Your Lord Loves You

The USS Astoria was a heavy cruiser that saw duty during World War II’s Battle of the Coral Sea and at Midway, then was sunk in August of 1942 at the Battle of Savo Island. On board in the fight for Savo was Signalman 3rd class Elgin Staples. Sometime around 2 a.m. on the ship’s final day, Staples was blown overboard when one of the Astoria’s gun turrets exploded. In the water, wounded in both legs by shrapnel and in a state of near-shock, Staples was kept afloat by a narrow lifebelt which he had activated by a trigger.

In his book, “The Grand Weaver,” Ravi Zacharias tells the fascinating story of what happened next.

Four hours after being blown into the Pacific, Staples was picked up by a passing destroyer and returned to the Astoria. Even though the cruiser had been severely damaged, her captain was trying to beach the ship in order to save her. When his attempts failed, Staples found himself back in the water. By now, it was noon.

This time it was the USS President Jackson that plucked him out of the water. On board, Staples studied that little lifebelt which had saved his life twice that day. He noticed the belt was manufactured by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, and carried a registration number.

Allowed to go home for a visit, Staples related his story to the family and asked his mother, who worked for Firestone, the purpose of the registration number on the belt. She pointed out that the company was holding employees responsible for their work in the war effort, and that each worker had his/her own number. Staples recalled everything about that lifebelt, including the registration number. As he called it out, his mother’s eyes grew large. She said, “That was my personal code that I put on every item I was responsible for approving!”

His mother had made the belt which had saved his life twice.

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What Faith Does

Sunday morning, the lay leader of Faith Baptist Church, Calvin Watson, announced that as they were entering their new sanctuary and educational building for the very first time, the church is debt free. This lovely edifice at the corner of South Claiborne and Fern in New Orleans is the culmination of the hopes of this nomadic group of wonderful friends who left the membership of FBC of New Orleans some 7 years ago when the mother church relocated to the Lakeview area. The Faith folks wanted to maintain a witness in the Uptown area. For several years, they worshiped with the First Presbyterian Church, then after Katrina scattered everyone, met with Riverside in River Ridge, and then ever since with Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue.

Emile Wagner, member of a Catholic church and devoted friend of Faith Church (he’s a lawyer who has helped negotiate the rapids of purchasing the new property; his daughter Lori leads the worship at Faith), told the congregation, “See the wooden pegs coming out from the base of the pews? Those used to hold kneeling rails; the pews are from St. Rita’s Catholic Church.” A few moments before, the congregation had been kneeling at the front altar to dedicate the church and themselves. Emile said, “As a Catholic, it did me good to see us all on our knees!”

During the announcements, Calvin Watson said, “When you enter the bathrooms, look under the door latch and you’ll find the privacy button. Just push that and you’ll have privacy. When you turn the latch, it clicks off.” Everyone smiled. I said, “I’ve been coming to Baptist churches all my life and that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that announcement!”

Pastor Tim Searcy preached on the praise passage at the conclusion of Romans 11 and the first two verses of Romans 12, emphasizing the result of our praise and celebrating: we give ourselves to the Lord as living sacrifices.

Early Sunday morning, I ran up against a great Bible truth we all need from time to time. As Israel moves toward Canaan, Moses begins to get the Lord’s people mentally ready to face their enemies in battle. He emphasizes that they are not to be afraid (20:1,3), and then he does something really fascinating. He identifies four groups exempt from warfare: anyone who has built a new house and hasn’t dedicated it, anyone who has planted a new vineyard and not eaten of it, anyone engaged to a wife who hasn’t married her yet, and anyone scared out of his wits.

Think of that — if you’re afraid, go on home. You don’t have to fight. (We can easily envision every last member of the military saying, “Okay. See you.”)

Why such a liberal policy concerning the fainthearted? “Lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart.” (Deut. 20:8)

Fear is contagious.

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Sunday, January 18

My nearly-93-year old mother said the other morning in our daily phone call, “You know, I really think Obama is going to do well, don’t you?” I assured her I’m praying that he will.”

Fun to see her so engaged in this. And thrilling to see millions of Americans so caught up in this inauguration.

The Parade magazine this Sunday morning says Obama just finished reading Jonathan Alter’s book on FDR’s first one hundred days — The Defining Moment — a book we have alluded to in this blog. I finally finished it last night, and am pleased he has read it. It covers two things in great detail, first, the transition from the old Hoover presidency to the incoming presidency of Roosevelt. The lessons in that are massive. Hoover kept urging the incoming president to take action to prevent the further decline of the economy. FDR kept reminding him that “you are the president; do it yourself.” In his memoirs, we’re told, Hoover blames FDR for the sad state of the country’s financial mess at the time of the transition. Seems to me like a leader who refused to lead, then blames others for his own failures.

Secondly, Alter covers the first few months of FDR’s administration. To my surprise, it turns out the new team had no grand scheme for how they were going to turn things around in this country. They just pulled leaders together and brainstormed and tried various things. Some worked and some didn’t.

I spoke Friday night to a large meeting of pastors and deacons and their spouses in Jackson County, Mississippi, meeting at the FBC of Moss Point. They asked me to speak on “giving it away,” which is another way of saying, “share your faith in Christ.” I was glad to do so.

From the time the invitation came my way, I did what I always do and began praying the Father would lead me about what to tell them. Usually, the answer arrives in time for me not to be anxious, but in this case, it was Friday before I knew.

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What Tenacity Looks Like

Do you know Sumner Redstone? His autobiography is called “A Passion to Win.”

In the days when he was chairman of Viacom, Redstone ruled over an empire which included CBS, Paramount, Blockbuster, Simon and Schuster, and about half the channels on your cable system. As a young man, he graduated first in his class at Boston Latin, sailed through Harvard in three years, learned Japanese and decoded messages for the O.S.S. (forerunner of the CIA) during World War II, and argued cases before the Supreme Court—all before beginning his business career.

Not your average joe.

In 1979, Sumner Redstone checked into Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel. Sometime after midnight he smelled smoke and made the mistake of opening the door. Immediately he was engulfed in flames. Just down the hall, his co-worker opened his door and stepped into the corridor — and was burned to death.

Redstone staggered across his room and managed to open a window. He was able to climb onto a ledge just outside his third-floor window and kneel there, his right hand clinging to the windowsill. Flames shot out the window, roasting his arm and hand. His legs had been burned to the arteries and now his arm was charring. He thought if he could just hold on a little longer, surely help was on the way.

What he did not know was that Copley had not wanted anyone to know they had a problem and had not called the fire department.

For what seemed an eternity, Redstone held on to the ledge. “The pain was excruciating,” he writes, “but I refused to let go. That way was death.”

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Expect the Wolves

It was near midnight when the phone rang and Pastor Jim Cymbala answered. A pastor in South Dakota was on the phone. He wanted the Brooklyn pastor to know God had laid the inner city on his heart and seemed to be directing him to bring his family to New York. Pastor Jim listened politely, then told him how things were there.

Jim and Carol Cymbala were just beginning the work which would become the great Brooklyn Tabernacle. In those days, only a few people were meeting, the finances were small, and both the pastor and his wife were holding down two jobs to make ends meet. That night, he promised the South Dakota pastor he would ask the Lord to direct their steps.

One week later almost to the minute, the phone rang again. “We’re coming!” the South Dakota pastor said. “My wife, two kids, and I are packing up and leaving for New York tomorrow!” The Lord had spoken so clearly to them, he said, they had no doubt this was what they were to do.

This surprising turn of events unnerved Pastor Cymbala. What are these folks expecting from him? He had no work for them and no place for them to stay. He had not invited them to come to New York and yet they were on their way.

He asked the preacher to call him when they got to New Jersey.

Four days later, the phone call came. They were almost to New York. Jim ran to the store and bought the cheapest steaks he could find. Relating this story in “The Church God Blesses” (Zondervan, 2002), Pastor Cymbala says, “We didn’t have much money, but we wanted to be as hospitable and gracious as possible.”

That evening the Cymbalas received the young husband and wife and two beautiful children into their home. Over supper, they listened to their plans to make their lives count for God in New York City. Jim writes, “I was too shy and inexperienced to ask about their former pastorate or how they were able to leave South Dakota on such short notice.”

Soon the question arose as to where they could stay. Eventually, Jim and Carol decided they could make them a bedroom on the second floor of the church. “It wasn’t much but an elderly lady lived up there in a tiny apartment and another church member lived on the premises with her daughter.”

During the Friday night activities at the church, the visitors met some members of the congregation. On Sunday, Pastor Cymbala introduced them to the church. “I noticed he had gotten friendly with some of the members very quickly.”

Everything was going fine. Or so it seemed.

Then everything began to unravel.

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Passing of a Beloved Maverick

G. Avery Lee died on December 23 in Lake Charles. Readers with New Orleans backgrounds will remember this one-of-a-kind pastor who served St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church from 1961 to 1980. He was 92. A memorial service will be held at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church (7100 St. Charles Ave) on January 30 at 2 pm.

The lengthy obituary in the Times-Picayune fills some of the gaps of my own knowledge of Dr. Lee. Prior to coming to New Orleans he served the FBC of Ruston from 1948 to 1961, and before that directed Baptist student work at LSU while serving as associate pastor of the FBC in Baton Rouge.

I was a student at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-60s, so had occasion to learn of Dr. Lee first-hand. After I became director of missions for BAGNO in 2004, he and I swapped a few notes and kept promising to get together. I regret that we didn’t.

Would it be too harsh to say that Dr. Lee took a special pleasure in being a burr-under-the-saddle to defenders of the status quo in our denomination? (The newspaper’s headline calls him a “pioneering pastor.” That’s one way of putting it, I suppose.)

Some quotes….

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A Motorist’s Prayer

There’s a line where the Apostle Paul says in the last days men will be “ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7).

I don’t want to be too hard on such folks, because that describes me in more than one area. Last evening, for instance….

On the way home from the office, I ran by the neighborhood grocery store. I approach that parking lot with fear and trepidation because it has to be the most dangerous spot in town. Cars enter from all directions, people are walking everywhere, baskets stand where shoppers abandoned them, kids speed through on bikes as though they were in their backyards, and foolish drivers impatient to get home rush down the lanes as though they were on the highway.

One would think I would enter that parking lot on full alert and watching for trouble. Instead, after a long day filled with multiple meetings and conferences, my brain was operating on three cells and my eyelids were having trouble staying open. I spotted a parking space close to the front and veered in that direction. As I begin turning into the space, a panel truck roars into the lane. I’m already turning, but throw on my brakes and come to a halt just as he would have crashed into me. I turned the wheel to the right, giving up on that parking space, and as I drove past him, did something I would never do when my mind was working.

I rolled down my window and spoke to him.

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Jimmy Stewart Deals With Fear

Not long after Pearl Harbor, the actor Jimmy Stewart joined the Army and became a pilot. Through two long years of training, he suffered stateside, wanting to join the action but being used, overused, and abused, he felt, by his military superiors who wanted him as a spokesman for the war effort and bond drives and who thought him too valuable a resource to send into harm’s way. Stewart chafed and complained and pulled every string he could, and finally arrived in England, ready to pilot the Liberator bombers in their runs over Germany.

He got what he had been hoping for. And for the first time in his life, he found himself dealing with fear on a massive scale. He was fine flying his plane into battle. What unnerved him was watching friends get shot down and thoughts of what could happen to him.

In “Jimmy Stewart: a Biography,” Marc Eliot tells of the young pilot developing a “fear he could not easily shake.” During the night before an especially risky assignment, “he lapsed into a fit of panic. Unable to sleep, he broke out in cold sweats, believing he would not survive that attack.”

Later, as he reflected on the fear gripping him at that time, he said, “I was really afraid… our group had suffered several casualties even before I knew I was going to have to lead the squadron deep into Germany… I feared the worst. Fear is an insidious and deadly thing. It can warp judgment, freeze reflexes, breed mistakes. And worse, it’s contagious. I felt my own fear and knew that if it wasn’t checked, it could infect my crew members.”

In subsequent flights, Stewart felt increasingly that he was not going to survive the war, that his plane would be shot down and he would be killed. Yet he knew that many a person with such fear does indeed survive and outlive the threat, and that his fear was both normal and deadly unless it was dealt with.

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Still Hating Death

The e-mail Saturday said the young adult son of some longtime friends had been in a serious automobile accident and was in intensive care. The Sunday night phone call and the Monday morning e-mail said he had died. We are devastated for these precious friends.

No one who has ever raised a family thinks the time may come when they hold a funeral for their child. It’s unnatural, it’s not in the correct order of things.

The 1996 Christianity Today Book of the Year was “Not the Way It’s Supposed to be: A Breviary of Sin” by Professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. The title alone was worth the price of the book. It gives me a certain amount of comfort when looking at the world around us with its strife between nations, war between religions, and ugliness between families and friends to be reminded that this is not the order of things as the Creator set them up.

Plantinga says sin distorts our character, perverts human excellences, and both causes and results from misery. Sin produces death, and by that we mean both kinds: spiritual and physical.

The front page of the Times-Picayune in my city this morning tells of a fellow who murdered his 72-year-old mother over the weekend. Neighbors told the story of this hard-working, devoted mother who knocked herself out raising two boys by herself. She kept the cleanest house and neatest yard in the Carrollton section of New Orleans and, they say, she doted on her sons. She sang in the choir of her Missionary Baptist Church and was the centerpiece of her community. And now one of her sons has killed her. Police say he stabbed her and choked her. He admits it, saying he did it for drug money.

There’s something bad wrong with this world when this sort of thing happens.

In 1993, Woody Allen was asked to explain his incestuous affair (and later marriage!) with the Asian daughter he and Mia Farrow had adopted. “The heart wants what it wants.”

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