Good News: The Check is in the Mail (Sort of)

The 2006 hurricane season ends today, November 30. With a whimper, thankfully.

After the record-breaking 2005 season, the one bringing us Wilma, Katrina, Rita, and several of their siblings, we welcomed the peace and quiet of this year. The experts, you might recall, had predicted 2006 would bring us from 13 to 16 named storms (we had 9), with 8 to 10 of these being full-blown hurricanes (we had 5). They–that is, the National Weather Service–had said we should expect 4 to 6 major hurricanes. We had 2.

One forecaster had warned that the probability of a major hurricane hitting somewhere along Katrina-land’s Gulf Coast this year was a whopping 47 percent. Wonder what new line of work he is considering.

Now, compare all of that with the predictions of the same government bureau for the year 2005. They called for 11-15 named storms; we had 28. They predicted 6 to 9 hurricanes; we had 15. And they said we should expect from 2 to 4 major hurricanes. We had 7.

Some years ago, after the forecasters badly missed a call on a hurricane–I forget the details–I had the custodian at our Kenner church post this message on the giant sign fronting Williams Boulevard: “My son is a weather forecaster. Pray he will find honest work.”

Is it all right if we say the obvious here? They don’t have a clue.

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Big Job, Little Me, Great God

Tuesday evening, one of our television news programs which conducts an internet poll each week on topics of local interest announced the results of their latest question: “Are you thinking of moving away from this area?” Of the 2,000 people who responded, 60 percent said “Yes” and 40 percent “No.”

From time to time, I hear pastors say their key leaders are moving away. One sat in my office earlier this week and said his church was about to lose a number of veteran leaders.

Then, Wednesday morning’s Times-Picayune reported a University of New Orleans survey which found that one-third of the population of both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes are considering leaving over the next two years. Professor Susan Howell was surprised at this finding, she says, because the people who were called were the very ones you would expect to stay. The phone survey used land lines, which ruled out cell phones which are the life-lines, so to speak, of residents in FEMA trailers.

How does that line go? “I feel like all the ships are deserting a sinking rat.”

There is plenty of good news from our churches, although it seems to be mixed in with less welcome news.

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Christmas Meanderings

I was just wondering this morning.

Up in Heaven, is it possible that members of the Heavenly Host are reporting to God that His numbers are down.

“Lord, it’s this Earth thing. This war with Satan has been dragging on for thousands of years now, and well, everyone is getting tired.”

“Lord, we remember that after the Savior died on Calvary, He announced, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ But it wasn’t accomplished. The enemy was still around and active. If anything, he has done more damage since you announced victory than before. Some are saying you should be embarrassed by that premature announcement.”

“This feels like another Viet Nam or Iraq, Lord. If the end is in sight, you’re the only one who can see it.”

“The Axis of Evil seems as strong as ever. The world, the flesh, and the devil are still putting up strong resistance, Lord. And the insurgency–they’re causing major havoc within the ranks of our own people.”

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Everyone has a Story; Tell Yours

My wife and I were teaching the newlywed Sunday School class at First Baptist Kenner and Christmas was approaching. As with most pastors, I’m a sucker for a great Christmas story, but that year I had ransacked all the collections of Yuletide tales on my shelves and nothing had caught my attention. So I asked the young couples, “Do any of you have a favorite Christmas story?” Carrie and Gaylen Fuller looked at each other and smiled. Carrie said, “Our family has one we call the ‘Brown-Bag Christmas.'”

When she finished telling the story, I was hooked. That week, I called an older member of her family for more details and wrote up the account. Since then, it has appeared in several publications. That was three or four years ago. Last week, I started looking for a good story of Christmas, one that hasn’t been worked to death by overtelling or that doesn’t offend you by its schmaltziness, and remembered the “Brown-Bag Christmas.” Yesterday, as I write, I spent an hour trying to find it without success.

I came home at the end of a long day and asked my wife if she had gotten the mail. She said, “Yes, your Pulpit Helps magazine came today.” On the kitchen counter lay this monthly preacher’s journal which has been a mainstay in my ministry for over 30 years since one of their very first editors, Joe Walker, a seminary class-mate, asked me to submit cartoons. Ever since, they’ve run my cartoons–and interestingly, no one else’s–and frequently, have run my articles. Scanning the “table of contents,” I was struck by the line that read, “Page 12 — The Brown-Bag Christmas.” It was my story. Okay, Carrie Dryden Fuller’s story.

Here’s the story.

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For Those Who Like Facts

A few days ago our article, “The Misrepresenting of Billy Graham,” was posted on our website. We invited anyone with information on who wrote the spurious account claiming Mr. Graham went into the French Quarter preaching the gospel following his March 12 appearance in the New Orleans Arena, to leave that information in the “comments” section following.

Today, a local pastor told me who wrote the false story. At his request, I’m leaving names out of it. The author of the article is not someone I know, but he appears to be upset that the Graham team did not go into the French Quarter with the gospel, but instead holed up in the New Orleans Arena and invited everyone to “come hear us preach.” My pastor friend indicates that he and the author have had similar conversations in which they agreed to disagree on this subject.

My understanding is that the man wrote the article and that he mailed it out to many pastors and churches in the New Orleans area. We would have to ask him what his motives were, and will have to let the Lord be the judge of those motives. That suits me fine; I have enough trouble watching over my own.

I have gone to that article on my website and left an explanation to clear it up. The bad news is that this fake news-release the “concerned soulwinner” wrote is now circulating planet Earth, leaving people with false impressions of what happened in New Orleans. In fact, today, Monday, I received an e-mail from a leader of our Louisiana Baptist Convention asking if I knew whether that article was true or not.

If indeed the author-of-the-article wrote this out of resentment over Christians not heading to the French Quarter for soulwinning ministry–and it would appear to be what he did–I would say he reminds us of some church members we have known over the years who started weekly church visitation and soon became angry at all the other members who were not joining in that ministry. Sometimes, the most critical and mean-spirited person you’ll ever meet is a lazy, back-slidden church member who suddenly wakes up and gets busy for the Lord, then turns around and sees a lot of people precisely the way he was a few days ago.

My suggestion to such a church member is to keep working steadily for the Lord for a few years, then you will earn the right to turn around and rebuke the stragglers and urge the believers onward.

I keep thinking, however, of one of the last conversations the disciples had with Jesus. The Lord was telling Simon Peter what he could expect in the future, when Peter pointed out the Apostle John. “Lord, what about him?” he asked. Jesus’ answer still works for us today. “What is that to you?” He said. “You follow me.” (John 21:21-22)

Would you like some numbers? I have numbers to end all numbers.

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The Last Sunday in November

Some of our historic New Orleans restaurants have relocated to the Northshore, around Covington or Slidell, and are drawing in the customers, according to a front page article in Sunday’s Times-Picayune. I expect there’s a lot of that happening in other cities, too, from Houston to Dallas to Memphis, as New Orleanians decide either not to return or to wait until the city boasts enough residents to support them.

The Steve Kelley editorial cartoon in Sunday’s paper shows the Grinch, labeled IRS, taking down the children’s stockings from the mantel (marked “Road Home”). The various stockings are labeled “G-R-A-N-T-S.”

Still no letters to the editor about the Joshua and Delores Thompson fiasco, although columnist Jarvis DeBerry gives it his attention. He has no new information, but repeats the Associated Press story of this couple bilking the Memphis church out of the new house then reselling it, but he clothes the account in a biblical story. The Matthew 25 account of the tenants investing the talent entrusted to them and the one servant burying his is seen as a parable for this saga. The scared servant, the one who feared his master’s wrath and buried his talent, is described by the master as wicked, lazy, and worthless. DeBerry says, “Similar adjectives might be used to describe Delores and Joshua Thompson….”

He continues, “There will always be those Delores Thompsons whose attitudes validate Mark Twain’s rather pithy distinction of the species: ‘If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you.’ Twain wrote, ‘This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.'”

DeBerry ends with a message to the Thompsons: “Verily I say unto them, God don’t like ugly. While burying one’s talents is lazy and wicked, even that’s better than selfishly taking those talents earmarked for the truly needy.”

My Mom on the Nauvoo, Alabama, farm read the same story in the Birmingham News, so apparently the sad tale of these shameful New Orleanians is everywhere.

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News from the Home Front

The IRS is now announcing that local homeowners who receive grants from the LRA–those checks amounting to as much as $150,000–may have to pay taxes on it, particularly if they showed losses on their 2005 income taxes. The 2006 grants are meant to off-set those losses, therefore, this new money would be taxable. Our senators are quietly saying that in all the rush for legislation to assist Katrina victims, they overlooked this possibility.

Saturday’s Times-Picayune announced that the agency handling these large grants for the state fully intend to meet the governor’s goal of 10,000 residents receiving their checks by the end of this month. Some 80,000-plus have filed applications for the money, and nearly 9,000 have been approved. To date, however, only 44 people have received their money.

The snag in the process, we are told, has been the insurance companies. As the oversight agency considers a home-owner’s application, it deducts all insurance settlements that have been received. Problem is, the insurance companies have had no incentive whatever to come forth with information on how much money they paid to our citizens. Some have insisted, “That’s private stuff.” I have no idea how the agency is getting around this, particularly as the governor applies the screws.

Here and there throughout the metro area where new houses are going up, you see mounds of dirt–many truckloads–hauled in, dumped, and leveled off. A new home is going up across my back street in River Ridge, and even though we live on the highest ground around and have never had flooding, it looks like 20 loads of dirt have been unloaded. Now, Jefferson Parish is restricting the use of “fill dirt” under houses in certain areas. Recently, in Old Metairie–the oldest section of our parish and probably the highest-priced–neighbors watched as recent heavy rains washed dirt from under newly built homes into the streets and adjoining yards. Christie Perdigao, chair of the Old Metairie Commission says, “In addition to impeding drainingage, filling entire lots with new layers of dirt kills trees and creates an uneven landscape damaging to neighborhood aesthetics.”

Last week, the Jefferson Parish Council passed a motion which stops filling whole lots with dirt and calls for planners to study other ways of rebuilding neighborhoods.

In Friday’s Times-Picayune every letter to the editor was about St. Frances Cabrini Church, whether it should be demolished to make way for Holy Cross School or whether it is an architectural treasure. A few quotes….

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Stuffing on Thanksgiving Day

I knew the National Association of Realtors held their convention in our city last week, and that it was 30,000 strong–the biggest yet since Katrina–but until this morning, Thursday, had not heard how things had gone.

What makes this particularly relevant to Southern Baptists is that last June at our annual meeting in Greensboro, NC, David Crosby made a motion that the SBC hold its 2008 convention in New Orleans, and several leaders pooh-poohed the idea. “New Orleans won’t be ready for us by then,” one said to me. No amount of argument and reasoning from our corner did anything to dislodge that notion.

The realtors had second thoughts about coming here early on, and especially as the dates drew near. The shooting of five people in a French Quarter bar didn’t help. Convention-goers read in the papers about the National Guard patroling the streets. This did not sound like a place they wanted to attend.

The president of the Pennsylvania Realtors said, “The press outside your area is unbelievable,” painting a negative picture of a city in deep crisis. My own take on this is that we are in a crisis but not the kind that affects visitors who fly into the city, taxi downtown, stay in the hotels, and eat in the restaurants. Our crisis has more to do with the devastated residential areas and our stymied political leaders. By the way, the National Guard is here to patrol those flooded, sparsely settled sections of the city, freeing up the police for patrols where people live and work.

The realtors were smart and sent some members of their team in early as “mystery shoppers,” staying in downtown hotels and eating in the restaurants and walking the streets to see what conventioneers could expect. Then they put out the word that New Orleans is open for business–that the water is safe to drink, airlines are working to add more flights, top hotels are open, plenty of restaurants are running, and the downtown streets are safe.

I said the realtors were smart. Some of them came to town back in June and worked as volunteers when the American Library Association met, in order to see how the city was able to accommodate those 18,000 visitors. Then, in order to deal with the still-low number of airline flights in and out of Armstrong International every day, they urged incoming delegates to spread their arrivals over several days. Many came in early or stayed late and helped Habitat build houses or assisted in the cleanup of City Park. Are these people something or what?

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Before We Give Thanks

We need to apologize to a church in Memphis.

Members of the Deliverance Temple Church of God in Christ bought a $75,000 house in Memphis for a New Orleans couple displaced by Katrina. The couple–Joshua and Delores Thompson–never even moved into the house, but sold it and pocketed $88,000, then returned to New Orleans. Got a problem with that? “Take it up with God,” Joshua Thompson told a TV reporter who confronted him.

We are outraged and I expect the people of Memphis are, too. There is a time for anger and this is it.

According to Wednesday’s Times-Picayune, the couple came to Memphis literally begging for a new home. The church had decided it would do something special for a Katrina-displaced family, in addition to its other ministries to evacuees. They established a committee which interviewed a number of applicants, and chose the Thompsons. According to Delores, they were in great need. She had lost her job as a nurse and Joshua lost his in the import-export business. Their home and possessions had been destroyed, and their two children–a 14 year old girl and a 16 year old son–were eager to get back in school. They would be so honored to resettle in Memphis.

They took possession of the house in February and sold it in September.

Questions have arisen as to whether the Thompsons were truthful. Property transfer records for the resale of the Memphis house list Delores as unmarried; papers from the original sale show her as married. She claimed they were living in a FEMA-provided apartment in Memphis, but no one ever saw it. The realtor–a member of the Deliverance Temple church–says, “She didn’t want me coming over there. She’d say, ‘I’ll meet you.'” No one has verified the past history of this family, whether they actually held jobs in this city or for that matter, whether they owned a house down here and if so, if it was destroyed.

I’ll tell you this. People like this did not start taking advantage of others only after a hurricane. Check into it and you will find that such calloused people have a long record of this kind of shenanigans. The Memphis church says it has not discussed legal action, but I hope the District Attorney there will get involved. Fraud is a crime whether the church initiates a lawsuit or not.

On the subject of their selling that house at an instant profit….

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Misrepresenting Billy Graham

Last Monday, Wanda Murfin sent a note from Silverhill, Alabama, asking, “Did this happen? I read about the revival in New Orleans with Billy and Franklin Graham, but somehow I must have missed this.”

She forwarded an internet article showing photos of Billy Graham and a French Quarter scene. The reporter purports to tell what happened on Sunday evening March 12 of this year at the end of Mr. Graham’s sermon in the New Orleans Arena. It’s fascinating and would be wonderful if it had happened. But it didn’t. No way. None of it.

Here’s what the phantom writer–whoever he or she may be–says took place that night. “Graham invited the packed house of evangelical Christians and the hundreds of new converts to join him on the one mile walk from the arena to New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street.”

The mysterious writer quotes Mr. Graham, “I last preached in the City of New Orleans in 1954 and I felt then that there was some unfinished business. Tonight, in what very well might be my last evangelistic service, I aim to finish that business and lead as many of you that would follow me to the multitude of lost souls that fill Bourbon Street tonight…. That is where we shall see the harvest!”

The writer says the stadium erupted in cheers that lasted several minutes, then Graham boarded a scooter and joined Franklin and headed for the French Quarter. The capacity crowd followed in a 20 minute trek while singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

According to the article, Christians outnumbered sinners up and down Bourbon Street and soon the raunchy music which normally emanates from the bars was silent, as people began to pray and weep. Veteran police officers say they’ve never seen anything like it. After two hours of this, Mr. Graham departed, leaving behind hundreds of believers witnessing on the streets. “New Orleans will never be the same.”

Alas, it didn’t happen. None of it. Oh that it would. I have read this bogus article to several people who were present for Mr. Graham’s service at the New Orleans Arena and halfway through, they’re shaking their heads saying, “That didn’t happen.” I invite skeptics to go back to my blog from March 12, 2006, and read of Mr. Graham’s visit. I took notes on everything he said and sat down at the computer that very evening and recorded it all here. (NOTE: I just checked and the date on my blog-article is March 13, which is a Monday. But I wrote it Sunday night.)

So, where did this come from? And why was it written as factual, like a genuine newspaper account? I haven’t the slightest.

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