In the early New Testament church, Barnabas distinguished himself by his generosity and his kind spirit. Originally named Joseph–not a bad name at all, I think you’ll agree–the congregation dubbed him “Mister Encourager,” a free translation of Bar-Nabas, “Son of Comfort.” Trace his work through Acts chapters 4-15 and you’ll quickly see why he has become a hero to many of us.
Monday night, at our annual evangelism conference, held this year in the brand-new sanctuary of the great First Baptist Church of LaFayette, Pastor Dennis Watson of Metairie’s Celebration Church preached. Tuesday, I bought a CD and listened to the sermon again on my drive back to New Orleans.
Dennis recounted the day many years ago when he was driving around the country interviewing outstanding pastors. He had made an appointment with Perry Sanders, the legendary leader of the LaFayette church, who has served there since 1959, building one of the state’s strongest Baptist churches in the middle of Acadiana. He checked into a hotel and called Perry who told him, “You’re not staying there; you’re staying at my house. Check out.” Dennis said, “I’ve already paid in cash.” The inimitable Dr. Sanders said with a twinkle in his eye no doubt, “Son, you are in PerrySandersville. I’ll take care of it.” A few minutes later, the manager of the hotel knocked at the door and gave Dennis his money and written directions to the Sanders home. Welcome to LaFayette. (Steve Horn has come to succeed Dr. Sanders, and is sharing the pastoral duties for a time. I drew him a cartoon in which someone was saying, “Steve is the only pastor in Louisiana who is trying NOT to imitate Perry Sanders!” The rest of us probably are.)
“New Orleans has long been known as ‘the city that care forgot,'” Dennis Watson said in his sermon. “But my people and I pray for it to become ‘The City that Cares For God.'”
“A representative from the Franklin Graham organization asked me how I thought we were going to get the gospel to the world.” Dennis answered, “I suppose through the media, through great crusades.” “No,” the man said, “Through disaster relief. When catastrophes strike around the world, disaster relief teams are able to get into countries that would never receive our missionaries, because we go to help them and minister to them in their hour of great need.”
The Graham worker continued, “After the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, in one small country in that part of the world, a group of Muslim leaders approached our workers and said, ‘We want to apologize to you. We have attacked you and fought you and even killed some of you. But when disaster struck, you were the only ones to come help us.'”
Dennis told of a layman in his church who moved to New Orleans on business and was struck by the worldliness he saw. That evening, as he knelt beside his bed and prayed, God spoke to him. “I want you here in New Orleans,” He said, “because I am about to do something in this city not seen before, something that has not been since the days of Nineveh.” The man told Pastor Dennis, “That’s why I’m still here.” Dennis said, “In Nineveh, every man, woman, and child, turned to the Lord.” He thought a moment and added, “If that is to happen, New Orleans will have to be broken.”
Then a hurricane took dead aim at the city and New Orleans was broken.
Dennis asked the hundreds attending the evangelism conference to pray. “Pray for us by name. Put our names in your church bulletin and keep us before your people. Secondly, check on us. Each week, I ask the Lord to give me a Barnabas for that week. Without fail, a pastor in another city, usually someone I’ve not seen in years, will call just to see how I’m doing, to encourage me. Third, come to see. You need to see firsthand what the storm and the flood did to this part of the world. Fourth, come help us rebuild. We’ll be needing help for a long time to come.”
After the hurricane and then the floodwaters decimated so much of New Orleans, Dennis Watson found (as did the rest of us) that his cell phone was not working. He borrowed Kae Sanders’ phone for the next month. “But one morning at 6 am, to my utter surprise my cell phone rang. It was a pastor from South Africa, calling from the other side of the world. He pastors one of the largest churches in that country and I’ve preached for him. He said, ‘Dennis, my son. Right now you feel devastated. You feel shocked and overwhelmed. But I want you to know God is there with you. He has great things in store. God is going to do a mighty work in that city.”
That’s what we are all claiming and believing God for. It’s why I would rather be here at this time in our history than anyplace on earth.
Several people asked me this week what to pray for, concerning New Orleans. “Tell your people one thing for me,” I said. “Pray big. We don’t need any stingy little prayers of ‘God bless New Orleans.’ Tell them to pray big prayers. Satan has had this city long enough, God loves this city, Jesus died for it, and He wants it back. Let’s claim it for him. In the Old Testament, God would sometimes say, ‘I’m about to do something so astounding that the ears of all who hear it will tingle.’ Pray for God to do an ear-tingling work.”
I said to Margaret Tuesday evening, “You would not guess in a hundred tries what I had for lunch.” “It must have been unusual,” she said. “It was that.” “Alligator,” she said. “You’re in the ballpark,” I answered. “I had rabbit. Fried rabbit leg. And vegetables, and bread pudding.”
One block from the First Baptist Church of LaFayette, T-Coon’s cafe sits on a corner. The sandwich board out front announced the lunch specials: alligator Monday and rabbit Tuesday. I haven’t had rabbit since I was a kid growing up on the Alabama farm. How was it? Pretty good. Like chicken. I try to carry my sketchbook everywhere, and ended up drawing the waitresses, Kelli and Sarah, and then the owners, Torrie and Terry, who told me they are members of the First Baptist Church. “We liked the way Dr. Sanders related to our children,” Terry said.
As I finished eating, the line of Baptist preachers stretched all the way to the door, all of them drawn in by the sign out front, I’ll wager. We may wear suits and ties, but many of us are still country boys at heart who, if given a choice, would be barefooted and in overalls today.
The evangelism conference this year drew more of our pastors from the New Orleans area than have attended in years for two reasons. Monday, the state convention leadership gave a luncheon for all ministers and spouses from the hurricane-afflicted areas. I saw entire church staffs from a couple of our churches, filling their tables. Wayne Jenkins, director of evangelism and our host this week, drew out testimonies from many of those attending. The second reason many attended is that Wayne paid their way. Any minister hurt by the hurricane was invited to receive a full scholarship which covered their hotel, meals, and mileage. A terrific gesture for our guys.
Dennis Watson is not the only one who appreciates a Barnabas now and then.
“Brother Joe,” the pastor on the phone said, Tuesday evening, “I have bad news. I resigned my church Sunday.” The Spanish pastor had seen his congregation diminished by Katrina, from nearly one hundred to only ten. The storm destroyed the trailers the congregation has been meeting in, and with the insurance settlement they have paid off the new property they had bought to relocate. But now, with so few attending, the pastor had encouraged them to merge with another church. “There was a lot of anger,” he said. “They told me, ‘We’ve worked too hard for this just to walk away.'” So he resigned. Another Katrina victim.
Someone said to me at LaFayette, “I suppose you get a lot of opportunities to minister to your pastors.” I answered, “It’s the most important thing I do.”
Just trying to be a Barnabas.