I had the great priviledge of trekking to New Orleans with a team from my church this week. It was a mission trip to help rebuild and restore 2 more homes that had been damaged from Katrina, but more than that, it was a heart transplant for me.
We arrived late on Sunday at Brother Bill’s home, the pastor of one of the churches in the city, a man on fire for Jesus. He showed us around a little, giving us our marching orders for the week, and I got to see the transparency of a family of souls completely surrendered to the servanthood of Christ. Every morning, noon and night, we were treated with nothing but Southern Hospitality and down home cooking. There had been literally dozens of groups, coming and going, taking up residence at this man’s home since Katrina over 7 months ago. And there were a few different family’s, displaced, and still living there. But all were there in the name of Christ, all to be his hands and feet, and what connected each of us was the Spirit.
Louisiana, South Dakota, New Jersey, Mississippi, it didn’t matter where people were from or where they were going. Our common bond, our glue, was Christ.
The hustle and bustle, even the level of sheer noise was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, right down to the amount of food being prepared everynight. It was mind boggling, and yet these people smiled, and laughed, and played, and loved, and thanked us for being there with them. Every morning they had a prayer service. And on Wednesday night I heard one of the most beautiful sermons from a Pastor from New Jersey who was there with his own mission team.
Driving into the city wasn’t as horrible as I’d imagined. There was damage, a sea of FEMA trailers and blue-tarped rooftops… but nothing, nothing compared to what I was about to see. Almost as if flipping on a switch, we entered into the devastation. We reached where the levies had been breached, and entered into what I can only describe as a ghost town. Miles and miles of homes, suburbs once brimming with the sounds of life and the busy-ness of our culture, and yet now there were no people.
No dogs or cats, no birds singing in trees, no life at all. There were cars in driveways, keys and eyeglasses on the counter tops with a pocket full of change emptied on the dresser, spices still sitting on the stove, food, even 7 months later, still in the pantry, and yet these homes, in stark contrast to where we were staying, were completely silent and void of life.
It was as if we were walking through some city the day after a nuclear war, as if mankind had been yanked, somehow, from existence.
As we ventured to the 9th Ward, it was like being at ground zero. The homes were nothing but sticks, and the devastation was all around us for miles. I took pictures until I realized that pictures weren’t going to deliver the breadth of this destruction, and suddenly this powerful tool, this camera in my hands, couldn’t tell the whole story. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. Words can’t really describe, atleast not this close to my experience, what I have been feeling.
On the 17th Street Canal, we walked through several houses. The strong stench of mold and rot was all around us, and yet when we walked upstairs, above the water line, the world was eerily untouched. Computers were still there, trophies still on the dressers, clothes, still in the closets. There were family albums, heirlooms, beds tucked in nice and neat, even a little girl’s doll sitting in the closet.
Suddenly I had a deep respect for my own blessings, and for the sweet time that I’ve been given here, with my family and friends. I realized that we could all go, just as quickly, at any given time. And most of us, just like these people, won’t be prepared to leave it behind. We won’t be prepared for the journey.
I’d just read in Jeremiah 31 the morning before, where God was promising to restore Israel. He was giving them the one thing that He knew they’d need to hear, the only thing that a desperate and devastated people can hear that will do them any good at that point… He was giving them Hope. He knew before that day even happened that His people would be grieving and searching, and He used his servant Jeremiah to bring them that graceful peace, even before the storm.
What a Savior, to reach out to us in our darkest despair and put His arms around us!
What a love He has for us! That is, truly, Amazing Grace.
Walking down the street that day we met a woman who was only just beginning to walk into the remains of her home. She mentioned that she’d just driven by all these months, but had never had the courage to stop. She saw us walking down the street and said that she felt safe enough, for the first time, to venture out. She’d lost everything. Her home, her vehicles, her business, her clients, her life as she’d known it. She told me with a shrug, “We thought we’d be back on Tuesday.” In her eyes was a deep loss and a searching that will forever haunt me, because I realized too late that there was a reason we’d met, a reason that I’d read that passage in Jeremiah, that God had brought us together by His appointment, and I, his supposed-servant, didn’t have the presence of mind to give her that same hope or to deliver the same message…
That night Brother Bill told us about how he’d led a telemarketer to Christ over the phone when they’d called to make him an offer, and how even the man who’d delivered the cabinets to one of the houses we were working on had just given his life to Jesus, right there on the doorstep, on his knees with Bill. (This man is literally a Pit Bull for Jesus. I’d never seen anything like it.) I’d made coffee the next morning when Bill got up, before anyone had really stirred. Seeing I’d already been prepared, he told me that I was a man after his own heart, and at that moment I thought of that woman, sitting in front of the remains of what was once her belongings, with her eyes so heart-sick…and I’ll never forget right then wishing that I could have been just half the man as he is. Just half the servant of Christ. I made a promise that morning to stop walking around this world with my eyes half closed, to start seeing the souls around me the same way that my Christ sees me, to start seeing the work that needs to be done.
The pastor that delivered the message gave us a stunning chronicle of the Life and Times of Moses, and all that he’d accomplished with the miracles, The burning bush, the Pharoah, The Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the Manna, the water gushing from the rocks, the tablets of The Ten Commandments… and yet when he died, in the beginning of the book of Joshua, we see what GOD saw, and not what WE see, when God said, “Moses my servant is dead.” That’s all God recognized, it was all that mattered! Moses, His SERVANT, was dead. You see, that’s the prize. That’s the goal, and whether it’s Hurricane Katrina and a devasted New Orleans or it’s your next door neighbor or the cashier at the grocery store, there’s work to be done. God’s work. And His people need to stand up and serve.
I came away from all of this, realizing that the strangers I’d traveled with to New Orleans were now family, that there was a bond between us like that of a brother or a sister. The irony was that they always were, and I just didn’t have the heart to see it. I realized that I’d gone down there to be the hands and feet of Christ, to bless those as best I could, and yet God, in his Amazing Grace, blessed me even more. I’d gone down there to give, and yet I’d received more than I could ever grasp. My heart was only so big driving down to New Orleans. Coming back I realized that it was me that He’d rebuilt, me that He’d restored, me that He’d renewed.
God calls us only to action. He asks us to stand up for Him, and to step forward in faith with the heart of a servant, a mind like that of Christ, and His bond is His Promise, that He will pick up where we leave off, that when we’ve done all we can do, He’ll take it from there, we only need to do it in His name, for His glory. And the blessings far outweigh our personal sacrifice.