. New pastors are arriving, bringing new ideas and new perspectives on our situation.

There has never been a time or place when the Lord’s teachings on new wine/new wineskins were more applicable than here and now.

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out and the skins be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” (Luke 5:37-38)

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Opened Doors

Bill Day will love this story, I thought Saturday morning. The front-page article in the Times-Picayune was headlined “Local Revival,” and gave a run-down on the churches of each denomination that have been restored or are meeting in some fashion. In addition to pastoring Metairie’s Parkview Baptist Church, Bill is a professor at our Baptist seminary and in charge of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Missions. He and a cadre of students have been compiling statistics on the churches of New Orleans. Then I saw it.

Underneath a large map with every church–every one of them–positioned in the metro area, and with various codes identifying which are open and which are not, in the finest print was this line: “Source: The Rev. Bill Day and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary–Leavell Center; Archdiocese of New Orleans; staff research.”

I was right; Bill will love this story. It’s his story.

Here is the beginning of religion editor Bruce Nolan’s article.

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Fine, Fine People

Early after Katrina, I decided (and publicly announced) that a new facet of my job was connecting people. Churches would call asking us to match them with a local congregation or pastor whom they could assist. People with gifts of material or money would call asking for information on where to send it. That lovely tradition, I’m happy to say, is continuing.

This week, twenty of our churches are receiving $10,000 checks from one congregation not far from here. The amazing part of that story is that this generous church was itself severely hurt by Hurricane Katrina. As their people have returned and restored their church and their community, they’ve reached out to some of our damaged churches. Such wonderful friends.

Sunday, during lunch at Old Union Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, a schoolmate whom I had not seen in nearly 50 years slipped a church offering envelope to me. On the outside, she had written that I should put this where I thought best. Inside were five one-hundred dollar bills. Today, Wednesday, I handed a bill to each of five men of God and said, “It’s from the Lord.”

It’s the part of my job I love best. Serving as the arms and hands of some pretty terrific people.

Wednesday was our final meeting at El Buen Pastor Iglesia Bautista in Metairie, and the ladies in the kitchen did themselves proud with the terrific lunch. Pastor Gonzalo Rodriguez, his lovely wife, and their wonderful members have set new standards of hospitality for churches. In the dining hall, our people spontaneously rose to give a standing ovation to the kitchen staff. We are so blessed by their love and faithfulness. Gonzalo said, “It was an honor for us to serve the men of God in this way.”

Our attendance at the pastors meeting was in the low 30s since another assembly was going on across town. Tom Elliff, vice-president of the International Mission Board, spoke at seminary chapel this morning, then hosted a ministers luncheon at 11:30 to which all our guys were invited. We assured them last week that all who could should attend. Several indicated that they did not plan to go, and with this being our final session at Good Shepherd, Freddie Arnold and I decided to stay with the flock.

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Be Careful, Preacher

This preacher made me mad Monday. While driving back from Alabama, I found a certain preacher on the radio and for some inexplicable reason, listened to his entire broadcast. Perhaps it was because he billed himself as “a true prophet of God for these last days.” Perhaps I lingered to see what kind of egomaniac would be so filled with his own sense of self-importance as to call himself that. Maybe I wanted to see what kind of prophecy he would utter. (I had never heard of him and, I think fortunately, I don’t recall his name.)

Alas, the man lived down to my worst expectations.

He was all negative. “The church is backslidden,” he said repeatedly, adding that “we are in the Laodicaean period of church history.” This reference is strictly a conjecture from preachers with time on their hands that the seven churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2 and 3) actually represent seven stages of Christian history. There is not a single strand of evidence for that, but for those who enjoy negative preaching–delivering it and hearing it–the thought has a certain appeal.

Over and over the preacher slammed the Christian church. At the end of the broadcast, when they identified the church he pastors in Jacksonville, Florida, I found myself wondering if the smearing he did of the whole church also applies to the congregation he leads. What do you want to bet it doesn’t.

The preacher was dead certain of other false doctrines, too, such as the probability of backsliders losing their salvation. He quoted and misquoted scripture to prove his point. I kept wondering, “What about the Lord’s statement in John 10:28-29 that ‘no man’ or ‘no one’ can snatch them out of His hand.”

Sure enough, he mentioned those verses. Well, actually, he made a less than respectful reference to them. He admitted that the devil cannot get you out of the Lord’s hand and that no one else can, but you can do it yourself. Interesting bit of theology. The devil isn’t, and other people aren’t, but I am stronger than God, according to him. I can do what no one else can: I can make me lose my salvation.

I wish I could have a few minutes with that preacher to ask a couple of questions. If one loses his salvation, can he get it back? Show me one person in all the Bible who lost his salvation and then was saved a second time? Hebrews 6:6 says it is impossible for someone to be saved twice if he were to lose his salvation.

I’d like to ask him: why don’t you read the whole Bible before you start preaching your pet doctrines? And after you have read it, why not believe it? Jesus said, “He who believes on the Son of God has everlasting life.” (John 3:36) How simpler could He put it? But if I can have it and lose it and get it back and lose it again, friend, it ain’t eternal!

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Caregivers Get Sick and Need Healing, Too

I’ve told you about Chris Rose, the former humor columnist for the Times-Picayune whose life was forever changed by Katrina and her aftermath. He still writes for the paper and he still possesses the quickest wit on this side of the globe, but he’s forever changed. Now we know why.

Driving in from North Alabama Monday afternoon, I heard someone on New Orleans talk radio refer to Rose’s Sunday column. Late that night, I was comfortably in bed and de-stressing from a long drive when my son Neil called to say I should read Rose’s column. Tuesday morning, I did.

“I pulled into the Shell station on Magazine Street,” Rose begins, “my car running on fumes. I turned off the motor. And then I sat there. There were other people pumping gas at the island I had pulled into and I didn’t want them to see me, didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to nod hello, didn’t want to interact in any fashion.”

“Outside the window, they looked like characters in a movie. But not my movie. I tried to wait them out, but others would follow, get out of their cars and pump and pay and drive off, always followed by more cars, more people. How can they do this, like everything is normal, I wondered. Where do they go? What do they do?”

“It was early August and two minutes in my car with the windows up and the air conditioner off was insufferable. I was trapped, in my car and in my head. So I drove off with an empty tank rather than face strangers at a gas station.”

Trapped. Empty tank. Good metaphors, Chris. After beginning with this classic incident of depression, Rose interrupts to confess he never believed in depression or taking pills. That was for desperate housewives and fragile poets, he writes.

No longer. “Not since I fell down the rabbit hole myself and enough hands reached down to pull me out.”

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De-spooking New Orleans

“Are you going to mention the guy who killed his girlfriend and cut her up and cooked her?”

I wasn’t planning to. It’s been in all the news this week, and Thursday, the Times-Picayune gave it most of the front page and several full pages inside.

“You might as well. The nation is talking about it.”

At Gentilly Baptist Church Thursday night, visiting with the Arkansas Baptists who have made one end of the educational building their headquarters for rebuilding this city, I noticed one of the ladies engrossed in our newspaper, reading every word of this sordid story. On my drive home, scanning the radio dial for the last game of the National League Championship Series, I came across some talk show host in some city gruesomely savoring each detail of this story. What got me was his comment at the end. “New Orleans most definitely did not need this. I mean, it’s always been a spooky city to me. And now this.”

I will spare you most of the details. The essence of the story is that 28 year old Zackery Bowen took his life Tuesday night by jumping off the top of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in the quarter. In his pocket, police found a suicide note instructing them to go to his apartment at 826 No. Rampart, located over a French Quarter voodoo shop, where they would find the body of his 30 year old girl friend, Adriane “Addy” Hall, whom he had strangled. What they found was a dead body, dismembered, and worse. Some of the body pieces lay in cooking pans with spices sprinkled on top. No evidence of cannibalism, police say, as though this were good news.

In his note, Bowen wrote, “This is not accidental. I had to take my own life to pay for the one I took.”

As if that would. Were she my daughter, ten deaths like his would not atone for the life of my child.

Horrible story. Shocking in every aspect. Bowen said he was a failure in everything he tried, and even listed them: school, jobs, military, marriage, parenthood, morals, love. Friends say he served in Iraq and Bosnia while in the military, although this has not been confirmed.

Would you let me make one minor point here: he came to New Orleans from Los Angeles. He left his wife and two children and moved here. So, don’t blame it all on New Orleans.

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Wednesday’s Potpourri

Here’s the plan for the future pastors meetings. We will assemble one more Wednesday, October 25, at Good Shepherd (Spanish) Baptist Church. Then, the first three Wednesdays of November (Nov. 1, 8, and 15) we are the guests of the New Orleans Chinese Baptist Church which is actually located in Kenner. (See directions below) We will skip November 22, Thanksgiving Eve, as many people will be out of town. After that, we move to the associational offices at 2222 Lakeshore Drive in New Orleans. The plan is to meet there each week at 10 am, but have lunch only the first Wednesday of the month. Got that? And at this point, we don’t see beyond this arrangement.

There’s too much going on of too great importance to drop back to monthly meetings.

The Chinese Baptist Church is located on Continental Drive in Kenner. Drive west on West Esplanade, past the Esplanade Mall, across Chateau Boulevard, past the Kenner Library on your right. As you pass Anastasia Alexander Elementary on your right, look for Continental on your left. The church is the second building down that street. Hong Fu Liu is the pastor and he promises great Chinese eating.

We have been spoiled. Last Fall when we began these weekly gatherings in LaPlace, the wonderful secretary Karrie would do the lunches alone, sometimes ordering po-boys, sometimes cooking lasagna and preparing a salad. It was terrific and everything we could have asked for. Then, for May through July, we met at Oak Forest Baptist Church, a congregation with a lot of senior volunteers who delighted in feeding the preachers. So the meals kicked up a notch. We’ve met at Good Shepherd since July, and these wonderful people are setting impossible standards. In addition to the incredible Hispanic meals, fresh flowers adorn every table. If we stay there much longer, I expect to see waiters at each table taking orders!

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A Lesson from the Coach

Tuesday, up to Nashville and back, via Southwest Airlines. Met with some of our best friends at Lifeway to discuss future support for our Baptist work here. Nothing to announce yet.

In the airport, standing in line to board for the return trip, Karen Campbell introduced herself. She and husband Kelly are NAMB missionaries to Appalachia in East Tennessee and Karen has been volunteering in the office of Operation NOAH Rebuild. She’ll be here for 10 days this time. Where are you staying? In an RV there at the office. How will you get there tonight? Steve and Dianne Gahagan are picking me up. Where is Kelly? Representing us at a church meeting in Columbia, TN.

And now a few words about the new New Orleans Saints.

It’s not so much that the team is 5-1 on the year so far. And it’s not just that the Saints beat big-time rival Atlanta on our first time back in the Dome and last Sunday, the powerhouse Philadelphia Eagles. The fact is the team was 5-1 just four years ago, in 2002 (before losing the final three games of the season and failing to make the playoffs). And in 1991, they started the season with a straight 7 wins (and, as I recall, got knocked out of the playoffs in the first game). But there’s something very special about the team this year.

Coach Sean Payton is not like any coach we’ve ever had. A front page article in Tuesday’s Times-Picayune elaborates on just how he is different. What this tells us about Coach Payton is a something I wish every pastor in America would take note of.

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Just Do What You Can

Fall finally arrived in New Orleans Friday. My system for identifying the return of our favorite season is simply the first day the temperature does not get out of the 70s. It was a glorious day. And yes, Friday the 13th. Unlucky? Back in 1962, April 13 was a Friday when Margaret and I tied the knot at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham. Pretty good day, if you ask me.

Friday, Shannon called our office. She identified herself and said she was in a hotel downtown. “I’m leaving town later today and I didn’t want to leave without doing something to help New Orleans. So, do you know of a church where I could volunteer for a couple of hours? I’ll take a taxi.” I thought for a few seconds. Fridays, most churches pretty well have their stuff done for the weekend and may not need any help. Shannon said, “I’ve called a long list of churches and no one needs me.” Then I thought of the perfect answer.

Shannon took a taxi across the river and worked in the offices of Operation NOAH Rebuild. Office manager Dianne Gahagan said, “We can always give a volunteer work to do. It might be running the copier or collating material.” Shannon assured us she would love it.

Interesting lady, I think you will agree.

Thursday, a phone call came from Lori in North Carolina. After Katrina, she had personally assisted several of our residents during the evacuation and was continuing to help them. One particular lady, she said, has moved back to New Orleans and it’s not working out. With the decline in business here, the woman cannot find work in her field and can’t support herself. She’s lined up a place to live in Baton Rouge and Lori called to see if I can find a couple of guys with pickup trucks to move her next week.

Friday, Lori sent a note listing precisely what items the lady wants moved so we can see that two pickup trucks should get the job done. Then I received a call from a friend in the offices of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge. Lori had called Donald Davis saying that we were going to be moving the woman to B.R., and she would need their help in finding work for the lady.

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Looking for Signs? We Got ’em.

If you’re a television watcher, you know Harry Anderson. He starred as the judge of Night Court and then in Dave’s World before retiring to New Orleans and opening a curio shop. Long before he made it big, Harry did magic in the French Quarter and later married a young lady from Baton Rouge. He is a character in every sense of the word, but let’s admit it, this is a city that welcomes characters. Anyway, Harry is moving away.

For one thing, his customer base has eroded. Then, he received a bill from the power company for the electrical service for his storage building, a location that has only two drop lights. The bill was for $7,339.77. He paid someone to stand in a long line at Entergy’s office. The bill was dropped to $15. Other people do not have the means to hire stand-ins such as he did, Anderson said.

Anderson was disappointed when the citizenry re-elected Ray Nagin as mayor. He says he was hoping the mayor would go on television and make the energy and insurance companies do the right thing, “but he was busy endorsing William ‘Dollar Bill’ Jefferson instead. Not quietly and not ignominously, but at a press conference.” Anderson is not in a mood to be kind to Nagin. “Joseph Heller could not have written a more bizarre scene,” he says, referring to Nagin’s act of erasing any evidence that he was not going to be another run-of-the-mill politician. The re-election of what he calls “Car 54,” our mayor, was the last straw. They’ve sold out and are moving to Asheville, North Carolina.

One more sign that things here are not good. Here’s another. Orleans Parish Criminal Judge Charles Elloie (pronounced El-waa) has just been suspended by the Louisiana Supreme Court pending an investigation into his bizarre practice of reducing bail or throwing bail requirements out altogether for criminals with long histories of bad deeds. The Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local group of citizens who serve as watchdogs over our police and judiciary, had long complained about this man who set himself up as a law above all other judges. One case in point…

[Name removed by request] was arrested on March 29, 2005, and charged with the aggravated rape of his 10-year-old sister. I mean, is this a bad crime or what? Less than four hours after his arrest, Judge Elloie released him on a personal recognizance bond. This means he doesn’t have to put up any money unless he fails to show up for his trial. After the public learned of this and raised a stink, the judge backtracked and set bond at $100,000.

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