“A Great Time to be Alive”

During the Second World War, Pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick of New York City’s Riverside Church preached a series of messages which he published in a small paperback volume titled “A Great Time to be Alive.” In the sermon by that title, he begins, “This certainly is a ghastly time to be alive.”

Several paragraphs later, he says, “This is an especially hideous generation for Christians.” Then, after a bit, he says, “Nevertheless, this is also a great time to be alive.”

Fosdick tells of Victor Hugo who was the toast of Paris in his early years. His writings enjoyed great success and he was the glory of France. Then, Napoleon III rose to power and suddenly Hugo was an outcast, a condition lasting 19 years. Hugo hated the exile, but out of that period came his greatest writings. His biographer calls that time in Hugo’s life “miraculously inspired” as he became twice the man he had been. Hugo said, “Why was I not exiled before!”

This is a great time to be alive, Fosdick said, because it drives us back to the fundamentals and calls forth the best work from us.

My thoughts exactly on this, the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

President Bush made his 15th visit to the hurricane-area this week. He touched all the right buttons, saw and talked to the right people, said the right things. What will come of it further no one knows.

Our Wednesday pastors meeting drew about 25 of our ministers and they were in a reflective mood. I felt I was representing all of Southern Baptists as one after another rose to thank the SBC, our LBC, and our association. Several pointed out through teary eyes, “I couldn’t have made it without you,” directing the remarks to all our people but looking only at me. Then, the joke became that they were eulogizing me, and we all had a good laugh.

Today marks the end of our weekly pastors meetings.

(Beginning next week, September, we will change to the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Still 10 to 11:30 am. Still meeting in our BAGNO building.)

For two solid years, we have met every Wednesday except for the occasional holiday. The first year after Katrina, we ranged in attendance from a high of 120 to a low of 20, and met for three hours. For the past year, we’ve averaged 25 to 50 each week for the 90 minute session. Everyone agreed it was time to cut the regularity in half, but there was some sadness today. “I won’t know what to do with myself on the second and fourth Wednesdays,” more than one remarked.

My hunch is they will miss two things most of all: the round-the-table prayer sessions and the sweet fellowship. I know I will. Freddie Arnold has been ready to cut the meetings back for some time, but I’ve resisted because they mean so much to me.

At 1 o’clock today, I sat in the cafeteria of our seminary to hear reports from students and faculty on their ministry in the city on this the second anniversary of the hurricane. As last year, the seminary suspended classes and held an assembly at 8 am, after which everyone joined teams headed to various sections of the city, and returned four hours later.

The cafeteria was packed out, with almost everyone sporting lime green t-shirts with the NOBTS initials and a fleur de lis on the front, with wording expressing something about rebuilding New Orleans. Many of the shirts were filthy by now. After President Chuck Kelley called the gathering to order and expressed his pride in what was done today, Professor Preston Nix led the report time. “Come to a microphone,” he said, “and tell us what you did. No sermons, please.”

You would have loved to have been there.

“Our group received permission to knock on doors of all the FEMA trailers in one village. Five people prayed to receive Christ.” “Our group ministered to construction workers. We had four to pray to receive Christ.”

“We gutted out this woman’s house. It had not been touched since the storm. The weeds were up to the roof. I called her yesterday in Baton Rouge and told her we were going to gut her house, and we would need her to drive down and have it open by the time we got there. She did. Then I called her this morning and said if she was in the area, she should drop by. She was there in 30 seconds. I think she was in a car across the street, afraid to come in. She saw all these strange men with their lime-green t-shirts! She stepped out of her car and hugged my neck, then she hugged everyone in her house. By the time we finished, her house was completely gutted. She was in tears.”

“We led a man to the Lord and were praying about getting him in a church. About that time, a member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church came by. He knew the man, and was so excited he’d prayed to be saved. He was heading there to get him in church. It was such a wonderful answer to our prayer.”

On and on. Lots of amens and applause.

“The shirt got this dirty from carrying the soiled carpet to the curb,” a professor said. “My wife won’t let me in the house with it on.” Someone said, “It’s fine to throw it away.”

The students witnessed. They worked in yards and on roofs. They passed out water to construction workers. They knocked on doors. They prayer-walked.

The seminary’s website is www.nobts.edu. I’m confident a full report of this day will be on the blog within hours. And look for Baptist Press (www.bpnews.net) to run a feature about it this week.

The huge headline on the front of Wednesday’s Times-Picayune reads, “THANK YOU.” We owe so much to the kindness of strangers, the editors said, and then told some of the thousands of Katrina stories which have made this time such an amazing moment in which to live.

I’m going to condense just one of the stories. You’ll see why it was special. Bruce Nolan, who does the religion writing for the T-P, is responsible.

“Twice that day last spring Barbara Duplessis rounded the block around Gentilly Baptist Church on Franklin Avenue, driving slowly in circles, engulfed in a black depression. She parked and entered the church, and in asking for help in rebuilding her home from the volunteers inside, wept in the embrace of strangers Jackie and Linda James.”

“Jackie James, a supervisor of Southern Baptist volunteers rebuilding houses in Gentilly, had seen plenty of misery in nearly two years of helping families in post-Katrina New Orleans. But the sight of Duplessis, 67, a retired educator, unnerved him even by Katrina standards.”

“She looked like a dead woman walking, he thought, maybe too numb even for suicide.”

“He sat with Duplessis that day. When he finally had to break away, he signaled his staff: ‘Don’t let her out of your sight.'”

“That day would prove to be a turning point for Duplessis.”

“She had gone to Gentilly Baptist seeking help with construction, but came away with a far deeper support, one that would help rescue her from an emotional hell of the kind that has afflicted so many flood victims.”

According to Bruce’s article, Mrs. Duplessis’ home on Lafaye Street had been engulfed by 7 feet of floodwater. She had tried to make some repairs, but it was still unlivable. Without a plan or anyone to help, she and her husband were islanded inside their tiny FEMA trailer parked in the front yard. Within the space of a few weeks, she had been staggered by the deaths of a sister-in-law, a brother, a neighbor, and a childhood friend.

“What else can happen?” she wondered.

Long story short, her name was added to the list of homes to be gutted and rebuilt by the Arkansas Baptist Builders who are headquartered in Gentilly Baptist Church and with whom Jackie and Linda work. Some weeks later, her home was at the top of the list and workers arrived.

Among the workers was a 24-year-old cowboy and electrician from Colorado, Josh Harmon, and a paramedic and masseuse from Wichita, Denise Woods. They worked and ministered to Mrs. Duplessis, sometimes sitting with her and encouraging her. At one point, Denise asked her to change seats with her, then proceeded to give her a massage, working the stress out of her shoulder muscles.

“I cried a little,” says Duplessis, “got prayed on and got a back rub. I’m thinking, I can take on anything now.”

Like the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, who after receiving healing, got up and prepared a meal for our Lord, Mrs. Duplessis got out of the chair and made a hot sausage po-boy for her guests.

These days, her home has a new roof, plumbing, and electricity. The walls are up and soon to be painted.

The cowboy and the masseuse have become like family to the Duplessis couple. She says, “These people at the church, they were sent here. They’re doing this out of their hearts. They come here and thank yuou for letting them help.”

She said, “The goodness you see in them restores your faith in people. They come and ask no questions. They don’t care about your background. They come over, they see something that needs to be done, and they do it.”

As wonderful as that story is–and it’s pure gold–it has been duplicated a thousand times down here and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

We are indeed blessed. We are so thankful.