Debra Burst reads from her first non-fiction book The Hallowed Halls of New Orleans at the Celebration of Words sponsored by the North Shore Literary Society and hosted by the Mandeville Barnes and Nobles.
I recently filmed Pastor Sally Davis at Women Wanting Wisdom’s Fun in the Son. Pastor Sally was an impressive speaker who followed an impressive soloist – Danielle Edinburgh Wilson. Danielle is a native of New Orleans and graduate of Xavier University. She sang her first solo at age two and has been singing ever since. She has performed in Spain, France, Belize, Italy and Switzerland as well as locally at Jazz Fest, Essence Fest and other events including performances with the New Orleans Opera. Danielle opened Fun in the Son with four songs that I am glad I recorded. I am also glad Danielle gave me permission to share her talent with you.
Last year, Mike Marchese addressed the Southern Christian Writers Guild, and I requested to write his story. He invited me to visit his recording studio. Mike plays rhythm and lead guitar for Counting the Day; a Christian band he formed with several friends. He built his studio to record their music and to service Christian artists.
Mike started his story by recalling a happy childhood. At a young age, he loved to crawl in bed with his father at night and pray. His parents were devout Catholics who never missed Mass. Mike followed in their footsteps of faith with the same devotion. He also planned on following their example of a long, happy marriage.
The years passed swiftly and his plans fell into place. He grew up playing music with friends from high school. His love for music found an outlet in a band they formed. He married his childhood sweetheart and landed a job that gave them a solid financial foundation to purchase a home and plan a family. All was well in Mike’s life until the unexpected happened. The company folded and laid him off during a time of skyrocketing unemployment. He pounded the pavement searching for work to no avail. Six months later, exhausted and waning under the stress of unemployment, he discovered his wife was having an affair.
The day he discovered his wife’s unfaithfulness, he called his sister. They had never been close. His senior by eleven years, she married when he was nine and moved away. But he needed to talk. The timely phone call revealed that his sister had just learned her husband of eighteen years was also having an affair. The devastating news and common experience drew them closer together.
“I remember the day my wife was moving out of the house,” said Mike. “At that point there was no way to reconcile the marriage. I needed more than the rote prayers I had so often prayed with my father. But I didn’t know how to ask God for the help I needed.”
Longing to pour his pain into a power greater than himself, he abandoned the prayers he had memorized praying with his father. For the first time, he poured his heart out to God as a son speaks to a loving father until words failed him. He then sought comfort in a Catholic newsletter laying on the nightstand by his bed. Mike read about the appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, which began in 1981 to six people in a small village in Bosnia-Hercegovina named Medjugorje.
Mike looked thoughtful as he continued his story. “The more I read about Mary’s plea to follow her and about her promise to show us the way to Heaven, the deeper and bigger the pain in my chest became. I will never forget it. Something in me said, ‘this is not right’ and I became very uncomfortable.”
His life had caved in and he felt buried with no way out. He believed that he had failed at life, love and business. He believed his divorce would make him an embarrassment to his family. “I felt hopeless. My dreams, my plans and my future had crumbled like sand through my hands. I remember loading my 44 magnum intent on ending my pain.”
He walked to the guest bedroom, sat on the bed, and stared at the gun searching for the courage to pull the trigger when he heard a voice say, “Why should you die? You have everything to live for.” He glanced at the clock. 7 AM. He knew his sister would be getting ready for work. He set the gun on the bed and dialed her number. She said, “Turn on the TV and watch the 700 Club. I will call you as soon as I get to work.”
He went to the den and turned on the TV. The man on the 700 Club gave an invitation to pray the sinners’ prayer. Mike prayed with a conviction he had never felt before, asking God to come into his life. “I felt a physical presence that entered my body and fell back on the sofa. I later learned that was the power of the Holy Spirit and the man was Pat Robertson.”
Mike began to read his Bible and learn about Jesus. He found another job and was able to carry on, although his marriage was never reconciled. Seven years later, he met a beautiful Christian woman. They married and his life took a new positive direction. He left the band he had been playing with and they immersed themselves in a Presbyterian church that gave them strength and support in their walk with Christ.
Later, they moved to the Northshore and joined First Baptist Covington. Mike’s life is now full with a loving wife and four children. He owns two companies, Louisiana Media Group, LLC and LMG Transportation. He now plays music to glorify God with his church’s band and with Counting the Day. Old things had passed away. All things had become new.
After his mother passed away, his father remained faithful to the Catholic Church on Saturday but began attending the Baptist church with his children on Sunday. Exposure to a different facet of Christianity produced a lot of questions for Mike’s father. In the past, the Bible had been little more than a show piece on the living room coffee table. For the first time, Mike’s father joined others in studying the Bible. One by one, his questions were answered until he followed his son’s example in prayer. He prayed the sinner’s prayer and asked God to come into his life.
Mike and his father were baptized in water together. From that time on his father never looked back. He stopped talking about the past, only about Jesus and the future Jesus offered. His father’s life became an incredible testimony for Mike and his family. Seventeen months after his father was baptized in water he went to be with the Lord.
“I know the voice that said ‘Why should you die? You have everything to live for’ was God speaking to me,” said Mike. “My favorite verse in Jeremiah confirms God spoke to me: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:11).
August 2013 marks forty years that I have been a Christian. I was fifteen when God revealed himself to me. Therefore, I have been a Christian more than twice as long as I’ve not been a Christian. I wish I could say the last forty years were fantastic. The first six months were. The intimacy of those days quickly faded after I walked into a church. There have been a few bright spots, but the years have been anything but wonderful years of happy memories.
I have survived longer than all of my family except my mother. My father died an alcoholic in his fifties. My brother and sister both died in their forties also slaves of addictions. My mother and I are the only ones who embraced Christianity. She as a Catholic, me as a Protestant. She was a Catholic in name only for many years but returning to the Catholic Church after my father died.
I have never wavered from following God to the best of my ability. My best produced forty years of tears and bitter disappointments. My experience was similar to the Israelites journey when they departed Egypt to follow Moses into the wilderness. Their journey to worship God was littered with pain and disappointment. Midway through my wilderness wanderings, I realized that I was guilty of the same sins Israel committed on their way to worship God. I did not bow before a gold image of a cow crafted by human hands. But I did bow before many false ideas about God taught to me by modern day Aarons’.
I’ve also dealt with the bitter reality that my sins have guaranteed I will die in a wilderness as Israel did. God didn’t abandon Israel in the wilderness, and he has not abandoned me. He has provided for me, answered many prayers and kept me alive while my family and most of my friends perished. I have accepted that the things I lost will never be restored. But I can’t escape a smoldering wick sending smoke signals that maybe God will prove my resignation to defeat came too soon.
I came to the final months of my forty year journey with many complaints. Is surviving all there is? If God loves us, why does he give us shepherds who hate us, lie to us, and use us to fulfill their selfish ambitions? If God is greater than sin, why did sin rob me when I wanted to obey but couldn’t find the strength? Is the devil’s power to steal, kill and destroy greater than God’s power? Why am I someone I do want to be and did not choose to be yet I have to suffer for things that are beyond my control? Jesus said who the son sets free is free indeed. Where is my freedom? The only freedom I found was freedom from the addictions that destroyed my father and siblings. Where was my freedom to obey?
As the calendar turned to the year 2013, I realized that I don’t cry anymore. God has not responded to my complaints, but I’ve stopped laying them before him. I don’t know when I stopped. One day, I simply became aware that I am quiet now. Unusually quiet. My circumstances have not changed, but there is a joy in me that I don’t understand. What I need in life is no longer derived from an institution established by men to worship God but from God himself. That in and of itself was worth a long miserable journey.
I still attend church. It’s doubtful that I will ever stop. Whether church leaders obey God or not, God does not abandon people striving to worship and obey him. I met my faithful, loving husband in church. I have met and befriended people of like mind in the church who helped me in difficult times. And I have lived long enough to witness disobedient church leaders severely chastised by God.
I opened the Bible to Hebrews to conclude these reflections. I wanted to reference the scriptures about the people of great faith who were tortured, mocked, stoned, and destitute. Pointing out that my experience never touched this depth of suffering would have been a fitting end. Instead, I was snapped out of my pessimism by the people of faith who subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, and obtained promises. Maybe my next forty years, if God gives me that long, will be better than the last forty.
An audio excerpt of fitness trainer and author Pamela Harrelson’s presentation at the Southern Christian Writers Guild. Pamela talks about her printed book, The Rest of the Truth: Bariatric Surgeries and Other Fast Weight Loss Diets, and and why she transitioned to E-books when she published Practical Advice for Lifetime Maintenance after Bariatric Surgery and Mimi’s Memory Verses.
And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.” Revelation 10:4, NIV
John, the author of Revelation, had been instructed to preserve in writing for the church everything that he heard and saw. We have Revelation in the Bible today because he obeyed. Revelation is different from every other book in the Bible because it promises a blessing to everyone who reads it and takes its message to heart.
The written word is powerful. Spoken words can be denied but written words cannot. Once something is preserved in writing it almost becomes an uncontrollable living thing that will live longer than its author. Thoughts and ideas written hundreds, even thousands of years ago are still alive today because someone wrote them down. Write something on the internet and whether it is true or false, you’re proud of it or ashamed of it, erasing it is impossible.
John was obediently writing everything shared with him when he was abruptly interrupted, “Do not write it down.” Everything should NOT be preserved in writing. As writers we need to handle our words with care. Our words can heal but they can also wound. Words can comfort but they can also discourage. We must choose our words carefully and wisely.
Please give us an ear to hear your instructions to write and when not to write. Amen.
The first time I met Ruben Israel, I thought former drug addicted ex-convict who led a motorcycle gang with an iron fist radically saved in a blinding flash of light. The cliché “looks can be deceiving” explains why I was wrong. While many young people were rebelling against the government and sending themselves on drug induced trips, Ruben attended church and worked. He grew up sweeping the floors in his father’s barber shop as men discussed sports, politics and religion. He learned through is father’s example to stand up for his beliefs as he listened to the animated and at times testy conversations. His family sat at the kitchen table monthly to pray for America and for his brothers who served in the military. Ruben never fell prey to the excesses of the hippie counter culture. He loved God and country, but he did rebel against complacent religion.
In the late 1960s, Ruben and his father exited the Los Angeles landmark Clifton Cafeteria. At 7th and Broadway, they paused to observe an unusual site. A man wearing checkered pants, striped shirt, with his hair in disarray, stood on the corner holding a Bible. He preached as though he held the attention of a stadium filled with mesmerized listeners. Ruben looked up at his father. “Street preacher,” said his father.
Ten years later, Ruben gently picked up his newborn daughter. He gazed into the face of innocence and thought, how do I want to raise this child. He reflected on his own life and concluded his life must be right to raise his daughter right. That night he cried out to God. A serious, systematic study of the Bible provoked questions about the faith he had been taught, so he made an appointment with his priest.
“The meeting was short,” said Ruben. “The priest told me the Bible would confuse me, and I should not read it. My job was to come to Mass. As the priest walked out the door, he asked me if I would be at Mass next Sunday. I wasn’t happy with the outcome of the meeting but said, ‘Yes.’”
The following Sunday, Ruben’s mother was seated in their usual pew when a friend tapped her on the shoulder. “Ruben is outside screaming at everybody.” His mother walked outside to witness her son standing on the steps in front of their church preaching his first sermon – Know the God of the Bible. As their neighbor walked up the stairs, Ruben said, “You have the biggest family Bible I have ever seen on the coffee table in your living room. The pages are stuck together. You have never read it.” Mrs. Smith hurried inside, and two men approached. “Mr. Johnson, you have been coming to this church for 20 years, and you can’t quote one Bible verse. Mr. McDonald, you don’t keep Sunday holy. After church, you sit in front of the TV with two six packs of beer.” Ruben’s mother thought he was going through a phase and would find a new pursuit in a few weeks. Years later, his mother would learn that Ruben was God’s answer to her prayers.
At a young age, Ruben’s mother felt God had called her to a life of Christian service. She joined a convent and was studying to become a nun when she heard rumors about the decadence of Mardi Gras. Even though Mardi Gras had its roots in Lupercalia, an ancient Roman festival, the church had incorporated the pagan celebration into its faith. She knew her church did not endorse Mardi Gras, but they winked at the belief one could sin with abandon without consequence. Troubled by her church’s practice she often prayed for New Orleans and her church that refused to confront sin.
Two weeks before graduation, Ruben’s mother already had doubts about serving a church that winked at sin when her sister came to visit. She held her sister’s baby and wondered if she really wanted to live a life of celibacy or have a family of her own. After many tears and prayers, she laid a fleece before God. She had never seen a yellow rose in the convent’s garden. If she saw one before graduation, it would be a sign God had released her to leave the convent. As she walked through the garden praying, she spotted a yellow rose. Convinced God had released her from becoming a Nun, she married and bore five children.
Ruben never lost interest in his evangelistic activities. A Bible study he attended evolved into an international network called Bible Believers. Initially, they set out signs declaring “Trust Jesus” at intersections before they left for work. As they grew stronger in their faith, they began preaching to small groups on the streets. Eventually, they moved on to larger crowds drawn by numerous events held in Los Angeles.
The large banners that mark his ministry were created by one of the men from the Bible study, who also coined the name “confrontational evangelism”. The first banners were canvas and metal. Today, they use vinyl to confront sin with bold declarations. If boisterous crowds drown out their voice, they can’t miss the message on the signs.
Ruben brought his ministry of confrontation to New Orleans in 1982. After returning from his second evangelistic campaign at Mardi Gras, he had dinner with his parents. During dinner, his mother revealed the burden of prayer she carried for New Orleans when she studied to be a Nun. Ruben and his mother realized God had answered her prayer. Every year thereafter, to the day she died, Ruben’s mother laid her hands on her son’s head and prayed for him before he departed to do what her church failed to do. Boldly confront sin instead of tolerating it on Tuesday and absolving it on Wednesday.
Ruben Israel is a point of controversy in the Christian community. Some believe confrontational evangelism does more harm than good. Others applaud Ruben’s boldness to confront sinners and announce their guilt loud enough for a city block to hear. Unlike many ministers who disdain him, he is not compensated with offerings from the faithful. His rewards are hostile: time in jail, punched, spit on, doused with beer, and even ejaculated on. One thing is certain. His motivation to come to New Orleans is strong, and he won’t be dissuaded from returning.
Since we have recently lost and gained bloggers it’s time to update you on changes to NOLA’s Faith Blog, which offers a wide variety of material. Sundays remain the same with a sermon from Pastor Jeff Oettle and his fill in the blank notes. I will continue to write about the faith and beliefs of people who live in the New Orleans area on Mondays, with one exception. This summer I am releasing a series of teachings on miracles. The series discusses why we don’t see more miracles, which were so commonplace in Jesus ministry and the early church. Dr. Kathy Baker from Interfaith Counseling Center and co-pastor of Metro Christian Fellowship recently joined our family of bloggers. Her video series, released on Tuesdays, gives us sound counsel on a host of subjects. Mimi Greenwood Knight who rambled and ranted random thoughts on motherhood has said goodbye. Grace Lee is taking her place with delightful fiction stories conveying gospel truth. Retired pastor and cartoonist Dr. Joe McKeever continues to share his humor and wisdom on Thursdays. Devotion writer and poet Mary Graver remains on Friday to offer insights on living the Christian life. Bishop Ricky Sinclair, who joined us this past January, has fresh manna from the Bible on Saturday.
Regular readers may have noticed a number of guest bloggers who make random appearances. Catholic contributors Marcia Wall and Alfred Lemmon keep us updated about local church events in the New Orleans area. Pamela Ewen, Christy Award finalist, entertains us with an occasional post about her writing experiences. Dr. David Crosby has timely comments about current events.
The archives will continue to host Mimi’s ramblings. You can even find two fiction novels, Wish Upon A Star and Destiny’s Pirate, donated by bestselling author Kimberely Comeaux, and a series of comedy interviews by Kathy Frady, The Creative Dramatist.