FIRST-PERSON: Geaux Saints! (& come Holy Spirit)

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column is by Chuck Kelley, the president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--I often think these days of 1 John 4:4, "Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world." The "you" includes all of us who are in Christ. As believers we also know we are "saints," set apart for God's purposes by His grace. Thus, Kelley's translation of 1 John 4:4 is "Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints!"

As you can plainly see, Saints fever is running rampant in New Orleans, infecting even a stuffy old seminary president like me. For the first time in their history, the New Orleans Saints are in the Super Bowl, and the people of New Orleans are taking delirious joy to unimaginable heights.

Few people left the stadium until long after the NFC Championship which put the Saints in the Super Bowl was over. Huge crowds poured into the French Quarter. Others set off fireworks or roamed the streets hugging strangers. Many schools (not the seminary) have cancelled classes for the Monday after the Super Bowl. A parade has been scheduled for Tuesday after the game, whether we win or lose. Brides are changing their wedding plans. Mardi Gras parades scheduled for the weekend of the Super Bowl were cancelled weeks ago, and even the politicians are very nervous. A new mayor is due to be elected on Saturday, and they are afraid few people will remember to vote. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. On a scale of one to 10, the city is at 25 and climbing.

All NFL fans get excited when their team goes to the Super Bowl, but the reaction of the Who Dat nation goes way beyond excited. The reason involves much more than sports. In the winter following Hurricane Katrina, the Saints were looking for a new coach and several new players. Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees were being courted in several places, but they both chose New Orleans in part because it was broken. They came when it was still a challenge to find a place to eat after the sun went down.

Other players also came, often citing the opportunity to help a devastated city get back on its feet as a deciding factor. They threw themselves into learning to play football with excellence, and they also threw themselves into helping this city get back on its feet. Giving money, raising money, working on projects, visiting the most devastated areas: the Saints did it all while they practiced and played. When life every day was hard, doing even simple things was complicated, and the level of the frustration meter was off the charts, the Saints began playing football like they had never played before. Their energy became an emotional lifeline for the city.

Always beloved, even when we called them the "aints" and wore bags on our heads, the combination of their performance on the field and involvement off the field took our relationship with this team to a higher and deeper place, a place none of us know quite how to describe. It wasn't just football anymore. It was healing. It was hope. It was confidence that this city would rise again. It was a visual image of the new New Orleans taking shape. The Saints poured the coffee, and we all drank from the cup.

And so when their young kicker sent the ball through the uprights in overtime and beat the Minnesota Vikings, our local broadcaster, laughing like a child, noted, "Pigs flew, hell froze over, and the Saints are going to the Super Bowl!" It was more than a win. It was oxygen for a city that has been battling to get off life support for nearly five years. You never know how good it is to breathe until you are not sure how many breaths you have left. The Saints have been convincing us we can put the oxygen bottles away and breathe normally, savoring the fact that the city does have a future bright with promise.

You will never hear this mentioned, but there is something Southern Baptists in particular need to know. Yes, there are wonderful, active Christians on both teams who bear witness to their faith, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Yes, Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was baptized at First Baptist Church when he was growing up. His parents were in my Sunday School department for several years. But you need to know something even more important. This week you can see quite visibly what your giving and coming to New Orleans after Katrina meant to us. When you came, when you sent money, food, water, clothing and other supplies, you brought much more to us, to me. You brought hope. You brought the grace of God wrapped in love and delivered with a human hand. It kept us breathing when we did not know how many breaths we had left.

We have tried to say thank you to Southern Baptists in every way we can, but it was never adequate. You changed the image of Baptists in this most un-Baptist place, making it more positive than I ever imagined it could be. Our time of victory is not yet. Kingdom seeds often grow slowly before they bloom, but because of you we know a harvest will be coming one day. As you see the joy overflowing in New Orleans this week, know that you have and are preparing the body of Christ in this place for the joy of a great movement of God. Know also that on our campus this week we have had a student-led week of prayer for revival that will come. We yearn for the greatest of all victories: a New Orleans stirred by a mighty movement of God.

Perhaps this will help you understand this year's Super Bowl a little better. Prepare to smile and laugh as you hear and see our fans go through this experience creating endless variations on how to express delirious joy. Understand why you will hear the players talk about how important their fans are and why they want to play this game for the city. Consider yourself invited to become a member of the Who Dat Nation, if only for a week. Understand why I declare Friday to be All Saints Day on the NOBTS campus and host a tailgate in our cafeteria. We will revel in the accomplishments of our football team because they have meant so much to this city. But each time you hear the Super Bowl mentioned, I also ask you to pray for God to move on our campus and in our city. This week we are also reveling in the knowledge that by God's grace and through your sacrifice, giving, and labor something far better than this is coming. Geaux Saints! Come Holy Spirit.


Chuck Kelley is president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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