Monday night at our annual Fall meeting of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, Mike Canady was the featured preacher. At one point, he gave a confession.
“Many years ago, after growing up in the town of Sulphur, Louisiana, and while attending seminary in Fort Worth, I told the Lord, ‘I’ll go anywhere in the world you want me to go. I’ll do anything you tell me to do. Anything at all, Lord. Just don’t send me to Africa or back to Louisiana!'”
Mike paused and smiled. “For the past 42 years, I have served the Lord in Africa and Louisiana.” (Mike and Linda are former missionaries to the East African country of Malawi. Then, he was a director of missions in Houma, LA, and now directs the department of missions and ministries for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)
Mark Joslin was sitting just to my left. I heard him mutter, “I know. I know.”
I leaned over and whispered, “What did you tell the Lord?”
This pastor of New Vision Baptist Church in the New Orleans suburb of St. Rose said, “I told him I’d go anywhere but not to send me back home.” Mark is — as you would guess by now — a local boy.
I did something similar. Now, I grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia and the rural countryside of north Alabama. When we left Birmingham to come to seminary in New Orleans in the summer of 1964, I prayed, “Lord, I’ll go anywhere. Just don’t send me to Mississippi.”
We put in 19 years in Mississippi, and loved every day of it.
Makes me wish I’d said, “Don’t send me to Honolulu.”
When I tell that little story to our numerous friends in the Magnolia State, I usually feel the need to add an explanation. On the surface of it, my prayer (“don’t send me to Mississippi”) looks like the typical put-down they get from Arkansans and Alabamians. But it wasn’t. What was behind it was a feeling that Mississippi already had plenty of churches and Christians, and I wanted to go where there was a need.
But the Lord knows best, doesn’t He? As if there were no needs in Mississippi.
My first three years (1967-70) were spent in the Mississippi Delta at a time of great racial tension. I’d not been in Greenville six months when Martin Luther King was killed. And if you know anything at all about the state of Mississippi and its racial history, you will recall that the Delta was the birthplace of the White Citizen’s Council, a more respectable replacement for the KKK but just as devoted to “keeping the Blacks in their place”.
God had me right where He wanted me. For two reasons, as I see it.
One, He was going to let me know He was Lord and He would send me wherever He pleased. (Psalm 115:3 explains a lot of things. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”)
Two, He had put certain instincts and convictions within me that He decided would be needed in that part of that state at that moment. And what were those instincts and convictions? Simply, God’s love for all people of all races and color.
“It’ll be interesting to see how this message you’ve been preaching down here in the bayou country goes over in Mississippi,” a friend said as we moved from our little church south of New Orleans. I said, “I’ll go right on preaching the same message there I’ve shared here.” And I did, right off the bat.
It earned me a visit from the chairman of deacons, Lawrence Bryant.
“Pastor,” he said, “What you’re preaching is right. But bear in mind that these people have been hearing from the pulpit that segregation is God’s way for all these years. You can change them, but it’s going to take time.”
He was right and I gentled the message a little.
Two years later, our church led out in a Delta-wide evangelistic crusade at the local football field with Bill Glass as preacher and Doug Oldham as singer. It involved 60 churches, lasted 8 days and packed in five thousand on Sundays and 3,000 each weeknight. Glass said that up to that point in his ministry, it was the most integrated meeting he had held.
The point of that is to say that while I stayed in the Delta only a tad over 3 years, God used us. And we need to make the point, lest someone think my only concern there was to promote racial integration, which it wasn’t, the Lord did a lot of other significant things in us and through us during those brief years.
He knew. He always knows.
Sometimes we have to look back to see that He did and that we were smart to obey. How does that line go — “Life is lived forward but understood only backward.”
I have been preaching since 1961 and finally learned to quit telling the Lord where to send me and where not. The best place on the earth is in the center of His will, and nowhere else — no matter how lovely or peaceful or quiet — is as satisfying as that.
I didn’t tell the Lord years ago not to send us back to New Orleans, but to be honest, if I’d thought of it, I would have.
New Orleans is a great place to visit, I thought then and think now. But live here? One needs a call from God.
We moved here from Charlotte, NC, in September of 1990, from one of the nation’s newest and cleanest cities to one of the oldest and dirtiest. For a long time afterwards, when friends from elsewhere would ask, “How do you like New Orleans?” I would respond, “There are 13 things we love about it and 87 we hate.” (The food, the people, the music, the architecture, the museums, etc., we loved. The traffic, noise, dirt, crime, poor schools, and worldly culture we hated.)
There came a day some years later when I found that ratio had made a complete reversal. I now loved 87 things about this city and hated 13.
In recent years, when returning from visiting relatives in Alabama or preaching in another state, as we drive into the city I find my eyes moistening. “Home,” I think to myself. “We’re coming home.” It feels satisfying and vaguely exciting.
It’s where the Lord put us; it’s the place for us. That’s the only explanation.
Friends ask, “Will you move away after you retire next April?” We used to think so. After this summer’s evacuation from Hurricane Gustav, I thought so then.
Now, I realize what the right answer is. In fact, the only answer.
Just because I’m not pastoring a church or director-of-missioning an association does not mean the Lord no longer has any interest in where we live. Best I can figure, He has called those shots all the way back to the beginning, and I can’t see any reason why He’s about to call it off now.
I’ll not be telling the Lord where to send me. I’ll spare Him the laughter and me the frustration.