I confess, I have now been part of a ukelele flash mob, back when mobbing was not a public health crisis. But enough of that.
Every year, the curmudgeons, musicians all, who inhabit the couch and chairs at Fretted Instruments of Homewood, contribute tracks for a Christmas CD that is given away. This is one I did a few years ago–ukelele, mandolin, dobro and guitar played by yours truly. Oh, and banjo, just for good measure. Merry Christmas!
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was penned by Edmund Sears. Sears was a divinity graduate of Harvard and became a Unitarian pastor who “preached the divinity of Christ” according to Dr. Michael Hawn, a church musician and scholar of hymnody. By age 37 poor health forced Sears to give up pastoral work and he spent the rest of his career in publishing and writing.
According to Dr. Hawn,
Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:
“But with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song, which they bring: O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing!”
Thinking of this hymn in this way makes us hear the final two verses very differently. In the third verse we know in present versions, humanity, bent low under the crushing loads of our insanity and wars, do not yet know the hope that God sent forth in Jesus. They (we) are exhausted and nearly hopeless. Hear the words repeating through that verse: toil, climbing, painful steps, weary. The world is a heavy place. The angelic singing comes as a musical respite, notes of hope in the night.
Early Bethlehem was not much better. I wrote about this in another song on my last CD, “Down in Bethlehem.” There is a realism about the human condition in the gospels that we do not pay much attention to in the prosperous West, at least not until lately. The multiple burdens of the year 2020 and a world in pandemic lead us back to this hymn in a new way, don’t you think? Now, we too yearn for the fulfillment of that birth,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
Now it becomes a prayer, a troubled thought in the night. We are not the first people in history to toss and turn in the night.
Mark and I are finished with our album. I’ll post the release this week upcoming. One of the songs on it is a recent composition entitled, “Hope to Be Together.” It’s about Thanksgiving, but the mood and message reflected this unusual moment we are sharing–pandemic, separation, isolation and disconnection.
I will be releasing holiday and Christmas music over the coming days and weeks. After a bruising election, pandemic, global grief and sadness and economic hardships, it is not a bad idea to sing (even if we can’t do it together)!
This first one was part of a soundtrack I produced for an indie film by my former bandmate Greg Womble entitled “Visitor to Virgin Pines.” It’s a story about faith, failure and separation and the hope of reconnection with one another, a perennial prayer of Christmas, I think. It was a great short film. This particular song occurs as background to a section in the center of the film when the mother is telling her story. I did all of the music for the movie, and it was a new undertaking for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My bandmate, Melanie Rodgers, played the violin with me on the opening music.
This song speaks for itself. It came to me during the summer. The hook was a quote from a news story at a disaster scene, but my mind was on people I loved and knew who lost children. Their stories are the most courageous I have ever met. That they still have any faith at all after such losses is perhaps the closest to real miracles we ever see.
It’s such a long, hard road. In my vocation I traipse alongside unimaginable losses, but children are the hardest from my perspective. It is the loss of love so intense, the loss so against our DNA, that a person’s world is shattered. But they keep going, somehow.
This is on our forthcoming new album. This particular track features my friend since high school, Paul Harmon, a phenomenal musician from the Boston area, along with fiddle work by Mark Weldon.
From Here to Okay Gary Allison Furr
1. I was telling my favorite story when I heard a knocking sound It was my neighbor. He said, “You’d best sit down” I never finished that story. I’ll never tell it again.` The clock on the wall said 7:10.
2. I’m lost and so angry. She’s just sad all the time, The shadows go with us everywhere. Now and then for a while we still act like we used to, But we still can’t move that empty chair.
CHORUS: It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say. Walk with me a while in the valley of grey It’s a long way from here to okay
So thank you so kindly for asking about us And for the fine food that you brought But please take back home the reassuring words you offered, It’s not easy answers I’ve sought
Some cope with a bottle, and others with a pill, Some sit in a circle and pray for God’s will, But nothing on earth fills the hole left inside By a love that was once so alive.
CHORUS: It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say. Walk with me a while in the valley of grey It’s a long way from here to okay
released November 18, 2020 lyrics and music by Gary Allison Furr BMI all rights reserved.
Gary Allison Furr-vocals, guitar Mark Weldon—violin Paul Harmon—electric guitar, piano, percussion, bass, drums
At long last, the new CD, FLAT TIRE ON MEMORY LANE is to be released shortly. I’m posting some of the songs already as singles for you to listen to and enjoy.
“If I Only Had One” is the first single release that will be on our album. The idea is pretty straightforward. “What if this was my last day, year, chance?” What would I do differently? And why don’t i go ahead and live that way now?
Human nature being the way it is, I suppose most of us only focus when we have to. But the thought of it was very meaningful to me. Brought back the quote from Annie Dillard in THE WRITING LIFE: “How you spend a day is how you spend a life.”
“Will You Love Me If I Have One Eyebrow” is a song that was inspired first by the music. Fooling around one evening with some swing-y chord changes and this one came forth. I love swing, funny songs, and anything Harry Connick might do. This is the second song I’ve written for Harry. Of course, he doesn’t know about it, but it’s here if he wants it! Enjoy. It’s about love in the sunset years, when everything starts heading south physically. Your knees start to snap, crackle and pop and hair grows in all the wrong places. Is love strong enough to survive?
I wrote this to our church back at the beginning of April. I hoped, like all of us, that we’d be “back to normal” by now. But we aren’t. So in looking back at this, it’s more relevant than I thought. We’re in it for a while. Hold on.
The exile in ancient Israel was a traumatic disruption. The city of Jerusalem and all the towns of any size were sacked and burned, people scattered and all the Judaeans with any talent, leadership or education were marched across the desert to Babylon Iraq where they lived in an ethnic ghetto, not speaking the language or having any access to power, wealth and influence in their new land.
It was a time of terrible devastation. Excavations at Debir, Lachish and Beth-shemesh show enormous devastation. No town in the south escaped. Many died in the siege, many died of disease and starvation. The population decreased from 250,000 in the 8th century to perhaps 20,000 after the return .
The Exile presented many problems. First, of course, was simple survival. And how do you live in an interim? But by far the most profound was a theological and spiritual crisis. Their whole world, the one they knew, had disappeared from under their feet.
It became a profound time of spiritual change. They began to transfer and organize their scriptures from collections and memories into books. The synagogue was born, since the Temple was gone. But above all their was their shared memory. Psalm 137:5-6 comes from the exile.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
It was a time when they realized that only God could taken them home again–and they eventually did. At times, as in Jeremiah 29, they had premature hopes that it would happen fast, but eventually they settled in for the long haul. Exekiel 37, a vision of resurrection for the nation (from which James Weldon Johnson’s wonderful“Dry Bones” comes from), saw a return to the life they loved. But alas, not right away.
It is breathtaking how quickly our full and prosperous lives of ballgames, family gatherings and entertainment venues was collapsed by a tiny little virus. Now we sit in our homes, even unable to come to God’s houses to worship together. Hugging our friends, sitting together on the pews, choir rehearsal, Wednesday night supper, is now cut off for a little while. No ballgames, no concerts, no movies at the theater.
We’re making the best of it, and praying, helping and trying to keep the kids going, as much normal as possible. It dawns on us that this passage is going to be tough. So what to do?
We’re figuring out how to survive, how to do the interim, keep it going. We post things to lend a little courage to one another. But the spiritual crisis is also pervasive. And it’s not what self-anointed prophets of doom proclaim. I’ve been listening to those people since the 1970s, convinced that the end of the world is now at hand. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus said you and I don’t get to know that. Period. (Acts 1:7). The book of Revelation is not a how-to book of prediction for us to know ahead. It’s a promise that God will outlast evil.
Interestingly, there are people who can help us. A member of our church whose husband received a heart pump in a near death crisis five years ago emailed me this week and said, “We’ve laughed and said that actually everyone is now living our lives that we inherited five years ago — that we can never be apart from each other and we really go very few places anymore.” People in nursing homes understand, as do caregivers of the elderly, prisoners and parolees. Life is has edges that are determined by realities external to your will.
So what now? Just keep on. Live your faith, teach your children, laugh and rejoice all you can. Help out, and pray for the helpers. But above all remember that this is not the first time of crisis for the world. The spiritual opportunity is not about scaring people into faith—it’s about revealing that the way of a cross always was the way. The only way over it is through it.
As we finish this Lenten journey, the tone of our moment is matching the Jesus story in a remarkable coincidence. We aren’t just reading about disciples afraid of the unknown up ahead. It’s real. We don’t know where it’s going or how many of us will get through it unscathed. There is only surviving, holding on, trusting in faith.
There is precedent for this moment. And with that I tell you, “Hold on.” There’s always something on the other side of every cross.
At least that’s what I trust, even when my knees are shaking a little. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again, a lot. This one is a hard song, but still speaks to me.
It’s not social distancing. It’s just “safe distance.” One of our older ladies’ classes met with me Tuesday morning in two shifts to laugh, hear from each other, and say “See you later” to a member, Martha, who is moving to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We ended each time with a short memorial time for Betty, a member whose whose funeral was last week. Our friendships and fellowship are alive and well.
Instead of whining about what we can’t do, put your thinking caps on and figure out what you CAN do. All the rest is just being on social media too much. Sunsets, birds, flowers and trees are still there. Books are on your shelf. There are instruments to practice, prayers to pray, money to give to good causes. Make a call to someone who is alone. Get with it!
These ladies call each other regularly for encouragement and inspiration. It’s getting to a hard time now–we’re over the short burst of crisis adrenaline and now we’re in the long haul. It requires mental toughness, selflessness, determination and regard for others. Some of us are flunking on that last one. But most people where I am are trying hard.
In my sermon Sunday I mentioned a comment by Mark Cuban who said young job applicants (after this is over) had best be ready to answer, “What did you do during the pandemic?” It’s a great question for us all. Get up off the couch, turn off the media and do something worthwhile before it’s too late. And if you’re in your teens or twenties, don’t be forced to say, “Oh, I partied like it was the end of the world.” You can be better than that.
I finally ventured out yesterday to buy some new tennis shoes. Wearing a mask, I went to a local store and followed the rules. I was waited on by a very sweet and helpful young woman, also in a mask. She happened to be African American. As I was trying on shoes, I asked, out of habit, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine, how are you?” A typical exchange of pleasantries.
Something moved me inside to say, “Actually, my heart is broken. That horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has left me heartsick.” And like that, our conversation changed. She opened up, not angry, but surprised that a masked stranger buying tennis shoes would venture the subject, I suppose, but she spoke more frankly that she shared my sadness and a trace of exhaustion. We have to hope and pray things can get better, she said.
It didn’t last long, but it reminded me that we can live on the surfaces and not know anything about what’s underneath with each other. Something has blown open this week in the soul of our country. It is not new. It’s painful, a wound that gets better for a time but never fully heals.
Racism is not only cruel; it is irrational and ultimately brings death and destruction. It is far past time to call it out wherever it is and require our corporate life to reflect who we hope to be at our best—fair for everyone in our society, just in treatment of one another,
and fierce to speak out for our neighbor, not just ourselves.
In 1996 Alabama experienced a string of church burnings. Our church made a gift to one of the churches and I drove down to meet with one of the church leaders. Our missions committee donated to them to help rebuild. I wrote these words then, twenty-four years ago. I wish they were not still relevant now. I wish I could say, “That was then, this is now.” I wrote this after standing among the ruins of that church in 1996:
“Racism” is a loaded word. When it is spoken, defenses are erected almost immediately. “Oh, no, some of my best friends are…” Some definitions are so sweeping that they cause despair. Often, African Americans and Anglo-Americans don’t even mean the same thing by the word. Continue reading “What Can We Say?”→
I agree, but am wearying to say, “we’re in it together,” since we didn’t get a vote. I’m sick of “pandemic” (so I turned it into faux profanity–pan*****),”Covid-19,” coronavirus,” and “webinar.” I don’t like where we are, but left that emotion aside in the press of survival. I did a series of “Pandemic Haiku” earlier, but turn today to a bit of escapist verse. Among my Christian friends (most of mine are of the less literalistic and more reflective types), it is helpful to find Biblical imagery–the exile, an apt one, with its sense of jarring losses and displacement. It’s too simplistic to go straight for the apocalyptic–apocalypticism was a minority tool in the ancient box that people take out in times like these. Dystopian imagery, though, is like a long train ride with Obadiah in the Hebrew scriptures (it’s short, give it a read). We yank it out of the box the way my Dad used to call his hammer a “North Carolina screwdriver” and cram every disaster into the Rapture box. It may get the job done, but leaves holes in the wall. Humor, though, is of great use for this moment. Just as it is in grief–without stories that make us smile, or fond memories, the waves of sorrow would drown us. In grief as in life, it not a straight line of morbidity, but the ocean of feelings, good, bad and otherwise. So, two more little poems. I can’t help it. They just pop out. Whether they spread uncontrollably is, well, not up to me. Maybe a smile amid the little glimmers of loss that intrude on the day. There’s so much to grieve, so maybe a little dark humor helps.
Everywhere you go, even though you affect everyone around you
and millions of people fear you and know your name,
that the whole world hates you and wants you to die.
It’s not like you had a great start—born of a bat-bite
Sometime I will have to gather my thoughts about this breathtaking revolution that has been forced on us in the larger context. Mine is one local congregation of people with whom I’ve been for twenty-seven years come July. Things always change, but this one has been especially momentous. Others have had enough to say, but I’ve observed a few little beams of light in the dark. Consider these:
Churches forced to innovate everything we do. How appropriate that Holy Week would be the big test. And the people are still there. Turns out that little rhyme we did with our hands as a kid had something to it. “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple,” (fingers interlocked and hands folded, index fingers joined in a spire.“Open the door,”and you’d unfold your hands and wiggle your fingers, “and there’s the people.”
I see a lot of cooperation, humility and mercy down here on the ground level.
Leaders rise up in the worst of times. Anybody can lead in good times. Only in the crises can you tell the difference.
Imagine that Christianity in a short while has had to watch the burning down of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and Vatican Square empty except for a blind man singing “Amazing Grace” on Easter Sunday after the Pope stood there alone. But people sang “Amazing Grace” all over the world Sunday.
People sewing, volunteering, sacrificing and praying harder than usual. Constant cheering and appreciation for our medical workers. I often pray when I go to a hospital (I miss that right now), “Lord, we know that you’ve given us wisdom and medical knowledge so that these doctors, nurses and workers do every day and routinely what Jesus did miraculously.” Healthcare is a daily miracle. We just appreciate it more right now.
Being away from people we love makes us yearn for their presence and anticipate the first time we can see one another. You can feel it all the way into prayer.
The earth has been given a sabbath of human activity. Sea turtles in India are flourishing during our quarantine, and people can see the Himalayas from a hundred miles away for the first time in years. We ought to remember what we’ve learned.
My daughter is an executive coach and a counselor and sent me an article this week in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. It is well worth reading because it connects to something around the edges of this pandemic that we bypass in the adrenaline rush to survive and find answers. Meanwhile, fear and panic, the threats of economic ruin and the very real terror of possibly passing a disease on unwittingly to others has weighed on us all.
Business owners who were riding a wave of prosperity a short time ago now sit at a social distance, wondering how long they can hold on to see things going again. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers live under the constant strain of a new “abnormal.” The public at large is being asked not to touch, to hug, to embrace their newborns and grandchildren and one another. Rationally, we know we’ll get through this particular iteration, but something deep and irreversible has come one us. I think of my own grandchildren, wrenched away from classmates and the love of a teacher and suddenly, inexplicably, sent of spring break without end.
Berinato interviewed David Kessler, a colleague of the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who created the Stages of Grief framework for understanding what people go through as they’re dying. She and others extrapolated the five stages—denial, anger, depression Continue reading “The Grief Among Us”→
Those of us who are pastors consider ourselves called into ministry, but sometimes you realize what a wonderful privilege it is to do it. You meet remarkable people, and I count Iva Jewel Tucker among them. Yesterday we had her funeral. I was her pastor for many years, and she was the light of Christ among us. Not in an ethereal, hyper spiritualized piety, but in an honest, human, incarnation of the gospel. Funny, always sharp in her observations and humor. And yet when she filled in with our office once as a temp while we were hiring, she came to work with a serious face on every day. I saw an entirely other side to her—no nonsense. That’s how she was with anything to do with words or faith.
Yet as a part of this church, she attracted everyone to her—children loved her, and she adored them. If you were privileged to be one of her 23,000 closest Facebook friends, she loved your pictures and talked about what was going on in your life. She was interested in everything.
Her obituary listed a life that tires the reader to think about. By the time she died at age 93, she listed the following activities (I’ve summarized):
She graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) where she studied journalism and spent much of her life as a writer, editor, and artist working for the Baptist Sunday School Board and on the staff of the national Woman’s Missionary Union, where she was editor of Girls’ Auxiliary (Girls in Action) magazines and materials. She was an editorial assistant and later Director of the Editorial Department for The Alabama Baptist, the state Baptist newspaper. Continue reading “Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker”→
I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.
Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.
Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.
My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar. My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.
Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass. Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.
“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.” One verse goes
Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows
The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’
Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?
When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home
Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became
digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.
But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of Continue reading “Christmas Time Is Coming”→
Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children
This Giving Tuesday, consider making a small donation to help mothers and children in Alabama receive the help they need to live happy, healthy lives. Our website and app are designed to provide information and access to food banks, diaper banks, clothes, and other vital resources. Join us in supporting the women and children of Alabama.
EVERY dollar will go to the work of spreading our effort to connect all faith-based and public organizations help give easier access to information and help to the public so that we may improve the health of Alabama’s children and empower Moms and Dads too to give their children a strong future! In 2020 we will be rolling out our app to the public, expanding our resource listings and funding our ongoing IT costs to make this resource available to EVERYONE! visit us at www.achmc.com
This is a pretty serious moment in our country and the world, for so many reasons. Most of us are trying to go on with life, attend to the people we love, and do our work. Chaos is transmitted through social media, television and the news day by day. My friend, Roger Bates, sent this to me the other day, related to something else. They are the words of a dying great-grandfather who had served as a leader in our state. They are words worth sharing.
I am sending below a quote from my friend and former Congressman Jack Edwards that I thought you might appreciate. Jack was asked shortly before his death a few weeks ago what he desired for his great grandchildren. His response was:
“My hope is that my great grandchildren will grow up in a country where civility will have been returned to common discourse and to the efforts to solve the country’s problems. My hope is they will be a part of a process of coming together rather than pulling apart. My hope is that they will understand that the real answers are found through compromise and cooperation and not at the extreme edges of human thought.
“That is my hope for the future. This is my hope for the great grandchildren, for the country and for all who exist in it, that we will come back to a time of civility in peace in working together for the good of mankind.” Continue reading “Grandfather Hopes”→
“In his book Simply Christian NT Wright says there are four traces of the call of God in every human being. They are the echoes of the Creator’s voice in us.
The longing for justice
The quest for true spirituality
The hunger for relationship
The delight of beauty
These four echoes are truly the best of what it means to be a human being. Since if they truly represent God‘s highest purposes in life, then those of us who aspire to that life should see evidence of these things as we make progress.”
If you would counter the ugliness of the present moment and avoid the despair of our violent culture, consider making these four things the focus of your activity and choices. What leads you to one or all of them? Take these paths and you will have a plan to resist the darkness and shallowness or our current culture.
N. T. Wright has been one of my favorite scholars through the years, and I read everything of his I can find. Samford University is hosting him in its first Provost Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring two public events with Dr. Wright, a lecture on, “Space, Time and History: Jesus and the Challenge of God,” in the Wright Center at 7 p.m. On Sept. 11, Wright will debate Messianic Jewish theologian Mark Kinzer on the meaning of Israel in the Wright Center at 7 p.m. Information
A friend asked me to reflect on what you learn by staying in one place for twenty five years. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I haven’t stopped much to ponder that, and before I knew it the years went by. I still am surprised to think that I, who never lived anywhere more than seven years, have been here now for nearly twenty-six (at the end of this month). I moved a lot while growing up. Moving to greener pastures is overblown. There’s always a septic tank under there somewhere, as Erma Bombeck once said. So, here are my current observations about staying.
In a way, staying put means just doing the next thing that comes along. Still, there are amazing rewards for staying put so long. How many people can say to a college graduate, “I still remember holding you at the hospital your first day of life?” No CEO or world leader can.
The world changes even when you stay put. People change, circumstances change, and the church constantly changes. There really is no staying put, just changing in the same place. You change, too. You don’t avoid change, nor does a church, by staying put. You either pastor four different churches in twenty-five years or pastor four or five churches in the same location over twenty-five years.
You sure need friends, colleagues, books, and growth to stay fresh. You can grow tired of your own voice in your head and look out in wonder and think, just before the sermon, “I can’t believe they’re still here. It must not just be me.” Don’t want them to think the same thing. Continue reading “Staying Put”→
I live in the vulnerability of my need for grace. Grace I ought to give, grace I hope someone else will extend to me. Undeserved kindness, mercy, love. Most of all, the grace of God. Pure, unmerited, unsettling grace.
Grace, finally, is not dependent on anything more than the nature and reality of God. It is not what this or that preacher says it is, or what some friend tells us that comes out of their own need.
God is love. This is the highest statement of the revelation of God’s being in the New testament. Count on that more than any other statement about the Christian gospel. It does not free us to live as we please. Damage comes from our refusal of grace, consequences to our self-destructive alienation. But if the gospels are right, grace can restore a prodigal who had wasted everything, a woman with five marriages, a tax collector who was a traitor to his people, a murderer like the apostle Paul, and a woman caught in utter shame of adultery by a group of lascivious onlookers. It can reclaim even a thief nailed next to Jesus who barely knew his name. And if this is so, then there is hope. Continue reading “Grace”→
I lived my third-grade year in Clarksville, Tennessee, an army town dominated then by the presence of Fort Campbell, Kentucky and the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, one of the most storied units in American military history. On Sunday afternoons, especially when company came into town like Uncle Vance and Aunt Hazel, we’d go out after church to the base where paratroopers would jump out of planes and land on a field where visitors could come and watch. It was cheap entertainment.
Then we’d go to the military museum, the Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum. General Don Forrester Pratt (July 12, 1892—June 6, 1944) was the assistant division commander (ADC) of the 101st and was in the lead glider that flew into France that landed behind the lines for the invasion. The plane crashed and General Pratt died of a broken neck. He was the highest-ranking officer killed on D-Day.
The museum had jeeps, planes, artifacts, but the most chilling were items confiscated from Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” retreat by soldiers. We were especially terrified by Hitler’s walking cane, and by items belonging to Herman Goering. World War II was still alive in Continue reading “D-Day”→
Mothers Day is a happy day, and also a sad one for many. Mothers are both biological and spiritual. They find us as divine grace in life. If we lost one too soon, God seems to put strong, caring women in our lives somewhere to help us survive and grow up into life. I have been blessed with a loving Mom who loves her children and stood by the four of us as we meandered toward adulthood. I am grateful. But I have known extra mothers–my wonderful mother-in-law, teachers, mentors, and an unfair overabundance of wise older women because of my vocation as a pastor. My wife is the greatest mother on the planet. I still learn from her. I am grateful for them all.
As my mother has battled cancer (and is now in remission, thankfully) this last nearly two years, I have become more grateful for the journey with mom and moms everywhere. For all of us, thank you. And so, a poem I wrote not long ago while thinking of my mom as the “teller of stories,” and women in churches who keep the stories that Continue reading “The Rememberers– for Mothers’ Day”→
The passing of Rachel Held Evans unleashed a surprising wave of grief to some. But to readers in the Christian world, and young women in particular, she was a voice of welcoming honesty. In an October 2012 article in Christianity Today called, “50 Women You Should Know,” Katelyn Beaty said of Rachel Held Evans that her blog, which began in 2007, spoke out on many traditional evangelical issues in a fresh and fearless way. Evans, she quoted, wrote that young Christians “aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers. We’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.”
It was intense questioning that led her to start writing in the first place. In 2012 alone, 1.2 million visitors went to her site to hear what she had to say. She was speaking for many others, giving voice to many who were needing one. To a church (in the largest sense) that is always, at least institutionally, last to respond to change, she pushed to make it look at its truth and heart and reassess what it was Jesus meant us to do. Continue reading “Rachel Held Evans’ Questions”→
My friend Pat Terry is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever. After a long and successful career in contemporary Christian music, he widened his vision and writing. A successful career in country music as a writer followed, with plenty of hits. He just came out with his latest CD, “How Hard It Is to Fly,” and it’s another great batch of songs. One of my newest favorites, “Clean Starched Sheets” is on this one.
Pat’s heart has always been as a storytelling songwriter. I have been in a couple of his workshops, and he is a master craftsman. I’ve performed with him a time or two here in Birmingham, and I’ve gone more than once to hear him sing. His songs are deeply human. One of my favorites and one of the first I ever heard him perform (while opening for Earl Scruggs!) was “Someplace Green.” It sends me to visions of Eden.
Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board. In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many. We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days. We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people. One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program. I could go on. But every church has its luminaries.
What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor? Not much. For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership. Let’s not go there. Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.
The emotions of Holy Week run the gamut. From the wild enthusiasm of Palm Sunday morning to dread and anxiety of Maundy Thursday, the stark hopelessness of Good Friday and “darkness across the face of the earth” to the somber placing of Jesus in a borrowed tomb, the pilgrimage takes us through the full range of human experiences.
Churches will look forward to crowded sanctuaries on Sunday morning, naturally. Children in beautiful new Easter clothes, beautiful ladies’ hats, uplifting music and, unless a pastor has the flu, a message of enthusiastic hope and energy. A great crowd, a holiday,: of course, it will be energetic.
This is the fortieth consecutive year I have preached an Easter sermon. I intentionally do not look back to see how badly I fell short to capture the “extraordinary in the ordinary” majesty of the resurrection and what it means to humanity. I will tell you this, though: As my own experience of call to ministry came in 1971 on a Palm Sunday and was presented to my high school church family on Easter Sunday, I have never forgotten the ups and downs of this week for me. That week I wrangled and struggled and finally decided to accept the call, at least what I knew at that point, to enter the ministry. It was full of anguish. What did I really understand about what this would mean or where it would go? I can assure you, it wasn’t as clear as
If only the call were so clear! It was little more than, “This is the direction for your life. Come with me.” What did that mean? Where did it lead? I moved toward the leading but still without a lot of clarity about what it would mean.
The late theologian Jim McClendon said of the spiritual life that we must leave room, along with our spiritual disciplines and our spiritual experiences for what he called “the anastatic.” It means, in the ancient koine Greek language, “Resurrection.” Literally, “to stand again,” but Jim took it to mean, “the surprising work of God.”
In the Christian faith, Easter is a surprise. That means people had no right to expect what transpired. So, everyone was surprised, shocked, stunned, overwhelmed. There was no way to anticipate what happened. “Well,” one might say, “Jesus told them this was what happened.” Even so, I imagine it made as much sense at the moment as lecturing your dog about the importance of a good education.
Nothing indicated this was coming. Their hopes were literally in ruins. I have thought of this while grieving the terrible fire at Notre Dame in Paris. I have only had the privilege to visit there one time, but I remember the awe at this magnificent work of human hands motivated by faith in God.
Out of ashes and devastation, we wait. One more Holy Week. One more hard moment in humanity. No reason to expect a surprise. But for those of us who are Christians, we’ve become accustomed to looking to something unexpectedly, undeservedly good to come along when we least expect it. This week, we walk into the cold ashes of human disappointment and wait to see what God might say to enable us to build out of this moment something new and unanticipated.
No matter who you are, where you came from, or whatever has happened, Easter is for you. That is the message. “God is for us. Who can be against us?” That is a word for everyone.
Walk along this week with God’s people. Through it all.
This Wednesday evening we come to the final of four outstanding speakers in our 2019 Speaker series. Each week, a speaker has taken us inside the journey of Christian calling. Too often we have turned the Christian faith into a series of ideas or reduced it to a buttress against our fears and anxieties rather than what Jesus revealed it to be: a dynamic and life-changing adventure. Our final speaker is Dan Haseltine.
For more than two decades, Dan Haseltine has been the founder and primary songwriter for the Grammy-winning music group, Jars of Clay. From a band formed among college friends in Illinois, they skyrocketed in the mid-90s to crossover fame. Their self-titled debut was released in 1995. When the single “Flood” began to climb the charts on mainstream radio stations, Silvertone Records started to heavily promote the song, turning it into one of the biggest mainstream hits ever by a band on a Christian label. The album has since reached multi-platinum certification according to the RIAA. Over the next decades came touring, more Grammys and successful albums.
I met Dan a few years ago while on an interfaith advocacy effort in Washington. We were paired together to talk to congressional leaders about the importance of global health and hunger funding, so we spent a day together. He is one of the most engaging and thoughtful, down to earth people I have ever met. Many years ago my youngest daughter, then in high school, pressed me to go down to the old Boutwell Auditorium, May 2, 1998, to hear Jars of Clay. I had never heard them, pretty well being into acoustic music and bluegrass then, but I went along. I liked them. I didn’t know I’d ever end up walking around DC with that young singer someday.
Last evening, we kicked off our series, “The Callings That Find Us,” with Dr. Danny Potts. An overflow crowd filled the room and was not disappointed as he shared his personal journey with brokenness and new life through his father’s long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It was inspiring and so helpful to all who were there.
Next Wednesday we welcome folksinger Kate Campbell. Kate is a favorite singer-songwriter for many. She is a storyteller and singer with a unique voice that blends faith, justice and humanity in her writing and singing. Growing up in the south as the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and those years left a mark on her.
Her Two Nights in Texas CD received the prestigious Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award. Ballet Memphis featured several tunes from her song catalog as well as a live performance by Kate and band at a ballet entitled South Of Everywhere. Three of Kate’s songs (“Ave Maria Grotto,” “William’s Vision,” and “Fordlandia”) were recently featured in documentary films. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs including Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, Ronnie McDowell, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band who covered her compelling snake-handling song “Signs Following.”
Campbell has played the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Port Fairy Folk Festival (Australia), been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage, and had her story (and haunting song “When Panthers Roamed In Arkansas”) included in the debut issue of The Oxford American’s ultra-hip Southern Music series. Kate’s latest release Damn Sure Blue, a heart-felt collection of tunes that pays a respectful nod of admiration to the Man in Black and reverberates with the soulful sounds of award-winning Americana guitar whiz and producer Will Kimbrough.
Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister a
In March, our church will welcome a special Lenten time of renewal with a series of Wednesday night speakers entitled, “The Callings That Find Us.” Our speakers share Christian faith but come from a variety of backgrounds and stories to share their faith journeys—how they
came to Christian faith, how that has lived out, and the unexpected turns that have taken them to new places in their discipleship. What is the calling that ”found you” along the way of following Christ in that journey? This series will be open to the public as well and you are encouraged to invite friends to come and hear an exciting series of presentations.
March 13, 2019
“The Faces That Change Us: A Neurologist’s Experience With Dementia”
Dr. Daniel Potts
Dr. Daniel Potts is a neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Selected by the American Academy of Neurology as the 2008 Donald M. Palatucci Advocate of the Year, he also has been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
March 20, 2019“Wonders Along the Way” Kate Campbell
Singer/Songwriter Kate Campbell has since put together a considerable body of work. Originally from the Mississippi Delta and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the indelible experiences of those years have shaped her heart and character as well as her songwriting. Her music and songs continue to inspire and excite a growing and engaged audience. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs and she has performed widely, including at the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage. Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister and chaplain.
April 3, 2019
“Ending Hunger: A Redeemed Hope for Feeding the World” Dr. Jenny Dyer
Dr. Jenny Dyer is the Founder of The 2030 Collaborative. As such, she directs the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Faith-Based Coalition for Global Nutrition with support from the Eleanor Crook Foundation. Dyer teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and she has taught Religion and Global Health at Vanderbilt School of Divinity. Dyer formerly worked with Bono’s ONE Campaign, Bono’s organization, from 2003-2008 to promote awareness and advocacy for extreme poverty and global AIDS issues. She is an author and frequent contributor in the media. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband, John, and two boys, Rhys and Oliver.
April 10, 2019 “Closing the Distance” Dan Haseltine
Dan Haseltine is the Lead singer/Primary songwriter for the 3x GRAMMY™ winning band, Jars of Clay. Dan has written 17 #1 radio singles, received multiple BMI Song of the Year Awards, and National Songwriting Association’s highest honors. He is a Producer, Film/Television composer, and Music Supervisor. Dan is the Founder of non-profit organization, Blood:Water, celebrating 15 years of supporting local solutions to the clean water and HIV/AIDS crises in Southern and Eastern Africa. Blood:Water has helped more than 1 million people gain access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene training and community health support. Dan lives in Franklin, TN with his wife, Katie and 2 sons, Noah(18), and Max(15) and two dogs… Gracie and Coco. Dan is also a columnist, advocate, and thought leader surrounding the work of extreme poverty reduction, and international development
It’s time change Sunday agaiu. We “Spring Forward” (move clocks forward one hour) just as in the fall we “fall back,” as in move them back an hour. We spend an inordinate amount of time dreading, hating and complaining about the changes. It’s fairly well known that it messes up our sleep patterns, too.
According to the website, LiveScience, it was Ben Franklin that first came up with the notion. The Germans were the first to do it, during the first World War. Woodrow Wilson and FDR also followed in wartime, to save fuel and economize. They also point out that today only forty countries follow it. Farmers, contrary to the myth, hate it because they lose early daylight.
All that said, we in the churches would have to say we dislike it the most. It does not change during the Super Bowl. It does not change during the NBA Finals or the opening bell on Wall Street. No, it changes just before we are trying to raise the dead for Sunday morning worship. Priorities, I say. Our choir email included a clever hymn text about time change, which inspired me to write my own. I hope that it may ease thy misery by turning it into song. Rise, O Sleepers.
In a sermon, I once suggested that harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically. Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person. All or nothing thinking—and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit–makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life. This is not to say that there are no absolute truths–merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.
My friend D.r. Travis Collins is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.” Here are some possible penalties. Continue reading “Church Penalties”→
Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again. It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.
It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.
The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.
I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world. Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.
I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee. She happened to be African American. Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.
I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived. I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another. This separation made my trip all the more startling. It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.
I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest. Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish. It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong. People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us. But not with us.
I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me. I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners. I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting. I have no tales like those. I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation. But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently. His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him. He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people. Just treated them alike.
My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones. My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world. We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go. We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.
It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin. But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident. It is one thing to change laws. It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws. And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.
The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me. And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us. What are they seeing? How are we doing? Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?
In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it. Someone is watching, always. So write the script you want remembered. It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evil. I was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.
So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table. Everyone.
I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.” It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate. But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.
I have been AWOE (Absent without explanation) these past few months. No need to explain much these days, of course, given a pandemic, a failed coup, and a world in disconnect, but in addition, I am in the process of retiring from my fulltime job as a pastor for the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. I expect I will do a lot more retrospect in the days ahead, but I am wrapping up this week. This evening, given my love for all things Garrison Keillor and my penchant for funny stories, my celebration committee is having an event they have titled “A Gary Home Companion.”
I don’t know what all will happen, but given that the deacons sent me out of my final deacons meeting with a kazoo orchestral version of “Bad to the Bone” Sunday evening, I think it is fair to say this will be a lot of laughter, celebration and fun. After nearly twenty eight years together, we have continued to laugh–at ourselves, together, and joyfully.
Humor, especially self-deprecating kinds, is in great shortage today. Churches and preachers tend to take themselves seriously to the point of idolatry. Most highminded religiosity is in need of a good puncture to its hot air balloon now and then. God is to be taken with ultimate seriousness. God’s self-appointed spokespeople–not as much.
I love this church. No one has been more fortunate than I to serve here. Anyway, it will be livestreamed and you are welcome to join us at 6 pm CST. You can find us onYouTubeor on Facebook. Brent Warren and I will play a couple of songs and we will, I am sure, have some laughs at my expense. Why not? Join us. More information here.
One of the songs we’ll do is from our latest CD, and it’s perfect for the retiring types.
There is plenty of good work to do—beyond the ministries of the church itself, we have a world of opportunity. Children and schools are important to all of us. Hungry children need food. Frightened children need reassurance, even if it’s not certain out there. Lonely children need connection.
The technology that was supposed to make life easy now is only our connection to get things done. Everything is a lot harder.
Here’s the problem now: the pandemic is going to stretch well into next year, from everything I can read. No vaccine is coming next week. I can see businesses adjusting, schools are figuring it out.
A caution in these times when the mind can fly off down Twitter rabbitholes: don’t give in to flights of fancy and fears of apocalypse. Beware the gloom and doom crowd. Conspiracy theories come along always in these times. So do second coming fears. In my lifetime there have been at least a dozen times over forty-one years in the pastorate when
“You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made
a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan). [at that time, he predicted the end would come at any moment. [it became the dominant interpretation of evangelicals and Pentecostals, said Dwight.
I’ve been around this my entire ministry. Again, and again, I remember times when timid and fearful Christians were the equivalent of Forrest Gump when he saw Lt. Dan on the dock and jumped into the water, leaving his boat to crash without anyone to steer.
The problem with this end times philosophy is twofold. First, it’s built on a very questionable interpretation of the bible, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Revelation. Second, it is neither the only nor the best interpretation of those books. And before the early 1800s, it was not dominant among Christians. Most of what you hear as pop Christianity presents this as though Christianity has only had this single approach. It hasn’t.
In the 1970s, the world seemed to be coming apart—racial division, Vietnam, ecological crisis, and the changing mores of the world caused many Christians to see signs that the end was near. At several points along the way, the same thing popped up again and again. In particular, I remember it at the end of the 20th century Remember that dreaded glitch in our computers that were supposed to make the world stop? (y2K) Then came the New Year and…life went on. 9/11, the Recession, and now this. Every time, anxious people said to me, “It seems like the Lord may come back any time.”
This is exactly why the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and he said his famous verse that every parent has cited to a young adult that won’t go get a job: “If they won’t work, don’t let them eat.” People had literally quit working and began sitting on their spiritual keisters to wait for the apocalypse.
Paul also said, in Ephesians, these words:
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]
Imagine the difficulty of planting these congregations when they came from pagan backgrounds, little or no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and no guidance. Paul gave them these basic guidelines because they needed the most elemental things. He is saying: Focus on these. Don’t be distracted by speculations, arguments, and divisions. Be kind.
These truths don’t depend on figuring it all out.
When you feel a little discouraged, do something for someone else. Call a family member or neighbor who is alone and listen. When you get angry about something on the news, turn it off and go fix something in the house.
I would suggest never buying books about the rapture, but if you must, at least read something practical to balance it. Most of those books fall into the category of Christian fiction. They are opinions, interpretations, but they are not beyond dispute.
My friend Dwight said at the end of his piece, “Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because …[we] are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.”
The theology of “Left Behind” and its ilk presents a closed and fatalistic history—nothing matters. Most of creation will be destroyed and the small handful of faithful ones will be preserved but the rest of it done away with. That its enthusiastic supporters always count themselves among the few is glaringly self-centered.
Christian hope is not about terrifying people. It’s meant to…well, give you hope.
On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun. I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day). It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by a talented young soloist from Nashville.
Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called. As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream? What was it like for them?
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
To a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort. To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful. But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.
I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.
Remembering is a holy act. Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us. In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort. At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief. It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember. And we are sad, too.” Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion. At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.
Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured. The price is always enormous. I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together. They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.
The toll is deeper than we know. It is good to pause and remember and count the cost. It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it. They carry a heavy load.
I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration. And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.
But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.
I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.