The other morning as I was dressing for work, an old 1940s movie was showing on the classics channel. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were meeting on the sly in the local grocery store, standing near a display of cereal, pretending to be shopping while carrying on their illicit conversation. What struck me about that was the cigarette smoke that could be seen curling up from off screen, presumably from their hands, toward their faces.
It occurred to me that I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen someone smoking in a store. I love the change.
Not long after I came to the New Orleans area as pastor in 1990, Ochsner Hospital began posting signs announcing that “this is a smoke-free zone.” I thought how strange to have no one smoking anywhere inside the hospital.
These days, no hospital allows smoking inside its buildings. The very idea is repugnant to us.
But someone had to start. Some person was first in the movement to ban smoking from health care facilities. In time, everyone got on board. But someone was first. Soon, restaurants and public buildings were banning smoking. First thing you know, we all began to get our sense of taste and smell back.
Now, we walk outside a building where people have been smoking, and the stench assaults our nostrils. Why did we put up with this monstrosity for so long? What kind of courage did it take the first person to stand up and speak out against it?
Wouldn’t you love to have been that person?
I can recall when our country highways were covered with litter. Old magazines, soda cans, candy bar wrappers, junk of all kinds–polka-dotted the landscape bordering our freeways and country roads. The state posted signs warning of fines for littering, but it did little good.
Most of us assumed that human nature being corrupted meant we would always have litter. Then someone had a bright idea.
Why not encourage individuals or companies to take responsibility for a small stretch of that highway, to pick up the litter and keep it clean? Adopt a highway, they called it. And it caught on.
These days, streets and highways in town and outside have signs announcing that this Lion’s Club or that church or law firm or Jack and Helen Dawes or whoever has adopted that portion of the road. As a result, we have clean streets and neat roadsides.
We almost never see litter alongside the roads any more, thanks to the ingenious “adopt a highway” program.
I wonder who first thought of that. What a debt we all owe to him or her. How proud they must feel.
Speaking at a breakfast of local ministers the other morning, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reminisced about his childhood. He grew up in a section of the town where parades often formed, street parties that formed spontaneously and snaked up and down narrow ancient streets and ended up in the French Quarter as full-fledged events.
Nagin said, “It was interesting to see two or three people start marching down our street. One would play a horn and the other a drum. Pretty soon, a door would open and someone would come out with a tambourine and join them. Someone else came outside and started dancing in the street. Before long, the street was filled with musicians and dancers and people just walking along with them, enjoying the fun.”
Then, the mayor said, “We have lots of needs in our community. We need to get our people involved in fighting crime and cleaning up vacant lots. Me? I’m down here in City Hall hard at work, trying to start a parade.”
That’s an image I can identify with. I’m trying to start one myself. Well, several, to be exact. Here’s one.
I’m trying to start a parade of our churches loving each other and working together. In our Baptist denomination, we have 75 churches of all shapes and sizes in this city. Someone said to me the other day, “You know what bugs me about us pastors? We will have a best friend in the ministry 500 miles away. Our best friend ought to be the preacher down the street in the next church!”
One of the most effective strategies the original terrorist ever devised…who? you know, the devil. Satan. One of the most effective strategies he ever came up with was to divide our people. By infusing the spirit of competition in our churches and pastors, he guaranteed that we would never work together and never assist one another.
Like a roaring lion, Satan walks about, seeking whom he may devour. Simon Peter said that. He knew.
You and I know a little more about roaring lions, perhaps, than did the disciples. We’ve seen them in the zoos and watched hours of videos depicting them on television. We know what a lion does. A lion looks for its prey in the herd by waiting for an animal to wander off alone. A sickly or elderly animal that cannot keep up with the others, or a headstrong youngster that will not follow orders–and the lion has its next meal.
We Baptists celebrate the autonomy of the local church as one of our strengths. Each church is independent. No bishop or hierarchy anywhere can dictate what it must do or cannot do. But, as is often the case, our strength may become our undoing.
The Lord Jesus Christ, who authored the plan for churches in the first place, never intended congregations to be cut off from each other with each one doing its own thing. He meant for us all to be interdependent, to love and care for each other. We need each other, need the strength, wisdom, and vision the others can bring to us.
Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) I wonder if He is not more among us than ever when two or more of His churches come together to worship Him.
Parade starting can be a difficult and lonely business.
A group of our teenagers from my church once attended a Braves ball game in Atlanta. When they returned, the talk of the group was one of their number named Harlan. He was their hero. Harlan had started the wave.
A wave, you no doubt know, is a movement of the fans throughout the stadium who rise in order throwing their hands into the air and calling out a cheer. When properly coordinated, it moves around the entire stadium like a wave or pulse of energy.
Harlan was beaming as he described how he had tried again and again to get the fans around him to start the wave. It would start up and die out a few sections over. Finally, his efforts were successful, the wave caught on and the entire stadium of twenty or thirty thousand fans rose and yelled as Harlan’s wave circled the field. It was a grand moment.
Those who start parades need to be prepared for setbacks and obstacles and discouragement. But the reward of seeing your movement catch on and continue with no encouragement from you will make it all worthwhile.