It’s all about context

By Gary D. Myers

I dig New Orleans history.

Literally, I dig it. On Jan. 7, I volunteered at an archaeological excavation in the French Quarter sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Archaeology Program at the University of New Orleans. It was a neat experience.

Three hundred years of occupation by several distinctly different cultures makes New Orleans a history-rich environment. There is much to learn in the soil of New Orleans, especially in the city’s oldest areas. But the oldest areas also happen to be prime real estate and the heart of the city’s artistic and cultural hullabaloo. These areas also bring in droves of big-spending tourists.

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Fireworks, Introspection and a New Year

By Gary D. Myers

I don’t watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop on TV anymore. I’ve seen it several dozen times. The TV is usually tuned to some old movie when Times Square rings in the New Year and it’s off by the time the New Year comes to New Orleans because I’m in bed.

Alas, going to bed early on New Year’s Eve is a always tragic and frustrating mistake in New Orleans. Every year I think, “I won’t make this mistake again.” But each year, weary from Christmas/New Year’s travel, I go to bed early on Dec. 31 hoping to catch up on my beauty rest and that’s when the fireworks start.

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A small investment with great possibility

By Gary D. Myers

One of the highlights of my week is serving food to the homeless and underprivileged on Wednesdays at Ozanam Inn. I learn something new each week as I serve beside other Christians and as I interact with people who come to eat.

We don’t serve out of pity. Pity would be the wrong approach. Rather than pity, we try to offer dignity, love and hope. Pity keeps people at arms length; love let’s them into our lives. Pity doesn’t view them as equals, love sees them as people created in the image of God. Pity has easy formulas for explaining hunger and homelessness. Love helps us see that there are no easy fixes, no easy answers for the problems these people encounter. Pity is not our approach.

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A few random thoughts about the city I love

By Gary D. Myers

I’ve had a lot of small blog ideas lately about this magnificent, beautiful mixed up city that I love and call home. As I let these ideas stew, I realized that none is big enough for a full blog. Most are simple observations I’ve gathered over the years. So instead of trying to flesh one of these out, I’ll give several unrelated snippets about life in New Orleans.

The other spectator sport
The entire South is caught up in the college football season. The team located in our sister city of Baton Rouge is sitting atop the polls. I grew up in a football crazed state – Oklahoma. However the high level of passion for college football in Oklahoma,
Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania or wherever is nothing compared to the craziness in SEC country. College football is serious business here. Oftentimes it is too serious, even bordering on unhealthy obsession.

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Pregnant and Camping: A Winning Combination

A tent and a lantern overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at Buccaneer State Park in Waveland, Miss.

By Frank Michael McCormack

Jennifer and I went camping last weekend at Buccaneer State Park in Waveland, Miss. That means we were pitching our tent on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico about 7 weeks away from Jennifer’s due date.

We’re expecting our first baby sometime around December 5.

Camping at Buccaneer State Park has a special place in the story of our pregnancy. Little did we know at the time, but when we camped there in March, Jennifer was newly pregnant. And as we approach time for her to give birth, we wanted to “bookend” the pregnancy with a second trip.

I mentioned the potential trip to a few friends, all of whom gave me looks of disbelief or words of caution. Sleeping in a tent isn’t what you do when you’re pregnant, they said. No one believed me when I said Jennifer wanted to go just as much (or more) than me.

Really, I’m telling the truth. I don’t think anyone believes me even now.

After a little deliberating Saturday morning, we decided to go for it. Zero chance for rain, blue skies, moderate temperature, cool evenings = camping goodness.

(And to be honest, we try to make a habit of disregarding “no, you can’t” comments.)

We arrived at the park around 4 p.m. Saturday and pitched the tent in no time. This time around, we made a few key camping innovations, like securing the tent with heavy duty stakes for stability. The wind blows on the shore, and our lil tent needs all the help it can get to avoid blowing away.

With the tent in place and secured, we picked up a few supplies and headed to the seedy seafood restaurant we discovered last time. I guess it was seedier than we thought, because it had gone out of business. We opted for Mexican.

We returned to camp for dessert. Last time we made smores, but this time we popped popcorn over the camp stove. We’ll go with smores next time.

We crawled into the tent for the night pretty early. Then around 11, I was roused by a feeling no camper wants to experience. Icy darts of rain were hitting me in the face.

I scrambled out of the tent and put the rain cover on just in time for the rain to stop. The wind was still blowing as it always does there, and the rain flap wasn’t helping the tent’s aerodynamics, so I decided to stuff it back in the car.

I dozed for awhile, then the wind picked up and the rain returned. And this time, it was heavier. I consulted Weather.com while Jennifer and I threw our weight against the sea-side of the tent as we struggled to prevent the tent from collapsing. On the radar, I saw a rain squall coming off the Gulf, moving to the northwest right over us. Fortunately, the rain was coming in more-or-less sideways, so we were able to zip up the sea-side window and block most of the rain.

In about 20 minutes, the storm passed, the rain stopped, and the wind kept blowing. I guess you can’t have everything. We settled back down for sleep.

In no time, Jennifer was asleep again, but I laid there wide awake. I was really worried that our tent wouldn’t be able to withstand the wind the whole night. So there I was wide awake, whispering to myself “peace, be still” and praying that God would calm the winds much like Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Mark 4:35-41 tells of when Jesus and his disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. As they crossed, Jesus slept soundly in the stern while the disciples captained the boat. During the night, a storm blew in and brought with it some rough seas. Mark 4 says, “the waves were breaking over the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” The disciples woke Jesus, saying, “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?” Jesus got up, rebuked the storm, and said, “Silence! Be still!” The wind died down and the lake returned to calm. He asked the disciples, “Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?”

Most times when I think of this story, I focus on the “peace, be still” part where Jesus speaks and the wind calms. It’s a demonstration of Jesus power and authority over the elements and a testament to his divinity.

But like all good stories, the story of Jesus calming the storm has another side, and that other side of the story is captured in his question, “Do you still have no faith?” In a very real sense, the storm was a test of the disciples’ faith. I wonder what would have happened if they would have had faith and not cried out to Jesus for help. Would the boat have held up through the storm, with Jesus commending them for their faith? There’s no way to know. As it is, the disciples actually kind of blame Jesus for the tense situation (“Don’t you care…?”).

That got me to thinking of the times I’ve responded to adversity in my life with that same kind of blaming, faithless outburst directed toward Jesus. “Don’t you care?” or “Can’t you see?” or “Why this and why now?” And if I’m honest, more often than not Jesus puts out the fire or calms the winds, spares me from serious consequences, then turns and asks “Do you still have no faith?”

And yes, I was thinking over this as I laid there on an air mattress on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico in a tent shuddering in the wind last Saturday night.

After thinking through that, falling asleep in the wind-blown tent wasn’t so hard after all. Oh, and it took the edge off having a baby too.

That is, until we went to that birthing class the following Monday.

Better now than never: Steve Gleason’s story

By Frank Michael McCormack

The first time I stepped in the Louisiana Superdome I went there to cheer against the New Orleans Saints. I know, it borders on blasphemy. It was during the 2004 NFL season, and the Saints were playing the Seattle Seahawks.

I’d bought two tickets on eBay and was so nervous about it (having never bought anything online prior) that I had the tickets sent to my parents in Tuscaloosa. They drove the tickets down to me. We met “halfway” in Carriere, Miss., at a truck stop just off the interstate. Juanita from the Andy Griffith Show works there.

At the time, former University of Alabama standout running back Shaun Alexander still played for the Seahawks. I hadn’t yet discovered the wonderfulness of the NFL, so that small, shallow connection put me in the Seattle camp.

Jennifer and I sat near the top of the Dome where people pound the metal walls to distract opposing offenses. All in all, the Sept. 12, 2004, game was forgettable, with the Saints out-sloppying the Seahawks to lose 21-7.

The next images from the Superdome to stick in my head came almost a year later, when thousands sloshed their way to the Dome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The roof had been ripped off by the hurricane winds. The Superdome came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong before, during and after Katrina in New Orleans.

But a little over a year after that, things began to change.

On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints and Saints fans returned to the Superdome in a Monday Night Football showdown with the hated Atlanta Falcons (more accurately referred to as “Dirty Birds”).

Jennifer and I had, in one of our finest moments, bought season tickets earlier that year. On that Monday evening, we made our way up the ramp to Gate A, this time adorned in black and gold. We moved as part of a sea of people, marching with excitement and overflowing with emotion. Returning to the Superdome was like visiting a tomb, raising a victory banner, turning a page and gathering for group therapy, all at once.

Green Day and U2 sang their now famous “The Saints are Coming,” along with “When September Ends” and “Beautiful Day.” U2’s lyrics “see the bird with a leaf in her mouth, after the flood all the colors came out” took on a much deeper meaning that night.

Then came the Hurricane Katrina and 2006 Saints montage. All 70,000-plus people were wiping away tears.

The Falcons received the opening kickoff and went three and out. And when they lined up to punt the ball away (on our side of the field, in fact), Saints special teams favorite Steve Gleason charged up the middle untouched, dove toward the Falcons kicker, and blocked the punt. Defensive back Curtis DeLoatch dove on the ball in the end zone to score the touchdown. The game wasn’t close. The Saints won 23-3.

The blocked punt by Steve Gleason is arguably the greatest play in Saints history. The emotion of that moment helped Saints fans turn the page after Katrina. It set up the Saints to make a run all the way to the NFC championship game that season, and it started the Saints down the road toward their Super Bowl 44 victory Feb. 7, 2010.

We celebrated the five year anniversary of that night this past Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011.

To commemorate the anniversary, Gleason, who retired in 2008, returned to the Superdome as an honorary captain. He performed the coin toss and led fans in the traditional pre-game “Who dat!” cheer.

Gleason, though, did not charge onto the field last Sunday like he did in 2006. He walked slowly this time, with a limp, aided by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Gleason, we learned Sunday, is living with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He is 34.

ALS is a disease affecting the “nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement,” according the the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The nerve cells gradually die, causing muscles to atrophy. Only about 25 percent of people diagnosed with ALS live longer than five years, according to USNLM.

The revelation regarding Gleason set off several days of tributes and public outcries of support. Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Duncan and sports broadcaster Jim Henderson have both published extremely moving pieces about Gleason.

Gleason’s wife, Michel, along with friends and teammates threw Gleason a surprise reception Monday night, during which New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave him the key to the city.

“It’s just amazing to me that you have continued to teach us and show us, with great dignity and strength, what it really means to live a full life,” Landrieu said, quoted in one of Duncan’s stories. “It is a great lesson, and you keep giving it to us.”

Saints Coach Sean Payton later presented Gleason with a Super Bowl ring.

With Michel holding the microphone, Gleason delivered a passionate speech to the 100 or so friends gathered.

He offered this challenge: “We can talk about the blocked punt, and we can talk about rings. But what’s more important to me is what we do when we walk out of this room.”

In another Duncan article, Gleason admitted, “Am I afraid now? Yeah, I’m afraid. I’m afraid to walk in public, because people look at me. But I’m not going to stop. … And I’m afraid to go back and see my teammates and coaches because I know that I’ll feel envy. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because fear is just a feeling, and if you can acknowledge that fear, digest that fear and overcome it, the rewards are incredible.”

And elsewhere, he said, “It’s easy to start questioning whether God has this plan and why the plan would include me getting diagnosed with this disease. And that’s when you can start why-ing yourself to death. More than that, I’ve thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have a purpose in life beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to help inspire people and that’s pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world.”

In other words, Gleason hasn’t stopped living. If anything, he’s living more richly than ever. After his diagnosis, he and his wife went on a cross-country adventure. They’re expecting their first child at the end of October. He’s filming a documentary for their child, and he’s starting an organization to benefit those living with ALS called Team Gleason.

Team Gleason’s theme is “Better now than never.”

For us last Sunday, driving to the Superdome, seeing the crowd, cheering for our team and high-five-ing friends, was a great way to reflect on the past five years. A lot has happened, for sure. But learning about Gleason’s diagnosis and reading about his approach to life made me do more than just reflect on the past five years. It also got me to thinking about how I’m living today and how I want to live in the future.

Have I always lived with intensity and purpose? No. Have I made more calls and personal visits than sent text messages and emails? No. Which do I pursue more – entertainment or adventure? Which do I value more – that which is fleeting or that which lasts forever?

Watching Steve Gleason makes me want to live with more passion and purpose for life.

Better now than never.

Visit Team Gleason’s website.

Jim Henderson: We must never forget Steve Gleason

Jeff Duncan: “New Orleans Saints cult hero Steve Gleason battling ALS”

An old lure, yet so much more

By Gary D. Myers

It’s an odd thing to keep – a beat up old fishing lure with no hooks. It’s been with me for quite a while – at least 15 years. The lure has traveled with me through various cross-country and cross-town moves. It has no value for catching fish besides I have little time for go fishing these days. I keep the lure because it means something to me.

Here’s the story. While I was working at the newspaper in Meridian, Miss., a homeless man approached me looking for a little cash. I gave him a few dollars and talked with him a little while. Before I left him, the man dug around in the shopping cart he was pushing and pulled out this fishing lure – one of his few, rather shabby earthly possessions. He was thankful for what I had given him and he wanted to give me something in return.

In some ways the lure serves as a spiritual marker for me. In the Bible, the Hebrews often set up spiritual markers, reminders when God did something special for them. When they crossed the Jordan River they carried 12 stones from the middle of the river and stacked them up as a tangible reminder that God had kept His promise to them. The marker was meant to help them remember the lesson. And as we all know, lessons are easy to forget.

The lure is tangible reminder of what God was doing in my life at that time and what He was about to do during the next 15 years. What was he doing back then? Giving me a heart to reach out to the cast-offs of society. This work in my life didn’t start in Meridian, but living there helped me along on the journey. Growing up around poverty in rural Oklahoma, I naturally had compassion for the poor. I learned to reject the easy characterizations and stereotypes people often attach to the poor. Trips to inner-city Houston and Los Angeles helped push me along the path. But Meridian, located on a major interstate between Atlanta and Dallas collected its fair share of homeless people. There I encountered the homeless on a daily or a least weekly basis. I learned a lot about treating poor people with dignity in Meridian. I learned that you cannot share the gospel with the poor and homeless if you see yourself as superior to them. No one’s salvation costs any more or less than mine.

Caring about those on the margins isn’t always popular. Once I was approached by a man in a grocery store parking lot in Meridian. He was seeking money for food. I told him that I would buy extra groceries for him while I did my own grocery shopping. I came out a few minutes later with a bag of food for him. The man was happy to receive the food, but the assistant manager who saw me give the man the food wasn’t happy at all. He said I shouldn’t have done that. He believed that the store would be overrun with “unworthy beggars.” He thought having homeless around would be bad for business (even though I bought extra groceries just a few minutes earlier – it was at least good for business that day). This assistant manager made his proclamation loudly for all to hear, including the homeless man and several other customers.

I went on to Pittsburgh where I encountered the homeless on a daily basis near the University of Pittsburgh campus and often volunteered at a shelter. Then I moved on to Kansas City where I volunteered at another shelter. By the time I made it to New Orleans, I had learned a lot about compassion ministry. Most of all, I had become more comfortable sharing my faith while meeting physical needs.

So this broken-down fishing lure reminds me of that encounter in Meridian, but it reminds me of all the ways God has prepared me to minister to those on the margins of society. It reminds me that God has a plan and He prepared me for the ministry opportunities I have in New Orleans.

The symbolism of the fishing lure is not lost on me. When Jesus called Peter and John (who were fishermen) He said He would make them “fishers of men.” The lure is not only a reminder that I am supposed to be sharing the gospel (fishing for men), it is also a reminder of who God has called me to minister to – the castoffs, the forgotten and the down and out.