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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Holding on in a Hurricane

I am preparing a sermon series on the book of James. I just discovered an old blog that I never published. It was a bit eerie to read the recollections of the initial evacuation for Hurricane Katrina.

On Friday, August 26, my world began to change in a hurry. I had just returned from a meeting in Birmingham and at 8:20 that morning, I took Aaron to the doctor to get a CT scan. The reason for the visit was a recurring nerve condition that was brought on by a viral infection, and the doctor wanted to make sure that there was no abnormality in the brain.
I was scheduled to fly out on Friday evening to speak in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was a bit unusual in that two youth professors from New Orleans had been enlisted to travel for this event. My friend and colleague, Dr. Rick Morton was on the same itinerary that I was.
As the afternoon went on and I had not received word from the doctor’s office regarding the results of the CT scan, I became restless about the idea of leaving before I knew. We were supposed to hear from the doctor after they finished with their patients on Friday, but by 4pm, we had not heard from them. I called my good friend in Owensboro, Tom Cruisenberry, and asked him if he would be too upset if I let Rick go and carry the load for the weekend. Tom is gracious, and has had enough experience waiting on doctors for his son Tristin, so he understood. I cancelled my airline reservation.
Before 6pm on Friday, we had heard from the doctor that the brain scan looked as normal as it can be for a 16-year old male child, so we went on to see Aaron’s football game and later Sarah’s play. Oh, and there was a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Her name was Katrina.
In New Orleans, we always watch hurricanes as they approach the Gulf of Mexico because for as long as I can remember, there has been a fear of “the big one” that tracks directly toward the city and is a either a Category 4 or a Category 5 storm, meaning that winds are somewhere around the 150 mph range and the storm surge would be 15 feet or more. Katrina was a Cat 4 when we went to bed on Saturday night, and we had decided to ride out the storm. We did, however talk about some contingency plans. Because I was scheduled to be away, a guest preacher was arranged for my interim pastorate at Crosspoint Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.
On Sunday morning, we awoke to a phone call from a friend who was asking what we were going to do. “Make coffee” was my immediate thought, but then I turned on the television and saw that Katrina had become a Category 5 and the track had not wavered from a New Orleans heading. We lived in a new house, well-built and we were not worried about it withstanding a storm. However, a Cat 5 is different. It is like an F4 tornado that just stays on the ground for 6 hours if the eyewall makes a direct hit. So we got out.
We video taped all of our possessions, more because we had a relatively new digital camera and we could do so without difficulty. We took pictures and coin collections and probably not enough to the second floor, laughing at ourselves at being so silly. We couldn’t comprehend that this house–on relatively high ground would be in danger of flooding that would rise much above a foot or so. Realists that we are, a foot or so was very much within our thinking. We always anticipate power outages, so we froze some bottles of water and put them around the perishables in the freezer. I figured out that we might be out of power for a week at most.
We packed the Mercury Mountaineer and the 1986 F-150 with enough clothes for a week, ice chests with food and drinks. We packed the dog, the kids, and started for Baton Rouge where we could stay a couple of days with friends from Crosspoint Baptist Church in Baton Rouge where I am the interim pastor. We experienced “Contra-flow” where the eastbound lanes of I-10 had been converted to westbound for the evacuation of New Orleans. All in all, it felt like an adventure.
We went to bed Sunday night to the sound of rain and some wind. We were exhausted, so we slept well. Sometime during the night, I realized that it was storming, so I got up to look out the window and observe the awesome power of Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes I forget how powerful God is. I went back to bed, then got up early on Monday to wait out the rest of the storm. Nobody was working, so we alternated between watching the reports on television (we didn’t lose power) and playing Scrabble. We ate continuously and eventually went out to allow Aaron to spend time with some friends.
We returned to our friends’ house around 10:30 pm on Monday night. On the way home, we talked to someone who had stayed on the campus. She told us that our house had lost some shingles, that the fence had blown down and a tree had fallen on our neighbor’s car. Otherwise, we were in pretty good shape.

Then the levee broke.

The city of New Orleans is protected by a levee system that keeps water out. We are below sea level and when it rains, the water has to be pumped out into canals that take the water either to the river or the lake where it is pumped out of the city. In other words, the city is a bowl nestled between levees that keep water from filling it up. For decades, engineers have warned that if the levees failed, that it would put somewhere between 12 and 18 feet of water throughout the city. Doomsday prophets spoke of bodies floating in the street and widespread destruction.
What they couldn’t predict was the effect of the tons of concrete that have been poured or the inability of the very poor to evacuate or the actions of the morally bankrupt who would stay behind and loot and intimidate. My emotions vacillate between being desperately compassionate towards a society that would produce people who would have to steal food during an emergency when they didn’t have a place to go if they evacuated and being angry at people who would take advantage of a disaster to steal televisions, beer and Nike shoes. My pastor-shepherd-seminary professor-Christian person says that we should wake up and never have a world where people are that desperate. My justice-seeking quasi-red neck person says that we should just clean up the gene pool by shooting these looters in the head. I have a great deal of guilt in recognizing that the latter person exists.
We are now aware that we have water in our house up to the ceiling of the first floor. Anything that is on the second floor is more subject to mold with each passing day. If there is water below and humid air all around, then the probability of mildew and mold becomes a certainty. But enough of the negative.
I have worked this week at Crosspoint church where I have served as an interim pastor since last September 12. The people here are gracious and welcoming–it is a great environment to grow and learn and lead. I have observed God’s hand in this whole process from staying in town instead of leaving, evacuating when the macho in me said to ride it out, having a place to go. . .
At the same time, I am on the edge enough to have to trust God. Is my house being looted? Can I find a place to stay? What should I do about my children’s schools? What is the future of the seminary? It has been, is, and continues to be an interesting faith journey. My bride pointed me to a Psalm that she had discovered.

Ps 31:1-5

In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.

I couldn’t help but focus on the phrase in v. 3–for the sake of Your name, lead and guide me. I want to pray selfishly–for the sake of my name, but Sovereign Father, You have reminded me that all things that happen in the life of one who chases after a relationship with You are for the sake of Your name.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Belonging, Believing, and Behaving

I had lunch with some new friends and church members on Sunday. My hosts served up wonderful food and great conversation. During the course of the dessert course (raspberry cheesecake, yum), we talked about the attitude of doing church, both generally and specifically at UBC.

The conversation repeated a word play that has been around since the early 2000s--

"Belong-Believe-Behave" is a mantra or a way of looking at doing church that contrasts with the allegedly mainstream paradigm of "Believe, Behave, Belong" or as perceived in some churches, "Behave, Believe, Belong." It was a challenging conversation for me that continued to marinate in my head as I drove back to New Orleans.

Belonging is crucial. Sinners clustered around Jesus. He defended the disenfranchised like women, children, and Samaritans. He insisted on inclusion, that He was not willing for a single lost person to perish.

Believing is crucial. Jesus was grieved when His disciples didn't get the real reason He had come. In His last extended conversation with them, He said the words which have been used to help us understand that Christianity is through Christ alone: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life--no one comes to the Father except by Me."

Behaving is crucial. Jesus offered a man eternal life, but saw that the young adult was to enamored with himself and his possessions to embark on a life as a disciple where the cross would be taken up daily.

As individuals and as churches, we are guilty of 1) emphasizing one over the other two, or 2) getting two out of three, or 3) putting them in the wrong order (perhaps permanently putting them in any order). AGREED!!!

I rather think that church is more like a three-legged stool: we need all three legs for the stool to be used as it was designed, and we constantly have to evaluate the "wobble" (putting the folded up paper under a leg so it will even out is a temporary solution). :)

If we overemphasize belonging, then theologically anything goes and sin is not discussed.
If we overemphasize believing, we tend to camp on peripheral theological issues and argue endlessly.
If we overemphasize behaving, we become legalistic and Pharisaical and allow guests to feel judged members to become hypocrites.

We won't solve it. But we do church as a community of faith, on a journey and in a dialog about what it means to be a disciple. The Bible has survived more human challenges than we can imagine, and yet it endures. I don't understand it all, but when I do wrestle with an interpretation or a passage and come out with a sense of "thus says the Lord," then I have a choice to make.

I must lay my pride aside and admit that I sometimes don't radiate "belong" and that I struggle with "believe" when my faith wavers and I often don't "behave" like I should in areas of words, charity and evangelism.

We are on a journey. We have problems to work out. We have sins to confess and Scripture to learn and conversations to have about the truths we are learning. I am thankful to the people of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for walking together with me on it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Graduates and Graduation

Today, I will put on my graduation gown and walk in the processional as another great class of graduates walks across the stage at the New Orleans Seminary. It is something like my 30th graduation ceremony and it never gets old.

The robes and the colored hoods and the gathered families all represent a bunch of accomplishment. Such stories.

My fraternity brother and friend, Danny Havard will graduate today with his Doctor of Ministry degree. Danny has a degree in Real Estate and Insurance, but he chose to follow God in a different road. He is one of dozens of pastors in a large church in Houston, but he felt like God was challenging him to another level of education, and despite an insanely manic schedule, he has completed this journey.

The first Master of Divinity, Problem-based learning cohort will graduate today. Jeremy, Casey, Tim, Richard, Wes, Chris and Courtney have taken on a new way of doing an MDiv in a Pilot program that was part of the sabbatical project that Dr. Tim Searcy and I did this past year. They allowed their last year of seminary to be an experiment, one that may help future classes of seminary students.

Kelli Hill is my new friend on staff at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. She will graduate with a degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. She has been commuting back and forth, nurturing a new marriage, leading a children's ministry at the church, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

Randy will receive his degree while motoring in his wheel chair. He is, by reports from the counseling department, one of the most effective counselors we will graduate, especially among men who are working on second and third chances.

Missionaries will graduate, having been away in a countries I cannot print. They have completed their degrees online and through visits back to the states, many of them raising young children as they make the name of Jesus famous throughout the world.

My friend Malinda, a former student here, having moved away for a variety of reasons (including a hurricane), received her PhD at Southwestern Seminary last week, under the direction of Dr. Ian Jones and my friend Dr. Wes Black. He father, Dr. Al Fasol is a legendary prof as well and he was present at his daughter's graduation.

What great stories of people who have accomplished much, persevered much, sacrificed much, and been supported by many.

But more important than all of that--and what defines us all–-is that they are followers of Christ, sinners saved by grace. I am a sinful man in a fallen world, and whatever accomplishments I can list on a resume are secondary to that of being a child of God, a husband to Judi and a father to Aaron and Sarah.

I hope we are known as Christians who happen to be students and ministers and missionaries and parents and friends rather than people who are all of these things and, oh by the way, Christians as well.

I am excited about all the stories that will collide today in and around Leavell Chapel. I am equally excited about the stories that will emerge as these graduates are unleashed in a world that needs their stories and their energy.

Way to go, class of 2010.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

On Celebrating my Mom

My Mom is very much like many of the faithful members of University Baptist Church. She was born in the midst of the Great Depression, graduated from high school after 12th grade, and didn’t attend college. She was employed in the work force, but also did a stint in the circus as a member of the (then) only “all-female acrobatic tumbling team in the nation.” (For those uninitiated in circus lingo, she was the skinny lady who got flipped off the end of the see-saw and landed into a chair on someone else’s shoulders).
Mom married my Dad in the mid fifties and raised four of us Jackson kids, spread out over 11 years. She was the quiet rock in our family, with a mischievous smile and a great sense of humor (which she got from her mother who, while my Mom was in the hospital having my youngest brother, actually starched my basketball shorts just for fun). She fed, chauffeured, tutored, bandaged, rescued, consoled, and disciplined two girls and two boys.
She can set up a tent, upholster car seats, repair small appliances (including the garbage disposal), fix broken furniture (she had two boys), cook anything from gourmet to backyard barbeque, and sew dance costumes (my sister, not me). She could whistle loud enough for the neighborhood to hear but distinctively enough for the Jackson four to know it was time for us to come home. She dispenses better advice than Dr. Phil and Oprah combined. Her musical ability was passed to her oldest daughter, but not her oldest son.
My folks were godly, but not regular church attenders. As I put together my Mom’s story (in my adult years), she was baptized at the East Berry Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Tx. and as Mom to us, she made sure we attended a variety of Sunday schools and Vacation Bible schools. When God started moving in my life, she was very supportive and our house was always open for youth group fellowships, spontaneous sleepovers, and unplanned late-night buffets for one or more of us kids (plus friends). Her cheesecake is legendary.
She was incredibly strong when her husband of 45 years passed away but still allowed us to see the total vulnerability and frightened look in her eyes as she wondered how she would make it through the day. She has fought through multiple health issues of her own. She is active in her church and has built friendships in her Sunday school class, her Grief Support group, and her Water Aerobics class.
By the way, as I write, she is planning a trip with her older sister to take a train up a mountain in West Virginia where they will then detach the caboose car, spend the night sleeping in a train car in the isolated mountains, and wait until the train comes back the next day to pick them up....just because it is something they have never done before.
My point in this little walk down memory lane is to say that some Moms have impressive academic, vocational, or community service resumes, but all Moms have the not-so-public resume that my Mom has. My wife has an equally impressive Mom resume in a completely different generation, with a completely different set of challenges. Yet, both of them–as have you, Moms of the University Baptist Family, have shown themselves to be Proverbs 31. The end of that great proverb says that this woman of excellence,

27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
And does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and bless her;
Her husband also, and he praises her, saying:
29 "Many daughters have done nobly,
But you excel them all."
30 Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,
But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
Prov 31:27-30 NASB