The Best Invitation

Throughout Scripture, God’s favorite invitation was always, “Come and see.” Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Come and see. Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Come unto me.

Over a year ago, Dennis Weems was comfortably residing in California. He knew of the devastation Katrina had wrought on this part of the world and had thought of coming this way to help. One Sunday he was visiting Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, CA, and heard of the church’s plans to bring a construction crew to New Orleans. He joined them. And never left.

Pastor Jeff Box of Suburban Baptist Church said, “He came in April of 2006 and has been here ever since.” His arms swept over the new sanctuary which was being dedicated this morning and he said, “Dennis Weems designed everything you see before you today.”

Now, I’ve been going to a lot of church dedications and rededications lately. But I have to say, this is the most beautiful rebuilding I’ve ever seen. In the courtyard, the walkways are large flat stones spaced appropriately and greenery is everywhere. “Who did this?” I asked Jeff. “Dennis Weems.”

“So, how did this happen?” I asked Mr. Weems. He told how he had come down with the Highland group, planning to stay one week. “We were redoing a pastor’s home. There was so much work to do, I decided to stay another week or two. Then Pastor Jeff asked me to look at Suburban Church with him.”

They had walked around the hurricane damaged buildings, structures that Jeff had wept over and which he had privately decided would have to be torn down. When he met Dennis Weems and learned of his expertise in construction, he asked him to walk around the building with him. “What do you think?” Jeff asked. “Tear it down?”

Mr. Weems said, “Five or six contractors had turned Pastor Jeff down. They all thought it was a total loss.”

One year later, Suburban Baptist Church is a miracle. A lighthouse in New Orleans East. A lovely oasis in the midst of a depressing stretch of highway.

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The Power of Words

Whoever said “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t bother me” was not living in the real world. Words have incredible power to cut and hurt or bless and heal. It’s not only the Word of the Lord which is a “two-edged sword,” but everyone’s words have the power to stab and to heal.

Take Don Imus. He’s not doing anything now, so he’s available if you want to take him.

The paper says this shock-radio talk-show host did so much good for children. When he “opened mouth and inserted foot” the other morning, he was in the middle of a fund-raising thing for children. He’s built a ranch out west and brings inner-city children there to experience a different kind of life. But he brought all that good work to an abrupt halt the other morning when he off-handedly referred to the women of the Rutger’s University basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”

I was never a big fan of Imus, even though we picked him up locally on the MSNBC channel and I tuned in occasionally. Some people must like him but I could never figure why. I will never forget a banquet he spoke before some 10 or 15 years before–seems like it was during the Clinton presidency–in which he was filthily crude and vulgar and offensive before the president, his family, his staff, congressional leaders, and the press. It was a disaster of the first magnitude. What I could never figure out was why anyone thought this guy was something special.

Forget Don Imus. The question that ought to be asked is what it says about this country that he was tolerated for all these years, with sponsors paying big bucks for him to do what he did.

Anyway. All of that was to lead up to the New Orleans situation.

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The Churches Are Getting Up

Our churches are getting stronger. Wednesday at our weekly pastors’ meeting, several leaders gave reports of people coming to know Christ in Sunday’s services and several told of baptizing last Sunday.

Our churches remind me of a boxer getting up off the mat after an eight-count. He was knocked down and almost out, but not quite. Maybe it took a splash of cold water in the face to clear his head, but he’s back on his feet now, so to speak, and ready for action.

Oh sure, many of our churches are still meeting in someone else’s church building or in their renovated fellowship hall, but they’re meeting. Over ninety of them are meeting on Sunday in regular services. The gospel is being proclaimed. The lighthouses are shining forth.

Some of our newly renovated and recently rededicated churches are now focusing on having an open house for their communities. The idea is to get the neighbors to come celebrate with them the return of this vital force in the area. And to make some more friends in the neighborhood.

Before the hurricane landed its haymaker in late August of 2005, some of our churches were focused inwardly and doing little or nothing in the community. They would not have used these words, but the prevailing attitude seemed to be, “Well, they know we’re here. If they want the Gospel, they will come.” Which is of course the worst theology on the planet, and light years from what our Savior commanded.

Now, we’re getting into the community.

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Read My Mail

David Vise of Idaho Falls, Idaho, sent a note. God is calling this student minister into the pastorate. He reminds me of the time I led him to Christ, and then the 1976 Adrian Rogers revival in our church (the FBC of Columbus, MS) when he was called into the ministry. He and Tammy finished seminary in Fort Worth and led the student ministry in several churches before landing in Idaho. And now, in his mid 40s, he will become a pastor. Some church is going to be so blessed.

Word came from that same Mississippi church of the death of Scott Neaves. This young man fought muscular dystrophy for many, many years and has left an incredible testimony for Christ. I talked with his parents in Columbus tonight (Tuesday) and said, “Mississippi State has lost a great fan.” Robert (his dad) said, “He’d already bought his tickets for the upcoming season.” I told Dee (his mom) of a lasting memory I will carry to my grave. When I started telling it, she said, “I know. I will never forget that.”

Bryan Harris was our youth minister–there was never a better one; he now pastors in Vallejo, California–and the youth were going to present a drama in the evening church service. They had turned the lights out in the sanctuary as the kids slipped into their places. Because of Scott’s infirmity and the cumbersomeness of his wheel chair, some of the youth would carry him into the room and slip him into his chair. So, the lights are out, we hear the youth softly walking in, and then, someone hit the spotlight too soon. It stayed on for perhaps a full second, then was shut off. But while it was on, we saw something we will never forget: the young person playing Jesus was standing in front center holding Scott Neaves in his arms, just exactly as we expect the wonderful Lord is doing at this very moment.

My buddy Harry pastors an English-speaking international church in the Far East. Some of the Lord’s workers in that part of the work prefer that their last names and locations not be given out, so you’ll understand that I’m using only his first name. He emails a weekly news update to his friends and supporters in the States, and I’m constantly being amazed at the cultural differences he’s now having to deal with. The weather forecasters are a big concern, for example.

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When You’re In Your Nineties

Pastor Mickey Crane told the Easter worshipers about my Dad’s 95th birthday coming up this Friday, the 13th of April. “That’s a big thing,” he said. “But don’t worry,” he smiled, “most of you are not going to live that long.”

Actually, living this long has been a surprise to both my parents. Mom turns 91 in July and so far holds the longevity record in her large family, of whom she has only two siblings left. “We never thought about it,” she says. And with Dad’s taking retirement on disability back in 1961, I assure you he never thought about living this long either. No one would have given him a chance.

I spent the Easter weekend with Mom and Dad, driving up Friday and back to New Orleans Sunday evening after filling the pulpit at the family church (New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist at Nauvoo, Alabama) Sunday morning. On the way home, I began reflecting on what life is like for them now that they’re in their nineties. Their circumstance is probably the same story for a lot of others in their age group.

Each day is pretty much the same. You don’t feel like going anywhere, and even the occasional trip to the doctor is a big deal. So you stay at home. It’s the only place you want to be.

You know all your doctors, nurses, and druggists as intimately as you do family members. In their case, the home health nurse arrives on a published schedule and Mom usually has lunch waiting on her. With the excellent health insurance they carry through Dad’s lifelong involvement with the United Mine Workers of America, their co-pay at the druggist is a whopping 10 cents. Whatever frustrations they have in their lives, my parents have no complaint about their medical insurance, and we’re blessed by that.

The arrival of the newspaper and the morning mail are the high points of your day. And on those days when the mail carrier zooms past without stopping, you feel a little cheated. “Did she forget us?”

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The Preacher Came to Work Late Today

I wonder if I’m the only one with this problem.

Take Thursday morning, for example. I was wide awake at 5:15, got dressed and studied several chapters of the Old Testament book of Esther. I’m slowly working my way through the entire Bible, rethinking these wonderful scriptures I first met in the late 1940s, and writing in the margins for the grandchild who will eventually inherit this copy. (With eight grandchildren, I study and preach from eight Bibles; eventually, each will own Grandpa’s Bible.)

Then, I turned on the television and with the sound muted, watched the weather forecast while doing 15 minutes of a stretching-and-weights routine I put together years ago. It was cold outside, so I bundled up and grabbed my water bottle and headed out the door for the river levee where I walked three miles and talked to the Lord. It was 7 o’clock when I returned. I turned on the coffee, took my bath, and got dressed. My wife awakened, I brought her a cup of coffee and we chatted. I had breakfast and read the paper, then a phone call occupied 15 or 20 minutes. I thought of a message to put on my website; a pleasant chore which I can never do in less than half an hour.

The time now was 9 am and I was just leaving the house.

The drive to my office across New Orleans’ morning traffic takes 45 minutes. All the way, I kept thinking, “I’m late to the office. What will people think?”

Wonder if I’m the only one with this problem.

In a real sense, I had been on duty since 5:15. Reading the Bible and praying, exercising and walking, eating a good breakfast and reading the morning paper, and then counseling by phone and writing by computer–all these are as much my responsibility as a minister of the gospel as any task that will come up in the course of what we think of as “working hours.”

“Be on guard for yourself,” the Apostle Paul instructed the pastors of Ephesus in Acts 20:28, and then “for all the flock among whom the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” First, take care of yourself. Fail to do that and you’ll not be caring for anyone. Then and only then, take care of the flock.

Pastors generally do not have a taskmaster breathing down their necks, timing their arrival and departure from the office, checking off their chores, making sure they get their work done. In my work with the hundred or so Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, I most certainly do not have one, for which I am grateful. However.

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An Easter Text for the Logical Mind

One of my favorite verses on the death/burial/resurrection of Jesus is Acts 26:26. Easy to remember that way–26:26. Paul is on trial yet again, this time before King Agrippa and Governor Festus. He gives his testimony, telling why he’s living the very life he once fought against, and then transitions into the message which he now preaches. Good strategy. Like a modern candidate who gets asked one question but quickly moves into the message he wants people to hear.

Paul says, “I started preaching this message to those at Damascus, then to Jerusalem and Judea, and then to anyone who would listen, even the Gentiles. I told them they should repent and turn to God. That’s been my message. So why am I on trial? Good question. I’m being tried for preaching nothing but the very things which Moses and the prophets predicted. And what was that? That the Messiah (Christ) would suffer and rise from the dead, and that He would be the first to proclaim light to Jews and Gentiles.”

At this point, Festus interrupted. “Paul, you are completely insane. You have overtaxed your brain with all that learning”–no one ever accused the Apostle Paul of being ignorant, although many of his later defenders qualify in that regard–“and you have completely lost it.”

Paul answered, “I am most definitely not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. I’m simply preaching the truth. King Agrippa knows. He has been observing these things all along. Nothing has escaped his notice. Because….”

And here it comes.

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Coping With Life’s Challenges

“I wish our leaders would speak out more on social and moral issues,” one of our pastors said today. “The newspaper calls the Catholics. Why don’t we Baptists have a voice?”

The speaker was quick to admit that he lives out of the area and is not up on the day-to-day events in the city. I told him that one of our leading pastors, David Crosby of the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, is a frequent writer for the op-ed page of the Times-Picayune. His article against gambling ran last week and I forwarded it to the Baptist Press which is running it today on David is an excellent writer and speaks clearly and forcefully on these matters.

I told how I was invited to write for the same page but found it harder to do than I thought and was not able to pull it off. Then the editorial writer called and said she had taken part of one of our blogs and whittled it down to proper size. It ran several weeks ago. The point being, we’re trying.

In presenting Pastor Greg Hand to the Wednesday pastors’ group, I began: “How would you like to pastor in the French Quarter? Everywhere you look, there’s a need. Nothing normal, no residential area as such, no vast green lawns, no children at play. Narrow streets clogged with traffic day and night. And yet that is where Greg and Wren Hand have chosen to live out the Lord’s call upon their lives.”

“Pray for us,” Greg began. “It’s hard.” Vieux Carre’ Baptist Church has been a lighthouse in that dark area for over 40 years, he said. Located one block over from Bourbon Street on Dauphine, the church is equipped to house church teams that come down to minister and witness in the Quarter. “We’re doing outreach to the homeless on Monday and Thursday nights,” Greg said, “and a Bible study Wednesday night. And something new for us–we have a Friday night outreach to the homosexual community. Led by a former member of that group whose life was transformed by Christ.”

“My wife and I are having a tough time,” said Pastor Kenneth Foy. “For one thing, we’re both unemployed.” They’ve just been back in the city a couple of weeks and he’s trying to re-establish his counseling ministry. “African-Americans don’t normally run to psychiatrists for counsel,” he said. “For one thing, there’s the stigma. And the other, is the cost. Instead, they go to the church.” So Kenneth is hoping our pastors will get the word out that he is here and available to help.

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Saint Bernard Parish Today

Tuesday afternoon, I drove from our Lakeshore offices out Interstate 10 east toward St. Bernard Parish. It’s been weeks since I’ve been out this way and the changes are noticeable. What used to be Lake Forest Mall is now a pile of rubble. Apartment complexes damaged by Katrina are now vacant lots. A store is operating here, a tire dealership or automobile agency there, but mostly the place is deserted and shopping centers are defunct.

Interstate 510 South to Paris Road leading into St. Bernard, the report is mixed. Some places out of business for nearly two years, a law office in a trailer, the prows of boats still poking out of the canal where Katrina left them, some places doing great business. Some of the fast food restaurants look brand new and were filled at 1:30. Construction trucks speeding up and down a busy St. Bernard Highway.

Workers have torn down the educational building beside the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Chalmette. Builders for Christ is mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to erect a new, modern sanctuary over the remains of the old one. Right now, it appears they have their work cut out for them.

Downriver, a newly restored mansion sits beside one the hurricane gutted out and which has not been touched since. People are rebuilding their homes up against the levees on the other side of which flows the mighty Mississippi. Either they have great confidence in the Corps of Engineers or the Lord or something. Scary.

Poydras Baptist Church looks good. Last I heard, they’re still meeting in their fellowship hall until the sanctuary is rebuilt. Half their membership still displaced.

Boogie Melerine was the object of this trip. He promised to give me a tour of the Creedmore Presbyterian Church a few miles south of Poydras, the church that the Presbytery of South Louisiana is donating to Boogie’s Delacroix-Hope congregation for their new site.

“I want to see your upholstery shop,” I told Boogie. “How can you put 70 people in there on Sunday?” He said, “We’ve had as high as 90.” Walk through his garage and you enter what functions as the fellowship hall of his congregation. Tables and chairs remain set up for Sunday. “We eat here after church every Sunday. About half stay.”

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Honor the Church, You Honor The Lord

“He who touches you, touches the apple of His eye.” (Zechariah 2:8)

Whether you honor the church or dishonor her, the Lord takes it personally. He is so bound up with the welfare of this group that in Scripture He calls the church “the Body of Christ”. When the Lord caught the church-assassinator Saul of Tarsus headed for Damascus to arrest more Christians, He said to him, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul blinked into that blinding light trying to make out that voice. “Who are you, Lord?” he muttered. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” the Voice said. And Saul said, “Well, I’ve been planning to quit and now seems like a good time.”

I just made that last line up. But he must have thought it.

Pastor Jerry Smith published a long list of friends from all over the country who have aided Pontchartrain Baptist Church in its slow hard climb from the despair of Katrina. As I read over the list, the thought occurred that Jesus Christ has these folks on His list, too. They honor Him when they honor His church.

Pastor Thomas Winn and Grace Baptist Church of Jackson, MS. First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. Calvary Baptist Church of Mt. Airy, NC. The Baptist campus ministry of Delta State University. Truett-McConnell College of Cleveland, GA. Colony Park Baptist Church of Madison, MS. Muller Paint Co. Sterling Electric. Donnie’s Plumbing. Terry’s All-Around Construction. Kayla Lyles. John Dambold. Bob and Linda Jackson and the NOBTS MissionLab. Mike Brady’s Red Beans and Rice. J & R Equipment Rental. Garden Specialities. Jeffery Raymond. Platts Supermarket of Creola, AL. Lynda Murrah. Des Allemands Baptist Church.

“In June of 2005, I resigned from this church,” Pastor Jerry Smith said today at the rededication of the Pontchartrain Church. “My health had gotten so bad, I couldn’t stand in the pulpit. I told them I’d stay on until they found someone. I’m still here.”

“When Katrina came, my wife and I had a disagreement. She wanted to stay and I wanted to leave. I had never left before. We went to Jackson, Mississippi, to be with our children. We watched the tragedy of this city on television. The hurricane came and went, then they said the levees broke. I’m hard of hearing. I asked my wife, ‘The levees did what?'”

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