Oh, Yeah. It Was Exciting

“It must be exciting,” my Mom said Monday morning. I had called her on the Alabama farm from Charlotte, NC, for our daily visit and in the conversation, I reported on my Sunday night adventure in my former church. Friends of Milton and JoAnne LeDoux–he’s the minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Charlotte–threw him a party to celebrate his 20th anniversary, and I had flown up for the occasion. I told Mom I would fly back home Monday afternoon. She thought that had to be an adventure.

Milton LeDoux’s coming to the Charlotte church was what we call a “God-thing,” something that no one could have anticipated, an event that could never have been planned. Back in 1987, a mutual friend, Joe Joslin, had moved to Charlotte from the FBC of Deridder, Louisiana, to become our minister of music. Before long, he told us of this young couple who had grown up in his church and were students at our seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He had some vacant slots on the church music team in Charlotte and wanted to invite them to move from Texas, and let Milton finish his masters degree at the seminary in Wake Forest, NC. That’s how we got them. Milton was 27 years old. The only church he had served as worship leader had run 100 in attendance. Ours ran from 1200 to 1500.

About the time they settled into place, Joe Joslin announced that he was resigning to move back to Deridder. My precise words to him were, “You dirty dog.” He was out of his element in that urban setting, he explained, and should never have left southwestern Louisiana. He remained at FBC Deridder for another 15 years or more, and is now part-time at New Life Baptist Church there, a congregation he and Lynn Clayton founded. Joe’s main weekday work, however, is conducting fishing tours in the Toledo Bend area. It’s a tough life.

Anyway–long story short–we turned to Milton and said, “You’re our interim minister of music. We’re counting on you. But you need to know that you will not be a candidate for this position. We need someone older and more experienced.” He agreed and went to work.

Immediately, church members came to me raving at his musicianship, his leadership, and his wonderful spirit. JoAnne was our organist and is as fine a Christian lady as there comes. At Christmastime, members exclaimed over the seasonal music, that it was the best ever. We all agreed that the Lord had sent us Milton and JoAnne LeDoux and gave him the position permanently. The years since have borne out that this was the Father’s plan.

The banquet Sunday night was a masterpiece of spiritual blessings and hilarious moments, as well done as any I’ve ever seen. Everyone laughed and some cried. Old friends and family members showed up. The biggest blessing was probably mine though, and the banquet was only one part of it.

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Nothing Better Than Family

My friend said, “Our church was having a business conference last Sunday night to vote on our new interim pastor.”

The personnel committee is charged with finding and recommending a minister for this purpose, and they had done their work. In the business meeting, the congregation was discussing the choice and asking many questions. My friend wanted me to know of one little thing that had transpired.

“Suddenly, in the midst of all the discussion, this long tall man unfolded and walked up in front of the church. He said, ‘People, there’s a better way than all of this. You chose a committee and entrusted them with the duty of finding this person and interviewing him and bringing him before you. You do not have time enough to get every question answered in this meeting. Ultimately, you’re going to have to trust your leaders.”

My friend said, “I laughed to myself, ‘He sure has learned from his dad.'” He said, “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard you say that over the years you were our pastor.

I believe it strongly. In recent months, I preached that at West St. Charles Church in Boutte and the First Baptist Church of Belle Chasse. “One day soon, your search committee is going to bring their recommendation for your next pastor. The man and his family will spend the weekend visiting your church and the community. You’ll have several opportunities to meet him and ask some questions. But you need to realize up front that in three days you will not be able to know him well enough or to get all your questions answered. What it all comes down to is that you’re going to have to trust your leaders.”

Elect the very best your church has. Then trust them. In finances, in business decisions, in personnel matters. The extent to which your church does this tells volumes about the congregation.

I admit that to our shame, untold numbers of Baptists who are strong participants in every phase of church life have a hard time doing that. They trust no one except themselves, and sometimes not even that. The result is a constant murmur of bickering and debating, a low level of distrust and a high level of dissatisfaction, which tires out the leaders, slows down the work of the Lord, brings disgust to the hearts of new believers, and doubtless frustrates the Lord of the Church who loves it and gave Himself for it.

But I digress. I started to write something here about family, having had my wonderful son “outed” by his remembering something his father often said.

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Crescent City Craziness

A billboard across the street from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on Gentilly Boulevard shouts, “You’re Not Crazy.” Underneath is a phone number, with the last four digits spelling “TALK.” What is this, I wondered. In small letters at the base is the name of the organization sponsoring the ad, something about Hurricane Recovery. It made sense then.

Outsiders unacquainted with the kind of regional trauma we’ve experienced over the last two years might think the worst would be over by now, that the initial response to lost friends and flooded houses, destroyed neighborhoods and disappearing shopping centers would be the crazy part. But we’ve learned as bad as that all was, for many, it keeps getting worse.

As the zany disk jockey used to call out through the radio, “And the hits just keep on coming!”

Factor in lost loved ones, departed friends, shuttered houses, streets untouched by repairs and yards that haven’t seen a lawn mower in two years, deserted strip malls and politicians who don’t have a clue–and it’s enough to make anyone a little crazy. Do not leave out the government run-arounds in the various helping programs, do not forget the heavy construction trucks speeding up and down residential streets bringing help, yes, but feeling this gives them carte blanche to ignore traffic laws and intimidate slower drivers, and be sure to include the long lines at the doctor’s office and restaurants. Don’t forget the higher utility bills.

And that’s just for starters.

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About Tolerance and Faithfulness

My friend Barry is a Jew. We connected almost by accident many years ago, and he has taught me a number of lessons about relating to someone different from me.

In the early 1970s Barry–a native of Southern California–took it upon himself to see the Deep South. I’m not sure of the details, but believe he flew into Mississippi and rented a car. He drove to Oxford just to see for himself the university where James Meredith had been forcibly installed as the first black student, an incident much in the news back then.

In Jackson, Barry drove around, found the Capitol, and walked into the governor’s office. Everyone was gracious–he had not been sure what to expect–and next thing you know, he showed up in the office of the First Baptist Church across the street. The receptionist, Mickey Brunson, stepped across the hall to my cubbyhole of an office, and said, “Joe, we have a gentleman here who would like a brief tour of the church. Can you do it?”

That’s how we met. And started corresponding. In 1981, when the Southern Baptist Convention met in Los Angeles, Barry picked me up at the hotel and gave me the grand tour. We attended a baseball game in Anaheim and checked out the campuses of UCLA and USC. And I embarrassed him.

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New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

Today, District Attorney Eddie Jordan announced that the grand jury found insufficient reasons to charge Dr. Anna Pou with murder in the deaths of four patients at Memorial Baptist Hospital in the days following Katrina. Dr. Pou spoke to the media, expressing her relief. DA Jordan expressed his confidence that this is the right decision. Attorney General Foti called his own conference in Baton Rouge to express his disbelief and said Jordan never called all the witnesses his office had recommended.

A collective sigh of relief went up from the community. None but a few insiders know beyond any doubt what happened at Memorial, but almost everyone is ready to put this business behind us. I say “almost,” because there are the family members of the deceased and then there are the members of Mr. Foti’s staff. Everyone else, though, has had enough.

It’s not over though. Dr. Pou has two lawsuits in progress, one against the State of Louisiana and one against the AG’s office. And I believe the family members of the deceased have their own lawsuits.

The one-day-of-the-month when everyone involved in the Unlimited Partnerships gathers for a day long meeting in the Leavell Center of our seminary was Monday. I audited the morning part of the meeting and took notes, but in reading the report from our leader, Dr. Bill Taylor, decided just to let you read some of what he had to say.

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The Scars Tell the Story

Chris Rose’s column in Tuesday’s Times-Picayune deals with the “badges of honor,” those spray-painted markings left from the days following Katrina when National Guardsmen were checking houses for survivors or victims. They brandished their cans of spray paint with a flair, marking giant X’s on every home no matter whether damaged or not, noting their unit number, today’s date, a number–usually a zero–to say whether anyone was found inside, and often “NE” to indicate “no entry.”

Animal lovers frequently came behind the guardsmen looking for abandoned critters. The markings they spray-painted beside the NG tattoos were usually large and gaudy and wordy. “Two cats under the house; dog in back.” Occasionally, a house will carry a full conversation between these animal lovers: “Dog in back.” “Could not find it.” “Look next door.”

Sometimes the only damage a home sustained was the bright red paint on the brick carrying the post-hurricane graffiti. A souvenir of our saviors; residue from our rescuers.

The community has not agreed on what to make of those tattoos. Or even what to call them. Hieroglyphs of catastrophe. Crisis markings. Marks of distinction. Disgusting souvenirs. Badges of honor. Battle scars.

I sometimes suggest to preacher friends that they consider bringing a sermon on scars. The scars on your body tell a story about you.

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Leadership Principle No. 16–Clean Up Your Act

Until a few days ago, the chairman of the board of trustees of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island was 80-year-old Ralph Papitto. In fact, this gentleman had served on that board for 40 years, and over the years had contributed some $7 million to the school. It’s a private school, perhaps a religious institution since Mr. Williams was a Baptist and, if I remember my history, was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Providence which was the first of its kind in the new world.

The point being that, by all appearances, Mr. Papitto was a powerful man who was trying to do good with his life. And in a sense, in his own mind at least, he was untouchable. He had money and position and needed nothing from anyone, he thought.

One day a few weeks ago, the trustees received a complaint that the board was not diverse enough. No minorities sat on the board; it was all white men and a couple of white women.

Well sir, Mr. Papitto did not like outsiders telling him what to do with his school. He made some derogatory remark about the criticism and in the process used the N-word.

That’s all he did. Used the N-word. And I don’t mean “nuclear.” I refer to the racial putdown, the well-known expression called the ugliest racial slur and the most inflammatory term in the English language in a couple of references I looked up.

After the board meeting, when three trustees took exception to what Papitto said and called for his resignation, they themselves were kicked off.

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Leadership Principle No. 15–If You Are the Leader, Then Lead

If ever a time and situation cried out for leadership, New Orleans following the double disasters of Katrina and the flooding which followed was the place. To the puzzlement and frustration of most people, our mayor discovered that what he did best was talk. He made grandiose claims, issued reports, and pronounced major projects, none of which came to fruition. Because he was handsome and articulate, soon he was on all the televised news programs and being invited to speak at national forums. Around the country, a lot of people were impressed by this well-spoken leader. Only on the local level did we know the truth: he was a non-leader if ever one existed.

Watch the political scene in America these days and be amazed at the failure of leadership at every level of government. The typical scenario calls for elected officials and those running for their offices to engage costly polling operations to find out what the public wants. Then they package the results as their offering to the citizens. It’s the very definition of non-leadership. That old line comes to mind: “There goes the crowd. I must rush to their front, because I am their leader!”

How many games would a football team win if they paused between every play to poll the team and take a vote? Or even worse, to poll the fans in the stadium and find a consensus? A perfect recipe for disaster.

How many battles would an army win if the officer polled his troops on the best course of action in every situation, then took a vote. No one would do much of anything.

How many gains will a business make if the boss asks the employees, “What should we do now?”

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As Basic as a Clean Rest Room

In England, they call them Water Closets or “WCs” for short. When a group from our church visited the London and Kent area some years ago, a man in a Sunday School class leaned over to me and asked about our deacon W. C. Thomas, who had just been introduced, “Why in the world would his parents give him such a name?” I explained his name was William Cledith, and that in America “W.C.” had no connotation about rest rooms–or anything else, for that matter.

People are funny about rest rooms.

You don’t hear “little moron” jokes any more, but one I recall from childhood went like this. “Why did it take the little moron four hours to travel fifty miles on the highway?” Answer: “Because he kept seeing signs that said ‘clean rest rooms’ and he must have cleaned a hundred that day!”

Here’s a question for you: in what public buildings in every town in America would you expect to find the dirtiest, smelliest rest rooms? Most people would probably answer: in the schools. The institution where we send our children to spend eight or more hours every day. The institution charged with molding these young lives and preparing them for the future. Dirty, stinky toilets.

Yesterday, Friday, a group of New Orleans high school students who have formed an organization they call “Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools,” held a news conference to talk about some of the more basic problems facing our city’s public schools.

Dudley Grady, age 16 and a rising senior at New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, told the assembly that during the Katrina evacuation he attended school in Shreveport and got the surprise of his life. The rest rooms were beautiful. He wondered, “Why are their bathrooms so clean and ours are so not?”

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Personal Notes

I talked to Mom this Friday morning, as I do every day, and she says the birthday card count has leveled out at 144. Our goal, of course, was a card for each of her 91 years. So, she’s thrilled and we all are.

Thanks to so many who wrote these terrific notes and cards. A special thanks to you who went the extra mile with a personal note or, in several cases, enclosing a dollar or two. Even though we did not ask for it, several included money and Mom she ended up with over $150. That was lagniappe, as we say in South Louisiana. A little extra.

One of my Texas cousins wrote, “Hey, I didn’t know everyone was sending money. No one told me.” I wrote her back that that was not part of the deal, that we were just asking for notes. The money business got started over 15 years ago when Pop was coming up on his 82nd birthday (we thought that might be his last; he’d had health problems) and big brother Ronnie–always one to figure the money angle, being a Baptist preacher and all–thought we should get him that many cards, and ask everyone to include a dollar bill. Pop ended up with over 200 dollars and had a lot of fun opening the cards and reading the notes.

This week, we’ve had a death in the family–Mom’s youngest sister, Lorene Kilgore McKleroy, from Lake City, Florida–and our family is sad and coming together in love. Since they’ll be flying the body to North Alabama, and that will incur extra expenses on her husband, my siblings thought our bunch ought to contribute financially to help. When Pop suggested to Mom that she give some of her birthday money, she responded in typical half-serious, full-teasing mode and said, “I didn’t tell you what to do with your birthday money, and you don’t tell me.” I’ve laughed at that ever since.

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