The headline of Tuesday’s Times-Picayune announced that since the storm, over 280,000 new applications for unemployment insurance have been filed. Lots of unemployed people. Meanwhile, half the businesses in town are clamoring for workers. “Hiring!” say the signs in front of everything from accounting firms to hospitals, from builders to fast food joints. I suppose the unemployed who are not taking these jobs are trained in other areas. I suppose.
I saw an accident in front of the airport Tuesday morning. A pickup pulling a FEMA trailer sat in a turn lane, waiting for the light to let him go, when another pickup headed in the opposite direction plowed into him, head on. Not a high rate of speed, no one hurt, although one guy plenty mad. What was the driver thinking, I wondered, to have turned right into that fellow. Later, I figured it out….
He was on the phone. Everyone in this town is on the phone. Every driver has his hand cupped to his ear, presumably holding a tiny communication device. We’ve laughed about the way we do it ourselves. I’ll be in Ed Jelks’ pickup truck with Ed, Freddie Arnold, and one more rider, and all four of us on the phone. What in the world did we ever do before these things were invented and made tiny?
Let me tell you a funny memory. Sometime about 1975, the Baptist ministers of Lowndes County, Mississippi, were meeting in the chapel of the First Baptist Church of Columbus. Steve Brown, serving Antioch Church, kept running out of the sessions to his car. Finally, I said, “Brown, what’s going on?” He said, “The members of my church gave me a car phone for my birthday. The way it rings is it blows the horn. I’ve been running outside to answer it.” I said, “What do they have against you?” Thankfully, phone technology has come a long way. For better, mostly.
The quarterly executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention met at our conference center outside Alexandria Tuesday morning, and some of us drove up. I’m no longer on the board, but sitting in is a great way to stay informed, plus there are people there I never see any other time. They began the meeting with a short film showing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in crisis, mainly news clips from the first week after the storm. I sat there in tears, feeling the pain all over again, and wondered if it will always feel this way.
Pastor Don Denton of Slidell told of a neighbor who cleaned out the ruined insides of his house and left it in a pile on the curb, then lettered a sign: “Our lives are not in this pile. Our lives are hid in Christ.” Don said when the man began spraying the word ‘Christ’ on the board, the can ran out of paint. He dug around and found another, and it was ran out also. Finally, he located a third can, this time of white paint, and lettered it boldly: “CHRIST.” Later, a fellow drove up and handed the man’s wife a hundred dollar bill. “I can’t take this,” she protested. “Yes,” he said. “I was despondent, and God spoke to me through your sign. Take it.”
The leader of Louisiana Baptists, Dr. David Hankins, had lots of good news. Nearly 90 disaster relief groups from 23 different states have been in Louisiana working since Katrina. Over 4 million meals have been served to military, law enforcement, emergency workers, volunteers, and residents by these teams in our state alone. 1200 churches throughout America have volunteered to be matched up with a hurt church on the Gulf Coast, and 119 of our Louisiana congregations have already been adopted in this program. Over $7 million has been given to the LBC for Katrina relief, most of it from sister state conventions around the country. David said, “My mission for next year is to make sure every minister that was on the job when the hurricane hit is taken care of for the next 12 months.” Quite a goal.
“Don’t overlook the obvious,” said convention President Philip Robertson, pastor of a church near Pineville. “God is at work in the midst of the storm.”
Sensing his audience needed a good laugh, Philip told of the Lone Ranger and Tonto camping out, erecting their tent on the prairie, and awakening in the middle of a dark night. Tonto said, “Kema Sabe, look up and see the stars. Tell me what you think it means.” The Lone Ranger waxed eloquent on the stars, the physics, the beauty, the theology. When he finished, Tonto said, “Kema Sabe dumber than buffalo. It means someone has stolen our tent.” Don’t overlook the obvious.
Nothing never happens when you pray, reminded one speaker. That ought to be obvious to anyone who has walked very far with Jesus.
Contradictions. We love this city and we need to be here now of all times. But leaving for a few days would be nice.
I have received invitations to pass along to our pastors to bring their families for a few days of rest and recuperation. The Smokies, New England, Florida, great places like that. I tell them the ministers may take them up on it later, but right now no one wants to leave. We’re needed here.
My 11-year-old grandson Grant was showing me on the family computer where he was entering a competition the local Disney radio station is promoting. “I’ve typed in the code, Grandpa,” he said. “The winner gets a vacation in Jamaica for 9 members of his family.” “Wow. That’s great.” Pause. “Hey, Grant,” I said, “do you know where Jamaica is?” “I don’t have a clue.” I laughed and said, “But you just want to go there, right? I don’t blame you. It would be a great vacation.”
Two billboards between here and Baton Rouge sounded a theme of commitment. Placed there by New Orleans businesses, one read: “Hey, Louisiana–let’s build it back bigger and better!” The other: “No matter what, we’re moving our business back to New Orleans.”
But I betcha they’d still like a vacation in Jamaica.
How does that opening line from “A Tale of Two Cities” go–it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. That about sums things up for us.
Today, Wednesday, the pastors met at First Baptist LaPlace and rejoiced and hurt together. For the first time, we had no outsiders in the meeting. No denominational workers, no visiting teams of volunteers from other states, just us. We needed this kind of private sharing. More than one speaker quoted Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I keep thinking someone is going to name these Wednesday gatherings “Joe’s Blacksmith Shop.” (Since no one has, I’ll do it myself!)
One of our pastors told of walking into a grocery store this week just as a pastor-friend was coming out. At that moment, the minister dropped the eggs he had just bought. He stood for a moment looking at the mess on the sidewalk, then broke into tears. It’s called stress.
“Take care of yourself,” the pastor said to the other ministers. “Take a day off. Don’t answer the phone. You can’t keep going day and night.” Then he said, “I know how it is. You were planning to take a day for just you and your wife, and a call comes in, some group from out of state wanting you to spend the day with them, show them around. You feel you just have to do this. You’re going to be needing their help. But I want you to know, it’s all right to tell them no. That this is not a good day. Look out for your health, your peace of mind. These problems are not going to be solved in a few weeks. It’s going to take a long time, so pace yourself, pastors.”
Pastor Gonzalo Rodriguez of Good Shepherd Spanish Baptist Church (all right, El Buen Pastor) reported that their church is bursting at the seams due to high attendance. He said, “With all the Hispanic workers descending on New Orleans to work, we’re organizing to reach them with the gospel.” Gonzalo introduced Pastor Juan Ramon of Honduras. “We’ve been down there helping them with their work,” he said, “and now they have taken up offerings and Juan has brought them to us. He’s even paying for materials to repair our buildings.” The brethren in Honduras are poor people, he pointed out. Such love. Such faithfulness.
Father, make us worthy of such graciousness. And appreciative of such wonderful friends.
Franklin Graham’s people are in town, working with a cross-section of ministers to set up a two day festival in January. They’re telling us, “Don’t worry about the cost. Our friends all over the nation will want to pay for this.” They’re trying to decide between the New Orleans Arena next to the Superdome (it took water only in the locker rooms) and outdoors at Zephyr baseball stadium (which could be cool in January).
Today, the owner of the New Orleans Saints met with the mayor of San Antonio to discuss moving the Saints to that city. Our people are conflicted about it. It’s our team, we birthed them, accompanied them through all the ups and downs of nearly 40 years of a tough existence; we’re joined at the hip. It’s great to have a football team. Would be better to have a better one. Take them, Texas. Give us another team, Paul Tagliabue. The mayor of New Orleans said, “We want the Saints back. But not the owner.”
Lots of contradictions around here these days. But there is no question about the love and faithfulness being displayed on every hand by God’s people hard at work on every side. At busy intersection tonight, a young man was walking around carrying a banner that read: “Ask Jesus to save you right now.” He stood in the median, stretching out the sign so all could see, then would walk with the traffic light to the other side.
I had conflicting thoughts. In contrast with those who are mudding out houses and running chainsaws in the name of the Lord and bearing a witness for Him in sweat and tears, this guy is going for cheap evangelism. On the other hand, those words may be just the message, precisely what someone who has been blessed by our teams of workers now needs to hear, needs to do.
And I remembered the line from Dwight L. Moody. Criticized for his evangelistic methods, he asked the critic how he did evangelism. “I don’t,” the man said. “In that case,” said Moody, “I prefer the way I do it to the way you don’t.”
Let us give thanks for the young man at the intersection and pray the Father to bless that invitation for salvation.