Mama’s Sunday Morning Habit

Sunday mornings, my conversations with my mom are always pretty much the same. I’ll call her around 10 o’clock, as I’m on my way to a church somewhere in metro New Orleans, and she’ll tell me she’s dressed, sitting there waiting for her ride. My sister Patricia lives across the road and will be picking Mom up in a few minutes. Church starts at 11, but Mom likes to get there early to greet friends.

Invariably, Mom will say, “I don’t feel like going. Every bone in my body hurts.” This Sunday, it was her feet that were giving her trouble.

Also invariably, at church, people will come up and hug her and say, “You look so pretty. I hope I look that good when I get your age.” Pastor Mickey Crane will brag on her–she’s both the oldest member and the one with the longest continuous membership–and tell her what a reward she has waiting in Heaven.

Across the road from the church is the cemetery where Mom’s husband of nearly 74 years lies buried. Twenty feet away, her youngest son, Charlie, is buried.

I said to her Sunday, “Mom, back in the 1940’s, when you had six small children to deal with every day, if you had only gone to church when you felt like it, you would never have gone. But you learned to make yourself get up and get ready and go on. And look at the payoff.”

I said, “So, today, you’re just continuing to practice a habit you’ve kept all your life.”

What she ended up with is a family of church-going children, with two of her four sons being preachers with nearly 90 years of ministry combined.

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For Those Interested in Louisiana Politics

Some of our readers are New Orleans-lovers and others are displaced citizens who yearn for home, while a few just find the doings of this banana republic fascinating. This one is for you.

Today, Sunday, the Times-Picayune ran a feature on Dr. Ed Renwick who is retiring from Loyola University’s Institute of Politics after four decades of commenting on the local political scene. In 1967, Ed came to New Orleans to work on his doctorate–on the “Long” dynasty, which covers Huey, Earl, and Russell–and ended up staying.

For a political junkie, he says, Louisiana is Heaven. “We’re so divided in Louisiana–by ethnicity, by race, by religion, by language, by geography. You have the French and the non-French, the Catholics and the Protestants, North and South, black and white, liberal and conservative. Having all these different forces makes the politics lively. It’s never boring here.”

Most state governments, Renwick points out, are rather weak. But not us. “We come out of the French and Spanish traditions of absolute monarchy, and on top of that, we’re Catholic.”

The state collects royalties from the oil and gas produced in the state and that adds up to a neat sum. Renwick says it’s like a fountain of money pouring in.

“We have a very strong governor. The whole system is kind of monarchical. We elect kings.”

Or popes.

Staff writer Elizabeth Mullener played a little game with Dr. Renwick, tossing names of various state political leaders to him for his take. The result was memorable. In fact, my hunch is only the fact that he is retiring liberated him to go on record with some of these blunt comments.

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What We Filter Out

Early Saturday morning, working at my computer, I suddenly became aware of a new floater or two in my right eye. Since I’ve lived with floaters all my adult life, I knew what this was, but also know what a distraction they can be until you adjust to their ever-presence. These are like black strings hanging on the right lens of my glasses, or sometimes like a water bug skittering across the surface of a pond. Not painful, just distracting.

I googled “eye floaters” and learned they are normal and to be expected as we age. My wife is rubbing that in. (“Poor thing–he’s getting older like everyone else!” No mercy around here.)

In time, our brains adjust to the point that we won’t notice the floaters. They will still be there, presumably, although one of the internet sources indicated they sometimes diminish.

The brain is a magnificent organ. It filters out the trivial and mundane and alerts the mind to the odd and unusual, anything out of the ordinary so we’re able to function in a world where stimuli fly at us from all directions every minute of the day. This is a protection against overloading the nervous system, for which we thank our Designer and Creator.

This process of culling out the commonplace allows the person living by a railroad track to rarely hear the train go by. It enables animal workers to function in and around horrendous odors.

Evangelist Bill Glass asked a friend at the Fort Worth stockyards how he stood the smell. He said, “What smell?”

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Firing Our Leaders– When and If

The session of the state legislature that ended in Baton Rouge this week did a hundred great things, a few questionable things, and one truly dumb thing: they gave themselves a massive pay raise. Governor Bobby Jindal had said all along he would veto such a move, and would only support the legislature giving a raise to itself if it kicked in following the next election. The law passed last week, however, becomes effective with this term. Jindal, we hear, plans to sign the legislation.

In the beginning, they proposed tripling their pay to something over $50,000 annually for what is part-time work. When the citizenry howled at that, they cut the figure to $37,500 and that’s what passed. Even so, it’s more than a 100 percent increase over their present salary of $16,800. There’s also a nice per diem allotted each legislator which is rarely mentioned.

Now, whether they deserve that kind of increase or not has been ignored. The fact that they’ve been maybe 20 years without a pay increase should be factored into the discussion. However, once the session adjourned and finally, it appears, our representatives began to pay attention to the clamor from outraged voters, suddenly they got concerned. Too late. The deed was done and the lawmakers had closed up shop and gone home.

So, hearing the frightening sounds of recall-petitions throughout their districts, our state lawmakers started running for cover. Some are announcing they choose not to receive the raise, while others are calling on Governor Jindal to veto it. It’s almost funny.

The recall petitions are for real and are gathering momentum, even the one for Jindal himself, the most popular governor we’ve had in ages.

Saturday morning, I sent this letter to the editor of our Times-Picayune:

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Christian Fellowship IX: “What to Do About Shy People”

A friend we’ll call Chris has alerted me to a reality about fellowship in church: not everyone likes an all-out full-court press. Some newcomers to our churches prefer to remain anonymous a while and will hang back, then come forward on their own terms, at their own timing–if they do so at all. Not all will.

Not everyone is looking for the same kind of church.

Not everyone is outgoing and friendly and eager to make new friends the first time they walk in the door.

Not everyone responds to the same stimuli, loves the same programs, needs the same kind of spiritual nourishment.

Okay, granted. There are indeed people who will visit our churches and appreciate not receiving a handshake and be delighted no one contacted them the following week.

But they are the exception. Case in point: Last Saturday night, as I write, Scott approached me at a church dinner. He said, “A few years ago when I moved here from Boston, I didn’t know a soul. But you welcomed me to church and from then on, you knew my name. I was impressed by that. I mean, I wasn’t anybody.” He might have said I visited him in his apartment that week, I’m not sure. (Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. So I’m not giving myself an ‘A’ in that department.)

Scott needed the personal touch and appreciated the warm welcome. He ended up meeting the love of his life in our church, was made a deacon, and recently served on the pastor search committee.

Not everyone wants to go where “everybody knows your name.” The shy ones among us need a little space.

I asked Chris to give us her story. She’s a lawyer in a large Northeastern city, educated in the Midwest, raised Catholic. Presently, she is an active member of a good-sized Protestant church in her city, one that has been led by some well-known pastors.

Chris writes, “I want to emphasize that this is not a conversion story. I was a ‘true believer’ as a Catholic…. As a general rule, Catholic churches are much larger than Protestant ones. I always hear (our) church referred to as such a large church. We run 1700-1900 in attendance. In my experience, it is a normal-sized church.”

In her job, she often passed this church on a corner by the subway stop, so she was familiar with its location. She checked out its website and listened to some sermons on-line. Then, one day when she did not have time to get to her Catholic church, she dropped in on the new congregation. For a time, she worshiped with both churches, one on Sunday morning and the other Sunday night. Eventually, she made the move to the new church and became a member two years ago.

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Praying Amiss

In the 1987 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the report of the Foreign Mission Board contained a telephone hook-up with Frances Fuller, one of our missionaries to Lebanon. A few days earlier, President Reagon had ordered Americans out of that war-torn country, and had warned any who insisted on staying they would lose their passports. Our missionaries had been evacuated to Cyprus, from where Mrs. Fuller was placing her call.

“You have failed your missionaries by your prayers,” Mrs. Fuller told the thousands of messengers at the convention. With that, she had our undivided attention.

“All the people I talk to back in the States tell me, ‘We’re praying for your safety,’ or ‘We’re praying for you to get out of that country.'”

She continued, “You should have prayed that God would keep us safely in this country in order that we might bear fruit for Him. Consequently, we have been exiled from a country of great need where we should not have left.”

She concluded, “Give us back to Lebanon in your prayers.”

No one who sat in the huge auditorium that night will ever forget her plea.

In the New Testament epistle of James, we read, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives….” (4:3) Another translation has it read, “You ask amiss.”

Lehman Strauss wrote a powerful book on prayer a generation ago, with the intriguing title, “Sense and Nonsense About Prayer.” I confess to buying it for the title. I knew there was a lot of nonsense about prayer out there, and was glad to hear someone in a leadership position admit it.

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Christian Fellowship VIII: “Learning to Support our Leaders”

Dr. David Hankins, executive-director of Louisiana Baptists, was part of the delegation which met in New Orleans Tuesday to put the finishing touches on plans for the annual convention which will take place in our city in mid-November. Over lunch at Deanie’s in Bucktown, he told the group about his son Adam who finished his residency at our Charity Hospital just before Katrina hit. Charity, you may or may not know, is the state-owned downtown medical center which receives all the cuttings and beatings and killings. Or, it did before Katrina. The storm inflicted great damage and the hospital has not reopened.

“Did you learn anything working in the emergency room at Charity?” Father Hankins asked Son Hankins, the M.D.

He did, he said. “Three things in particular. I learned to wear my seat belt, not get on a motorcycle, and never buy my wife a forty-five.”

So, what have you learned in your “residency”?

In reading a book on 1940 England recently, I received a reminder that the makeup of my church and yours is a microcosm of society in general. Case in point.

On May 10, 1940 (six weeks after I arrived in the world), as newly chosen Prime Minister Winston Churchill was forming his cabinet, former Prime Minister Lloyd George sent word that he would be willing to serve under Churchill, so long as he could retain the right to criticize.

To no one’s surprise, Churchill did not go for that.

Then, a few months later, Mr. George sent a similar message. He had a particular office in mind which he coveted. The price Churchill would pay for the prestige of having Lloyd George on his team would be that he would be free to criticize.

Whatever was the man thinking?

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Christian Fellowship VII: “Is It Possible to Have Fellowship in the Worship Service?”

The late and legendary W. A. Criswell used to tell of the weekend he visited Manhattan. On Saturday night, his group attended the Broadway play “Hello, Dolly.” It was light and bright, happy and spirited, and left them with a song in their hearts and a lift to their steps. On Sunday, they visited a cold church where the songs were unsingable, the members were unfriendly, and visitors felt like intruders. The contrast between the Broadway play and the frigid church was so stark, Criswell said, “If they’d given an invitation, I would have joined ‘Hello, Dolly’!”

I had a similar experience on my first visit to Cincinnati some thirty years back.

On Friday night, I attended a baseball game at the old Riverfront Stadium and saw the Reds play the way only the “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s could play. Everyone around me was friendly, they were enjoying themselves, and they included me in the mix. At the end of the game, they were all shaking my hand, saying how good it was to have me in the Queen City, and inviting me back. Bear in mind that I was alone and had not known a soul in the city. It was a charming experience.

On Sunday, I attended a worship service across the river in Covington, Kentucky, that was a clone of the Manhattan church Dr. Criswell attended. Cold, formal, irrelevant to anything in my life.

Thereafter, when I have reflected on that experience, I have adapted Dr. Criswell’s line and said, “Had they given an invitation, I’d have joined the Cincinnati Reds!”

What made the difference? Figure that out and you will go a long way to determining why some churches are growing by leaps and bounds and others are dying on the vine.

I’ve not spent hours sorting this out, and your opinion on this is as good as mine, but a few things seem clear. With both “Hello, Dolly” and the baseball game, we were watching professionals do what they did best. These were people who had devoted their lives to their craft and took it seriously. They were well-trained and highly prepared. Every detail of their presentation–whether the songs and acting of the play or the baseball game’s announcers, organ music, seating comfort, and the hot dogs–had been gone over time and again and made as good as they could make it.

And the church? My opinion about dead, cold churches will color my analysis, of course. You get the impression that the worship leaders care little about what they are doing, that they are bored as well as boring, that their main purpose is to get through the service, and that someone actually enjoying what they present is the farthest thing from their minds.

I used that little word “enjoy” on purpose. It’s a lightning rod and draws the ire of many a “pure” worship leader. “We’re here to worship God, not enjoy the service.” Mostly, I agree. However, I’ve noticed that when I worship best, I get a lot out of it myself. And I’ve also learned that if my emotions are not involved and my intellect challenged, if this is just an act my body is performing and words my mouth is uttering, I may as well have stayed home for all the good it’s accomplishing.

The huge question, the massive consideration that must be dealt with by every church staff team planning a worship service is this: how and at what point do we engage the congregation?

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What Newspapers Do Best

In a sentence, they tell you things you could find nowhere else.

Case in point, the Times-Picayune for Sunday, June 22, 2008. The best story is a front-page feature, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

When I have chided my young pastor buddies for not subscribing to the daily paper, they have come back with, “I read it on the internet,” and I have been silent. But having been to and read the portion of the paper which is on-line, I tell you it’s not the same. They’re missing a lot of fascinating material.

They’re missing the comics and the puzzles, of course, both staples in my morning routine. And they’re missing the kind of fascinating tidbits that pop up in other places throughout the newspaper, and which never get posted on the ‘net.

Take the wedding announcements. Being a longtime pastor, occasionally I’ll see people I know there. And then, once in a while, I’ll scan the articles themselves, don’t ask me why. Today, I found this….

Michelle Lynn Autin was married on May 17th to Brent Bernard Branigan. The third paragraph was made up of one fascinating sentence: “The bride carried creamy white hydrangea, stock and roses, wrapped with her great grandmother’s linen handkerchief a gift from her grandmother, Theresa M. Hindermann, that included her grandfather’s onyx rosary, antique doubled side charms, that pictured her grandfather, George J. Hindermann, Jr., great grandfather, Joseph T. Mangerchine, Sr., great grandmother, Thelma M. Mangerchine and her beloved pet Tigger, bound together by strands of crystal.”

Whew. The bride was carrying all that. Wonder if she was using a wheelbarrow.

Underneath that article was one announcing the wedding of Mr. Courtney Baine Robinson of New Orleans to Miss Kristen Michelle McKeever of Fort Worth. Her parents are Mr. and Mrs. Urbin C. McKeever, and no, I do not know them. Just found it interesting. We see others by our name so seldom.

No doubt they’re wonderful people.

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Christian Fellowship VI: “So Easily Corrupted”

I visited Indiana Jones one day last weekend. Sat in the theater with 100 strangers and watched Harrison Ford portray this comic-book character in breathless adventure after hair-raising adventure. When we walked outside into the sunshine, we all felt we had spent time with the man, but none of us had any sense of time spent with one another. In a movie house, there is no fellowship. It’s about spectatorship.

In the 1940s, things were different. Often, before the main feature, an emcee would come out onto the stage and lead the crowd in singalongs, get people out of the audience for little contests with small prizes, and in general, connect members of the movie audience with one another. No more. We grew out of that, got too sophisticated for such antics, became too busy. Those of my generation and a little older look back to those days with fond nostalgia.

Churches are becoming more and more about spectatorship. Turn on your television and watch the mega-churches being preached to by their celebrity pastors. Five or ten thousand people pack into giant auditoriums. They sit and listen, they respond as the preacher asks, and they get up and leave. They are hampered by their sheer success from fellowshiping with each other. We cannot imagine the pastor announcing to eight thousand people, “John Jones’ class will be having a cookout in Dwight Munn’s backyard Friday night and you’re all invited.”

Meanwhile, the church a half mile down the street from the megachurch, the one that has sat on that block for the last fifty years and only recently watched as the ever-growing congregation-on-steroids bought up a hundred acres and moved in and began sucking all the members out of neighborhood churches, that more normal church watches and wonders what it has to do to keep its members and gain a few more, and makes all the wrong decisions.

The “normal” church–as opposed to the giant spectator congregation–begins to invest in screens and projectors and high-tech innovations. That must be what it takes to draw people in, they think, and they must be right.

But drawing crowds in may be missing the point.

If the fellowship is missing, something vital has gone out of the life of a church.

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