We’ve Entered a Different Phase Now

In the weeks and months following Katrina–next August 29 will mark the third anniversary of this hurricane–we all said something like the following to one another around here:

“We’d better do all we can while we still have the nation’s attention. People are notorious for short attention spans. The next major hurricane will draw the focus and resources in that direction, and we’ll be deserted.”

The remarkable thing is that two-and-a-half years later, that still has not happened. First and foremost, no hurricane of any size has hit the U.S. mainland during this period, so no great disaster has supplanted New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to siphon away the focus and resources.

Secondly, our nation’s leaders–many of them at any rate–are determined to make the federal government keep its promises to this region. And thirdly, the churches of America still have us on their hearts and continue to send teams of volunteers this way to rebuild homes, restore communities, and revive dashed hopes.

We’re grateful, make no mistake.

The glamour has gone off by now, however. And that’s not all bad.

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My Preaching Schedule

Saturday, March 1, at 9 am, I’m teaching leadership at Suburban Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Sunday, March 2, at 11 am, preaching for “Home Missions Sunday” at Bethel Baptist Church on Prine Road in Citronelle, Alabama.

Tuesday, March 11, 9 am to noon, speaking twice at the Senior Adult Rally at First Baptist Church of Laurel, Mississippi.

Wednesday, March 12, meeting of the board of New Orleans Baptist Missions, which administers the work of the various SBC mission centers in our city.

Friday night/Saturday morning, attending the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Foundation Board meeting.

Sunday night, March 23 at 6 pm, preaching at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Gordo, Alabama.

Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday mornings (March 24-26) speaking at the Senior Adult Revival for the Baptists of Pickens County, Alabama. (Did not make a note of the name of the church where we’ll be meeting. My host is Dr. Tommy Winders of Carrollton FBC.)

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Things are Looking Up

Tuesday morning, on the interstate heading toward Alexandria, I reached for my glasses to read a line on something and as I was opening them up, the right earpiece broke in two. No stress on it or anything. It was just time, I reckon.

At the Wal-Mart in Opelousas, I bought a pair of reading glasses to get me through the next couple of days, and made a mistake. I chose the cheapest things they had, which turned out to be inadequate. That night, when I got home, I used the reading glasses usually parked beside the computer. I’ve had them several years and they work just fine.

Russell, my deacon friend who runs the optical shop at Ochsners, has ordered another earpiece for my regular glasses, but it’s not in yet.

Then, today, while buying groceries, I glanced at the reading glasses I was holding in my hand, and the right earpiece was missing. While I stood there, the left one fell off. This was not my day.

I drove to Wal-Mart and paid 20 bucks for another pair. That’s why I’m able to see what’s going on the computer screen at this moment.

Walking around without my glasses feels for all the world like I’m missing my pants or shoes. Undressed.

Hurry up, Russell.

“Philanthropist follows his heart, opens his wallet” read the front-page headline in Wednesday’s paper. Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes and Noble, announced Tuesday that he is devoting 20 million dollars from his family’s charitable foundation to erecting 120 homes in the Gentilly neighborhood. The paper says, “Those involved in Project Home Again believe it is the largest philanthropic project launched in New Orleans since the storm.”

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So Many Reasons To Pray For The Preacher

A friend and I have been having an internet discussion about preachers. We both love our preachers, and years ago, I was her pastor, so we have a mutual understanding about a lot of things.

The conversation went like this.

She: “One of the things I’ve enjoyed in our church lately is an enhanced understanding of every phrase of the Lord’s prayer. So much so that I was offended recently at a funeral when the minister asked us to stand and ‘recite’ the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think it’s something to be recited; it’s something to be prayed diligently!”

She added: “Now don’t go getting the wrong idea. I think that preacher is a delightful person, and I like him very much.”

I said, “Asking someone to ‘recite’ the Lord’s Prayer reminds me of something similar that drives me up the wall. You’ll be in a moving worship service, and the leader will say, ‘Now, let us have a word of prayer,’ or ‘I’m going to ask Bill to lead us in a word of prayer.’ I don’t know why that bothers me so much. I feel like calling out, ‘Hey friend, pray! Don’t just have a ‘word’ of prayer. Go to the Heavenly Father and pray!’ Somehow, it minimizes the importance of prayer, as though we’re all tipping our hats to the Almighty, then going on with the important stuff.”

We branched out to discussing how we preachers sometimes say foolish things without a clue as to how it’s being received. I told her about a recent internet conversation with a friend in North Carolina.

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Pastor, You Will Pray or Quit!

If anyone on planet Earth needs to pray faithfully and fervently, it’s the pastor. For one thing, this job requires more of you than there is and more time than you have. The person accepting the Lord’s call into the ministry is agreeing to live in a world of unfinished tasks. You are literally being sentenced to live beyond yourself.

It is by its very nature impossible to live this life and do this work in your own strength. You will develop a strong prayer life or you will not survive. It’s as simple as that.

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Easter and Other Stuff

Sunday morning, Thomas Strong, pastor of Metairie Baptist Church, was preaching on Mark 12 in a message he called “Preparing for Easter.” He told this story from a writer named Joyce Halliday.

An elementary schoolteacher was asked to go by the burn unit of the local hospital. A child had come through a tragic house fire, and was in critical condition. The instructions were rather odd. “Go by and talk to him about nouns and adverbs.” She thought that was bizarre, but someone had decided it would help the child, and anything that would do that, she was in favor of.

A nurse showed her into the PICU. The child was wrapped in bandages with only portions of his face visible. The nurse said he had been unresponsive up to that point. The teacher pulled up a chair and introduced herself, then said, “They asked me to come by and talk with you about nouns and adverbs.” So she did, feeling more and more foolish the whole time. After a bit, she wished the child well and left.

The next day, she decided to check on the child. As she approached the intensive care unit, a nurse met her in the hall. “What did you do yesterday?” The teacher stammered and began apologizing. “I know it was silly to talk with him about nouns and adverbs, but those were my instructions. I’m sorry.” The nurse said, “No–whatever you did worked wonders. Come and see.”

The child was still in bandages, but his face was animated and he was speaking. Why had a little lesson like this changed him so much? The boy said, “I knew they wouldn’t ask a teacher to talk to me about nouns and adverbs if they thought there was no hope.”

Thomas Strong said, “God would not have sent His Son for a people for whom there was no hope.”

Somewhere I read that people can live 6 weeks without food, 2 weeks without water, but not a day without hope.

Some texts that come to my preacher-mind are these….

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Prayer: Come Boldly to the Throne, but Tentatively to Pontificating on Prayer

My son Marty, always on the alert to keep his dad out of trouble, has remarked on the irony of my beginning this series on prayer with the assertion that “there are no experts on prayer.” If there are no experts, he asks, am I not presenting myself as one with all these articles laden with instructions on how to pray?

I thanked him for the observation, and have been considering it ever since. (What he calls irony, someone else could call hypocrisy.)

The main response that suggests itself to me is that a third-grader might have some points to share with others in his class, or in the younger rooms, but he always knows he is still the child with so much to learn.

In the middle of his wonderful book on this subject (“The Meaning of Prayer” is a genuine classic), Harry Emerson Fosdick takes up a similar consideration. (I suggest you not buy everything Fosdick peddled over his lengthy ministry; he was admittedly and proudly a theological liberal with all that implies, but he sure could teach most of us a great deal about real prayer. Being a conservative, I’m still wrestling with how to reconcile those two!)

“A critic with discriminating insight has objected to Voltaire’s writings on the ground that nothing could possibly be quite so clear as Voltaire makes it. A book on prayer readily runs into danger of the same criticism. For, like every other vital experience, prayer in practice meets obstacles that a theoretical discussion too easily glosses over and forgets.”

Fosdick goes on to add, “Even when prayer is defined as communion with God, and our thought of it is thereby freed from many embarrassments, as a kite escapes the trees and bushes when one flies it high, there remain practical difficulties which perplex many who sincerely try to pray.”

So, I say to myself and to our longsuffering readers, that once we fill this “features” box with perhaps fifty articles on the subject of prayer, there will still be so much more to be said on this subject. No one has yet written and this one certainly shall not be the definitive last word on prayer.

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Prayer: What the Guy in the Pew Wishes the Pastor Knew

In the last couple of years, I have become a Pew-Spud. If people who occupy their time sprawled in front of the television are couch-potatoes, it figures that those who spend their Sundays soaking up sermons in church auditoriums are pew-spuds. And after over 40 years of pastoring, I have become one. It’s not all bad. In fact, I’m enjoying it, even though I still relish the opportunity to preach.

I keep reminding our pastors that when I drop in on their services, I come as a worshiper and not as a critic or advisor or their mentor. I come as a fellow believer. I consider myself a good audience for a preacher. I want him to do well, I pray for him and work at listening.

But, I’m about to violate that unspoken contract with our pastors. I need to tell you something that weighs heavily on my heart. Pastor, you need to give some thought to what you say from the pulpit. No, I’m not referring to the sermon. You seem to be doing well on that. I’m talking about what you say to the Lord, your prayers in the worship service.

In a typical service, there is the invocation and the benediction. In between will often come a pastoral prayer, an offertory prayer, and occasionally a prayer at the start and/or conclusion of the sermon. Some of those are spoken by staffers or deacons, but most belong to you, the pastor.

What follows is my impression of what the fellow in the pew would like to register with you the pastor. This is not to imply that he sits there thinking these things. In most cases, I fear he has long since abandoned hope that you might invigorate your prayers with fresh thoughts and uplifting praise and strong intercessions. But, if I were a wagering man, I’d betcha that the lay men and women who read this will connect with it in a heartbeat. As always, we invite them to leave their comments at the conclusion, in agreement or disagreement, contributing their own suggestions and anecdotes.

What Joe PewSpud wishes his pastor knew about his public prayers….

1) Remember that you are praying with me and for me.

This is not your private prayer time, pastor. You are voicing a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Therefore, say “We” and “our,” and not “I” and “my.”

At some point in recent history, some misguided influencer-of-preachers convinced them that no one can voice a prayer for someone else and that when you pray in public, you should use the first person singular pronoun. “I make my prayer in Jesus’ name, amen.”

My response is that this would be news to Jesus. He taught us to pray, “Our Father…give us…forgive us…lead us….”

So, make your prayers on behalf of the entire congregation. What are they feeling, where are they hurting, what do they need? What has God impressed you to request on behalf of your congregation? Then pray that.

2) We’re counting on you to lift us to the Lord’s throne in prayer.

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Prayer: It’s Up to You

“Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:8)

Dwight Munn, a member of the ministerial staff of the great First Baptist Church of West Monroe, Louisiana, pastored a church across the river from New Orleans some years back. He told me this story.

The television network was running a made-for-TV movie on the life of Noah, one covering two hours each night for several evenings. People who know their Bibles flocked to watch it, then grew disillusioned when the story took some strange turns and gave up on it. But on this particular Sunday night, Dwight and Lissa hurried home from church with their two small daughters to catch the story. On the way home, they picked up fast food and ate it in the living room while the movie ran.

Dwight said, “Lissa and I were on the couch, and 6-year-old Marissa was sitting on the floor halfway between us and the television. At one point, as Noah and God are conversing, we became aware that our little girl was sniffing. I said, ‘Honey, are you all right?'”

“Marissa turned her face around and I could see the big tears in her eyes. She said, ‘How come God never talks to me like that?'”

Dwight told the story, then said, “McKeever, how long has it been since you have shed tears because you’ve not been hearing from God?”

That must have been 8 or 9 years ago, but the question still haunts me. Why don’t I long for the nearness of God the way that child did?

Someone has said, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”

Likewise, coming back to Him is up to us.

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What the Average Guy in the Pew Forgets if He Ever Knew

In Doug Munton’s excellent book, “Seven Steps to Becoming a Healthy Christian Leader,” I was fascinated by an account of Colonel Lucien Greathouse, a Union officer in the Civil War. Munton was speaking in Vandalia, Illinois, and while browsing the old cemeteries there he ran across the tombstone for Col. Greathouse.

That gravestone must have been rather wordy because Munton reports that it says Greathouse “led his command in forty pitched battles,” and quotes two generals with strong endorsements of the officer. General William Sherman, under whom Greathouse served on the march into Atlanta, said, “His example was worth a thousand men,” and General John Logan called him “The Bravest Man in the Army of Tennessee.”

On July 22, 1864, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Greathouse was killed, holding in his hands the American flag. Then, the kicker….

Munton writes, “And when he died in July of 1864, he was two months past his twenty-second birthday.”

This week, I shared that story with a couple of young pastors in my office. I said to them, “There’s a sermon illustration there. I don’t know what it is, but there’s one there.” We spent the next few minutes analyzing this brief account of the young officer’s life and untimely death, and finally figured it out.

What made this man so remarkable, of course, is his youthful age for that high a rank. As uncommon as that seems to us, it appears to be the rule that in wartime, rank advancements can occur at lightning speed. We recall that George Armstrong Custer was made a general in the same Union army at the age of 23. Then, when the war ended, he was dropped back to the permanent rank of captain, a real comedown. When he died at Little Big Horn in 1876, I think he was a lieutenant colonel.

Back to the story of Colonel Greathouse and the point our young pastors came up with: In wartime, the usual rules go out the window and you take drastic steps to accomplish daring purposes.

I asked the pastors if any had heard the news that morning. The FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge of the New Orleans office, Jim Bernazzani, was reporting a new initiative his office is conducting against the drug trade in our city. The night before, in cooperation with the New Orleans Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and ATF, the FBI had arrested some people who were selling the purest of heroin to students at one of our inner city high schools.

A 15-year-old student had died from the heroin, and the men who had sold the drugs were caught and charged with her murder. The FBI agent told his audience that law enforcement officers were horrified to find our teenagers messing with the hardest of drugs. Then, he told what they’re doing about it.

“My men are going to see the parents of these schoolkids. We’re knocking on their doors and telling them what their teens are up to, and calling on them to get involved in their lives.”

“Isn’t this unusual?” he was asked. “Absolutely. We’ve never done anything like this before. But we are in a war on drugs, a war to save our kids, and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

There it is: in wartime, you take extreme measures to accomplish drastic purposes. Nothing routine applies any more.

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