An Uncertain Future–That’s for Certain

Susan Howell is a professor at the University of New Orleans and a pollster often seen on television sounding forth on local politics. Throughout March and April, she and her staff made 470 telephone interviews of residents of our area and this week released their findings. Discovery: people down here have trouble sleeping. More than 2/3 say they are worried about what might happen in the next five years, and some 40% say they have trouble sleeping at night. One-fifth said they feel tired, irritable, and sad, that everything is an effort, and that they have difficulty concentrating.

Howell says 70% of the residents in Jefferson Parish (Metairie, Kenner, my neighbors) are satisfied with life in general, whereas the percentage drops to 48 in Orleans Parish. The same percent in each parish worry about the future. Both groups are frustrated with the mail service, getting homes repaired, buying groceries, and inadequate medical care.

You see the problem with this poll already, I’ll wager. They “telephoned” the respondents, using land lines. What about the thousands of FEMA trailer dwellers who have no phones or cell phones. Surely the numbers for New Orleans would have been far worse if these people had been factored in.

Brings to mind the presidential preference polls of 1936 which showed Republican Alf Landon besting FDR handily, and then being swamped by Roosevelt in the November election. It turns out the pollsters were telephoning voters and using that to inform them on the probable outcome of the election. In 1936–the Depression was in full force–the poor people, who tended to vote Democratic, had no phones. Most of the people who did tended to be Republicans.

At the risk of sounding like a teacher here (I am), it’s always helpful to get details on how polls were conducted before being swayed in one way or the other by their findings.

A pastor called me one day this week about church business. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked, “How are you doing personally?” Long pause. Then, “I can’t sleep. And I’m irritable. Short of patience.” I said, “Have you read this morning’s paper?” No. “You might want to. They just took a poll that shows most of the people down here have the same problem. You have lots of company.” I didn’t tell him I’m not sleeping at night either.

When our state legislature is in session, anything can happen and usually does. Sometimes, our lawmakers do totally inexplicable things, such as refuse to outlaw cockfighting, making us and New Mexico the last two states in the U.S.A. that still allow such brutality. Defenders say it’s a custom among the Cajuns and that they’re going to do it whether we outlaw it or not. They even defend the practice as good for the economy in certain areas. Then they turn right around….

And vote to outlaw smoking in restaurants and in moving vehicles with little children inside. That is so forward thinking (some will say liberal) that one wonders if we’re now living in New Hampshire. The House and Senate have approved similar bills in recent weeks and are now trying to get together on one they can all agree on.

An article in the local paper says the doctors have created a medical name for severe road rage. Intermittent explosive disorder, they’re calling it, when the fellow behind you on the interstate lays down on his horn, tailgates you, and makes obscene gestures. A psychiatrist says, “People think it’s bad behavior and that you just need an attitude adjustment, but what they don’t know…is that there’s a biology and cognitive science to this.” Meaning what? That it’s all right if we can explain what the fellow’s circulatory system is doing or how his brain is going ballistic? From the article, we may assume they’re not talking about your neighbor who didn’t get enough sleep last night and is impatient and pulls this kind of stunt. They’re referring to people who are…shall we say, crazy? They’re on every highway, not just in New Orleans, and normal drivers would do well to assume the erratic driver on his street is one of them and stay out of his way. Above all, resist the urge to teach him a lesson. Try to move over, let him get by, on down the street. The less you see of this character, the better.

My neighbor bought a new car the other day and I’m missing the bumper sticker on his old one. “Your honking has taught me the error of my ways,” it read.

The U.S. Census Bureau released figures this week showing some of the changes that have occurred in the demographics of the metropolitan New Orleans area since the August 29 hurricane. The four parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines showed a population loss of 385,439, which comes out to 9 times the losses for all the Mississippi counties affected by Katrina. Some of the conditions that have changed: the area is whiter now, from 59% pre-Katrina to 73% now. Prior to Katrina, the area was 37% Black, compared to 22% now. Outsiders may wonder about this, but they need to bear in mind it was only Orleans Parish that was mostly African-American prior to the hurricane. And it probably still is, although less so.

We’re older, too. Before the storm, the median age was 37.7, compared to 41.6 now. Children and youth enrolled in school prior to the storm was 312,899. Now, it’s 170,269.

And we’re more affluent. The mean household income pre-K was $55,326, compared to $64,122. Of course, part of that may be because workers are scarce and businesses are paying better wages now.

Whiter, older, richer. Sounds like some churches I know, which if they stay that way tend to get set in their ways and become old wineskins. Reaching out to all ethnic groups, all ages, all social classes will make almost every church a hodgepodge of colors and backgrounds, and end up looking a whole lot like Heaven already does.

Weather people are having disagreements over the way hurricanes are categorized into sizes 1 through 5, depending on wind speed. The accepted method uses the Saffir-Simpson scale, which many are saying is inadequate. Katrina, for example, is officially listed as a Category 3, with winds of 111 to 130 mph, but that doesn’t factor in the massive storm surge and the vast amount of destruction it caused. Folks at the National Hurricane Center stiffen their necks and say, “We have no plans to change the Saffir-Simpson scale.”

I’m not sure this applies, but it reminds me of something Ruth Bell Graham says in one of her books, of the time when she was a young person growing up in China, the daughter of missionary parents. A revolt had broken out in their province and they had fled to safety for a few weeks. When the uprising was put down, they returned home. Local residents told them they should not have left, that it wasn’t all that bad. “Not that bad?” said Dr. Bell. “They would have killed us.” “Yes,” the spokesman said, “they would have killed you the first day or two, but after that it would have been all right.”

Bear with me while I do a little stream of consciousness roaming here. The rock star who calls himself Meat Loaf was in the news this week. (I gladly confess to not having a clue as to who he is and never having heard his signature song.) In 1977 he recorded an album called “Bat Out of Hell,” which sold 48 million copies. And you thought mankind was not depraved. Anyway, that song, that title, that album made him famous and rich. Now, he’s suing the fellow who wrote that song for the tidy sum of $50 million. Something about the writer claiming ownership of the phrase. All he did was write the song which Meat Loaf recorded, etc etc. I told the pastors Wednesday….

That it reminds me of how we read the Bible and preach a familiar story so much that we take ownership of it. It is no longer the Lord’s, but ours, and we quit seeing the new and the deeper in God’s Word. We would do well to remember we are the singer, the preacher, and not the composer, and that it is His. The last words of Romans 11 are worth returning to again and again: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways.” This well is inexhaustible, we never get to the end of it, and there is far more to any story in the Bible than you and I have preached. When we take possession of God’s word and think we “own” it, we have just removed the Holy Spirit from the proposition and we are on our own. Making for a pitiful situation.

I told the pastors you can take any familiar story out of the gospels, and preach it next Sunday and the Sunday after that and on and on for weeks, and never exhaust the insights that story will present. And you cannot say that about any other book in your library. The Scriptures are literally God’s Word.

Soon after residents returned to Jefferson Parish from hurricane evacuation last fall, some began a recall effort to get parish president Aaron Broussard replaced. People were so upset because he had sent drainage pump operators out of the parish to higher, safer ground as the hurricane approached, resulting in flooding in some parts of the parish. They called it incompetent and possibly criminal. Surely, they felt, the citizens will want to be rid of such a leader. This week, the activists admitted defeat and called off the petition. At the end, they had gathered only 49,124 signatures of the 88,051 necessary to bring the matter to the voters in an election.

Tuesday of this week, the calendar gave us a number some people shy away from. If you wrote a check, you wrote: 6-6-06. According to Revelation, the number for the sign of the beast is 666, and that’s enough for some folks. Evelyn Blystone was all set to have her crumbling left hip replaced in West Jefferson Hospital, until she realized surgery was set for 6-6-06. She canceled. She lives in Avondale with an address ending in 6 and the other numbers adding up to 6. “I got too many 6’s today,” she said, “so I’m staying inside and watching television.” She told a reporter she’s heading down to her Catholic church and getting anointed with holy oil, just in case.

My seminary classmate Dr. Paige Patterson reminded me not long ago of the time in the 1960s when he preached a revival for me in my student pastorate at Paradis, Louisiana. I had forgotten but he remembered what I had said about his tag number. “It was 666 DDF,” he said. “You said that stood for Devil’s Dearest Friend.” We still laugh about that.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has taken two big steps to prepare for the next hurricane season. They are stockpiling extra tires for their 1200 vehicles and shelling out $250,000 for a satellite phone system, complete with a satellite truck. Communication and tires–they’re going to be ready.

At first, it seems contradictory. More homes in New Orleans are going on the market and applications for residential building permits are increasing, too, as residents decide to restore their homes. The Washington-based Brookings Institution announced this week that the increase in sales indicates more locals are deciding to sell out and move away. However, both the sales and the building permits indicate something good: the paralysis has ended. People are now deciding. Some are staying, some are moving.

Several months ago, a coalition of major homebuilders announced a huge project in the section of Jefferson Parish around Avondale on the West Bank. This week, they announce that the first 778 homes and businesses will be called Audubon Estates and that construction will start this winter. Eventually, they plan to build 11,000 new homes.

Thursday’s funeral for four-year-old Haylee Danyell Mazzella was attended by a full house at Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner. Five ministers sat on the platform, although Lee Rutledge led the service and brought the major message, and the rest of us spoke only briefly. I told the mourners that my longtime friend, their father, and Haylee’s “Pop,” Dr. Buford Easley had preached behind that pulpit for over thirty years. In that time, he held hundreds of funerals. He would have been the first to say some were easier than others–like the death of an elderly saint who lived long and well–and that this is the hardest of all, the funeral of a little child taken suddenly and tragically. No one is prepared to give her up. As the Bible says we see through a glass darkly, we preachers find that we, so to speak, preach through a glass darkly also. “Tonight, the five of us will think back on what we said here today and wish we had said more, and said it better. We will feel like failures. We want so much to find just the right insights and say just the words that will comfort you. And yet, we have to remind ourselves that this is not about us, or our eloquence, but about the Lord Jesus and His faithfulness.”

Several who read this have responded that you are praying for the Mazzella/Easley family, and we appreciate that more than we can say.

The Southern Baptist Convention holds its annual meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. Preliminary meetings of many kinds are held Sunday and Monday, including the gathering of my group, the Southern Baptist Convention Association of Directors of Missions. Lonnie Wascom, DOM on the Northshore, will be giving the group a report on what the Lord’s people are doing in our part of the world. I’m drawing some cartoons of the convention for the Baptist Press, which will be posted at some point on their website Going to that site each day allows you to keep up with what’s going on. New Orleanians will be watching to see what the convention messengers do with the motion Dr. David Crosby plans to make, that the annual SBC meeting for 2008 be redirected from Indianapolis to New Orleans. That will not be the biggest newsmaker, of course. This is the year to elect a new president and three candidates have already announced: Ronnie Floyd of Springdale, Arkansas, Jerry Sutton of Nashville, and Frank Page of Taylors, SC. At issue is whether the convention will elect a president who pastors a church giving liberally to the Convention’s financial plan, called the Cooperative Program (that would be Page), or giving in other directions of their own choosing (Sutton and Floyd). Good men, all, no doubt, although I’ve met only one of them. What the convention decides will say a lot about the direction we intend to go in the near future.

As always, we will appreciate anyone who lifts our people in prayer as we travel to North Carolina and as we meet for worship and work.

Don’t look for an article from me for the next week or so. (Did I hear someone say, “Thank you, Lord”?) After the convention, I’ll be preaching Monday night, June 19, at the First Baptist Church of Wetumpka, Alabama, in their 6:30 pm service. You’re invited.

2 thoughts on “An Uncertain Future–That’s for Certain

  1. I am sure someone has already said this, but…

    I guess Nagin was talking about “white” chocolate!

  2. Dear Joe,

    Long time no see no hear! I must have been lost to your mailout after Katrina.

    Wanda has been forwarding it to me. Put me back on your mailing list. Thanks for all the informative and challenging messages.

    In Him,


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