Saddam and You and Me and the Mercy of God

“Saddam Hussein escaped justice,” someone said on NPR radio this Saturday morning. This murderous Iraqi dictator was found guilty of the 1982 murder of 148 Shiite Muslim civilians and sentenced to the gallows, a sentence that was carried out promptly last night.

The question lingers, “But what about the hundreds of thousands of others he slaughtered? Shouldn’t he have to pay for those deaths also?” But this raises another question: “How?” All he had was one life and that one was taken. Biggest question of all: “So where is the justice in this?” Answer: We may not expect absolute justice on this side of the grave. On the other side, well, that’s another story.

They said Saddam’s last words were “God is great.” I take that to mean he uttered “Allah Ak-bar,” the phrase which is so much a part of Islam.

My word on this is: A few seconds after Saddam’s neck snapped, he began to understand just how great God truly is, and not in any way he anticipated.

“It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgement.” (Hebrews 9:27)

The way I read Holy Scripture, Saddam’s troubles have just started. You would not want to be in that man’s shoes.

This, incidentally, is why Scripture makes so much of the death of Jesus on the cross, that act by which He paid the complete price for every sin ever committed. Every sin, every one, forever. Yes, he died for Saddam’s sins too. It’s why believers make so much of the mercy and salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If we all got what we truly deserved, we would be in the same predicament as Saddam at this moment, awaiting our appointment with the Supreme Judge of the universe from whose righteous decision there is no appeal.

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Whether This Really Happened

Recently, we told on this website a story we titled “The Brown Bag Christmas.” We specified very plainly that Carrie Fuller had shared with our Sunday School class this story from her own family, and we clearly spelled out that the small child in the story is her own grandmother. What is fascinating about that is that soon afterwards, I began receiving e-mails from people asking, “Did that really happen?”

I was glad to see that other websites and some publications picked up the story and adapted it to their purposes and reprinted it. Most chose to leave out the Carrie Fuller connection. The bad thing about that is that this wonderful and authentic story now lives in cyberspace and just like thousands of other tales which may or may not be true, this one is now circling the earth without proper identification. People will read it and think, “Just another Christmas myth,” and let it go at that. And I hate that. I grant you it’s a nice story and perhaps not of earth-shaking magnitude, but this whole thing symbolizes a larger issue for me.

People need to know whether a story is true. Someone inside us wants to know. Did this happen? Are these people real? Can I count on this? Or did someone just make this up?

They used to ask John F. Kennedy, Jr., whether he remembered his father and if he recalled playing around the desk in the Oval Office. He said something like, “I have a hard time knowing whether I’m actually remembering those things or I’m remembering something I’ve seen a hundred times on television.”

A half-dozen years ago, Fred Rochlin published a book (“Man in a Baseball Cap” by HarperCollins) containing stories of World War II which he had shared with his family over the years. It’s a typical war story, well-told and interesting, but the small book ends with an admission I’ve never seen anywhere else. Here it is verbatim.

“I remember flying from Dakar in the Senegal across the Sahara Desert through the Zagora Pass into Marrakech, Morocco. We were low on fuel. We landed at this dusty town, Timbuktu, mud huts, everyone speaking French. American Air Force fuel depot. Thousands of barrels of fifty-gallon, one hundred octane aviation fuel. We had cold beers. Refueled, took off, flew through the Zagora Pass, through the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakech. I remember all this with pristine clarity.”

“It never happened. I checked my old navigator log. We didn’t land to refuel. We flew right through the Zagora Pass. And we wouldn’t have refueled at Timbuktu anyway. Too far away from the course of our flight. So, where did that memory of that dusty French African town come from?”

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Old Friends

I’m toward the last of a two week vacation, the period in and around Christmas and New Year’s. The first week, I drove up to Nauvoo, Alabama, and spent 3 days with my parents. On Thursday, all my siblings came in and we had a great visit. They left late that afternoon and Friday promised to be a quiet day. So I called J. L. Rice in Double Springs.

J. L. and I were best friends at Winston County High School back in the 1950’s and after working in Chicago for several decades, he and Betty are back here. He’s mostly retired, but has a barn and cattle and a huge yard and grandchildren, plenty to keep him occupied. He leads the worship at Meek Baptist Church in Arley, a resort community on the shores of the massive Smith Lake. Betty is the church secretary and her brother Etsel Riddle is the pastor, so don’t cross one of them unless you want the whole family on your case!

Anyway, I called him Friday morning and asked if we could have coffee that afternoon at the only fast-food place in town, Jack’s Hamburgers. “I’ll call around and see if I can find any of the gang,” he said. Nine of our classmates showed up. Pretty good on a two-hour notice. (I wonder if any other graduating class of WCHS could have done that, especially considering that we graduated nearly 49 years ago.)

We sat at a large round table in the middle of that little restaurant for the next two hours, laughing and reminiscing until our sides hurt. J. L. whipped out his digital camera and the counter girl took our picture. Later, he printed out a copy of it on my computer, and back at home, I produced a cartoon version of it.

(I’ll e-mail it all to Marty and he can put it on the website the first of next week. [as promised, here it is] Right now, he’s at Nauvoo with his family, visiting his grandparents and letting 9-year-old Darilyn and nearly-5-year-old Jack run free on the farm. Neil is there with his three, so the cousins are bonding. When I called Thursday evening, they had been fishing in the pond and were now lighting a bonfire.)

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Accountability and Responsibility

Going east on Interstate 10, just before you leave Jefferson Parish and enter Orleans, construction workers are hard at work a few feet to your left putting together a massive “fly-over” that will allow commuters driving into Metairie from the Pontchartrain Causeway to avoid the most congested part of the interstate and get on into the downtown area. It’s due to be finished in 2009 and is costing 69 million dollars. Now they’re having to take up much of the concrete they’ve laid and start over.

Inspectors found that 350 cubic yards of concrete–that would be some 40 cement trucks worth–will have to be ripped up and replaced. All we’re told is that the concrete was “adulterated,” and a spokeswoman for Boh Bros. Construction said they’re looking into how that particular cement made its way into the supply chain. Inspectors say the plan is for the concrete in this corridor to last 75 years, but that this particular concrete is thinned down to the point that it would be worn out in less than half that time.

Inspection is good. Strict enforcement is great. Accountability is a terrific thing. We motorists have to trust that the highways and bridges going up everywhere around here will do what they are supposed to. Most of the major thoroughfares throughout this city are elevated, some of them frighteningly so, like the well-named “Highrise” in Gentilly that passes over the Industrial Canal.

How does that line go? “People will not do what you expect; they will do what you inspect.”

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Me and the Homosexual Lobby

My friend John got involved in a conversation, I suppose we could call it, with a group of lesbians on a website they maintain. It felt more like getting caught in a crossfire, for my money.

“Your name came up,” he warned, “and I thought I’d better warn you, you may be hearing from them on your website.” Thanks a lot.

I went to the link John provided and read his extensive give-and-take with the participants in that group. It was not a pretty thing. He would type in some fairly reasonable statement in disagreement with their position and they would explode with ugliness, crudity, and accusations. He was a blankety-blank bigot, and once my name got involved–I’m still not sure how that happened–then I was a bigot of that brand and to that degree also.

I responded to John that I would not be saying anything to anyone from that camp trying to draw me into the fray. Some fights are not worth the effort. As the oldtimer said, a dog can whip a skunk, but it ain’t worth it.

I was telling a mutual friend about John and wondering why he even engaged these sisters in that conversation in the first place. He said, “Oh, John loves a good fight.” We laughed and I said, “He reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt’s dog.” TR’s mutt was always getting in fights and coming out on the losing end. A reporter said, “Mr. President, your dog’s not much of a fighter, is he?” Roosevelt said, “Oh no, he’s a wonderful fighter. He’s just a poor judge of dog!”

I suppose someone has to engage the homosexual activists and respond to their charges and then take the heat from the conflagration. But not everyone is called to that kind of verbal conflict. I, for one, know almost nothing about lesbianism or male homosexuality. (I prefer not to call them ‘gays,’ since I’ve never met one yet who was gay, meaning “showing a joyous or merry mood.” –Webster.)

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A New Orleans Movie

I’ve heard that the actor Denzel Washington is a Christian. I hope so, because at this distance he seems like such a fine young man.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw his movie “Deja Vu,” which was filmed here earlier this year. The local reviewer recommends you suspend your critical faculties and just enjoy the picture, even though the plot is rather fanciful. That’s what I do anyway, so it worked out just fine.

I’ll not review the movie. I recommend it if you like crime dramas. I recall their shutting down the Crescent City Connection for half-days at a time while the movie people were either filming on the bridge or exploding things underneath it. And they manufactured a major thoroughfare downtown off I-10 called “Bayou Boeuf.” It doesn’t exist, but the plot needed them to get out of town easily and into the open country quickly. Oh that it were this simple.

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This Will Preach

It would have been funny, had it not been rather pathetic. As the sheriff’s deputies were evicting the tent-dwellers from the flatland alongside the Mississippi River Monday, one of the dispossessed called out for the television camera, “But that’s my home! It’s my home.”

Well, I thought, it shouldn’t be your home. It’s government land, it’s subject to flooding, and no one is allowed to live on the batture. If you think New Orleans is not a safe place due to its low elevation, this is a hundred times worse.

The batture is the narrow strip of dry ground between the river and the levee, sometimes no more than 50 yards, sometimes wider. As to exactly who owns that land, that has been in dispute almost since the levees began to be built. The quickest answer is the federal government. And yet, I can take you over the levee in Orleans Parish and show you four or five houses on stilts that were grandfathered in, the result being that the people own their own homes and, the way it came to me, residents do not live in the state of Louisiana, but in the USA only. Those homes get passed down from generation to generation, because to sell to an outsider would take an act of Congress. Literally.

Where I walk up on the levee each morning, where Florida Street intersects with the levee and the river, you’ll find a number of private businesses alongside the river–companies that trade with barges and towboats–and a sign advertising a lot for lease. I asked the levee policeman this morning who owns that land. “Some private individual,” he said. “They have squatters’ rights.” I take that to mean a form of being grandfathered in. They owned that parcel at the time the federal government decided it was taking possession of the batture.

Neighbors told the television reporter that they had recently seen as many as a dozen tents on the batture at that spot. Monday, there were only three, but they were full size, able to accommodate an entire family. Litter was everywhere; these were not neat people, even though they have this giant bayou (okay, Mississippi River) flowing past their back door.

“What bothers me about that,” the levee policeman said to me, “is they were camping just inside Orleans Parish. Now, all they’ll have to do is walk upriver a mile and they’ll be our problem.” “Our” meaning, Jefferson Parish.

Now, I’m aware those folks may be otherwise homeless and may feel they have no other alternative but to erect a tent on forbidden property. Aside from that, it’s worth our making a couple of spiritual parallels and observations.

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Christmas News

I did not mean it as criticism, but I once said to a young pastor, “Good sermon. I enjoyed it. But there’s just one thing.” He perked up, knew something was coming, and said, “Yes?”

I said, “You gave us the prescription before you had finished the diagnosis.” I paused to let that sink in, then said, “Everyone enjoys your preaching. You have great presence and a good style. So this is about the sermon itself and not you.”

“The audience is not prepared for the good news of the Gospel until you tell them what the bad news is.”

He got it, and nothing more was needed.

Of all the Christmas Scriptures, my favorite is the line the head angel uttered to the shepherds while mid-air above the Bethlehem meadow: “I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people….” (Luke 2:10)

You and I know about news. We have 24-hour news radio and television stations. The “news” paper arrives in our front yards every morning.

For an occurrence to make the news, it must meet three qualifications: it must be real (it’s true), recent (it didn’t happen last year), and relevant (it has some meaning to the hearers).

Real, recent, relevant. It happened, it just happened or we just found out about it, and it impacts us.

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Christmas Vacation

“I’m on vacation.” I say that to myself twelve times a day. Margaret overhears and says, “Why do you keep saying that? Are you trying to convince yourself?”

I tell her, “I’m trying to shut down my inner stress.” I recall for her how in 1971 when we moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and I joined the staff of the First Baptist Church, our first year was one of the hardest of my ministry, and yet the stress was all self-induced. “I felt bad all the time, like I should have been accomplishing more than I was.” No one was criticizing or pressuring me. The voice driving and accusing and stressing me was my own.

If you have been to New Orleans and seen the effect of Katrina and her floodwaters on our city, if you have driven the mile-after-mile of shut-down neighborhoods with their overgrown yards and boarded up strip malls, if you have grieved over the closed churches and their thousands of dispersed members, then you understand how frustrating it can be to be looked upon as a leader when you accomplish so little.

“Everyone brags on me,” I tell her, “and says I’m doing a good job. So it’s not other people. It’s me.”

That’s why I decided to take this week–the one prior to Christmas–as a vacation. There’s not a lot going on anywhere around here this week or next, and it’s a good time to vegetate without the sense that I’m letting someone down. Then, next week, the time between Christmas and New Year’s, our offices are closed anyway, a custom my predecessors started a long time ago and which I’m not about to change.

I suggest to pastors they never take the last week of December as official vacation. There’s practically nothing going on in any church then, the phone doesn’t ring and no one drops by, and it’s a great time to catch up on your reading.

So, I’m trying to shut down. It’s two weeks in a row of telling myself, “I’m on vacation.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Margaret asked.

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Christmas Accretions

For years, nobody gave a thought to my birthday. I was never given to a lot of hoopla, so that was fine with me. I’m not against celebrating special events or observing religious festivals, but well, you don’t see people throwing birthday parties in Scripture, so I got along just fine without one.

Then one day my sister got into the act. Carolyn loves making people feel special and she had this bright idea.

“It’ll just be a little dinner for your birthday,” she said. “Just the immediate family.”

She wanted to do it so badly, I agreed to it. And, sure enough, it worked out. About 10 of us gathered at my house, Carolyn brought the cake and our other sister Patricia made dinner, and it was a nice evening.

That was the first year.

The next year, Carolyn started planning the birthday dinner several weeks in advance. She was not satisfied with the intimate gathering we had enjoyed last year. She had enjoyed it, she said, but she felt badly that more family wasn’t included. This year the whole clan would be invited.

I suppose everybody showed up, because our house was crowded and some had to eat out on the front porch. We had a big time, laughing, singing songs, eating. I bet I got my neck hugged a hundred times. I blew out the candles and we ate cake. To my surprise, a few people brought presents. That was nice, but unnecessary.

The third year, Carolyn realized she was on to something.

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