There are No Experts on Prayer. Here’s Why.

I don’t know why this offended me. I was standing in the section of the local Lifeway Christian Store that features books on prayer–I must have a hundred and am always looking for the next great one–and picked up one by a Southern Baptist pastor from a nearby state. I scanned the table of contents to see what his book covered, then read the comments on the back.

At the bottom of the back cover was the author’s thumb-sized photo and a small bio. “Pastor So-and-So is an expert on prayer,” it announced. That stopped me in my tracks. Until that moment, I don’t think I had ever actually heard anyone referred to as an expert on prayer. On expository preaching, perhaps, and evangelism, leadership, sermon-building, stewardship, and a dozen other aspects of the ministry. But prayer?

How does one get to be an expert on prayer? At what point does he or she move from apprenticeship in this greatest of all subjects to becoming a master?

I wondered if the pastor wrote that line or if the publisher did it for him. One thing we can be sure of, it was done with the pastor’s knowledge and approval. And that makes me wonder if his choosing to leave the line in was an act of hubris and not of humility.

As I say, I’m still trying to figure out why that offended me. Maybe I’m just a tad upset that someone is a better pray-er than I, although that is certainly not news and never has been. I’m under no illusion about the inadequacies of my prayer life, even though I consider myself a person of prayer.

“We do not know how to pray as we should.”

Paul said that in Romans 8:26. It appears to me that if anyone could claim status as a prayer expert, it would be this apostle. Not only does he refuse the designation, he basically says there aren’t any, that no one qualifies for that august category.

There are no experts on prayer.

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Good Deacons

This week Freddie Arnold and I are ordaining men as ministers and deacons, it appears. Sunday morning, we helped the Vietnamese Baptist Church ordain a missions pastor and two deacons, then that afternoon participated in a deacon ordination council at Christ Baptist Church in Harvey for three men. Wednesday night of this week, Edgewater Baptist Church on Paris Avenue will be ordaining deacons and we’ll be there.

Of course, we’ll be part of a team of ministers and deacons performing this function. I’m not the bishop and we don’t confer sacerdotal powers upon the candidates. (Look up the word.) We gather as sincere Christian men seeking to ascertain the Lord’s will and to bless His church. We try to encourage these men, guide them, and even teach them to the extent we can.

I enjoy participating in these events for several reasons, but mostly because the time to make a good deacon is at the beginning. Get him started off right. Pastors can tell you how important their ordination council was to their subsequent ministry, that they recall many of the questions asked and the counsel given during that rather difficult hour or two. I am not silent at these things. After 45 years in the ministry, you’d have a hard time coming up with a church situation I haven’t seen.

I have the scars to prove it.

I often quote some of my favorite deacons to these mostly young men coming on in this service to the Lord and His church. I served with these men years ago, and most are in Heaven now. Since they are no longer able to pass along these nuggets of wisdom, I consider it my duty to stand in for them.

I tell them what Rudy Hough, a horticulturist, always said to incoming deacons. “From now on, people will be coming to you from time to time with criticism for the ministers. I’d like to tell you how to handle that. Tell the person to come with you right then and you’ll go see the minister in question and deal with it. If they go with you, fine.”

“However,” Rudy continued, “if they refuse to go with you, tell them you’ll go but you will be using their name. If they agree, fine. But if they refuse to let you use their name, that’s the end of it. Tell them you will not take anonymous criticism to the ministers.”

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Unresolved Issues

Someone has pointed out that in novels, unlike in real life, loose ends must always be tied up.

If you plan to read the latest John Grisham novel, “The Appeal,” and haven’t yet, and don’t want me to ruin the ending for you, you might want to skip this. When you finish the book, come back and leave your own comments at the end of this.

I went to the John Grisham website,, hoping to leave a comment, but there’s no place for one. He’s now at the point where he no longer cares what his readers think. He’s writing for himself. I’m seriously considering letting him buy his own books in the future and ending my financial support for whatever kick he’s on.

My family and I are long-time Grisham fans, going all the way back to “The Firm” and “A Time to Kill.” We buy the latest book, and pass it around until all the adults have read it. My wife started on “The Appeal” last night and announced ten pages into it that it’s vintage Grisham and she’s already snared.

I don’t have the heart to tell her–and won’t–how it ends. In a word: frustratingly. The issues the book deals with are still unresolved. If Grisham begs to differ and says he resolved it, but just in a negative, losing way, I say, “Same difference.”

I have enough frustration in my personal life without having to shell out nearly 30 dollars to buy his version.

In the mid-1980s, when I went to pastor the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, I was pleased to discover we were broadcasting our 11 o’clock morning worship service live on the NBC affiliate, the greatest station in the Carolinas. It was costly but gave us a great outreach. I’d not been there a month when a viewer who identified herself as an older widow wrote to complain. The broadcast was ending before I completed my sermon. She said, “It feels like you’re having a nice visit with someone and suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, they get up and walk out of the house and leave. It’s most frustrating.”

Thereafter, I made sure to end the sermon while we were still on the air.

My hunch is that Mr. Grisham has grown bored with writing novels. Either that or cynical. Or maybe just tired.

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Spring Cleaning

I cleaned out my fireplace today, confident that we’ve seen the last of cold weather for this year. My daughter-in-law Julie hates cold weather; I love it and grieve that winter in New Orleans lasts about a week or two. But, each year, by the last of February, Spring arrives and the weather warms. The birds woke me up outside my bedroom window this morning. The high today is about 68, a perfect temperature.

After some early morning errands, I determined that I would do the least pleasant job at my house today: clean the patio furniture. Here’s the story on that.

When we moved into this house 14 years ago, we bought metal furniture for the back patio–it’s covered but not enclosed–with cushioned seats and backs. When we lived in North Carolina and Mississippi, we loved our back porch and enjoyed late-night sessions out there. However, we discovered something about New Orleans that makes porch-sitting difficult. The air is dirty.

A week after washing the furniture, I’ll be able to run a wet cloth across the arms and backs of the furniture and remove a layer of fine dust. Go all season long without washing the patio furniture and you will not want to come anywhere near my back porch. Today, the water was filthy and the washrags were practically ruined, they’re so black.

Someone come visit us quickly, while the back porch is still clean.

In the last week, two recent visitors to New Orleans have written letters to the editor of the Times-Picayune saying how much they loved their recent excursions here and that they are trying to rearrange their lives to move here. The Chamber of Commerce loves that sort of thing.

I would assume those visitors got caught up in the parades and music, as well as the meals in the fine restaurants. What I wonder though is whether we should tell them about the dirty air, the noise, the round-the-clock congestion on the interstates, and the crime. New Orleans has incredible architecture and some unique neighborhoods, but it also has weird politics and the hottest summers on the planet. We have wonderful people and some incredible churches, but we also have potholed streets and some neighborhoods where you wouldn’t want to walk at night.

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Well, It’s Louisiana

When Mike Huckabee won the Louisiana presidential primary last Saturday, 43 percent to John McCain’s 42 percent, he rightfully expected to walk away with the lion’s share of the state’s delegates to the Republican convention. But he got none. Nada. Nothing. For reasons I can only attribute to insanity, our state Republican committee had previously decided that in order to get any of our delegates, a candidate would have to win more than 50 percent of the vote. As it turned out, no one got any.

When advised of this anomaly, Huckabee said, “Well, it’s Louisiana.”

Some columnists in the paper took exception to that–how dare he!–but everyone I’ve heard mention it agrees with Huckabee. What a ridiculous rule.

The only consolation I can think of is that we’re not the only ones making weird rules and strange exceptions in this presidential election year. When Florida Democrats decided to move up their state’s presidential primary to early in January–I forget the date–the National Democratic Committee ruled that their election would not count and forbade any Democratic candidates from campaigning there. The citizens, meanwhile, apparently oblivious to the pettiness of the DNC, voted in huge numbers. Hillary Clinton won, even though no candidate campaigned–it’s not like that was necessary; the citizens watch TV and read–and now her people are pushing for her to be granted the delegates from Florida. The DNC has no way out. Give her the delegates and Obama cries foul; give no one any of Florida’s delegates and the voters of that state have been disenfranchised.

Someone ought to work out a system for every state in the Union. But they won’t. We’re Americans; we like the disarray.

The Louisiana-ness of our state must be catching.

Dumb crooks made the local news last night. In Slidell, three young men had cased McDonald’s and decided to steal the night’s deposits when the manager went to the bank. One of the trio sat inside the fast food eatery and called the other two outside when he left with the bag of money and checks. Outside, they held him up and stole the bag. Alas, it contained chicken mcnuggets. Police caught the three culprits.

What I wonder is how you would like to be rotting away for 20 years in Angola and some con ask you, “What are you in here for?” and you have to answer, “For stealing a bag of chicken mcnuggets.”

Well, it’s Louisiana.

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 50–“Don’t Think of Yourself as a Leader; Think ‘People-Helper.'”

1. Say ‘we’ a lot, not I, me, and mine.

2. Look for ways to help your team members do better and feel good about what they’re doing.

3. Watch for anyone working in the wrong slot and try to find the right place for them.

4. Ask, ‘How’s it going?’ a lot. Listen to the answers.

5. Give lots of little gifts to your team members. Thoughtful things that show how you value them.

6. Pray for them by name. Learn their family members’ names and lift them up, too.

7. Ask ‘If you had my job, what would you do?’

8. Find out who the workaholics are and see that they get proper rest and don’t burn themselves out.

9. When you give public recognition, think the matter through in advance and make sure you leave out no one who should be mentioned.

10. Try to anticipate problems.

11. Walk the line between ‘never let them see you sweat’ and being transparent.

12. Pray with your people, even at odd times–at the end of break times, after a fun conference in the hallway, anytime. But not always. Don’t be predictable, but do be spontaneous.

13. When you’re talking with someone who has a problem, give them your undivided attention and do not let on that you have other places you need to be. Give them eye contact, listen closely, and be totally there for them.

14. Remember the five elements of good pastoral counseling: active listening, silent praying, gentle prodding, timely teaching, and Christlike acceptance. Let nothing shock you.

15. Be careful about too much hugging. Some would say that any is too much. (It was for good reason that the practice of ‘holy kissing’ died out in the early church.)

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LEADERSHIP LESSON NO. 49–“Say ‘No’ a Lot.”

This lesson is a companion to a previous on on keeping your focus. To keep your focus, you dedicate yourself to the task at hand and keep renewing that commitment.

The other aspect of staying true to the vision God has given you is to say ‘no’ a lot. You should plan on turning down requests that either conflict with that vision or detract from it. If it saps your energies from doing your primary work, say no to it.

Say ‘no’ to certain people.

“This will just take a few moments of your time.” “You’re the only one who can do this.” “The Lord led me to ask you.”

If you are strong and wise, you know how to look the speaker in the eye and say, “Thank you, but no. I won’t be able to do that. I appreciate your asking.”

If you are weak, even though you have neither the time nor the inclination, you will let the other person set your agenda for the next few days, and find yourself doing a job you have no business taking. You’ll reproach yourself a hundred times. “Why did I say yes?” The answer is: you were too weak to say no.

However, if like most of us, you are somewhere between weak and strong, you’re going to be needing a plan. My recommendation is that you learn to say, “Let me pray and about it and I’ll call you back.” You’re stalling for time, yes, but you are planning to do precisely what you said: pray. And the Lord who values your time and sets your agenda will give you the strength to say no. If He doesn’t, your wife will. Mine always does.

Warning: sometimes, the rejected person is going to be unhappy, but that’s not your problem.

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The Pastor Gets Into the Community

Eddie Painter has been pastor of Barataria Baptist Church in the little town of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, for one year now, and the attendance has doubled. Tonight, the church is electing a building committee to plan additional space. I think I saw today how everything is coming together.

Get your map down. Jean Lafitte is hard to find, as the U.S. government and the State of Louisiana discovered in the 1810s. The privateer–first cousin to a pirate–lived down in Barataria Bay with his gang of cutthroats and brigands and their families. I seriously doubt if anyone knows to this day exactly where they made their headquarters since so much of the land mass that made up the wetlands this far south is now underwater. Historians tell us Lafitte had a wealth of supplies which his men had taken off enemy ships, much of which was then slipped into the black market of New Orleans. Initially, Andrew Jackson rejected any thought of involving Lafitte in the defense of New Orleans until he saw the man had what he needed: experienced fighting men with lots of firepower. Jean Lafitte came out of the Battle of New Orleans a hero.

“The school down here is supposed to be one of the best anywhere,” Eddie Painter said. He and his wife Lisa have two teenage daughters, Ellie and Angel. “We love this place.”

“In the early service this morning, we had 34,” Eddie told me at church. The 11 o’clock service which I attended was filled, easily 65 to 70. The music was all hymns–“What a Friend,” “In the Garden,” and “I Am Thine, O Lord”–but the pianist and organist played them double time and the congregation sang out lustily.

When Eddie rose to welcome everyone, he said, “I have an announcement to make: I have bought a pair of white boots.” Everyone laughed. These are the rubber boots which shrimpers and other fishermen wear on the boats to guard against the slippery decks. Status symbols in this part of the world.

“And this week, I got my commercial fishing license!” That did it. Laughter and applause. “I’m on my way to becoming a permanent resident!” Cheering.

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Here We Have No Continuing City

When they ask if I attended any of the Mardi Gras parades this year, I just say ‘no.’ They never ask why not and I never tell. The simple reason is that I’d be out of place.

I don’t like feeling out of place. I’ve been there enough to know it’s no fun.

George Gobel used to say, “Have you ever felt like all the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

The lady from the chamber of commerce called to apologize. That night they were honoring a member of my church, one of our leading deacons who was an uppity-up in the finance world, at a lavish banquet in the hotel down the street. I was supposed to have gotten an invitation, she said, but someone failed to send it, and would I please try to come. I knew what had happened, that someone had just thought at the last minute, “We ought to invite his pastor.”

I said, “Thank you. If I can, I’ll be there.” The cocktail hour was scheduled before the banquet, so I figured it would give me time to say my hello to the deacon, then slip out. I walked into the banquet area and was stunned by the scene: a crowd of the city’s elite, all decked out in tuxedos and evening dresses, was milling around, cocktails in hand. These were the beautiful people of our city, the ones who run the largest corporations and foundations and whose images adorn the society pages.

Meanwhile, I was wearing the clothes I had left home in that morning, a tan sport-coat and grey slacks, which after eight hours were beginning to look like I had slept in them.

I walked around the room, feeling like that dream we all have had where you are in a crowd with no clothes on. I kept searching for a familiar face, anyone at all whom I knew. I never did see the guest-of-honor, but after five minutes of torture from feeling so out of place, I decided to go home and enjoy a quiet evening with the family.

Home. My place.

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What Grace Means

One of the ways I know the Father is talking to me is when the same message arrives from several different sources. Take today, for instance.

I’d been thinking a lot about grace. In teaching Romans–I’m about to do that for the sixth time since the first of January–the subject of grace figures prominently into Paul’s presentation of the gospel message. In that epistle, he keeps hammering on the fact that if salvation is by grace, then it’s not by works, not by law, not by heritage, nor birth nor merit of any kind whatsoever. If salvation is by grace, then no human can take credit for it and no one can boast about receiving it. It’s of God from first to last. All we can do is receive it or reject it.

A front-page article in the Times-Picayune for today (Thursday, February 7, 2008) was headlined “N.O. nuns play role in Giants’ miracle.” Subtitle: “Their medal provides divine intervention.”

Sister Kathleen Finnerty, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, used to head a school in New York City where Giants’ owner John Mara’s children attended. Since she and the nuns of the Ursuline Convent are big football fans, rooting especially for local boys Payton and Eli Manning, they were praying for the Giants to win the Super Bowl game last Sunday evening. Sister Kathleen told the newspaper, “Some of the sisters down here are 80 to 90 years old, and they are football addicts. So, when the Giants made the Super Bowl, one of them said to me, ‘We can’t let Eli down. We have to get Our Lady in on this.'”

That’s what she said: “We have to get Our Lady in on this.”

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