“You don’t like your pastor. What else is new?”

“You say that like there’s a lot of it going around.”

“It’s like a plague. I’ve been thinking of going back and reading Exodus where God sent the plagues on Egypt to see if this was one of them. Frogs in the street, blood in the Nile, unhappiness in the pews.”

“Are you dismissing the subject? You’re so pro-pastor that you can’t see sometimes a church has genuine issues with a preacher and he needs to leave?”

“Not at all. I’m just voicing my unhappiness with the whole business. It hurts to see pastors and congregations at odds with one another.”

“Do you want to hear my side of this matter? Do you have time?”

“I can make the time. This is important.”

We sat there in my office quietly for a moment, then I said, “But first, would you let me tell you something on my heart? This is not about you or your church, but about the whole issue of the relationships of pastors and congregations.”

“I’m a good listener,” he said. “Shoot.”

“One of the primary reasons for so much unhappiness in the pews with the preachers is faulty understanding of what God intends. I’ve come up with four half-truths which most church members believe. When we believe wrong, as you know, we do wrong and no good comes of it.”

He was listening well, so I went on.

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Childlike Praying Will Do the Job

Brianne Painia was the only teenager on last night’s program at the Second Anniversary of Katrina Prayer Rally, held in the impressive worship center of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans on Canal Boulevard. She sat just to the right of me the entire evening; I thought she was an adult, maybe the wife of one of the speakers. Then, she walked to the podium.

Brianne looked out at the houseful of worshipers and said, “When they asked me to pray a prayer on this program, I thought, ‘It’s just a prayer. I can pray. No big deal.’ When people would ask me about it, I still said, ‘No big deal.’ Then they sent me the program and I saw that I’m praying just after two preachers, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. Big deal.'”

But whoever put Brianne on the program knew what they were doing. She did precisely what she was asked to do and which every child of God is meant to do: she approached the Father’s throne in faith and humility and prayed the prayer of faith on behalf of our schools, their leaders, and the teachers.

Fred Luter prayed first. Fred prays a lot like he preaches; he gets with it. He talks to God and talks to us in the same way–with energy and faith and conviction. When Fred Luter prays, there is no neutral ground.

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“A Great Time to be Alive”

During the Second World War, Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick of New York City’s Riverside Church preached a series of messages which he published in a small paperback volume titled “A Great Time to be Alive.” In the sermon by that title, he begins, “This certainly is a ghastly time to be alive.”

Several paragraphs later, he says, “This is an especially hideous generation for Christians.” Then, after a bit, he says, “Nevertheless, this is also a great time to be alive.”

Fosdick tells of Victor Hugo who was the toast of Paris in his early years. His writings enjoyed great success and he was the glory of France. Then, Napoleon III rose to power and suddenly Hugo was an outcast, a condition lasting 19 years. Hugo hated the exile, but out of that period came his greatest writings. His biographer calls that time in Hugo’s life “miraculously inspired” as he became twice the man he had been. Hugo said, “Why was I not exiled before!”

This is a great time to be alive, Fosdick said, because it drives us back to the fundamentals and calls forth the best work from us.

My thoughts exactly on this, the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

President Bush made his 15th visit to the hurricane-area this week. He touched all the right buttons, saw and talked to the right people, said the right things. What will come of it further no one knows.

Our Wednesday pastors meeting drew about 25 of our ministers and they were in a reflective mood. I felt I was representing all of Southern Baptists as one after another rose to thank the SBC, our LBC, and our association. Several pointed out through teary eyes, “I couldn’t have made it without you,” directing the remarks to all our people but looking only at me. Then, the joke became that they were eulogizing me, and we all had a good laugh.

Today marks the end of our weekly pastors meetings.

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Thankful? You bet.

The Lord had something special in mind for me this weekend. One after another of old friends appeared and blessed my life.

It began Monday morning at Gardner-Webb University where I had traveled for the installation of Robert Canoy as the dean and president of the M. Christopher White Divinity School. I had not seen Robert since he was 12 years old, in 1970 when I left Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, MS, to join the staff of the FBC of Jackson, MS. In the meantime, he grew up, was called to preach, went to college and seminary, earned a doctor of philosophy degree from our seminary in Louisville, KY, and pastored some significant churches.

We gathered in his office a few minutes before time for the installation luncheon where I was to speak. His parents were there. William and Dorothy Canoy, still living in Greenville, William retired now from the National Guard, their four children all grown up. We hugged, and Dorothy told the others in the room of my coming to their home in October of 1970 and leading her and the three boys to Christ. William, she said, delayed, and was saved the following year. I had the privilege of baptizing her and the boys, and how honored I am about that. This is one precious family, and what a good day’s work someone did getting Robert to head that institution.

Wayne Ward, Robert’s professor and mentor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was the featured speaker for the convocation in the school chapel. Earlier, at the luncheon, he hardly sat down as he met old friends and made new ones. At age 86, he is a wonder. I jokingly remarked to Robert that if his experience is like mine, people will come up saying, “You remember me. We met in 1976.” Robert said, “Yes, but Wayne will say, ‘I remember it exactly. It was on the bus at the convention in Norfolk and you said….'”

Sure enough, when Robert introduced us, Dr. Ward said, “Joe, I know you,” and went into the time and place. I was stunned. How could he remember this and I not? Shame on me.

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Words To Stand You On Your Feet

(A message by Dr. Joe McKeever, delivered at the Installation Luncheon for Dr. Robert Canoy who assumes the presidency of the M. Christopher White Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University on Monday, August 27, 2007.)

Thou hast given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.” –Isaiah 50:4

You have strengthened tottering knees; your words have stood men on their feet.” –Job 4:4

Someone said Italy is putting a clock on the Tower of Pisa to make the point that just because you have the inclination does not mean you have the time.

The next time someone gives you his life-verse from Scripture, if you have both the time and inclination, ask for the story behind it. Here’s why Job 4:4 means so much to me.

I was a small child for my age. In a class of a hundred seventh graders, I was the shortest boy. As a result, I adopted “the short person syndrome.” To compensate for lack of size, the person with this condition speaks loudly, brashly, and boastfully. He seeks to be the center of attention, often at the expense of others whom he cuts down verbally. In my teens, I grew out of the shortness but, alas, kept the syndrome.

Even after God made me a pastor, I struggled with this weakness, this verbal terrorism. Then, in my 30th year, I experienced what a friend calls a watershed moment.

My wife and I had gone to a movie on Saturday night. The house lights were up and we greeted a number of friends in the audience. Across the auditorium, I spotted 17-year-old Brandi, a member of our church. She was cute and sweet and probably a little too serious about life at that age. Brandi did not get many dates, and tonight she was sitting between Alex and Betty, her next door neighbors. As we waved, I called across the theater, “What’s the matter, Brandi — couldn’t get a date?”

The next morning Brandi’s mother did something wonderful for me and courageous for her — she held me accountable. She phoned the office and said, “Joe, it looks like you go out of your way to hurt my child.” I was so clueless, I had to ask what she was talking about. I apologized to her, to Brandi, to Alex and Betty, and if I could, I would have assembled everyone in the theater to apologize to them. That was the day I began seriously working on mastering my tongue.

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As a young minister, I was eager to learn how to present the gospel to people in one-on-one conversations and enrolled in every program I could find that promised to teach such skills. One in particular, I recall because of a tactic of introducing the presentation that smacked of manipulation.

They sent us out in teams of three, assigned to “take a poll” from door to door in a certain neighborhood. The form asked such questions as, “Which of these religious leaders do you know more about–Mohammed, Christ, or Krishna,” and “What would you say is the biggest problem in the world today?” We knocked on doors, introduced ourselves, said we were doing a community survey, asked our questions, and wrote down what they said. Not that it mattered. The simple fact is we did not care how they answered the questions. All of the business about conducting a survey was just a lead-in to get to the point where we could ask, “In your opinion, how does a person get to Heaven?”

The plan called for the person to give a wrong answer, which we usually got. Anyone who has been around very long knows that the great majority of humans believes that being good, or at least more good than bad, is the ticket that opens Heaven’s doors.

When they gave the wrong answer, we would ask for the privilege of taking a few minutes of their time to show them what the Bible says on this subject. That was actually why we came, and this is usually where the party at the door said “No, I don’t think so,” and sent us on our way.

That Saturday afternoon, before we left the church for our assignment, the leader took questions from his nervous pupils. Someone said, “What do we say if they ask us point blank what we’re doing out here?” The leader said, “Tell them you’re out sharing Jesus Christ with people. Be transparent. We have nothing to hide.”

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“I’m thinking of closing down our men’s ministry.”

“And you’re telling me because—what? you want me to talk you out of it?”

“Or tell me how to salvage it without shutting it down.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The usual. It’s a meet-and-eat affair, and very little else.”

“Start at the beginning,” I said. “What do they do?”

“We have this group of men who meet at the church for breakfast the first Sunday of each month. They’ll have about 30 present. They eat breakfast and sit around drinking their coffee and visiting with each other. And that’s all.”

“That’s all?”

“They might have someone bring a devotional once in a while. Or a visiting missionary to speak. But usually, it’s just them.”

He was quiet a moment, then said, “I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong. They’re just not doing anything.”

“Do you attend?”

“Not in several months. But I’ve gone often enough to know what they do.”

“Let me ask you a question, pastor.”

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Second Anniversary of Katrina

Several have asked for an update on Rudy French, pastor of Norco’s First Baptist Church, who returned to Canada for heart surgery earlier this month. Thanks to the Lord, he’s doing just fine.

Rudy and Rose are following doctor’s orders and he’s taking a month to rest up, something he did not do earlier this year when the same surgical procedure was done. This time, he’s learned his lesson.

With so much going on down here, in the community and in his church, it’s next to impossible for Rudy to tune everything out and let his mind be at rest. I counseled him that, if things went bad in the surgery and God called you to Heaven, what would we do here; so, pretend you’re in Heaven for the next six weeks and then come back to earth. They actually took that bizarre bit of semi-wisdom and are working at doing just that. (It’s fairly obvious why I never was much of a counselor.)

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No Longer Big Nor Easy

1. We’re told that 40,000 Louisianians still live in FEMA trailers, down 50 percent from a year ago. Most of our people still in these boxes are having their homes rebuilt and will not be needing them much longer. And what of the others? That would be people who had been living in subsidized public housing for the most part and who have no place to go other than the FEMA trailer. We’re told the federal government has workers doing nothing but seeking out rental property and matching it up with the trailer dweller. Trying to get them out and on their own.

The FEMA trailer has been a lifesaver for a lot of people and a royal headache for the government. We have not reported it here, but formaldehyde has been found at high levels in many of the trailers, creating a health concern for the residents. Watch for the lawsuits.

Somewhere I read about a city employee–not one of ours thankfully; this must have been in the Reader’s Digest–who was backing his city truck up and crunched an automobile. The driver got out and discovered he had backed into his own car. So, naturally, he sued the city. After all, the city must have been at fault since a city-owned truck driven by a city employee was responsible. No word as to the outcome.

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Nothing undermines the loyalty of your team members so much as them watching you lie to outsiders. They know better; they know you are stretching the truth or creating it from whole cloth, and to the extent you do that, you shrink in their eyes.

To our everlasting shame, perhaps no body of people on the planet plays fast and loose with the facts like preachers. You would think that we who deal with the Gospel Truth, whose Savior called Himself “The Truth,” and who have as one of our basic tenets “Thou shalt not lie,” that we of all people would hold to the facts as no one else. But it is not so.

In a conversation with a group of pastors about this, the stories flew, as each one thought of examples he had seen.

One said, “You get these flyers from preachers who want to come to your church. ‘One of America’s greatest evangelists!’ it says. ‘Pastor of some of the largest churches of our time.’ And yet, you know the churches he has pastored and there’s no way.”

Another said, “And some of them report the hundreds of decisions that were made in their recent meetings. Why, Billy Graham would be hard-pressed to match those numbers. And if you check with the pastors where they held those meetings, they can’t find all those converts.”

“I had a preacher tell me that he actually did not know how many people attended his church on Sunday morning. He said they engaged in a bit of creative counting. He said it for a joke, but he was serious.”

“I heard a staff member of one church say that when they counted the crowd on Sunday, they added 10 percent in the chance they had missed someone.”

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