Butterflies in our Fair City

The pastor stood in the pulpit of one of our churches last Sunday and gave a perfect description of what stress does to a body.

“I was going over my calendar,” he said, “checking on dates and places. And then I saw something that caught my attention. A month earlier, I had an appointment to speak at a certain place. And I realized that I had forgotten it. I failed to make that appointment.”

Every preacher knows that fear. That’s why we live and die by our calendars.

He said, “There was nothing to do but to call the brother who invited me and apologize. I got him on the phone and told him what had happened. I told him I have no excuse. I just forgot it. I hope you will forgive me. There was a long pause on the other end.”

He continued, “Finally, the man spoke up. He said, ‘Pastor, you came. You didn’t forget. You spoke to our group. I distinctly remember what you said. You had just come back from the Southern Baptist Convention and you told our group why believing in the Bible was so important to you.”

The pastor said, “I couldn’t believe it. How could I have gone there and spoken to that group, and now not remember a single thing about it.”

Someone reported that to me, so the next day, I mentioned it to him. “This is all about stress, isn’t it.” He admitted that it was, then told me of the circumstances that had filled his life with stress to the breaking point at that time.

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Outcries in our Fair City

Today, Tuesday, New Orleans’ District Attorney Eddie Jordan resigned. There may be a few people sad, but not all that many. Jordan is the former U. S. Attorney who put four-time governor Edwin Edwards into the state penitentiary for racketeering, and was a hero to a lot of people. Now he leaves his office in disgrace.

What happened was this.

Jordan won election to this post after long-time D.A. Harry Connick, Senior, had retired. Connick is a white, one of the few Anglo office-holders in New Orleans the last few decades. If anyone had a problem with how Connick ran things, other than the usual gripes you hear about anyone in city government, I never heard. But when Jordan came in, he took over with a vengeance.

He fired 36 employees in the D.A.’s office, all of them white, then hired a whole battery of new employees, all of them African-American. He assured everyone there was nothing racist about that. Now, there may have been a day when an incoming politician could get by with that, but these days, there are laws against racial discrimination. I don’t know Mr. Jordan, but friends who do say he is the kindest, nicest gentleman you will ever meet. Even so, it may not have occurred to him that laws against racial discrimination work both ways.

The fired employees hired lawyers and took it to the courts, and without batting an eye, the court ruled against Jordan. His office was to pay nearly $2 million in actual and punitive damages.

Jordan kept insisting he was not a racist and not guilty of this charge, and so appealed the ruling. The state supreme court ruled unanimously that the lower courts had done right and he was liable for the damages, which by then had accrued to over $3 million.

Meanwhile, as this was being fought in the courts, New Orleans became a battle ground for gangs and drug pushers and multiple overnight killings became the rule. The DA’s office was never able to keep up with all the crime and most killings went unsolved. The public was outraged.

Occasionally, an assistant DA would get a conviction of some minor criminal and the public would howl again, wondering why they weren’t finding the murderers and ending the killings. Jordan responded that he could only prosecute what the police department brings to him, that his people are not the investigators. But the perception was there.

Next came wholesale departures from the DA’s office. Poor wages, heavy work loads, and bad public relations conspired to encourage assistant district-attorneys to seek employment elsewhere.

When the supreme court ruled that the DA’s office had to pay the $3 million, Jordan turned to the city for help, insisting his office did not have the money. City Council President Arnie Fielkow said, “No way.” The city is still in a crisis situation and needs infusions of money, he pointed out, and does not have the money to bail out Jordan’s office. Talk surfaced about impeaching Jordan.

Then last week came the final straw.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 32–“Welcome Change; You Might as Well.”

Ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seat belt.

The market you are working in, no matter the kind of business, enterprise, or ministry, is not static. It’s always moving, always changing, ever metamorphosing into something else. Conditions change as members of the work force transition and as leaders come and go. New products and cutting edge ideas are introduced and everyone rushes to get them, master them, use them, and then improve on them.

I’m sure there was a time when you could start a business or a ministry and do pretty much the same thing for the next quarter-century and have everything turn out well. The buggy whip industry seems to have been static for many generations. Then in the 1890s someone invented the horseless carriage and within ten years, buggy whip magnates were laying off employees and trying to figure out how to crank their Model A Ford.

Outsiders have no idea how rapidly conditions in the church office have changed. Take my experience, for example. In the 1960s our church bulletin was produced by a mimeograph machine. The secretary–or usually, I–typed everything on a blue form using a manual typewriter. If we made a mistake, we slapped on a blue correction fluid, then waited for it to dry. Spill some on your hand and you would wear it for the next two days. Printing the bulletin on a mimeograph machine involved messy ink, alignment problems, paper jams, and folding machines. Electric typewriters were around, but expensive.

In the 1970s we got copiers–but nothing like the one in your church office today. These printed one copy at a time using a form made up of two pages, the back side which you peeled off and threw away, leaving you one good copy–which proceeded to curl up and turn yellow. The church bulletin was printed on an offset machine, usually by a commercial printing company in your town. And you mailed them out to the congregation on Thursday, expecting them to receive them by Saturday. They were addressed using metal plates and a huge machine called an addressograph. Ask any veteran secretary and watch her grimace.

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Your Church and the Others

There is a sense in which an “association of churches” does not exist. Even though I work for one in an office inside a building with the name “Baptist Association” on the outside, in a real sense there is no such thing as an association of churches. All it is, is just your church and the one down the street and those across towns. Just the churches.

The reason I make this rather obvious point is that in our denomination there are church leaders who see the association as something “other” than the churches. They see it as a useless layer of denominationalism and thus a barrier to doing the Lord’s work. One more hindrance to effective Christian brotherhood and meaningful discipleship.

Nothing could be further from the reality.

Even if you fired me and shut down our offices and canceled every associational meeting, you would still have an association. Because all it is, is your church and the one down the street and those across town. It’s just the churches.

In the same way the pastor is not the church, the director of missions is not the association, and most assuredly not the denomination. The DOM, as we call him, is the servant of the churches, the pastor of the pastors, and to the degree we will allow him, our leader. But he has no authority over anyone, with the possible exception of the employees in his office.

But not everyone gets that.

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The Renewing of the Ninth Ward

Wednesday of this week, a friend from North Carolina who serves his association as its director of missions, the same assignment I have in New Orleans, flew in to town, stayed eight hours, and returned home at suppertime. In between, he saw the following: the headquarters of NAMB’s Operation NOAH Rebuild and talked to the staff there; the Lakewood section of New Orleans and the First Baptist Church; our associational offices, where he met with David Rhymes our evangelism strategist; lunch at Cafe Roma with three of our young pastors; the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where he met with Dr. Ken Gabrielse; New Orleans East as seen from Interstate 10, then St. Bernard Parish where he saw the Chalmette High School and toured Hopeview Church which is now serving as our Volunteer Village; Delacroix Hope Church in lower St. Bernard Parish where he met with Pastor Boogie Melerine; back through Poydras and a tour of the FBC of Chalmette; a tour of the worst hit place in our city, the lower 9th ward, mostly vacant lots these days; the section of new homes on Alvar Street variously called Musician’s Village and Baptist Crossroads; the Baptist Friendship House where Karina America gave him a quick tour; and finally, the Vieux Carre’ Baptist Church in the French Quarter where he visited with Pastor Greg Hand and assistant, Greg Wilton. Then, on to the airport.

I’m confident he collapsed once he sat down to wait for his plane. He’s interested in bringing groups down to help rebuild our city, and we wanted to be good stewards of his time.

At the multicolored Habitat homes on Alvar Street (and several blocks in and around there), I talked to several people who were working. She was from Chicago: “My husband grew up here, and he really has this city on his heart.” He was from Berkeley, California: “Our company brought some of us in here to work.” And Matt was from Seattle: “I’ve been here before. What keeps me coming back is the Baptists.” (Really. He said that.) “I’ve never known such wonderful people with such great hearts.”

Then, Thursday morning, the Times-Picayune ran a long article about these homes. Here are excerpts. And keep in mind, that what we call Baptist Crossroads, many others call Musicians’ Village. Jim Pate of Habitat told me they don’t try to differeniate.

Staff writer Leslie Williams wrote:

“On Alvar Street in the Upper Ninth Ward, the landscape speaks volumes about rebuilding efforts guided by Habitat for Humanity verses those of the free market and government.”

“Brightly colored homes–tangerine, powder blue, sienna, and yellow–with porches and gardens line the Habitat side of Alvar from North Roman to North Johnson Streets.”

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Conversation With the Director of Missions: Stand In His Council

“I’m just a consensus builder, that’s all.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” I said.

“Then why all the flack? You’d think the church would be happy.”

“My perception, pastor, is that they are happy with you, just dissatisfied with what they perceive as a lack of leadership from you.”

“But I don’t get it. I’m trying to get everyone together on the same page before we go forward. I like unity and harmony in the church. Who can have a problem with that?”

“On the surface, that looks right.”

“Implying that underneath the surface, it’s wrong? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Possibly. But not necessarily. Things that are right underneath also look right on the surface.”

“Come on, you’re hedging. Get to the point.”

“Well, sooner or later, you’re going to have to take a stand. To go before the church and say ‘This is what I perceive the Lord is leading us to do.’ It’s called leadership.”

“You don’t understand.”

“What?”

“That’s hard for me. I don’t like to make people unhappy. Going back to childhood, my nature has always been to please people. If I could do something to make my parents happy, I did it.”

“Pastor, I have some bad news for you.”

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The Best-Kept Secrets in New Orleans

All day Tuesday, a group of 15 or 20 of us who comprise the board of New Orleans Baptist Missions met at the Baptist Friendship House at 813 Elysian Fields Avenue for our semi-annual get-together. It’s hard to tell who’s a board member and who a missionary of the North American Mission Board; we’re all on the same team. Dr. Wanda Lee was present. She’s a veteran missionary of the International Mission Board and the executive-director of Southern Baptists’ Woman’s Missionary Union, based in Birmingham. Dr. Richard Leach and Dr. Jean White of NAMB (Alpharetta, Georgia) were present. From our state convention, Mike Canady.

Local missionaries Larry Miguez, Linda Middlebrooks, Kay Bennett, Karina America, Jennifer Fannin, Skider Chatham, Dr. Tobey Pitman, David Maxwell, and Freddie Arnold were on hand. That leaves president of the NOBM board Dr. David Crosby, Loretta Rivers, Dr. Guy Williams, Gwen “Miss Chocolate” Williams, Mel Jones, and me. I’m sure I’m leaving someone out.

We heard reports about the ongoing ministries of the Rachel Sims Baptist Center and the Carver Center, both located in the uptown area of New Orleans and ministering to inner city children. Larry Miguez is over both centers, with Linda Middlebrooks assisting him at Rachel Sims and Jennifer Fannin at Carver. They are incredible servants of God, pouring out their lives for Christ in some difficult situations.

Lots of positive things to report. Rachel Sims and Carver are providing ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for some 22 participants at the moment. They have programs to prepare people to take their GED exams. Puppet ministries, after school homework clubs, and discipleship classes. They host volunteers in their buildings–i.e., church teams from outside our area–who come to minister in the inner city. Director Larry Miguez reports that the centers are almost totally booked for the summer of 2008. With Pastor Kelly O’Connor, they’ve started a mission church at Carver.

At the same time, these neighborhoods are experiencing an unprecedented level of violence. “Why such an increase in violence?” Larry Miguez was asked.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 31–“Develop a Spine”

Perhaps the nicest guy ever to occupy the White House lived there only six months. After his March 1881 inauguration, James A. Garfield, our 20th president, was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, described in history books as a disappointed office seeker. Garfield died in September of that year. As for Guiteau, what he was, in the words of Andy Taylor referring to Barney Fife, was a nut.

In his book “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield,” Kenneth D. Ackerman has written the most readable account of an historical event you will ever find. Now, I’m a history student (history major in both college and seminary), so I’m accustomed to slogging through the most boring books in order to learn about someone from the distant past. This book, however, is a page turner, and I recommend it highly.

Something recorded on page 308 jumped out and caught my attention as demanding a place in our leadership lessons.

Garfield’s nemesis, the bad guy in this story, was an egotistical senator from New York State named Roscoe Conkling. He was a dandy dresser who worked out to keep his body looking sharp in a day when to be stout was proof of a man’s success. Conkling was a ladies’ man who broke his marriage vows regularly, his wife’s heart deeply, and other people’s marriages thoughtlessly. And he was the power behind the political machine controlling New York politics. Nothing happened without his say-so.

In those days, one of the most powerful political offices a president could fill was the head of the U. S. Customs House in New York harbor. Almost all foreign shipments arrived in this country through that port, meaning this office collected untold millions of dollars in federal taxes. Thousands of people worked under the authority of the director, and in the days before civil service, New York City political bosses took care of their people by filling those lucrative jobs.

Furthermore, until Garfield came along, the head of that government bureau was always someone the boss of New York politics, in this case Roscoe Conkling, would approve. This was the price the president paid for receiving the support of Conkling’s machine. Ackerman points out that this would be like the governor of Virginia being allowed to select the head of the CIA or the Secretary of Defense since their headquarters are located inside that state. Yet, that was happening and presidents had been caving in to Conkling’s bullying tactics.

Ackerman tells the story of Garfield’s repeated attempts to get along with Conkling, to give him what he asked for, to satisfy his demands which seemed to know no end, anything to avoid a showdown with the man. Reading the account, you keep waiting for the president to show some backbone and stand up to this tyrant.

Eventually Garfield did.

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Looking for Autumn, Finding More

I drove to Birmingham looking for Autumn on Saturday, October 13. Nope, they didn’t have it. Then, Sunday afternoon, drove 60 miles north to see Mom and Dad, thinking they might be holding Autumn hostage up in Winston County. Again, nothing but warm sultry days and nights.

Friday, October 19, I flew to Washington, D.C., and found the first indications that Autumn is alive and well and considering coming south. A few trees were showing their colors and the air, while still on the warmish side, was fresh and breezy. I stayed 24 hours and could have stayed a year.

Saturday–yesterday–was election day in Louisiana. I voted last week since I would be out of town, and stood in line for 30 minutes for the privilege. Mostly, the election results appear encouraging.

We have elected Bobby Jindal as our new governor, and this without a runoff. He was running against a crowded field (12 candidates), but mainly against Walter Boasso of St. Bernard Parish. Boasso is a self-made millionaire and the state senator who kept the matter of consolidation of the levee boards before the people of this state. When the timid legislature refused to take the lead, Boasso went to the public via the media and the citizens raised up with one voice to insist that this foolishness be stopped. That’s when a lot of our elected officials in Baton Rouge “came to Jesus,” as my friend Lonnie Wascom puts it. They saw the hand-writing on the wall and ran out in head of the crowd, trying to re-establish themselves as leaders. We ended up with two levee boards, one for each side of the Mississippi. I once told Walter Boasso, “You are my hero.”

But I voted for Jindal.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 30–“Be Kind to Your Predecessor; Someday You’ll be One.”

There’s something about us preachers. Maybe it’s in the DNA. It’s one more indication of our fallen nature, as though we need more of those. Here’s what we do.

In order to make myself look good, in order to impress you with my situation, in order to show you what a great job I’ve done at this church, I put someone else down.

The first time I saw it to know its true character, a preacher acquaintance had gone to pastor a downtown church in a huge city. He was always a let’s-think-outside-the-box type, before anyone had ever thought to put it that way. He was an innovator, a motivator, a let’s-get-‘er-done type. And that’s what he did at that church.

Within a year, he had that church packed to the rafters with people he had attracted by his unorthodox ways, captivating preaching, and bright personality. He was baptizing a thousand people a year when no one else on the planet was doing that. And he led that church to relocate, to get out of the concrete jungle where they owned no parking and to erect a great campus on the interstate where they would be visible to the world. He was a natural born fund-raiser and inspired his people to contribute millions of dollars–not one or two, but many millions–to pay for that vast acreage and the spacious state-of-the-art buildings. Everything he did was the biggest, the best, the brightest.

Most of us were understandably in awe of him.

When the invitations to speak in other places began to pour in, opportunities to tell the story of his church and how God had used him there, he saw this as an open door to help other pastors and churches to reach their communities. That’s when most of the pastors of my generation learned about him. And it is fair to say that along with most everyone else who ever heard him, we sat in awe of his preaching and fell in love with his personality. He became a genuine star.

“When I arrived,” he would tell his audiences, “that church was dead, dead, dead. There might have been 300 souls sitting in that cavern of a building, all of them waiting for the undertaker. They had not done anything for years.”

Prior to his coming, the previous pastors had been status-quo types who could not see the vast opportunity God had placed before them. He didn’t use the actual word, but we all knew those guys had been real losers.

He went on, “One day I asked the treasurer, ‘What is this $60,000 doing in a savings account?’ He said, ‘It’s for a rainy day.’ I told him, ‘Good lord, man! It’s been raining for years!!'”

We all laughed. Great fun, good entertainment for the preacher crowd, sharp put-downs for the sightless leadership many of us in the audience were saddled with in our churches. It felt good to see someone go in to a dead church, weed out the do-nothings, and establish a mighty work of faith.

One day something occurred to me. With the nation-wide publicity this preacher brother is getting for the phenomenal work God has done through him in that city, with the acclaim that comes through resurrecting a dead church and building one that is attacking the very gates of hell, with all of us bowing before this preacher in our best “we’re not worthy” manner, I wonder.

I wonder about his predecessor. Who is the pastor who served that church before him, back when it was “dead, dead, dead.” And how is he feeling along about now? Is he still pastoring, or I found myself hoping, was he in his grave so he doesn’t have to listen to this?

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