“Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give thee the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
My ministry in that church was uphill all the way. Everything was hard, it seemed. There were few rest stops, places where we could take a breather and enjoy a sense that we are accomplishing something significant for the Lord.
The church had few financial resources due to a heavy debt load, made worse by a major split in the congregation 18 months before I arrived as pastor. The ministerial staff had little money for the outreach and educational programs they wanted to do.
It was a tough time in the life of that church.
Perhaps I was tired. Or discouraged. Or needed a boost of some kind.
Anyway, one day, on the way back to the church office from lunch I prayed a prayer unlike any I’d ever prayed before.
(from my 1990 journal)
Before I saw her dead and murdered, I enjoyed her yard and ate her mulberries.
For only the third time in my life, I walked by Miss Boshell’s house and stood in her yard the other day. This time it was Spring. The yard is rich in green and the daffodils are everywhere. Mom says those flowers are from the bulbs Miss Boshell herself planted. Since she’s been dead 39 years, that’s quite a record. Buttercups–aka jonquils–must be more formidable than they appear. The trees have been cut down so what was her house-place looks a lot like an open field.
The first time I came here was in late summer around 1950. I was 10. Mom and several of us stood around in her yard and on the porch visiting. The simple white frame house was shadowed on all sides by large trees. The most interesting to us children was the mulberry tree out close to the road. Its fruit was large and juicy and hung down within reach. Nearby her muscadine vines competed for our attention. It was good to be in Miss Boshell’s yard that day. If the children talked to her at all, I don’t recall. Mom did that. We had other business.
In 1990, during a 12-month break between two pastorates–what most call unemployment–I kept a journal recording what was happening, what I prayed would happen, and what I feared might happen. Below is a little reverie from that time when I was praying for the next pastorate, worrying whether there would be a next one, and anxious to get on with it. In this piece, I imagined the Lord stepping in to answer our prayers.
God said to Gabriel, “This guy has me cornered.”
“He came when I called him to the last church and served where I sent him. He turned down a bigger opportunity and a hundred thousand dollar bribe to see a difficult situation to its conclusion. In the process, I showed him the 66th psalm.”
Background: One night in the middle of our firestorm, Margaret and I had sat on the back porch reading Scripture and talking. I began to read Psalm 67. Quickly, everything inside me said, “No. Psalm 66.” Now, I could not have told you the difference. One psalm was the same as the other. But I read Psalm 66 out loud, and we were amazed. We saw the Lord was sending us a message. In verses 10-12, He perfectly described our situation.
In September 1939, Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time. A quarter of a century earlier, during the First World War, he held the same position. To assume the leadership of the greatest navy of the world twice was an amazing thing. To do so 25 years apart was even more remarkable.
Churchill thought of all the great officers he had worked with the first time. They were all gone now. He alone was still living and serving. In one of his books on the Second World War, Churchill quotes this little piece from the Irish poet Thomas Moore….
In an article on this website, I told how Bertha Fagan and I met last February 15 and quickly came to see, in the words of Psalm 118:23 that “this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our sight.”
Making plans for marriage–at some point; we’re still undecided as to when–is certainly exciting and more than a little scary. A relative said, “I admire your courage.” I thought to myself, “Courage is the right word. It takes courage to uproot your lives, sell your homes, downsize your possessions, and merge your existence with another person for the last years of your life.”
It takes faith.
There are so many issues, questions to be settled, matters to be determined before we take that step.
“Hitherto the Lord hath been our help” (I Samuel 7:12).
We’ve come this far by faith; I can almost see the lights of home from here.
Meanwhile, we who are in this body do groan (2 Corinthians 5:2).
This morning I thought, “I’m going to miss this neighborhood. I’m going to miss my early morning walks down these wide, empty streets.”
Today was the last Thursday I’ll be doing this. The movers come on Tuesday.
I don’t actually live in New Orleans proper. River Ridge–my home since May 1994–is a western suburb, an unincorporated barnacle on the underbelly of metro N.O. I pastored First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the airport, from 1990 into 2004 before becoming director of missions for the SBC churches. Since 2009, my retirement ministry has kept me running. Meanwhile, I have continued living in this house and worshiping at the same church. Now, that is all about to change. Margaret, my wife of 52+ years, died in January 2015. Twelve months later my son Neil moved his family to Mobile to be closer to his job. In February of this year, I met Bertha. The widow of a seminary classmate of mine was teaching English in a community college just outside Jackson, MS. Within a day or two, we both knew that “this” was the Lord’s doing. We’ve chosen a house in metro Jackson MS (the northern suburb of Ridgeland) and as I sell here, I’m buying that one.
I’m moving to Jackson in a few days.
“Over ____% of churches in America have plateau’ed.” (The percentage depends on who’s talking.)
Let the pastor dedicate himself to growing the church as much as possible.
Let growing the church be important to the shepherd.
But let the growth be the real thing, not something hyped up. Solid growth, not inflated numbers.
A generation or two ago, pastors in our denomination took it for granted that if they wanted to (ahem) move up to a larger church, they needed to show numerical growth where they were presently serving.
Before long, some less trustworthy preachers decided to play that game to the hilt and ruined it for everyone. They grew creative in their counting, they schemed and plotted and even lied about numbers, and doctored the records to make it appear they were experiencing greater growth than they were.
“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23 NASB).
It’s time to “spill the beans,” say my friends.
Bertha Fagan is her name. She is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and lives nearby in the community of Pearl where she teaches English at the Rankin Center of Hinds Community College.
Bertha is the widow of Dr. Gary Fagan, a seminary classmate of mine. But even though Gary and I knew each other for fifty years, and at one time we all belonged to First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, we did not know one another’s families. Gary went to Heaven in May of 2014.
My wife Margaret died the following January.
Bertha and I met for the first time on February 15 of this year (2016). Within days, we both knew the Lord had done something special here.
I was speaking to the medical staff at our Southern Baptist International Mission Board at the request of one of their physicians. She asked that I talk about how cartooning figures into the ministry to which God called me..
“Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them accordingly….” (Romans 12:6).
As a young pastor I drew a sharp line to distinguish between natural talents and spiritual gifts. The first you are born with; the second reborn with. The first might involve talents for music, art, science, math, etc. But spiritual gifts–those strengths in our heavenly DNA–would be more along the lines of preaching, teaching, service, prayer, witnessing, and such.
I’ve altered that a little….
It’s all His. And whatever natural talents and gifts He gave us can be given back to Him and used for His glory.
I began drawing at the age of 5 when Mom put me and my 3-year-old sister at the table with pencil and paper and told us to draw. I learned immediately that I loved to draw. The next year, the first graders at Nauvoo (AL) Elementary School would gather around and watch as I sketched.
As a 16-year-old, I took a correspondence course in cartooning. But mostly I was self-taught.
“They will still bear fruit in old age” (Psalm 92:14).
For reasons unknown to me, I have never looked upon myself as a senior.
I’ve smiled when host pastors would welcome everyone to our senior adult emphasis, then say something as outlandish as “If you’re 50 and above, you’re a senior.” Why, I have children who would qualify by that standard, but they’re barely out of their teens.
I’m smiling. This is serious but with a wink.
The other day, while riding the train from Concourse D to Concourse B in the Atlanta airport, I entered the crowded car and spotted an empty seat toward the rear. As I settled into it, I noticed the sign read “for handicapped and seniors.” My spirit smiled at that. “I’m a senior.”
It felt good, actually.