Life and Death Issues

We are gathered in the chapel today to pay our last respects to our beloved sister and friend who was called to the Lord a few days ago.

As you look around, you no doubt notice that some friends you thought would be here are absent. I need to let you know that some people shy away from funeral homes with everything in them. Perhaps there are many reasons for this, but the big one is simply this: attending a service like this one forces people to think about the issues of life and death. And it will not come as news to you to learn that many people will do everything in their power to avoid such confrontations and examinations.

But you’re here and I’m here and there will never be a better time. So, let’s do it. Let’s think about life and death.

I’d like to give you four words about Life and four words about death, to take home with you and to reflect on in the days ahead.


1) Life is a mystery.

One of the great arguments in our society is when exactly life begins. A far greater mystery is the origin of life itself, as to when and how it began on this planet. And then, when the spirit departs and the body is no longer alive, what happened there? Where did the spirit go? There is an eternal mystery about life. Don’t be surprised if we never figure it all out this side of Heaven.

2) Life is a gift.

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This Week is a Great Time to Read

1) The current issue of Pulpit Helps (January 2009) has resurrected an article of mine from four years ago and given it front-page coverage. “If you wanted to hurt the cause of Christ…” is both the title and the opening of the first sentence. It may be one of the most important things I’ve ever written. I’d love for you to go back and read it.

The fascinating thing about running across something you wrote years ago is you get to read it as an outsider, as though picking it up for the first time. Fun.

2) The current issue of Architecture Digest (January 2009) has a huge article on actor Brad Pitt’s charitable/rebuilding work in New Orleans. He established a foundation and has poured money and time into the building of new “hurricane-proof” (we hope!) homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Not quite the stereotypical image most of us have of Hollywood-types. Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a home in the French Quarter and remark on how well they’re treated by locals.

I’m not inviting him to fill the pulpit at my church anytime soon, but still….

3) The December 2008 issue of National Geographic has a display on King Herod whom they call the architect of the Holy Land. Fascinating, instructive.

One photograph shows small boulders that are “spiky with salt crystals” on the shore of the Dead Sea. Doctors ordered the nearly 70 year old King Herod to bathe in those waters. He was “feverish, itchy, and wracked with pain.” And then, “the therapy failed, and Herod, despondent and increasingly paranoid, tried to kill himself.”

It couldn’t have happened to a more-deserving fellow, one of the original “baddies” from history.

The same issue of the Geographic contains thought-provoking stuff on “Necessary Angels,” the illiterate women from India’s Untouchable class who are curing diseases and saving lives. Also, stand in awe of the incredible photographs from Mars. The article following the one on King Herod deals with the ever-persisting problem of looting archeological sites in that region of the world.

Aren’t we grateful for the public library where we can read these magazines without spending a dime!

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Death is Up to its Old Tricks

Pastor Marshall Truehill went to Heaven on Christmas afternoon. He pastored First United Baptist Church on Jefferson Davis Parkway in downton New Orleans and was a community activist on behalf of the poorest of our society. Saturday morning’s Times-Picayune carries a long obituary and tribute to him. I understand it was a heart attack.

Marshall was one of the most unforgettable characters you would ever meet. (You’ve heard me point out that this city has more than its share of those.) He was not content to sit in his pastor’s study and mourn over the conditions in this city, but got out and did things. Last election, he ran for City Council. He headed up several community organizations dedicated to solving the homeless and housing problems. He was a graduate of Xavier and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (with a doctor of ministry) and just a few days ago, received a doctorate from the University of New Orleans.

Arrangements for his funeral have not been announced. Those wishing to contact Marshall’s wife Miranda may send notes to the church at 131 So. Jefferson Davis Parkway, New Orleans 70119.

Marilyn Woodward was no pastor but leaves a vacuum just as surely. She was a member of the First Baptist Church of Kenner when I was pastor there. For a number of years she worked in the welcome center at the entrance to Kenner just off Interstate 10 (at the Loyola exit). I cannot tell you the number of times she called me with information on new people to our city or old friends of mine she had met in her job. She had a heart for people and a gift for hospitality. I grieved when the city closed the center due to budget constraints a few years back.

Marilyn’s funeral will be Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Muhleisen Funeral Home on Williams Boulevard in Kenner.

Monday of this week, I drove to north Alabama to spend a couple of days with my Mom. Three miles this side of the house lies the cemetery where my wonderful Dad is buried. I always run by there. Lately, every time I visit the grave, I’ve found myself thinking the same thoughts….

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After-Christmas Shopping? No Thanks!

The ad for Macy’s in the Christmas edition of the Times-Picayune indicated that those incredible neckties would be 75 percent off Friday morning. By 1 o’clock, however, the price escalates by 10 bucks, and later in the day, the price returns to normal. As I considered the crowds jamming the aisles of the malls and the overstuffed parking lots, reality set in and I realized, “I don’t actually need a new necktie.” In fact, most of the forty hanging in my closet never see the light of day.

This year, for the first time in memory, I received not a single necktie for Christmas. If that’s not a sign of changing times, nothing is. My grandfather Virge Kilgore once remarked that his kids thought he had nothing but feet and a neck, judging by the socks and ties they sent his way for Christmas. That was 75 years ago. We’re still wearing socks, but the neckties are going the way of cutaway coats and ascots for preachers.

I’m not complaining, though. Life is always evolving in various ways, on numerous levels.

The best story I’ve read in a while….

“Sister Mary, a home health nurse, was visiting homebound patients when she ran out of gasoline. As luck would have it, a gas station was just a block away. She walked to the station to borrow a gas can and buy some gas. The attendant told her the only gas can he owned had been loaned out, but she could wait until it returned. Instead of waiting, she walked back to her car and grabbed the bedpan she was taking to a patient. Always resourceful, she carried the bedpan to the station and filled it with gas. As she was pouring the gas into the tank, two men watched from across the street. One turned to the other and said, ‘If it starts, I’m turning Catholic.'”

(from Pulpit Helps magazine, January 2009)

Random thoughts on sharing our faith with family members….

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At the Intersection of the Years, I’m Thankful

(This was written a dozen years ago. I found it today and still mean it. If you know what real poetry is supposed to look and sound like, you may skip this!)

I’m grateful for my burdens,

For they have made me strong.

Thankful for my friends

Who tell me when I’m wrong.

I’m grateful for my critics

For sometimes they’ve been right,

And have been the voice of God to me

Even if doing it out of spite.

I’m thankful for my wife —

We’ve covered many a mile.

She’s signed on for the duration

And does it all in style.

I’m grateful for my children —

Two sons and a daughter.

This is where I thank Margaret again —

I’m so glad I caught her!

I’m particularly grateful for my grands —

Leah, Jessica, and Grant,

With several more on the way;

I think I may faint!

I’ve not had a real job in years.

I spend all my days around church.

I pray with folks, share their sorrows and their tears;

You couldn’t improve on this without a search.

I’m thankful for the deacons

Some have been my dearest friends,

Though I’ve wished they all would see me

Through rose-colored lens!

I’m grateful for our staff,

Ministers of God every one.

Not a lazy bone in their bodies,

Who don’t mind having some fun.

I’m thankful for the churches

The Father called me to pastor.

Though I’ve wished they all responded

To my leadership a little faster.

It’s great to know the Lord,

And to serve Him alongside you.

I expect we’ll be doing this

Until Gabriel takes his cue.

So let’s determine to help each other

To make the burdens a little easier,

To bless and pray, work and sing,

And make life a whole lot sweeter.

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The Weekend in New Orleans

Friday Afternoon, the movie “Australia”

I don’t usually recommend movies for lots of reasons, and I am not suggesting you get the DVD of this one and play it for your Sunday School class, but it was two and a half hours well-invested, I felt. The scenery was incredible — I’m ready to visit Australia — the history lesson was disturbing, the story was powerful, and the background music was excellent. About the latter, when have you ever heard a movie build the background music around “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”?

Some 25 years ago, James Allen will remember my returning to Columbus, Mississippi, from the funeral of Barbara Hardy’s father in Ripley, Tennessee, and asking him, “What is this music? Ta-da-da-ta-da-dah etc etc?” And he said, “That’s Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze.'” I thought then and think now, “What an odd name for a classical piece!” And have loved it ever since.

Friday night, Christmas dinner with the Operation NOAH team

David and Wanda Maxwell invited their co-workers and some of their extended friends and supporters to a wonderful sit-down dinner at Zea’s restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. It was excellent in every way — I brought home some of the leftover bread pudding! — but left me feeling oddly frustrated. I mean, I need to be looking for ways to thank these wonderful people for the work they’re doing in rebuilding this city and rescuing the broken lives of our people — and here they are thanking me for the privilege. What are you going to do with folks like this!

Most of the NOAH workers are people from outside the Deep South who put their “other lives” on hold and journeyed here to help us. Most have been here two years or more. We are forever in their debt.

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Odds and Ends from Here and There

I used to be a deli worker but couldn’t cut the mustard!

I used to be a musician but wasn’t noteworthy.

I wanted to be an evangelist, but they put me out to pasture.

I tried being a dentist, but hated living hand to mouth.

I looked into working at a hydroelectric plant, but there it was just one dammed thing after another. (Sorry, Mom.)

Being a math teacher looked good, but that had too many problems.

So, I became a pastor where there are no problems and everyone loves everybody else.

“That fish I caught weighed 20 pounds!” “Twenty pounds! Were there any witnesses?” “Of course. Otherwise, it would have weighed 30 pounds.”

After the Marx Brothers came out with their movie “A Night in Casablanca,” Warner Brothers studio threatened to sue them. The title was too much like their movie “Casablanca.” Groucho Marx ended the nonsense by threatening to sue Warner Brothers for plagiarizing the name “Brothers.”

The Statler Brothers singing group (remember them? They were so terrific. Are they still around?) enjoyed telling how they chose their name. They were sitting around a hotel room trying to find a suitable name for a quartet. Someone spotted the box of Statler tissues on a table and suggested Statler would be a classy name. And that’s how it happened. In telling that story, they would always add, “Just think—we could have been the Kleenex Brothers!”

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Inspecting Things in New Orleans

In late summer of 2006, we reported here of the hiring of Boston’s Robert Cerasoli as the first Inspector General for New Orleans. Provisions for this office had been on the city’s books for years, but nothing had ever been done. With the post-Katrina upheavals and scandals, a hue and cry went up from citizens for the city council to staff the position. The plan called for the IG to see how business is done in New Orleans government and identify wrongs as well as suggest changes to prevent wrongs.

In that introductory piece, we wished Cerasoli well and said a prayer for him—and got an e-mail response from him (to my amazement).

“Mr. C” identified himself as a fellow believer and said we’d have to get together. We set up an appointment at Loyola University which was providing temporary office space for him. The day I went by, Cerasoli was conducting assembly-line interviews. One television news crew was interviewing him in the college’s conference room while another waited in the off-room where I was. The crew and I chatted, I pulled out my pad and sketched them, and when Cerasoli came out, he invited me to sit in on the interview. That was educational.

The most interesting part of the interview came after the cameras were turned off. The news anchor mentioned to “Mr. C” that he was conducting his own little investigation into the take-home cars the city was providing for employees. There seemed to be no oversight to the program and no accountability for either the cars or the fuel. Cerasoli mentioned that ever since a car had been offered to him upon his arrival, he had had some of the same thoughts.

That would be the subject of one of his first investigations.

Wednesday night, Inspector General Cerasoli revealed the results of that investigation. The lead paragraph on the front page article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune reads:

“Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration allows too many take-home vehicles, does not keep track of the fleet, and could save close to $1 million by eliminating the expense, the New Orleans inspector general stated in his first report in 16 months on the job.”

The 53 page report covered 13 city departments. Here are some of its findings:

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How to Pray When You Feel Unworthy

If we were required to be worthy of entering the Lord’s presence before our prayers were heard, Heaven would never hear a peep out of me.

When the young Martin Luther knelt to pray, a sense of shame often overwhelmed him. He was unworthy to approach the Lord and knew it. Some scriptures in particular, instead of assisting him, only added to his misery.

“Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart….” (Psalm 24:4a)

That let Luther out–as it does me, and I suspect you, too. Who among us is innocent, who has not “lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully”? (Psalm 24:4b)

Philip Yancey says as a young monk Luther would spend hours trying to identify every stray thought and sin in order to confess it. “No matter how thorough his confession, as he knelt to pray he felt himself rejected by a righteous God.”

The breakthrough came, Yancey says in “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?” when Luther saw that in Jesus Christ God was pouring out grace and forgiveness to the foulest of sinners, the least worthy.

Thereafter, Luther recognized feelings of unworthiness and shame for what they were, agents of the devil which he rejected and handed to the Lord in gratitude.

It is indeed true that we are all unworthy. Without even understanding all its apocalyptic ramifications, the poorest of believers will read in Revelation 5 and say, “Yes, yes.”

“I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” John says, “I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll or to look at it.” And then, shortly, he hears the angelic chorus intoning, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain….”

I am unworthy; Christ is all-worthy.

It’s one thing to know that and another to live it, to believe it in our heart of hearts, and to feel it.

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