Doing well and finishing strong

Nearly 60 of us met at the First Baptist Church of LaPlace Wednesday morning, getting underway at 9:15 and ending at 11:30 for a lunch of po-boys, soft drinks, and dessert, furnished by the church. As usual, at 10:30, the 8 or 10 women in attendance excused themselves to meet with Linda Williams, wife of Joe, our FBI chaplain and NAMB counselor-in-residence. It was a full morning.

David Lema reported that the Portuguese-speaking mission meeting at Emmanuel Spanish Church had 65 in attendance Sunday. “They had six saved last week,” he beamed.

Jose Mathews came in on a crutch, followed by his wife Othello. This pastor of Discipleship Church in defunct East New Orleans is living in a trailer near Baton Rouge. He told the group of the warm hospitality of the sponsoring Oklahoma church, of returning from that visit only to experience a stroke, followed by the death of his mother. He’s in therapy three times a week, but when today’s session was canceled, they decided to drive down to see everyone. He received a royal welcome.

Warren Jones reported on the recovery of New Salem Church in the 9th Ward and the new ministry they are committed to having in that neighborhood.

Rick Lopez reported that Lake Forest Church on Morrison Avenue in East N.O. has officially gone out of business and has deeded their assets to the association. “We’ve had teams of workers in fixing up the building,” he said, “and it looks great. The Franklin Graham organization is going to use it when we’re finished.” I’m always eager that everyone know the association is not Freddie Arnold and me, so when Rick finished, I asked everyone, “Who exactly is this association he’s speaking of?” They called out in chorus, “Us!” Exactly right. A Baptist association is composed of all the Southern Baptist churches in that area, with the executive committee being the pastor and one elected layman from each church.

Charlie Dale reported to the group on the progress of Grace Church, saying how excited he is to be back.

Kevin Lee reported on the rebuilding of Edgewater Church, of the tent that was donated to them, and of their services Sunday in the frigid temperatures. “We were all so glad to be there,” he said, “no one noticed the cold. I told Charlie Ray you could set fire to the tent and no one would move.”

John Galey reported on the first services of Poydras Church last Sunday, and gave a synopsis of his sermon. I wanted our pastors to hear his major point from Matthew 16, that this is the Lord’s church and He will build it. He repeated his lines from Sunday that “no more are we going to spend hours debating spending 12 cents on call forwarding, or an hour on whether to put a knob on the nursery door. We have bigger tasks before us.”

I told the group how a member of the Orleans Parish Levee Board reported recently on why his agency failed to monitor the levees adequately. “The levee board owns hundreds of acres of property and the lakefront airport,” he said, “as well as many rental buildings and businesses. When we have a board meeting, our time is taken up by reports on all this property and business decisions that have nothing to do with the levee system.” Every pastor understands the problem. Churches can spend all their time dealing with secondary considerations and forget why they are there. I recall years ago hearing of a sign in a Dothan, Alabama, store window that read, “Going out of business because we forgot what we were in business for.”

John Jeffries reported on the joint service last Sunday at the high school in Chalmette. “I was so excited to be there,” he said, “that I can’t tell you what I preached. It was a spirit-filled service.” At the conclusion, he said, “I want to add something here. I have never been as convinced of the need and value of the state convention and association as I am now. You guys (looking at Mike Canady of the LBC and me) have meant so much to us.”

Hope Ferguson was with us today, along with her dentist husband, Dr. Jerry, offering the help of herself, her church, and her vast contacts in assisting churches to build or rebuild their libraries. Hope is the librarian at her church in Natchitoches and surely knew her audience, so she began first to sell them on the worth of a church library. “Parents who are having trouble with their children come in and find just the book that can help them. The librarian slips a book to a fellow who had whispered in her ear, a book on suicide. People going through moral crises get help in the library.”

Hope asked the pastors, “What are your people struggling with right now?” Someone said, “Addictions,” and another, “Financial management.” Someone called out, “Dealing with insurance companies,” and got a laugh.

“The church library supports all the ministries of the church,” she said, “and is not in competition with any of them.” At her church, the pastor tells her of his upcoming sermon series, so she pulls related books and makes a display of them for the members. She explained that having a room for a church library is great, but not absolutely necessary. “It could be a corner of a room. Or a church pew. Anything, just to get started.”

Hope distributed applications for assistance to everyone, and stamped, addressed envelopes. As I say, she knows her audience and was making it easy for each pastor to get this information back to her. “When you get ready to dedicate your library,” she said, “invite me. I want to be there for the cutting of the ribbon.” During and after lunch, she had a continual stream of ministers wanting to talk about beginning libraries.

Tabby Hallman urged the pastors to get their youth workers to a meeting at Highland Baptist Church on Thursday, March 9.

At our urging, Scott Smith gave his testimony of watching a Billy Graham television special when he was a child and praying to receive Christ, and told of the interview that resulted in the two page spread in this month’s issue of Decision magazine.

Mike Canady of the state convention spoke of the Freddie Arnold-led tour of the devastated area of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish he and Dr. David Hankins received last week following our meeting. Then he said, “It’s so exciting that you and I get to be here to help rebuild a whole city, and reach it for Christ.” He told of the work of volunteer Linda Yeager in his office, who is receiving calls from churches wanting to come and help. “If you have a need for a church team,” he said, “give her the information and dates and she will get you the help.” He told of a church in Gadsden, Alabama, that wants to bring a group in late June. Linda can be reached at 800-622-6549 or at

The LaPlace church is replacing all their pews and offering the old ones–they look pretty good to us!–to our churches. Minister of Music Danny Heath told me after the meeting, one of our pastors has already put his name on the list.

Keith Manuel of Calvary has made a DVD of photos he took around the parishes after the hurricane. The background music by Nichole Nordeman lasts about 5 minutes. He offered to cut more for pastors planning on speaking outside our area, who would like to show that to their audiences. I plan to use it twice in the next week.

Keith gave more information about the FEMA Base Camp in Algiers, one of the best ways ever for accommodating large church groups. The Southern Baptist disaster relief folks have taken over Calvary’s youth house with their equipment and computers, and he urged anyone wanting to book a group in Algiers or at the base camp in St. Bernard Parish to call that office, called “Project Noah,” perhaps a tiny pun intended, at 678-386-1576.

Joe Williams continues to make himself available to encourage our ministers and their families. He’s a great guy, although the moment he takes my arm and says in a low voice, “How are you doing, really?” I wrest it away, smile, and say “Fine” and move on. He is a mainstay in our Wednesday meetings, and expressed the wish that the pastors on the Mississippi Gulf Coast had such a gathering. I expect the reason they don’t is that they are spread out from one side of the state to the other, whereas our ministers are from a single community, albeit a mammoth one.

Often, at the start of our Wednesday sessions, I share some thoughts while latecomers are drifting in. It’s an opportunity for me to be a pastor to the pastors. This morning, this was my message….

“Psalm 1 speaks of the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, does not stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the Law of the Lord. What does he do in that Law?” They called out, “Meditates in it day and night.”

“Well, the Lord has been speaking to me about that. Like you, I’ve been spending time in the word each morning, but unfortunately lots of times, I’ve been like the fellow James 1:24 refers to, who looks at himself in the mirror, then immediately forgets what he has seen. I’ll study a couple of chapters first thing in the morning, then later in the day can’t even tell you what I’ve read.”

“So the other day, I came across a statement from Gloria Gaither. Addressing an assembly of song-writers, she said, ‘I know you love the Psalms and you spend a lot of time there. But I wonder how many of you have read I and II Kings in the last year?’ Three hands went up. She said, ‘You can’t appreciate the Psalms until you go back and read of their ups and downs, their trials, sins, and forgiveness in I and II Kings.’ I realized I had not those two books in years, so I came home and got started.

“This morning, I was in I Kings 13 where Jereboam, king of the divided northern kingdom now called Israel, had grown concerned over the people running across state lines to worship in Jerusalem and made a decision based on politics, not righteousness. He built convenient worship centers in the north and in the south, in Dan and in Bethel, and told the people to worship there. Soon they were back to using the pagan altars and sacrificing to idols. So God sent a prophet, a man of God who is not named, to the king to pronounce judgment. As he did so, the king exploded, ‘Seize him,’ thrusting out his hand. Suddenly the hand shriveled and he was unable to move it. He said, ‘Would you pray for me?’ The prophet did and the hand was restored. Now the king said to him, ‘Would you come home with me and refresh yourself and let me make you a gift?’

“The prophet said, ‘Not if you gave me half your belongings would I come home with you. I will not eat or drink with you. God told me to deliver this message and come straight home.” And he left.

“Pause. Interesting story so far. Good man, this prophet. He comes in, goes straight to the point, does his business, and heads home. The king, on the other hand, knows how to tempt a preacher. He’s just been blistered by the preaching of the Word, then turns right around and invites the minister home with him and offers him a reward. I wonder how many pastors over the years have fallen into that trap. The big shot from the largest plant in town–the one polluting the air and ground and water, the one mistreating all his employees and bribing the legislators–listens to the prophetic message that had his name all over it, then buddies up to the preacher and tries to purchase him. And the preacher–oh, the poor man of God–loves the idea of hob-nobbing with the elite, so he goes to the mansion, lets the CEO wine and dine him and give him a nice present on his way out the door. The big shot has just bought him a preacher and muted his prophetic message. The man of God wonders why in his next message he’s lost the power and fervor of his earlier sermons.

“The story goes on. An old retired preacher hears the story from his sons. ‘Where is the young man of God now?’ he asks, and they tell him he’s on the road home. ‘Saddle me a donkey,’ he says, and starts after him. He comes upon the young unknown prophet resting under a tree. (I’m tempted to say here he should not have stopped, but knowing the need for rest after a taxing sermon, I’ll pass on that.)

“The old preacher said, ‘Come home with me and have something to eat.’ The young man said, ‘No sir. I am on a mission for the Lord. I’m not to go with you, not to eat, and not to drink from you.’ That’s when the old prophet lied to him.

“He said, ‘I’m a prophet, too. This morning an angel appeared to me and told me to bring you back with me and to feed and refresh you.’ Liar, liar, pants on fire.

“So the young man got up and went along with him. Fatal error. But so understandable. He had done so well up to this point, and he was almost home. The old preacher used one of the favorite tricks of manipulators through the ages. He said, ‘The Lord told me to tell you.’ How many times have you seen that? Once when I was looking for a minister of music for my church, I received a letter from a man in another state who said, ‘The Lord told me I was to be your next minister of music.’ I wrote back and said, ‘Fine. As soon as He tells me, we’ll be in touch.’

“There’s a mystery in this story, for the old preacher who had provided the occasion for the young man to sin, now receives instructions from the Lord to tell him his work is finished, he is out of business, he’s history. It’s a sad story.

“I’ve heard it said that tightrope walkers face their greatest danger in the last couple of feet before the end. They’ve braved the heights and conquered their fears and let down their guard too soon. One misstep and it’s all over. Many of us have seen men and women of God who served long and well end badly by falling prey to temptation.

“I actually know how to finish strong; it’s actually very simple. Find out when you are going to die and live that last year well. There’s a little problem there, of course. No one knows when his time is coming. So the way to guarantee that you finish strong is to live faithfully each day of every year. One of these times, it will be your last and you will have gone out well.”

God help us to be strong all the way home.

2 thoughts on “Doing well and finishing strong

  1. Joe,

    At the women’s conference this past weekend at FBC Kenner, Jannie Wilcoxson (of Precept Ministries and Sound Words Ministries) preached on this very text from I Kings 13. Her title was, “Will you finish strong?” We as Christians have been strategically placed by God to serve a purpose — His purpose — in our churches and in people’s lives. We must stay committed to the gospel and finish this season of our lives with grace and faith. I find it to be so relevant to situations many are going through here in south Louisiana. God is awesome!

  2. My prayer for 2 Joes today:

    Lord, once in awhile when Joe Williams asks Joe McKeever, “How’s it going…really?” please let Joe M realize that Joe W is speaking for You, and for many of us friends in distant places, so that rather than pulling away with, “Fine,” he will take a moment to let You evaluate the situation, so both Joes and all the other NOLA pastors, staff, church folks, and volunteers will take proper rest when needed, and be renewed in body, mind, and by Your Spirit…

    I ask this in the Name deserving of all thanks and praise, Christ Jesus our Lord, AMEN.

    (Keith Jones, formerly of NAMB’s Mission Ed. staff)

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