Sustaining the Weary One

I stumbled onto Isaiah 50:4 the other day and plan never to be without it. The New American Standard Version reads like this: “The Lord has given me the tongue of disciples that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.”

Everyone I know down here is weary. Some are weary in well-doing, some are weary for just “doing,” and many are weary for their own reasons. Everyone needs a good word.

In our Wednesday pastors’ meeting, attended by thirty, some of whom came late or left early, we heard the kind of reports that do indeed sustain the weary one. Most were praise reports.

Rudy French told of a church team visiting his FBC-Norco from Forest, Louisiana. Yesterday, they knocked on doors in St. Bernard Parish and led three people to Christ. The pastor led one, Rudy led another, and then, the third guy is the one that stood out. Rudy said, “I was driving the van and dropping the group off in small clusters. I was driving down a street and noticed this guy in his yard working on his car. He was shirtless, sweating, tattooed, wearing a bandanna on his head.” When the fellow waved a greeting, Rudy stopped to chat with him. Soon, he was sharing his faith in Christ and the man was weeping, praying to receive the Lord.

Rudy said, “I came back and told our group about him, and one of the men said, ‘Wait a minute. You said he was shirtless and wearing a bandanna on his head?’ Right. The man said, ‘I spent a half-hour witnessing to that same guy before you got there. And he wanted nothing to do with the Lord. What happened?'”

Rudy said, “I told him, ‘I don’t know what happened. The Lord just intervened.'”

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Oops. Never Mind.

Just outside Slidell, Dolores and Kermit Atwood live in the house they have owned for decades. It’s a humble house, they paid it off long ago, and they’ve never had to pay taxes on it. However, it recently came to light that in 1996, the house was revalued for $75,100, exactly $100 above the homestead exemption cutoff. The Atwoods would be taxed for the $100 difference and they were billed for $1.63. But there was a problem.

When the addresses were updated from “Rural Route Whatever” to street names to comply with the 911 system, their home address became 4122 Dauphine Street. However, the tax bill–which the Atwoods did not know existed and were not expecting–was sent to the old route address. When it was returned to the assessor’s office marked “address unknown,” it was entered into the books as an unpaid tax debt. Eventually, in July 1997 the house was sold at a tax auction for the $1.63 in unpaid taxes plus 10 cents interest and $125 in various costs. A real estate guy named Jamie Land bought the property a month later from the folks who acquired it at the tax sale.

The Atwoods had a 3-year exemption period during which they could redeem their home from Mr. Land. The problem is they didn’t know it. At no point had they been notified. The first they knew of this monkey business was exactly one week after the exemption period had expired. “We’ve lost our house?” they asked, astonished. “For $1.63?” even more astonished. “For a bill we never received?”

Is there any sanity in the universe, they wondered. How could this happen in America? Too bad, said Mr. Land. Business is business.

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Staying Connected

Senator David Vitter hopes he has put his troubles behind him after the very brief news conference he and his wife Wendy held Monday at a Metairie hotel. Mrs. Vitter called for everyone to show grace to them to protect their children. Others in the community have echoed that plea. Couple of quick comments.

It’s not just that the senator consorted with prostitutes, as bad as that is. It’s that his own words–uttered when President Clinton was being assailed for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky–condemn him. At that time, he called Clinton a moral failure, unworthy to hold that hallowed office, and urged him to resign. If there’s a difference here, we haven’t found it yet.

The other thing is this. When a public figure, whether a preacher or a politician or whatever, decides to ignore his family’s welfare and do something horrendous, not to say stupid, like this, then would someone please explain where he gets off asking us to protect his children when it becomes public. Wasn’t that his job in the first place, and didn’t he fail to do it? And isn’t he asking to have it both ways: to have his fling but not have to pay the consequences.

I am in favor of protecting the children. And I admire the wife for her strength and loyalty.

The talk shows and newspapers are saturated with citizens defending and damning Vitter, who has always seemed a very decent sort, if perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer. His counterpart, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, however, creates the impression of being the brightest girl in the class, the one brainier than all the rest of us, someone created to be a senator.

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The Unraveling Political Landscape

Readers who live outside Louisiana can only imagine this scenario: New Orleans’ Congressman, William Jefferson, is under indictment for bribery and racketeering; Louisiana’s Republican Senator, David Vitter, is making headlines across the country for consorting with prostitutes in Washington and here; Mayor Ray Nagin, arguably the least effective chief executive in any city in America, one given to making announcements and speeches but clueless on how to lead a city, is building a war chest in order to run for some political office since he cannot repeat as mayor; and now District Attorney Eddie Jordan is “it.”

Already attacked from every quarter for the DA office’s ineffectiveness at prosecuting major crimes while spending the majority of their time and energy prosecuting minor stuff, this week Jordan announced that charges against 20-year-old Michael Anderson were being dropped because the chief witness had disappeared. Anderson was indicted last year for shooting to death five teenagers on a street corner in Central City. That tragedy made every newspaper and news program in America and considered greatly to the deteriorating reputation of New Orleans in its post-Katrina existence.

Here’s what happened.

On Tuesday of this week, Jordan’s staff announced they were dismissing charges against Anderson. The sole witness could not be found, they said, so they were helpless to proceed with the case.

On Wednesday, NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley held a news conference to announce that his homicide detectives had gone out and found the missing witness within hours. Jordan’s people hastily gave the woman a subpoena to testify before the grand jury next week.

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Leadership Principle No. 14–Keep Your People Informed

If you count on and need the support of the people you lead–and who doesn’t–it is absolutely essential you keep them informed on situations and up-to-date on circumstances. They will be reluctant to make great sacrifices based merely on their allegiance to you.

Tell them what’s going on.

This week, as I write, the president of the Baptist seminary in our city sent a letter to hundreds of the school’s supporters across the country. In the single page missive he outlined the financial situation for the seminary and the post-Katrina recovery which is 90 percent complete. He pointed out what the American Association of Theological Schools estimates the typical year of seminary education to cost and laid that alongside what the six schools of our denomination spend per student, and finally, contrasted that with the much smaller figure for the New Orleans school.

“We’re not fighting for our survival,” he pointed out, but the day-to-day expenses of utilities and insurance have increased alarmingly and put the seminary in a difficult situation. He was asking for contributions to the general fund. The next day I wrote a nice check and sent to this outstanding school which has played such a key role in my own life and ministry.

Every denomination has its own way of operating, but a motto in Baptist life for many generations has been “tell the people.” Dean Doster, past-executive of Louisiana Baptists, likes to say, “Baptists are down on what they’re not up on.” No doubt it’s true of other religious groups also.

I believe that axiom and have the battle scars to prove it.

That’s why I did what I did and how I got into trouble.

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Leadership Principle No. 13–Keep Your Idealism, But Lose the Perfectionism

It sounds so right: “I expect nothing less than perfection from you. We have the highest standards in this church (or company or family).”

Many years ago, “Psychology Today” magazine ran an article titled “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat.” It was one of the most practical and helpful things I had ever found.

Here’s a woman on a diet. She has done well for two weeks now, avoiding the danger foods, eating only the prescribed meals. She has lost 7 pounds and can already feel the difference in her clothes. One day in a moment of weakness, she eats 3 potato chips. Just 3. But she is so overwhelmed by guilt and the knowledge that she has broken her diet, she gets discouraged about the diet and goes on a binge. By the end of the day she has consumed 3 bags of chips and a half-gallon of ice cream.

Anything wrong with eating 3 potato chips? Not at all. The problem was the impossible standard of perfection she erected for herself.

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July 14 — Mom’s Birthday

She was born on July 14, 1916, in the house still standing on the next ridge. Her dad–John Wesley “Virge” Kilgore–bought this entire part of the undeveloped rural countryside in 1903 and built the house, the barn, the blacksmith shop, and eventually the garage which would hold his old Packard. Everything still stands, including Lois Jane, one of his middle children, whose birthday the family is celebrating today. Lois married Carl McKeever on March 3, 1934, and they moved 5 miles south to Nauvoo, produced 7 children (the fourth would die soon after childbirth in 1939), and have lived to see their household sprout into so many grands and greats that Mom despairs of trying to keep up with them.

If you could have chosen your mom or grandma, you’d have picked her. My brother Ronnie points out that she never smoked a cigarette, never took a drink of liquor of any kind, and never uttered a profane word in her life. He adds, “as far as we know.” The rest of us would bet on it.

She was raised to love the Lord, read the Word, and support her church, and she’s still at it. That church is the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church 2 miles from Nauvoo. It’s the same church, although with sparkling new buildings, where Virge and his bride Sarah began worshiping over a hundred years ago and where Lois and Carl met in 1930.

We call this “roots.” Through both Dad and Mom–but particularly through the Kilgores–this family has roots, solidly planted in the soil of Winston/Walker Counties of northwest Alabama.

My brother Ron put a note on this blog a couple of weeks ago requesting cards to Mom for her birthday. As of today, Saturday, she has received perhaps 110. (“I think,” she said. “The number changes every time I count them.”) She’s read them and reread them. “Right now, they’re spread over the dining room table.” Each day this week, from 7 to 16 have arrived each day. I usually call about 9:30 just to see what came in today.

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Full-Bodied Preaching

Grady Cook, an artist in Central Mississippi, told me how he had improved his technique. “The picture you bought from me last time,” he said, “was all right. But I still had a lot to learn.” I assured him Margaret and I thought it was fine and that it was hanging in our living room.

“Since then, I’ve studied under a wonderful teacher,” he explained, “and have learned how to add darkness to my work.” He said, “Here. Look at this.” Pointing at the picture I would buy from him a few minutes later, he showed the shadows and the blackness of the undergrowth of the forest. It made the picture far more three-dimensional than the first one. The trees stood out. It looked like someplace I’d like to explore.

We still have both pieces of art on display in our home, but since he explained the difference, I’ve enjoyed the last one far more.

“There’s something missing in this sermon,” I said to myself. On the surface, it seemed to work just fine. The “fruit of the Spirit” passage of Galatians 5:22-23 is a familiar and well-loved one. I’d studied it numerous times over the years and had preached it on several occasions. I like what it says about the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who abides in the Lord, that in time one may observe all nine qualities of this “fruit” in his life. I have enjoyed pointing out to the members of my congregations that all nine qualities are the “fruit,” not “fruits,” and that we do not specialize on one or two, but the indwelling Spirit may be expected to shine forth in all of these ways.

And yet, studying my notes and trying to put myself in the place of my people and listen to my own delivery of the message, I felt it was rather blah. It just lay there. In short, it was boring me–and if I was bored, how much more the poor hearers would be.

Something was wrong.

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Scandal Du Jour

The latest bad news to hit our city is that Senator David Vitter, Republican, is on the list of clients of the Washington, D.C., brothel. In Tuesday’s Times-Picayune, Vitter–who has been a strong voice for morality, faith, and family values–said, “This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.” He added, “Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there–with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way.”

Driving into the office Tuesday morning, I caught a snippet of a call-in talk show in which this was the subject. Everyone had an opinion. One station said the calls and internet votes were running 57 percent for Vitter to resign.

A reporter for the Associated Press–who said he reads this blog, so I told him I’d be careful what I write!–called for my reaction. He’d been on the streets interviewing citizens, he said, and most people were saying it was no big deal. “Every man does that,” said one woman. Thankfully, not.

What was my reaction? I said something to the effect that in my mind, Vitter has not been the spokesman for religious values that Congressman Bobby Jindal has, and that if Jindal had confessed to such a failing, the disappointment would be even greater. Barring further revelations, I said, this will probably not be an issue when Vitter runs for re-election two years from now. “God’s people believe in grace.”

Then, Wednesday morning’s headline read: “Canal Street Madam: Vitter was New Orleans Brothel Client.” Uh uh. Not good.

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Leadership Principle No. 12–Know Yourself Inside and Out

Many years ago, when I was a young pastor and a seminarian, my wife and I caught the movie, “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s account of Thomas More in 16th century England. I was transfixed by Bolt’s depiction of this man whose integrity and personal strength in the face of pressure from King Henry VIII stood him head and shoulders above his generation. After seeing the movie, I read everything I could find on St. Thomas More.

I didn’t have to read very far before discovering More to be a far more complex figure than the play had made him out to be, one who would have had citizens who believe as my denomination does burned at the stake. That took the shine off his character for me. However, I love the movie so much I own it, and have bought the book containing Bolt’s play. Memorable lines from the play have made many an apt illustration for my sermons over these decades.

In his introduction, Robert Bolt pays tribute to the chief characteristic of Thomas More that made him who he was. “As I wrote about him, (More) became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of hmself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved.”

He knew where he began and where he left off; what a fascinating way of putting it. Knowing himself so thoroughly, More was able to turn down all kinds of bribes and threats thrown his way to entice or coerce him to violate his own conscience. He ended up paying for this kind of steadfastness and integrity with his life.

The ancient Greeks made much of the importance of a person knowing himself. We don’t hear much about it these days, which is a shame, because many a heartache and tragedy in life could have been avoided by a person truly knowing himself.

Here are some questions to help us know ourselves and to decide how well we do.

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