Do we have a prayer in New Orleans?

Wednesday evening on the NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams talked about the network’s continuing in-depth coverage of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular. “We’ve had lots of support and thank-yous,” he said, essentially, “but we’ve also gotten the occasional negative response.” Some wrote to say, “Enough with the New Orleans thing” and “Give it a rest.” But Williams pointed out how 2 million people were displaced by Katrina, hundreds of thousands lost their homes, the southern coastline has been redrawn by this hurricane, and billions of tax-payers’ dollars are being spent to correct and rebuild. “This is our assignment,” he pointed out, “and we intend to cover it.” Pow, take that. Thanks, Brian. That felt good.

I sent Williams a note after the program to thank him. In so many words, I pointed out: “I fully understand those who say ‘enough’ and ‘give it a rest.’ Those of us who live in the middle of this mess feel the same way. We wake up every morning wishing it had all been a bad dream and that it would go away.” I told him I had intended to write sooner to say thank you for his sympathetic coverage of our story. I ended my note with, “I wish to God I knew how to say ‘thank you’ better and stronger and deeper than with mere words. But thank you.”

We give thanks for so many friends who are coming to help us.

At Wednesday’s pastors meeting at FBC-LaPlace, we had fewer than the usual number of ministers present, but twice the normal allotment of friends. Chip Turner, vice-president of Southern Baptist’s television channel, FamilyNet, was on hand to talk about the coming of this great resource to our community through Cox Cable. When people watch FamilyNet, they can call a number on the screen for counseling, and those making decisions for Christ will be directed to local churches in their neighborhoods. I told the group that even though FamilyNet has not been available locally, I receive a dozen referrals a year from this service. I look up the person’s address on the local map and find the nearest Baptist Church and call the pastor with this information. With the cable channel available now, that number should increase dramatically.

Dan Fuller from Oklahoma told how the telephone company will pay some churches in East New Orleans a large fee for the right to set up a small building for his company on their property. “Every little bit helps,” he said to some interested ministers. Gibbie McMillan of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was on hand, offering encouragment and assistance. Eddie Honeycutt of Henry County Baptist Association in Virginia came to see the area and offer teams of his people to help local churches with backyard Bible clubs and block parties this summer. Eddie is working on a feeding unit on the West Bank this week.

Harry Fowler and Bob Adams with Youth on Mission told of the thousands of young people who will be coming this summer to help our Habitat for Humanity project which we call “Baptist Crossroads.” They offered the services of these youth to churches for Bible clubs and block parties and children’s ministries. Bob Marye of Habitat spoke about the “Crossroads” projects this summer. “We’re no longer talking about building just 40 homes this summer,” he said, “as was the original plan. But 350 homes.” Thereafter the plan is to build 300 homes a year. Habitat has been criticized by some for the smallness and sameness of their homes, built in cookie-cutter fashion of course so teams can rotate in and out and still do the job. Bob said, “We’re going to be trying some things we’ve never done before. Like building rental property. And we’ve never built houses on land which the new homeowner already owned, but we’re going to do that, too.”

Change is in the air, with all of us trying to figure out how to rebuild this city. I like to quote my pastor, Tony Merida, who said at our first worship service after the hurricane, “If you don’t like change, you’ve come at a bad time.”

Fred Dyess came to the pastors’ meeting for the first time. Our director of missions (my predecessor) from 1990 to 2003, Fred retired to his new home in Walker, Louisiana, and built a second fishing pond in his front yard. If it’s possible to retire to Heaven, I think he’s pulled it off. He has just been named interim pastor of our Memorial Baptist Church in Metairie, a church which sponsors Lionel Roberts’ St. Bernard Baptist Mission, across the street from that housing project. Fred updated us on the work going on at the mission and called for more assistance from volunteers and those with money to help this uninsured church. I told the group how Fred phoned me a few weeks ago to see how I was holding up post-Katrina. I said, “You want this job back?” He laughed and said, “Nooooo.”

Wednesday afternoon, Eddie Honeycutt and I tourned the devastated areas of Lakeview and Gentilly so he could see for himself the predicament we’re in. Thursday morning’s Times-Picayune told of “Women of the Storm,” one hundred influential New Orleans women who have dedicated themselves to getting every member of Congress to New Orleans. “They need to see it to believe it,” said one. They know that those who have been here and walked through the Lower 9th and Chalmette and Lakeview will find it hard to turn a deaf ear to the need for a great deal of help.

I said in my note to Brian Williams, “Many of us down here live in fear that the nation will forget us, and that we will be abandoned by Congress due to our political leaders who happen to be in office at the moment.” (No notes or e-mails, please, reminding me that we should not fear, that the Lord will not forget us. I know and am eternally grateful and fully dependent on that fact.)

Last Friday, Corps of Engineers official Jerry Duncan sat in my office and told how his group was erecting temporary housing at SUNO. Then, this major in the Air Force Reserve added, “But Brother Joe, it was easier to get this done in Iraq than in New Orleans, with all the red tape and unhelpful officials.” All I could say was, “Tell your people not to give up on us. Our officials come and go, but the people are going to be needing you for a long long time.”

Thanks to all who pray for us. Someone rebuked me for failing to talk about prayer on these pages. I was surprised, because it feels like that’s all I ever talk about.

There’s an old gospel song that goes, “I can’t even walk without You holding my hand.” And a line in Jeremiah that says, “It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” Without the power of the Lord we’re sunk. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”

Here’s a Bible question for you: name the two men whom God considers the best pray-ers of all time. I posed that to a good friend who loves to pray, teach about prayer, and lead people to pray. She probably thought it was a trick question, because I’m still waiting for her answer. But here it is, from Jeremiah 15:1.

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Even though Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not be with this people. Send them away from my presence and let them go.”

Things had deteriorated in Judah to the point that God was determined to send His judgment. Even if the two best intercessors He knew were to plead the case for God’s people, it was too late. Moses and Samuel could not get them off the hook. The Babylonians would be arriving soon as God’s agents for judgment.

The next time you want to do a Bible study on your own, without one of us preachers spoon-feeding you, get your Bible down and find out all you can about the prayer lives of Moses and Samuel. Perhaps I could get you started.

Look at Moses interceding with the Lord for Israel in Exodus 32:11ff. At the end of his prayer, we read, “And the Lord changed His mind.” That’s pretty good praying.

As for Samuel–whose very name means “God answers prayer” in so many words–check out I Samuel 12. After Israel demanded and got a king, Samuel warns them about difficult days to come. The people ask him to pray for them, and he responds, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”

The outline of my mission-sermon these days is a simple one: Pray for us. Pray that God will do a BIG thing in New Orleans, that He will do a NEW thing, and that it will be a GOD thing.

Classes have resumed at our wonderful New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Someone said we have a couple of hundred students on campus, although they’re commuting. The schedule calls for on-campus-life to resume come August. I can’t wait.