How to Clean Out a Garage

Margaret and I were talking about my upcoming retirement from this position with our association. I said, “What do you want me to do when I retire?” She said, “Clean out the garage.”

And then? “The attic,” she said.

My wife has learned to lower her expectations concerning tasks around the house by her spouse of nearly 47 years.

The other day, our oldest son Neil was over. He’s being ordained as a deacon in our church on Sunday night, April 5 — we’re all excited; if ever a man had a servant heart, he does — and he said, “I decided that being ordained deserves a new suit, so I’m going to treat myself.” After suggesting a good men’s store, I said, “I’ll give you some financial help on that suit if you will help me clean out the garage.”

Sneaky, huh.

This morning, Friday (Neil works 4 ten-hour days at Northrop-Grumman’s local shipyards, so he has long weekends for himself), he arrived early with his pickup truck. He and I tease about a bumper sticker I once saw on an F-150 like his: “Yes, it’s my truck and no, I will not help you move.” But with family, it’s different.

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Bored While Praying

Hey, if your prayers are boring you, how do you think the Almighty feels?

In the introduction to his book on prayer, “Invading the Privacy of God,” Cecil Murphey begins, “Prayer bores me and I sometimes wonder why I’m doing it.”

“There! I said it in print,” he continues.

For years Murphey admits he has vacillated between excitement and boredom in his prayer life. He writes, “I’ve read dozens (literally!) of books on the subject; learned four different methods for praying the Lord’s Prayer; embraced techniques for praying the Psalms; recited the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, be merciful to me, a sinner’) for nearly an hour at a time; taken lessons on meditation techniques; praised my way out of despair; sung hymns of petition; and like a lot of others, I’ve used the Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS) method of prayer.”

And did all that work for him? “Yes — sometimes and for a while.”

At the best of times, Murphey has “felt such a closeness to Jesus Christ that it seemed I could actually feel a hand wrap itself around mine.” And at other times, “I’ve fallen asleep on my knees, or I’ve prayed for four minutes that felt like two hours.”

At first, he confesses, he rebuked himself for being bored during prayer. He chided himself to “get past the boredom, press on!”

The best solution he has found to the problem of being bored while praying was to use different methods in his prayers. After all, Murphey says, “there is no one method of prayer. We can approach God in many ways.”

I agree completely.

The times when I’ve felt bored while praying, I have confessed what seems so elementary as to be silly: it’s my problem and not God’s. I mean, imagine walking into the control-central of Heaven where the Ruler of the Universe sits enthroned — and being bored. (Okay, I can imagine some teenagers pulling it off. But we’re talking about normal people.)

The problem is mine.

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My New Favorite Bible Story

I once asked Ruth Bell Graham for her favorite Bible verse. She laughed, “It keeps changing!” Then she wrote, “Proverbs 8:19-31” and signed it for me. It hangs on my wall, alongside the signature of her husband who had written “Billy Graham” under “Psalm 16:11.”

I sympathize with Mrs. Graham. The Bible is so rich, so teeming with great stories (think of the sagas of Joseph in Genesis and David in I and II Samuel) and tiny insights (like Matthew 13:52 and Psalm 18:35), that we keep making these discoveries of people and lessons and stories we overlooked the previous times we’ve made this journey through God’s Word.

Take the story in II Kings 8:1-6. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the Bible through or the number of times I’ve studied and taught this portion of Israel’s history. But one day last week, this little event rose up and slapped me in the face; I’ve not been able to get it out of my mind since.

That, incidentally, is one way the Holy Spirit calls my attention to a wonderful truth: the story or scripture or quotation will not go away. (Like the Sonny and Cher song “I’ve Got You, Babe” in the movie “Groundhog Day,” it keeps coming back. Okay, bad illustration!)

The Lord is sending us a message.

The king of Israel (that would be the Northern Kingdom, not Judah) has Gehazi, the veteran servant of the Prophet Elisha, regaling him with stories of Elisha’s past. Apparently nothing much was going on in the country at the time, today’s news was slow, and the king was enjoying some down time.

Gehazi was glad to tell how God had used his master over a ministry of many years.

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What Faith Does

Want to see faith at its starkest? Take a look at Free Mission Baptist Church.

Now, it’s not much to look at, just a single rectangular brick building that might seat a hundred people. The front door opens to a cozy worship center and in the back, behind the pulpit, a few classrooms sit. Freddie Arnold says the church is prettier on the inside than the outside. But that’s not the amazing thing about this church structure.

What’s incredible about Free Mission is that it has been rebuilt and where that happened.

Free Mission Baptist Church is located on Egania Street smack dab in the heart of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, the most severely ruined section of New Orleans as a result of Katrina’s floodwaters. This, the lowest part of the city, lies along the east side of the Industrial Canal on your way from downtown New Orleans to St. Bernard Parish. The levee broke just a few blocks west of Free Mission Church and floodwaters swamped the church as they did everything else in their path. The rushing torrent lifted homes off their foundations, jumbled them on top of one another, set houses down on boats and cars, and collapsed older homes. Most of the people who had stayed behind to ride out the storm were drowned inside their houses.

For months after Katrina, tourists drove up and down the narrow streets of the Lower Ninth, aghast at what they were seeing—a neighborhood in tatters. For more than a year, dead bodies were still being taken from collapsed houses.

Today, the Lower Ninth is mostly vacant lots, many with weeds knee-deep. Here and there a house has been rebuilt and a few homes are marked for restoration, but nothing has been done yet.

In the heart of all that, Pastor Johnny Jones and his small congregation have rebuilt their church. With money from the insurance and some volunteer help, the building was gutted and restored. The dedication of this structure has been set for this Sunday afternoon, March 22, at 2 pm.

Only faith goes into the Lower 9th Ward and rebuilds a church before the population returns.

When the people come home, Free Mission will be here, waiting.

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Bad News — Why We Love It

An article in the March 16, 2009, issue of a popular newsweekly (I’d say “Newsweek” but don’t want to send some of my friends into a frenzy of righteous indignation! Ha) bemoans the recent passing of financial experts, due to the economic mess our country — and the entire world — is experiencing.

“One of the not inconsiderable side effects of the current economic meltdown is the demise of the economic expert, if experts they truly ever were.” — Joseph Epstein

I remember hearing a fellow say a couple of years back, “America is the only country in the world where a fellow drives downtown in a Cadillac to take financial advice from a guy who rode the bus to work that morning.”

No more. After one loses his shirt — or, in the case of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, a few billions — he learns not to trust the experts and authorities, no matter how firm their promises, reliable their sources, and sweeping their confidence.

After reading two or three books recently on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early days in the White House, I don’t recall who said this, but one feature of FDR’s presidency was his complete distrust of experts. He would listen to them, put little stock in what they advised, then would go with his gut, as they say. Often that meant doing the opposite of what the experts counseled.

One writer said Roosevelt acquired that skepticism as a result of his polio. When he did everything the medical experts ordered, he grew weaker and weaker. Finally, taking matters into his own hands and trusting his instincts in matters of his mobility and conditioning, he ended up having a productive political career, against all expectations of his medical experts.

This is the place where we should drop in some humorous definitions for experts. Since all I know are ancient and stale, excuse me for passing. (If you know a good, recent one, leave it as a “comment” at the conclusion.)

Louis Rukeyser was the original “expert” on television’s Wall Street Week, from a generation ago. For some reason, back then he pretty much had the field to himself. These days, the channels giving financial news and advice are as numerous as the sports stations.

Speaking before a chamber of commerce meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, Rukeyser made a point I’ve never forgotten. If you write a book predicting that the economy is going to keep growing and the Dow Jones Average climbing, no one will buy it. People figure, if everything is going to be fine, my investments will come out all right and I don’t need the book.

However, he said, write a book on the coming disaster, telling how the bottom is going to drop out, and your book will sell like snow-cones on a sultry summer day in New Orleans. The reason for this, Rukeyser explained, is if the economy is going to tank, the investor will want to plan for it and find ways to protect himself.

That’s why bad-news prognosticators in financial matters proliferate, and good news prophets are dismissed as na

Preacher Lessons — They Just Keep-a-Comin’!

Earlier this week, I got something off my chest about America’s most controversial radio celebrity, Rush Limbaugh. Marty posted it on the website and it went out to our 1200 subscribers Wednesday night. I stayed home on Thursday to do my taxes and take care of a few tasks, and then turned on the computer Friday morning on entering the office. I had quite a surprise in store.

There were 18 comments at the end of that article (and more since) and almost that many bypassing the blog and coming directly to my e-mail. They were equally divided, in case you’re wondering. Some could not believe I would be so na

What Preachers Can Learn from Rush Limbaugh’s Predicament

The first time I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio in New Orleans nearly 20 years ago, I was embarrassed. I thought, “What a terrible preacher — yelling and screaming.” Little did I know!

In time, I came to enjoy the fellow’s rants as much as the next person. He was a showman, sometimes spoke the truth, often crossed the good-taste line in the interest of entertaining and making his point. He was clearly an egotist of the first order, and it was fun to see him drive liberals up the wall.

I could never take a full three-hour dose of the man, but it had nothing to do with his political views. His “preaching” style was unbearable. He got on my nerves. He loved the sound of his own voice too much. It took him forever to make a point. He would begin talking on some subject and interrupt himself to chase a rabbit, then interrupt the interruption. I was one of the conservatives and it irritated me. No telling what the liberals were thinking!

My opinion is that Rush Limbaugh has had his day. What made him strong has now done him in. (I’d teasingly say that I’m writing his obituary here except for the fact that that task has been done countless times over the past 20 years and he’s still very much with us!)

What I mean is he has outlived his usefulness. Look for more radio stations to drop him as they realize his support base has deteriorated and it’s now safe to do what they’ve wanted to do for ages: cancel him.

He has no one to blame but himself. And that’s where preachers can learn an important lesson.

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My Favorite Story About the Bible

His name was Emile Cailliet. In later life he became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and then Princeton Theological Seminary. His story is so special, so well-loved, it has been told and retold over the years. If you question that, “google” his name. I googled “the book that understands me” and found versions of Cailliet’s story of all shapes and sizes, with one preacher even referring to him as “Emile Clay.”

Lately, I’ve been downsizing my library and tossing out superfluous, dated files. in running across this blessed story of Emile Cailliet, I knew it had to be retold here for the benefit of those encountering it for the first time.

Cailliet was born in a small French town, received an education that “was naturalistic to the core,” and grew up a pagan. He did not lay eyes on a Bible until he was 23 years old. As a lad of 20, he fought on the front lines of World War I and saw atrocities unspeakable. If he had been an atheist before the horrors of that war, his unbelief was now set in stone.

When a German bullet felled Cailliet, an American field ambulance crew saved his life. In time, his badly shattered arm was fully restored during a 9 month hospital stay. While recovering, he married a Scotch-Irish lass he had met in Germany just before the war. She was a deeply committed Christian. Cailliet later said, “I am ashamed to confess that she must have been hurt to the very core of her being as I made it clear that religion would be taboo in our home.”

Emile informed his wife that no Bible would ever be allowed in their home. And yet, he found himself longing for meaning in life. In his reading — and he was a voracious reader — he went through everything he could find to satisfy the yearnings of his heart and soul. He said, “I had been longing for a book that would understand me.”

A book that would understand me.

Unable to find such, Cailliet decided to prepare one of his own. Over the next few years, he filled a leatherbound pocket book with significant quotations he discovered in his reading. “The quotations, which I numbered in red ink for easier reference, would lead me as it were from fear and anguish, through a variety of intervening stages, to supreme utterances of release and jubilation.”

At least, that was the plan.

Finally, the day arrived when Emile Cailliet put the finishing touches on his book, the “book that would understand me.” He walked outside the house, sat down under a tree, looked around at the bright blue sky, and opened his precious anthology. This was going to be a great experience.

“As I went on reading, however, a growing disappointment came over me.” Far from speaking to his life and situation, the various quotations simply reminded Cailliet of their context, of where he had found them, and nothing more.

“I knew then that the whole undertaking would not work, simply because it was of my own making.” Dejected, he put the book back in his pocket.

He had no idea what to do then. But God did.

God was up to something at that exact moment.

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The Easter Truth

You know who John Updike was. This famous author died on January 27 of this year after a bout with cancer. A friend sent me his Easter poem and it blew me away. I had no idea the guy was a believer, but his words here are far more eloquent than anything I’ve ever thought or said about this greatest of all Christian events. Here it is in its entirety….


By John Updike

Make no mistake, if He rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules

reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

Each soft Spring recurrent;

It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled

eyes of the eleven apostles;

It was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

The same valved heart;

That — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then

regathered out of enduring Might

New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

Analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the

faded credulity of earlier ages;

Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not paper mache,

Not a stone in a story,

But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow

grinding of time will eclipse for each of us

The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,

Make it a real angel,

Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,

opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen

Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,

For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are

embarrassed by the miracle

And crushed by remonstrance.

(from “Telephone Poles and Other Poems” by John Updike, 1961. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House.)

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A Culture of Arrogance

“Hey, I’m the boss of this outfit. I’m not accountable to anyone.”

No right-thinking pastor or mayor or bishop or even CEO would be so foolish as to utter those exact words, but believe me, some of us are living them out.

During this morning’s drive across New Orleans, headed to the office, I listened with interest to the NPR report of a bill being presented to the Connecticut state legislature that would result in a committee of parishioners overseeing the finances of the Catholic Church in that state. The bishop, as you might expect, is alarmed and Bill of Rights proponents (we all fall into that group, I trust) are concerned.

What brought this about, we’re told, is something the previous bishop (or maybe he was only a local church priest) did: embezzled a million dollars to finance a lavish lifestyle including a Florida condominium which he shared with — ready for this? — his boyfriend.

The matter was made worse by that priest’s refusal to allow anyone to look at the parish books. Consequently, parishioners felt they have no recourse to make certain this does not happen again other than going to the legislature.

As a pastor to pastors, I am forever counseling (and urging and preaching!) openness to our church-shepherds. While I’m not in favor of monthly church business meetings where members go over every little decision and every tiny expenditure with a microscope — this is a form of tyranny that should not occur or be condoned by God’s people — nevertheless, there needs to be a proper accountability for every leader. In most cases, a good finance committee will fill the bill.

“The Gambit” is a weekly, free New Orleans magazine devoted to the goings-on in this town, everything from where to find the best crawfish etouffee to what entertainers are playing in the city to the shenanigans at City Hall. In an editorial titled “A Culture of Arrogance,” the paper chides New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin for going back on his election promises of transparency and integrity. His administration has been characterized by everything except that!

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