“It must be exciting,” my Mom said Monday morning. I had called her on the Alabama farm from Charlotte, NC, for our daily visit and in the conversation, I reported on my Sunday night adventure in my former church. Friends of Milton and JoAnne LeDoux–he’s the minister of music at the First Baptist Church of Charlotte–threw him a party to celebrate his 20th anniversary, and I had flown up for the occasion. I told Mom I would fly back home Monday afternoon. She thought that had to be an adventure.
Milton LeDoux’s coming to the Charlotte church was what we call a “God-thing,” something that no one could have anticipated, an event that could never have been planned. Back in 1987, a mutual friend, Joe Joslin, had moved to Charlotte from the FBC of Deridder, Louisiana, to become our minister of music. Before long, he told us of this young couple who had grown up in his church and were students at our seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He had some vacant slots on the church music team in Charlotte and wanted to invite them to move from Texas, and let Milton finish his masters degree at the seminary in Wake Forest, NC. That’s how we got them. Milton was 27 years old. The only church he had served as worship leader had run 100 in attendance. Ours ran from 1200 to 1500.
About the time they settled into place, Joe Joslin announced that he was resigning to move back to Deridder. My precise words to him were, “You dirty dog.” He was out of his element in that urban setting, he explained, and should never have left southwestern Louisiana. He remained at FBC Deridder for another 15 years or more, and is now part-time at New Life Baptist Church there, a congregation he and Lynn Clayton founded. Joe’s main weekday work, however, is conducting fishing tours in the Toledo Bend area. It’s a tough life.
Anyway–long story short–we turned to Milton and said, “You’re our interim minister of music. We’re counting on you. But you need to know that you will not be a candidate for this position. We need someone older and more experienced.” He agreed and went to work.
Immediately, church members came to me raving at his musicianship, his leadership, and his wonderful spirit. JoAnne was our organist and is as fine a Christian lady as there comes. At Christmastime, members exclaimed over the seasonal music, that it was the best ever. We all agreed that the Lord had sent us Milton and JoAnne LeDoux and gave him the position permanently. The years since have borne out that this was the Father’s plan.
The banquet Sunday night was a masterpiece of spiritual blessings and hilarious moments, as well done as any I’ve ever seen. Everyone laughed and some cried. Old friends and family members showed up. The biggest blessing was probably mine though, and the banquet was only one part of it.
In August of 1989 amid a difficult, difficult time, I had resigned that church after a little more than 3 years. The story was written up in Leadership magazine for the Winter of 2000 issue. Now, 18 years after leaving, this was the first time I’d been back.
What was that like? Difficult. Sweet. Painful. Peaceful. Or, perhaps as Mom put it: It was exciting.
The people were beyond gracious and Pastor Mark Harris the sole of friendliness and warmth.
One of the leaders said privately, “I know you want to see the sanctuary to check on your two friends there.” We laughed. I knew what she had in mind: the stained glass window and the pulpit.
In 1987, while we were building the new sanctuary, the architect asked what I wanted on the giant stained glass window above the choir loft and baptistry. Everything in the sanctuary would focus on that huge space. Since our building committee was so hands-on, I was surprised they had not given him instruction. I decided not to ask them.
I said to Steve Wilber, “The most striking window I’ve ever seen is the one I faced while preaching for the past 12 years at the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi.” He commissioned a photographer there to take photos which were mailed to the Philadelphia company creating our new window.
The window shows Mary Magdalene sitting on a rock outside the empty tomb, grieving. The risen Christ has moved up behind her and is about to call her name. The scene is recorded in John 20 and is as dramatic and graphic a depiction of the real intent of worship as you will find. You’ve arrived in this place with your grief and questions, your heartaches and your pain; you are about to meet the risen Christ and nothing will ever be the same. It’s a magical moment. A God-moment.
The Philadelphia artist updated the picture, removing the scarf from Mary’s head and giving her a French braid down the back, and he livened up the colors. It’s a glorious scene.
And the pulpit. Back then, Architect Steve Wilber asked what I wanted in the way of a pulpit. I hastily said, “Let me draw it off for you.” In 5 minutes he and I had a new pulpit sketched out. It was to be solid white and modern looking, with clean graceful lines and a minimum of clutter. He assigned an artisan to build that pulpit, and it was installed in the sanctuary in time for the dedication in February of 1988. The only problem was I wished the man had made it a little wider and maybe more solid, sturdier. Otherwise, I loved it. But apparently not everyone did.
Just after I resigned the church, one of the deacons–one used to calling the shots by the sheer force of his personality, whether he had the authority or not; that was one of the problems I had to deal with as his pastor, but now I was gone and there was no one to tell him not to–had the pulpit stored in the basement, and ordered a generic box pulpit from a church furnishings company.
The next year after I’d become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Kenner in metro New Orleans, Arlen Earney, a dear brother in the Charlotte church, planned to drive to New Orleans on some errand. He called a leader or two of the church and said, “Is it all right if I take that pulpit to Joe?” He stuck it in the back of his station wagon and delivered it to us. I installed it in the Kenner church.
I explained to the new church what the pulpit meant to me and where it had come from. This was a tiny bit bizarre, the people no doubt felt. No pastor had ever brought in a pulpit of his own. I teased, “Now, this is my pulpit and when I leave, I’m taking it with me.” They snickered at that, and someone in the rear called out, “Have pulpit; will travel.”
Here is what happened next, a little incident whose irony continues to amuse me to this day.
In 1991, Dr. Charles Page returned to the Charlotte church from the FBC of Nashville where he had gone in 1985. (He had pastored the Charlotte church 1982-85, and now was returning.) One of the first things he did was tell the architect, “I do not like this box pulpit.” Steve Wilber said, “I have these drawings of a pulpit. Tell me what you think.” He showed the pastor my sketch.
Charles said, “I like that.” So, Steve had a second pulpit built from those plans, the single difference being that this one was a light tan in color. Otherwise, they were identical.
It’s still there today, and it looks great, as does the stained glass window, of course. In fact, the entire auditorium is as impressive as any I’ve ever seen, particularly among houses of worship in our denomination. It’s not a replica of anything. It’s just Charlotte’s First Baptist Church.
My original white pulpit, alas, is gathering dust in a storage room at the Kenner church. The pastor who followed me, Tony Merida, as with so many of his generation, did not care to use a pulpit at all, so they retired it downstairs.
Choir members were cleaning out closets the other day and someone called. “What do you want to do with this pulpit?” I said, “I don’t know.” I do, actually, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I want that pulpit enshrined somewhere in a glorious setting. I want a good preacher, someone who loves the Lord and His Word, someone like that, to call me and say, “Could I use that pulpit in my church?” and come and get it.
I promised the individual that I would ask around and see if one of our rebuilding churches needs to borrow it. I’ve not actually brought myself to do that yet. With all the construction still going on, I’m afraid they won’t take care of it.
Anyway, how do you give away something this precious to you.
This weekend was all about special people. On Saturday night at the seminary, we participated in the wedding of Andrea Gabrielse to Ronald Laitano, two lovely young people. Andrea grew up in our Kenner church. So many old friends who have been dispersed by life and since Katrina returned to help fill Leavell Chapel. It was wonderful in every way.
Sunday on the plane to Charlotte, I sat beside a young woman, Christina, on her way to New York City to audition for the Rockettes. That was the most interesting conversation I have had with a seat-mate on a flight in years. We shared about faith and about guilt, about climbing mountains and about families, and about working on cruiseships and about fiances. I drew her picture and promised to pray for her. She’s to let me know.
Sunday afternoon, at son Marty’s home below Charlotte, his five-year-old Jack wanted more of my attention and energy that I had to give. “Grandpas have to rest in the afternoon, sometimes, Jack,” I said, and invited him to bring in his books and read to me. So, while I dozed, he sat near my head and read. What a reader he is, and him a preschooler. He would pull up close and sometimes lay his head against mine. The most loving child. His big sister, Darilyn, age 10, is just as charming, and such a tonic for this preacher.
Sunday night at the banquet, my tiny slice of the evening was all about neck hugging and old friends and seeing the children of people I married and them all grown up. Too, too precious. Enough joy to last for years.
Several of the friends at the banquet were in a rare category, one I wish was more crowded: these were “mine,” perhaps in a way similar to the pulpit and the window. I had visited in their home 20 years ago and been present as they prayed to receive Christ as Savior. This one had come to me for counsel, and God used that to turn her life around. These special friends had fought the battles with me and remained to help make the church healthy.
Monday morning, the Director of Missions, Dr. Bob Lowman, and I met at I-HOP for breakfast. He said, “Joe, over 18 years ago, we met at a breakfast for Wingate College. My wife Karla was pregnant and I was introducing her around as ‘my pregnant wife.’ You took a napkin and drew a cartoon version of that scene. We kept it for years.” The child of that pregnancy has just enrolled at Appalachian State for this fall.
Bob wanted to discuss some kind of link with our city and our association. “The North Carolinians have put most of their effort in and around Gulfport,” he said. An hour later, he left with two pages of ideas and contact information. A great guy.
I sat there and finished my coffee and the sudoku puzzle, then caught Marty’s family before Misha and the kids left for the beach. Jack needed a few more minutes with his Grandpa.
It was exciting, Mom. But not because of the plane rides, as you were perhaps thinking. That’s just quick transportation. It’s the people at the destination that makes it all worthwhile.