LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 40 — “Pray, pray, pray. I apologize for making it number 40.”

I stood in the Christian bookstore thumbing through a volume on a subject I’d been researching. This looked like exactly what I wanted. “How to Help Your Child to Faith” contained 35 chapters, each directed toward parents on counseling and preparing their child for understanding the Christian faith and making his own commitment. What got me, however, was chapter 35.

The topic for that chapter was “Finally, all you can do is pray.” I laid the book down in disgust and walked away.

“Finally” implies that prayer is the last thing to do. “All you can do is pray” clearly says that prayer is the least thing you can do. The last, the least. What’s wrong with this picture?

What kind of philosophy of prayer is that? Think of it! As though to call on the Lord of Heaven and Earth to become involved in a situation involving a child you love dearly is some small thing to be lightly regarded.

If you need evidence of the fallen nature and sinful heart of man–even the best among us–consider the low regard we hold for prayer.

Confession time. I consider myself a person of prayer. Prayer is never far from my mind throughout the day, and after reading several chapters in the Bible each morning, I try to spend a good deal of time in prayer. And yet, I did the same thing I was criticizing that book’s author for doing.

I forgot to emphasize the pre-eminence of prayer. Over the past six months, as I have added the occasional “leadership lesson” to this collection, only this week did it occur to me that prayer should have been featured more prominently and much sooner.

I deeply apologize. Since my son has taught me how to edit these blogs, I know how to go into the website and insert this article earlier, giving it a much higher number. The problem is that no one would see it way down there, since those were written and dispatched into cyberspace months ago. So, number 40 it will have to remain, at least for the time being.

A leader is a decision-maker and a people-influencer. A leader sets the direction, then stands out front and blazes the trail. His mantra is “follow me.”

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Four Questions Raised from Saturday’s News

1) Why do any Saints fans attend ball games in Chicago?

The last several times the Saints and Bears have played in Chicago in the dead of winter, the Saints fans have been harassed and cursed, snowballed and even abused. Furthermore, many who attended those games have indicated the stadium security people were unresponsive when they complained.

We’re not saying all Saints fans are “saints.” And competitive spirit is even fun. But there is such a thing as carrying it too far, and from all we hear, the Bears fans have exceeded that line.

The best seat in the house is the couch in your own living room. The temperature in New Orleans is in the 50s this weekend, and my fireplace will be getting a nice workout.

2) Why do African-American churches celebrate Kwanzaa in their services?

This question was raised on the religion page of Saturday’s Times-Picayune. The writer for the Religion News Service told how many black churches in America wrestle with that issue. I don’t want to push my own opinion too hard here, because I’m mixed race myself–mostly Irish, I expect, but mainly “Heinz 57″–and have no clue what it’s like being a minority in this country. That said, I do know something about the Christian faith and I know a good deal about churches.

My opinion is this: if African-American churches want to celebrate Kwanzaa and do not mind alienating non-blacks in their congregation, have at it. More and more, particularly in the part of the world where I live, ethnic churches are drawing people from mixed backgrounds. The Chinese Baptist church here, for instance, is thinking of putting an associate pastor on staff who would be Anglo, in order to minister to their members who do not speak Chinese. In the Vietnamese Baptist church, you’ll see bi-racial families in the congregation, indicating that the son or daughter of first-generation American-Vietnamese has married an Anglo. To a lesser extent, the same thing is happening in African-American congregations. More likely, it’s non-black families or singles who have been attracted to the congregation because of their music, preaching, or ministries.

Celebrate your cultural and racial heritage if you want to, but recognize the effect may be to build a barrier between people.

3) Why would a spokesmen for Baptists run down Baptists?

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Getting a Handle on Romans

Think of the Epistle to the Romans as a long conversation Paul is having with believers in Rome. (Bloggers know the feeling of having conversations with unseen-but-hope-for readers.)

Paul is apparently in Corinth on the last of his three missionary journeys and soon to head to Jerusalem where he will be arrested. He will end up in Rome for trial before Caesar. In this letter, he keeps talking about wanting to come to Rome. If he only knew!

The first 17 verses of chapter one are introductory. Paul has never been to Rome and never met most of the people who will be reading this letter. He’s heard plenty about them, however, all good. Nevertheless, he is well aware of the challenge facing them living in the citadel of corruption and depravity. Some are Jewish and facing issues Paul knew from personal experience, namely, what role the promises of God now plays in their destiny and that of their people.

Whether Gentile or Jew, they all need grounding in the faith and a proper understanding of the gospel. Thus he writes this letter.

Pau speaks of

–the gospel of God (the source of this good news) 1:1. See John 3:16.

–the gospel of His Son (the subject of this good news) 1:9. See I Cor. 15:1ff.

–the gospel of salvation (the object of this good news) 1:16. See I Tim 1:15.

–the gospel this is his own (the message of Christ filtered through Paul’s own experience and testimony) 2:16. This is the ultimate aim, for each of us to pass along the gospel message in the manner the Holy Spirit has taught us. That’s why a dozen preacher/teachers could do expositions of Romans and no two would sound alike. It’s not a problem, it’s the genius of God’s plan.

Then, after the introduction, Paul moves into a fuller presentation of the gospel and various issues surrounding it.

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Romans 1:18-32 – MAN HAS NO ONE TO BLAME FOR HIS TROUBLES BUT HIMSELF

Theme: Humanity’s troubles stem from his rejecting God. (That’s the root cause.)

Before presenting the “good news” (the gospel), the bad news has to be dealt with.

1) Mankind has rejected the knowledge of God. 1:18-21

2) Mankind has rejected the worship of God. 1:22-25

3) Mankind has rejected the plan of God. 1:26-32

As a result of rejecting the Lord, man has made some very bad choices, which in turn have brought the wrath of God upon him.

1) He exchanged God for idols. 1:23

2) He exchanged Truth for a lie. 1:25

3) He exchanged the Natural for the unnatural. 1:26

What a shame. Mankind could have had God, Truth, and the natural order of Creation. By rejecting God, he has chosen the absurdity of idols, the illusion of lies, and the illness of the unnatural.

Look around the community where you live and see if this doesn’t describe much of what you see.

Hundreds of years earlier, God said: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters and they have hewed out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

What an exchange! Whatever were we thinking! Stay with the Jeremiah 2:13 analysis for a moment. Remember that a cistern was an underground tank, dug out and lined with clay in order to store rainwater. At best, the water would be stagnant; at worst, it could become polluted. But God says His people have not swapped Him–the fountain of living, running, fresh water–for stagnant water. It’s worse than that. They have turned their backs on Him and chosen dry holes in the ground!

The choice is never between God and other gods. There are no other gods. The choice is between the living God and a dry hole in the ground.

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Romans chapter 2 – DON’T GET SELF-RIGHTEOUS HERE, RELIGIOUS CROWD!

It’s so easy to criticize and condemn those who blatantly reject God and plunge headlong into lifestyles of debauchery. But hold on–we who are “God’s frozen chosen” are not off the hook.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 39–”Keep Good Records, a Journal Even.”

“Pastor,” the caller said, “I have a question, and I’m embarrassed to ask it.”

Thinking I was about to do some telephone counseling, I donned my best pastoral manner and said, “Don’t be. Tell me about it.”

She said, “Well…sir…could you tell me when I got married?”

It turned out that I had performed the wedding for this woman and her estranged husband several years earlier and she was now needing to benefit from his insurance with the Veterans Administration.

And if that wasn’t enough, she said, “It was either June 1, 1969, or July 8, 1970.”

I said, “You don’t even know the date?”

She had an excuse which I have long since forgotten.

After digging through the calendars of my pastoral ministry for previous years, I called her back. “You and Sam McFranklin were married on March 3, 1971.” She thanked me and hung up.

I hope everything worked out for her, but have my doubts. Anyone who doesn’t even remember her wedding date probably has a lot of other loose strings dangling in her life.

Let’s hear it for keeping good records.

I sat in a meeting in which the pastoral team was divided, one man saying one thing, another contradicting him. As a result of the divided leadership, the entire church was split down the middle and serious consequences were looming.

On the surface it seemed to be a “one said/the other said” controversy with no obvious clear-cut resolution. Then one of the men volunteered something that settled the issue.

“Here are the minutes of the meetings,” he said, as he opened a file and produced a stack of papers. “Furthermore,” he said to the man across the table, “your wife is the clerk and took these minutes.”

According to the minutes of the church business meetings, the first man was correct in his position and the man whose wife had taken the minutes was clearly mistaken. The matter was settled, or would have been if the plaintiff had been interested in the truth. Unfortunately, his primary interest involved getting his way, which moved the controversy to another plane altogether.

I was not then and am not now a judge, but had I been, the notes of the church business meetings would have been the smoking gun and would have ended the “trial.”

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What I Learned in 2007

My Birmingham friends Philip and Shellyn Poole started this with their Christmas letter. According to that document, last year they learned such lessons as home warranty companies consider water lines to the fridge to be “plumbing” and not “refrigerator repair,” tires for small cars are costlier than for trucks, and the ever-popular “Poorly lit stop signs are still stop signs.” We may assume someone got a ticket and is having trouble getting over it!

Here are my top ten lessons of 2007. (A disclaimer: I’m doing this at one sitting and no doubt will think of a dozen more later.)

10. If you are in Gardendale, Alabama, don’t even think about driving past that white line at the intersection. Doing so cost me $133, and yes, I am still having a little trouble getting over that!

9. Southern Baptists are still the greatest people in the world. Two years after Katrina, they’re still flowing into New Orleans in record numbers to help us rebuild. We’re so grateful this country has not been hit with another hurricane of any size to draw away the attention and resources. For those interested in coming to help, go to www.joemckeever.com and click on the house at the top of the page.

8. Rebuilding New Orleans is not going to be a ten-year job as I previously thought. We’re now talking about 25 years. I’ll be in Heaven when it’s finished, but I’ll be cheering you guys on!

7. Had I brushed my teeth regularly as a child when Mom told me to do so, I could have saved myself over $12,000 this year alone. How does that line go from the mechanic–”Pay me now or pay me later!”

6. Bill Taylor’s innovative plan for helping our struggling churches–the program is called Unlimited Partnerships–is a wonderfully creative way for pumping new life into our congregations and encouragement into our pastors. He started it March 1, 2007, and already it has made a lasting difference in a hundred ways.

5. Friendship is the best thing going. This year, as we continue to deal with the rebuilding of this city, and as my family has dealt with the homegoing of our Dad, we have drawn such incredible strength from friends. I’ve frequently (and teasingly) quoted a Canadian pastor friend who says, “A friend is God’s apology for your relatives,” but I’ve got some wonderful kin also, so no apology needed. Just basking in the glow and love of friends.

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My Christmas Message

The text is Luke 2:8-18, the message of the angels to the shepherds.

Theme: Every element in the angels’ message is a welcome surprise to us.

FEAR NOT.

There is so much fear in this world.

When earth is invaded by Heaven, we naturally cringe. To our delight, God’s messenger tells us not to be afraid. He does not bring us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind (II Tim 1:7). You don’t have to be afraid ever again.

GOOD NEWS.

There is so much bad news in this world.

We would have thought that when God came to earth, it would be just long enough to plant an explosive device that would put an end to the human experiment. And yet, to our overwhelming surprise, His message to mankind is good news, which is the meaning of the word “gospel.” The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).

GREAT JOY.

There is so much unhappiness in this world.

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Only in New Orleans, A to Z

Angus Lind, columnist for the Times-Picayune, has filled the alphabet with aspects of the culture that makes this city unique. Sunday’s paper ran the Living section crossways so that by opening the entire page out, you have this giant poster depicting Lind’s compilation of New Orleans blessings, complete with pictures.

So many expatriate New Orleanians read this blog, we thought you would enjoy his list. It’s shortened somewhat for brevity’s sake. See if any of these bring back memories. Or make you homesick.

A is for Audubon Park, Azaleas, the Absinthe House, Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, Algiers, Arabi, architecture, and ain’t dere no more. B is for the big easy, bless you boys, Buddy D, Tom Benson, Bienville, beignets, bananas foster, brake tag stations and Barq’s.

C is for Crescent City, Canal and Claiborne, Cajuns, Carondelet, Creoles, cafe au lait, Cafe du Monde, calliopes on steamboats, Chalmette, Commander’s, City Park, Charity Hospital, Camellia Grill, and the Crescent City Connection. D is for Deuce and Drew, Dawlin’, Dis n’ Dat, downtown, Delgado, dey all axed f’you, and D. H. Holmes.

E is for Emeril’s, ersters, Endymion, Essence. F is for the French Quarter, fleur-de-lis, French Market, de ferry, Faubourg Marigny, first you make a roux, and Frostop. G is for gumbo, gris-gris, Galatoire’s, Gentilly, Garden District, Green Wave, go by yo mamma’s house, and Gretna.

H is for Hubig pies, Hornets, hurricanes, Harry Connick Jr., the Huey P., half shell, Hap Glaudi, and how y’all are? I is for Irma the sweet soul queen, Iberville, Irish Channel, I done tol’ you a hunnert times, and izzat so? J is for Jazzfest, jazz funerals, jambalaya, Jackson Square. K is for K-Paul’s, K-Doe, Krewes, Krystal burgers, K-Ville, and “another K we won’t mention because it doesn’t exactly feel like a blessing yet.”

L is for lucky dogs, lagniappe, Landrieu, Lee Circle, Lower Nint’ Ward, Louis Prima, Liver n’ Onions, Lenfants, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. M is for Mardi Gras, the Mannings, Morgus, Mandina’s, makin’ groceries, Magazine Street, Marie Leveau, muffulettas, mirlitons, McKenzie’s, Monkey Hill, and Maison Blance. N is for N’Awlins, nutrias, neutral ground, nectar sodas, and no left turn signs. O is for “only in New Orleans,” Olympia Brass Band, and Orpheus.

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How God Fooled Satan At Christmas

“….the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” –I Corinthians 2:8

Understand, Satan is a created being. He shares none of the attributes of Almighty God—not omniscience, omnipresence, nor omnipotence, meaning that he is limited in knowledge and space and power. When it comes to predicting what God is going to do next, he has to rely on what he can figure out, what he remembers from the timeless past when he resided in Heaven as a favorite angel, and what he reads in Holy Scripture. Since the Holy Spirit does not enlighten his understanding, he sees as the world sees, not with the mind of Christ. Once we understand this, a hundred puzzles fall into place.

The Apostle Paul pointed out that had Satan known what God was up to, he would never have crucified Jesus. One might say that God pulled the wool over the devil’s eyes and fooled him. On that first Easter Sunday morning, an imp rushed into the presence of his satanic majesty, interrupting the two-day celebration over the death of Jesus. The demon breathlessly announced that the tomb was empty, the body gone, and the soldiers looked like they had seen a ghost. Satan spewed out his champagne and cursed. He had been had and he knew it. He had played right into God’s hands and was defeated.

Sometimes in biblical history, we see that the Lord manipulated Satan, as in the cases of Job and Joseph. Sometimes, God gave him a good comeuppance as at Mount Carmel when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal in a fire-calling contest. At other times, the Lord used subterfuge to fool His enemy. Christmas is one of those times.

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Leadership in the Crescent City

The New Orleans City Council faced a baptism of fire today and showed the kind of courage not seen in political leadership around here in a long time. The members voted unanimously to approve the demolition of the various public housing developments, and did it in the face of a mob scene.

We made national news throughout the day. Fights broke out in the council chamber and police could be seen restraining this one, fighting that one, arresting another. Television cameras and boom microphones were recording all this, while outside the chamber crowds were breaking through the gates which police had locked since all seats were filled and there was no more room. “We deserve the right to be heard,” sounded out from the crowd. “They filled the seats with their own people.” “Is this land a democracy or a dictatorship?”

The local evening news shows the crowd being pepper-sprayed and someone being tasered. Police turned water hoses on the mob and used mace on some of the worst agitators. When the cops handcuffed the gates the second time, the crowd broke through again.

There is no reasoning with people acting like this. Later, as some of the injured spoke to the cameras, you got the impression they were all innocent bystanders, there to participate peacefully in a democratic process and completely surprised at the reaction of the police.

All I know is what I got through the media but it appeared that few of the activists were actual residents of those projects, and that many were not even from New Orleans. There was a public demonstration to be made and those attract a certain class of individuals like honey does flies.

Turn off the television cameras and most of the demonstrators would go home.

Later, the mayor and the entire city council stood together for the news media to give a report and answer questions. We thoroughly agree with their assessment that today, a major step was made for the long-term good of this city.

Our leaders showed real leadership today, and that is something to be proud of.

Brian Williams led tonight’s NBC Nightly News with the story of this day in our city. At the end, the reporter on the scene said, “And where was Mayor Ray Nagin in this? He was nowhere to be seen. Later, he said, ‘This was the City Council’s day.’”

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 38–”Recognition is Good; Just Don’t Need It.”

Let me tell you about a local fellow.

Drew Brees is the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints football team. After a great season last year, the team got off to an 0-4 start in 2007, but since have come back to even their record at 7-7. If they win the next two games, they’ll end up at 9-7, only one game off last year’s record with a slim possibility they will make the playoffs.

Even so, Drew Brees is having the best year of his career. Football fans will appreciate these numbers. Brees has not thrown an interception in the last 121 passes. He is on a pace to break the NFL record for the most completions in a season (he has 378 passes and needs 41 in the next two games to pass Oakland’s Rich Gannon who had 418 completions in 2002). Brees has 25 touchdowns this year which means he will probably hold the Saints record in that department after this year.

But wait, it gets better. In the past 10 games–after the disastrous first 4 games–Brees has completed 71 percent of his passes. Last Sunday, against the Arizona Cardinals, certainly no pushover, he completed 26 of 30 passes, including the last 12 in a row. That is almost unheard of, and figures out to a completion rate of over 86 percent. Ask any football fan how impressive that is.

And yet, Brees was not selected for the Pro Bowl, professional football’s all-star exhibition. It’s the recognition from fans, coaches, and fellow players that you are at the top of your game. In fact, no one on the Saints received that honor this year. Dallas, meanwhile, is sending 11 players to the Pro Bowl.

If Brees is disappointed, you’d never know it. This man is the most even-tempered, the most mature, of any player we’ve ever had in these parts. His foundation helps underprivileged children in the New Orleans area and he can frequently be seen interacting with children and parents as he uses his fame, his influence, and his resources to make a lasting difference. If our works indicate our faith, as James says in the epistle that bears his name, Drew Brees is our brother in the Lord.

Recognition is good in almost all cases. Most people seem to like it, particularly when it comes from their peers. In the annual awards show of the motion picture industry–the Oscars–time and again, we hear movie stars who receive the golden statuette speak of how special it is to have been chosen for this honor “by my peers.”

The only thing I recall from Psych 201, a course required of sophomores at my college a long time ago, is this incident. In a factory where hundreds of people were slaving away at menial jobs, someone walked back and replaced the light bulb above the head of one particular worker. There was nothing wrong with the old bulb; he just put in a new one. Immediately, the productivity of that worker went up. Evidently, someone knew he was back there and felt he was important. It’s a great lesson.

The trick is to appreciate the appreciation without requiring it in order to do your best work. And to extend it to others without needing it yourself.

In the last “leadership lesson,” the one dealing with humility, we encouraged readers to take down from the wall all those plaques of appreciation, recognition and achievement that seem to accumulate over the years. And yet, maybe not. There is something to be said for leaving them up. At least, leaving them where you alone can see them and be motivated by them.

After posting that essay on humility, as I was walking from my study, I noticed a plaque given by my seminary some 9 months after Katrina. The text says something about “distinguished service.” Now, it was not hanging on the wall and never has been. It sits on a lower shelf of a bookcase in front of some reference books. So, why is it there? Why did I not relegate it to the drawer–or worse, to the dumpster–as I’ve been counseling readers to do?

The answer is that I’m of two minds on this subject.

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