A psychiatrist friend said this week, “Everyone down here is depressed. The traffic is terrible. You have to wait in long lines for everything.” A therapist agreed and said, “Many doctors have moved away to Houma and Baton Rouge. They just can’t take living here any more. If you’re going to live here,” she said, “you need to get out of the city and find some beautiful scenery from time to time to keep your sanity.” A friend commented, “There is no beautiful scenery in this city or within an hour’s drive in any direction.”
When I go to another city to speak, our host will often say something like, “Thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to be with us today. I know it was a sacrifice.” I feel like saying, “I came for myself. I needed to get out of the city for a while.”
Memorial Day weekend, our family will have what we call a “cousins’ reunion” at our maternal grandparents’ old homeplace out from Nauvoo, Alabama, and on that Sunday I’m preaching at Zion United Methodist Church in Jasper. Driving home on that Monday. Everything about it will be therapeutic. (Or as Barney Fife says, “Thera-pettic.”)
In the middle of June, the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Greensboro, North Carolina, a first for that middle-sized city. Since son Marty and family live near Charlotte, this will be a great time to visit then and to enjoy this lovely part of the country. In the late 80’s when we lived there, Margaret and I would burn up an entire off-day cruising country roads, turning down one without a clue as to where it would lead or where we would end up. Sometimes, we would leave home early and drive to Ashville just for the privilege of taking those mountain roads through the Smokies. The best line I ever came up with in those days was, “I feel so sorry for the people who live up here. They don’t know what they’re not missing.”
Therapy is where you find it. Today, Saturday, it’s having lunch with my wonderful cousin Dr. Nelda Schultz of Dallas as she drives through New Orleans heading east, then attending a “Churchill” program at the National D-Day Museum downtown. (Disappointment: Nelda just called and cancelled.)
A pastor told me this week, “I’ve been at this church nearly three years and have never taken a vacation.” A deacon said, “I cannot fault our pastor for his work ethic. He is a workaholic.” When I was younger, I would have been impressed. No longer. There may be exceptions to this, as there are to most rules, but the minister who never takes time off is hurting himself, neglecting his family, and doing his church no favor.
Invariably, it’s the younger pastors who fall into this trap. I told the minister and his wife of my own experience, reported here in these pages not long ago. In our first church following seminary, up in the Mississippi Delta, I was putting in long hours to try to get the church growing. In a seminar for pastors and wives with two chaplains from a Georgia mental health hospital, the discussion turned to the minister’s family life. Margaret told the group, “Ever since we’ve been married, Joe has been promising he would take a day a week off and spend with the family.” The chaplain reacted in horror. “Joe! You don’t give your family one day a week?!” I said sheepishly, “I’ve been meaning to. I just never got to the point in my ministry where I thought I could.” He said, “Margaret, I want you to turn to Joe right now and ask him to give you and the children one day a week off.” She said, “No. I’m not going to put him on the spot like that.” Whew. Off the hot seat. Then, the Holy Spirit moved in and I found strange words coming out of my mouth.
“I have been sincere in promising that,” I said, “and I’m ready to start taking a day a week off.” “When?” said the chaplain. “Tuesdays,” I said, “starting today.” Gene Russell, pastor of Trinity Methodist, said, “Margaret, let me know the first Tuesday he misses and I’ll come over and give him a swift kick in the pants.”
That day, we pulled our older son out of preschool and drove south to Vicksburg. We roamed the battlefield park and flew kites and ate out and got home late. I was more relaxed than I’d been in years. We made a discovery that day: the only way I could rest on my off day was by leaving town. In those days–we’re talking late 1960s here–if you left town, you left telephones behind. These days–well, poor ministers. You have to turn them off.
Our newspaper, the truly outstanding Times-Picayune is doing us a wonderful service by their coverage. And doing us no favor by the constant barrage of Katrina stuff. Case in point. All of the following is in today’s (Saturday’s) issue.
1. Front page. “As a last resort, nearly 400 homeowners have asked Jefferson Parish to demolish their storm-damaged houses.” (Jefferson was not the hardest hit part of metro New Orleans, so this is surprising.) “FEMA says Katrina taught it a lesson.” (The Boy Scout lesson: be prepared.) “War chests differ in close race.” (Nagin isn’t pulling in as much money as Landrieu in the race for mayor.) “Harahan pays for FEMA rules.” (The little suburb had hoped to piggyback on a Jefferson Parish contract to get its catch basins cleaned out in time for hurricane season and save money. Didn’t happen.) “Thanks, Mr. Presidents.” (Photo of former presidents Bush and Clinton attending a thing Friday and delivering $10 million in aid.) “LEAP scores marked by Katrina aftermath.” (These standardized tests for schoolchildren have suffered as a result of the displacement of 200,000 students this year.)
2. Inside. “Pesky pests are making a comeback.” (Mosquitoes are everywhere.) “Fliers to outline council’s concerns.” (Jefferson Parish councilmembers keep their hands in the contracts for levee and floodgate projects.) “Minister’s company gets sewer contract.”
[Text removed at the request of Mr. O. C. Coleman, 06/03/2007 — Marty]
3. Editorial page. The editor wants the city leaders to settle a landfill dispute and warns residents about complacency about future hurricanes. A writer thanks the Fair Grounds (horse racetrack) for re-opening. A resident announces he’s moving away, even though his family dates back to Civil War days in this city. Another complains about the nutria (rodents) undermining our levees. And, some brilliant, truly wise writer by the name of James Rogers Conrad of New Orleans liked my letter to the editor. What he said was: “Joe McKeever makes the excellent point that the mayoral candidates caved in to All Congregations Together, which is demanding that the candidates meet with them on a bi-monthly basis and submit all appointments ahead of time for their approval. The candidates were indeed wimpy and spineless–conditions we should be used to by now. What I don’t understand, however, is who the ACT people think they are. Is this Iran? Are they preachers or ayatollahs?” I hope some spokesperson for ACT responds.
4. The op-ed page. Reporter Ron Thibodeaux reacts to Chevron moving its offices from downtown New Orleans to the Northshore (above Lake Pontchartrain, the Covington/Mandeville area). Hey, he says, it’s not like they are moving to Texas. Senator John Kerry, who toured the city with Senator Mary Landrieu the other day, writes a column titled, “Promises made, promises broken.” The problem, he says, is that Bush promised to stand by this city and help in its rebuilding and he has not lived up to his pledge.
5. Scattered throughout. “Jury notices sent to 3,000 residents.” My daughter-in-law Julie got one for federal grand jury duty and has to report Monday morning in the Hale Boggs Building downtown, the very building where she worked for many years for Federal Judge Sarah Vance. Amazingly, not one single jury trial for state charges has been held in the city since Katrina. “Study finds pastors are stressed out.” This is actually a study of Canadian pastors, which raises the question what is it doing in our Religion section. It could be because the comparison with our pastors would be similar: 77% of pastors say they feel more like CEOs than shepherds of the flock. Then–along the lines of my ‘sermon’ today, children–80% said they feel guilty when they take time off, despite working 50 to 60 hour weeks. Another 18% said they do not have a close friend in the church or community. Devastating numbers. “Entergy braces for storm season.” Our power company gears up.
And finally, on a different note. The Saints new star running back, Reggie Bush, is petitioning the NFL to let him wear the number 5 on his jersey. Low numbers like that are reserved for quarterbacks, although some of us remember Hall of Famer Paul Hornung wearing a 5 decades ago. People are actually discussing this down here. Which ought to tell you how hard up we are for non-Katrina subjects to discuss.
This one was almost funny. In Kenner, right beside city hall sits a lovely little park with ducks and a watermill and a train. I’ve never actually seen the little train in operation, but apparently it was running yesterday because it turned over going around a tight corner. Everyone was thrown out. Everyone–all seven adults and the one child on board. “Too much weight,” said Police Chief Congemi. “This is a child’s ride.”
Almost funny, but not quite.
My strong hunch is those adults were just looking for a stress reliever and a nice train ride seemed just the thing. They might want to try Amtrak next time.
Thursday, I ran by Global Maritime’s new Port Ministry Center going up on Tchoupitoulas Street. Volunteer groups were there from Alpine Christian Ministry in San Diego and Shiloh Baptist Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Pastor Dan Whitener of Shiloh is first-cousin to Keith Whitener, pastor of Charlotte’s Idlewild Baptist Church, where my son Marty and family worship. It felt like I was meeting a cousin.
This new center is going to give a real boost to our witness to the thousands of shipworkers who arrive at the Port of New Orleans from all over the world. They’re preparing rooms upstairs to house volunteer teams who come to help us rebuild the city. This is one of the most exciting ministries in this city, and we give thanks for Director Philip Vandercook and Chaplain Jared Walley and their teams.