Katrina-Land No-Brainers (3rd Anniversary Stuff)

In the days following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to our part of the world, I began calling on pastors and churches to see who was still in business and who needed our immediate help. At the First Baptist Church of Luling, Pastor Todd Hallman gave a brief tour of his fellowship hall which they had turned into a distribution center, supplying necessities for storm victims. Boxes and boxes of clothing and supplies sent from all over the nation were stacked along three walls. In the hallway, small refrigerators lined one wall, gifts from a California hotel that was being renovated. Volunteers were everywhere and a constant stream of people flowed in and out of the buildings, entering empty-handed and leaving heavily laden.

Todd said, “One of our leaders returned from evacuation and saw all this and became indignant. He wanted to know who gave me the authority to turn the church into a distribution center.”

He smiled. “I told him it was a no-brainer.”

That’s as good an answer as any, and probably all the man needed. Some things do not need explaining, discussing, or being voted on. You just do it.

Over the past three years since the August 29, 2005, hurricane, we have found ourselves confronted by a number of no-brainers.

Among them are these….

1) This city and its businesses need strong visionary leadership if we are to make a comeback.

Some sectors of the city have been led capably; others not at all. For the most part, what we have received from our elected leadership has been promises, pronouncements, controversy, and blame, but very little in the way of courageous leadership.

2) We need outside help in extreme measures to recover from an emergency of this size.

Continue reading

Advice for the Young Pastor

Josh is 24 years old, midway through his masters degree at the seminary, and this is his first pastorate. For 90 minutes tonight, he met with an ordination council made up of eight ministers. We heard his testimony and asked questions on his beliefs and probed his understanding of the work God has thrust him into.

I was impressed by his maturity and the depth of understanding of concepts it took me decades to grasp.

As the group discussed Josh’s work in the small church he is leading and offered advice for future ministry, I searched my memory for some story to leave with him, something he will remember, an insight to latch onto during some future crisis.

Then I remembered.

Joe Cothen is retired now after a long ministry of pastoring churches, teaching seminary students, and lastly, serving as academic dean at our local seminary. His distinguished brother Grady served as president of a Baptist college, of Lifeway Christian Resources, and of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A third brother was also a Baptist minister, as was their father before them.

Dr. Cothen remembers the day his father sat his three young preacher boys down in the back yard and gave them advice on the Lord’s work they would remember the rest of their lives.

“Boys,” he said, “the Lord has put a delicate balance in the church. He has put just enough headstrong, ornery church members to keep you the pastor humble. And He has put just enough sweet godly saints to keep you from quitting.”

Joe would tell that, let it soak in, then add, “Every church I ever pastored, I found both groups.”

I looked across the room at Josh and said, “Now, if a pastor focuses on the negative group–the critics, the naysayers–he will become discouraged and want to quit.”

“And if he focuses only on the positive, supportive group–the ones who adore him and think he can do no wrong–he will become too enamored with himself and become puffed up.”

“Either way, he will be unusable to the Lord.”

“The key is to keep your focus on the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone.”

Continue reading

A Question of Authority

Saturday night, stuck in the checkout line at the local Rite-Aid, I became involved in a little scene.

The checker was ringing up the purchases of a man about 40 years old who had a small child with him. On the other side of the checker, near the front door, stood an older man, perhaps 75 or 80, who was trying to get her attention. “Ma’am,” he kept saying, “Is it all right if I take this out to the car to show my wife?” He was holding up some item from the store. The checker was giving her attention to the man and child in front of her.

Finally, the customer at the checkout snapped at the older gentleman, “No! It is not all right to take that outside!” The old man was flustered and said, “She’s in the car. I just want to see if this is what she wants. I’ll be right back.”

“No, sir!” said the younger man. “You’re not allowed to take things outside you haven’t paid for!”

The old man said, “Well, what if I leave my umbrella? I’ll be right back.”

“No!” the young man said. “Leave your drivers license.”

While this was going on, those of us in the checkout line were silently watching this scenario and fascinated at the attitude of the customer who was bullying the old guy.

The old man said to him, “Are you a manager of this store or something?”

The younger fellow said, “No, I’m not. But I know how these things are done!”

I’d taken about all of this I could. From the back of the checkout line, I called out to the old man, “Sir! You may ignore the customer. Do what you have to do!”

The younger man stared at me contemptuously, took his child by the hand, and left.

As he exited the door, the manager came over and took care of the older gentleman. The woman in front of me turned and said, “Who in blue blazes did that fellow think he was, talking to that old man that way?” I laughed and agreed that he was definitely a buttinsky.

When I got home and told me wife this little tale, she–filling the role of a wife so neatly–said, “And who did you think you were, rebuking him like that?”

My Scripture reading that very morning from the first chapters of Mark’s Gospel had been on this same subject: authority. That little word deals with who we think we are, who we really are, and what gives us the right to do what we do.

Consider these instances from the first days of Jesus’ ministry….

Continue reading

What a Champion is Not Thinking

Watch her on the diving board in that moment just before she springs. I cannot tell you exactly what is going through the mind of this world-class champion diver, but I can guarantee what she is NOT thinking.

“I can’t do this. I have no right to be here. I am unworthy. Who do I think I am standing before millions of people representing the United States of America? There are so many others worthier and better divers than I. Oh, Lord, help me get through this.”

Not if she wants to do well, she doesn’t think that way.

And yet, untold numbers of God’s people approach the tasks of their days in just this way. The odd thing is we call it humility and somehow think God approves of such an attitude. Not so.

“Oh, why was I chosen to sing the solo in this year’s pageant? So many others sing better than I do. I am unworthy. O God, use this worthless servant. May my poor effort be a worthy offering to Thee.”

“I have no right to be sitting in your living room witnessing to you about Jesus Christ. I’m a failure in so many ways. If I got what I deserved, I’d be in hell. But, I’ll go ahead and do my best.”

“I know I’m the poorest Sunday School teacher in the church. My class is infinitely patient with me. I hope the pastor finds someone more capable who is willing to teach this class. Maybe it will grow if someone else were in charge.”

Sound familiar?

Continue reading

10 Life-Lessons from the Beijing Olympics

10. Don’t glide, but stroke to the finish.

Mike Cavic was gliding to the finish in Friday night’s 100 meter free-style. Just behind him, Michael Phelps was still pumping, stroking. That final half-stroke propelled Phelps forward to touch the electronic pad one-hundredth of a second before Cavic. Along with a billion other viewers, I could see that Cavic had won. We were all knocked out to see Phelps’ name flashed on the screen as the winner. Turns out his mother was surprised, too. The television cameras showed her deflated reaction to what appeared to be a loss, then relief and elation flooding over her as she realized he had won the race and his seventh gold medal.

Stroking made the difference.

Over the past few days, being on vacation allowed me to watch more of the Olympics than would have normally been the case, and I had wondered about this. Why do swimmers go all-out during the race, then glide to the finish? It’s definitely slower than stroking. You know it couldn’t be so, but it appears they decided to give themselves a little break at the end.

I once knew a pastor who served his church faithfully for over a quarter of a century. He was a good man in a hundred ways. But those who worked alongside him said, “He retired five years before he quit.”

He was gliding home.

9. It’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s real.

Turns out that the opening ceremony fireworks, watched by a billion people around the globe by television, was computer enhanced. Officials said they did not want to risk fires by exploding all the fireworks the occasion called for, so they did the next best thing: simulated much of them.

Nearly 30 years ago, I spent a few minutes in the studio of a professional photographer in Grenada, Mississippi, and watched him move the moon around on a photograph to get just the effect he wanted. Once he had it where he liked it, he printed the photo and no one was the wiser. I remember that now and think, “That was a generation ago. No telling what they can do now.”

My wife and I were combing through antique stores in Jackson, Mississippi, some years back and noticed workers hammering away in a back room. “What are they doing?” I asked the owner. “Building antiques,” she said. They were tearing apart ancient pieces of furniture no longer of use to anyone and using the wood to fashion new items which would then be marketed as antique.

The more we are surrounded by the fake, the “virtual,” and the computer-generated, the more need there will be for God’s people to be genuine and demonstrate to the world what the real article looks like.

8. If you want to win, build your team.

Continue reading

Putting Balance in Your Prayer Life

I saw a man jogging on the levee beside the Mississippi River this morning. As he approached, he seemed to be tilted slightly, running just a tad off balance. Then I realized one sleeve was hanging limply at his side. The absence of his left arm threw his body off balance.

Veteran Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe says there ought to be one more beatitude: “Blessed are the balanced.”

When Rick Warren of Saddleback Church said the key issue of the 21st century church would be not church growth but church health, someone asked for his secret of church health. “In a word, balance,” he said.

Rick Warren explained, “Your body has nine different systems (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, skeletal, etc). When these systems are all in balance, it produces health. But when your body gets out of balance, we call that ‘disease.'”

He added, “Likewise when the body of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs. Health and growth can only occur when everything is brought into balance.”

In Matthew 6, our Lord showed His concern that the disciples find proper balance in their spiritual lives. On the one hand, they should not follow the example of religious hypocrites and theological play-actors who pray and give and fast in order to impress other people. On the other hand, they should avoid the practice of the pagans who pray for hours using chants and meaningless repetition in an attempt to impress God. Both are ditches to be avoided. In between these two extremes lies the “road,” the path of balance.

In what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” and our Catholic friends refer to as “The Our Father,” Jesus gives a wonderful pattern for balance in the prayers of His people.

1. A balance between intimacy and community. “Our Father.”

Continue reading

The Michael-Phelps-in-the-Pulpit Syndrome

“Something about that champion swimmer doesn’t look right,” I thought, as the world watched America’s Michael Phelps take another gold medal in Beijing. “It’s something about his proportions.”

Then, Thursday night, August 14, I found out what it is. Turns out I was right.

NBC’s Bob Costas pointed out that Michael Phelps was “engineered” for swimming. He’s 6 feet 4 inches tall, his feet are size 14 (like flippers, Costas said), and his huge hands work like scoops. However, his legs are short, just right for the body of a six-foot-tall man. His torso is V-shaped, with these massive shoulders tapering down to a 32-inch waist.

The rest of the field is beat before they enter the water. Michael Phelps was built for championships. Add to these natural gifts a talent for self-discipline and hard work, and it’s all over. The sweet spirit and killer smile are icing on the cake.

In an Associated Press story, reporter Paul Newberry quotes a Russian swimmer who had come in second to Phelps. “He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet.” An official who overheard that added, “The problem is, we have an extraterrestrial. No one else can win.”

Sure glad he’s on our side. At this point, he has won 6 gold medals, about half of all the USA has taken, and more than all but three or four nations of the world. He is a phenomenon. The best ever.

I imagine my sister and her family–that would be the PHELPS clan from Nauvoo, Alabama–are popping buttons right now. I would.

As a minister, I’ve encountered a few “Michael Phelpses” in the ministerial world over the years, people who seem to have been programmed for great success in the preaching and church-leadership world. They work hard, they love the Lord and do things right, but sitting there in the audience listening to them, you get the impression that they had a head start on the rest of us from the time they were born.

Continue reading

Hang On: The Times-Picayune for Wednesday, August 13, 2008

1) Turns out the mayor of Mandeville, whose antics and frantics have made him a rival to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for negative press, now saw that his relatives were awarded no-bid contracts in violation of state law. I suggest Hizzoner Eddie Price start looking for other work, ’cause he ain’t long for City Hall.

2) A Katrina transplant to Texas, who narrowly escaped conviction for murder in 1999 when a local jury could not agree on a guilty verdict, later moved to Dallas and offed someone. The Texans who formed the jury took care of business and convicted him for first degree murder. Rondel Allen will be a resident of the state pen for the rest of his life. Sorry, Texas friends. If our people had done their job, a man would still be alive today.

3) Our fair state today becomes the last of all fifty to ban cockfighting. What took us so long?

4) In Greeley, Colorado, the body of a 25-year-old suicide victim has been found in the Pawnee National Grasslands. Standing guard beside the decomposing body of Jake Baysinger for the past six weeks was Cash, his German shepherd. The dog had been surviving on mice and rabbits, authorities say, but was thin and dehydrated. The very definition of faithfulness.

5) Critics of China are having fun with a little Milli-Vanilli trick that government played at the opening ceremony a few days ago. A wonderful 7-year-old, Yang Peiyi, sang “Ode to the Motherland” but because she has a chubby face and crooked teeth, a 9-year-old child actor was recruited to lip sync the words. It’s all about the government’s need to present a perfect image to the world, we’re told. If they’re serious about wanting to improve their image, they ought to end religous oppression and take a stand for human rights.

6) A Covington woman who served on the board of “Wishing Well Foundation USA, Inc.,” a Metairie nonprofit set up to grant last wishes to seriously ill children, has been accused of embezzling $17,300 from the organization. She was the accountant and had been trusted. A German shepherd is more faithful.

Continue reading

Finding Leadership for the Small Church

I recognize that “small” is relative. In Texas, land of vast distances and megachurches, a congregation of 200 souls may rank as tiny indeed. In Nevada and Montana, a church of that number would be seen as one of the larger congregations.

One thing we know, small congregations fight a never-ending battle for money to pay the pastor a living wage, money to cover the regular bills plus invest in missions, and money to maintain a decent program. Leaders of small churches are forever looking for ways to be more effective with limited resources.

Decision-makers of such congregations might want to take a lesson from the owner of a major league baseball team situated in one of the smaller markets in this country.

Stu Sternberg is principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, Florida’s American League baseball team. In the June 30, 2008, issue of “ESPN Magazine,” Sternberg shares “8 things you should know about running a small-market baseball team.”

In his article, we can find clues and insights here for a business or church being dwarfed by the big guys and having to get creative to stay competitive or effective.

1) Timing is everything.

Sternberg says there is no point in his team paying big bucks for a player he cannot afford to keep. So, what he does is watch for windows of opportunity, a moment when a quality player might be available for fewer dollars due to circumstances.

A small church may scrounge enough money to fund an ambitious program one time, but then what will it do? Better to prayerfully find the kinds of ministry suitable to their church, their mission field, their resources. Nothing is more important than seeking in prayer the will of the One who is the Sole Owner of your church.

2) Follow those Marlins.

Continue reading

On Church-Finding

Being a pastor since 1962, I’ve not had to do something most of my friends have accomplished numerous times over these decades: look for a church home. Until last week.

On vacation, I spent a long weekend–Thursday night until Monday morning–with our daughter and her three girls in a lovely town in New Hampshire. One reason for staying through the weekend was to help them find a church. It is not necessary to go into all the reasons why they had not done this on their own, but the granddaughters in particular were ready and willing to attend church and I know how fleeting these moments can be and felt the need to act now. Before making the journey northward, I enlisted the prayer support of a number of friends.

Immediately, I found myself facing the same question as many another church-seeker: how can we quickly find a church, the one suited for our needs, without taking the atheist approach?

Not that an atheist would be looking for a church, but if he/she did so, they would most likely do it on the basis of location, appearance, program, the various services it offers, the compatibility of its membership, and so forth. In other words, exactly the approach 90 percent of church seekers use.

I had no time for this. In town for one Sunday only, I would have one chance to get this right. That reason more than any other drove me to serious prayer.

Several choices appeared to hold possibilities. My oldest granddaughter, now almost 19, had joined the Catholic church some two years earlier. From her parents, she had received no religious instruction or leadership, and when her boyfriend’s mother invited her to attend the Catholic church with them, she did so eagerly. She took the instruction classes and was baptized and loved everything about it, she says. But her younger sisters, ages 10 and 17, had attended only Baptist churches the few times they had gone, so with Grandpa being a Southern Baptist preacher and preferring something along that line, all three indicated a Baptist church would suit them fine.

The question was, which one.

Continue reading