New book, SHADOW PRAYERS by Gary Furr

My new book is now at the publisher and will be available in a few weeks. SHADOW PRAYERS is a journal of my final year in pastoral ministry at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. The book is a combination of pastoral prayers, poetry, narratives, timelines and reflections on my final year of ministry which coincided with covid, the death of George Floyd, the 2020 election and January 6th.

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Your Bag of Wedges: A Commencement Address

I was invited by President Beck Taylor to give the afternoon Commencement Address for Samford University’s winter graduation on Saturday, December 18, 2021 2 p.m. This is my text.. This reflection was originally part of a sermon that appears in my forthcoming book, Shadow Prayers. it will be out soon through Mossy Creek Press.

Congratulations, graduates! What an accomplishment! We are proud of you today and you should be, too. Let me share the three measures of maturity that I gave my three daughters years ago: You’re out of the house, out of school and out of my money. My middle daughter, a Samford grad, came up to me and said, “Two out of three isn’t bad, Dad.”

I know you go out into an odd world. I feel for you. I grew up in such a different time. I graduated college in 1972. We didn’t have these problems. 

Of course, we had witnessed the assassination of a President, his brother, and Martin Luther King, jr. There were protests over the war in Vietnam and racism. Oh, and we were arguing about communism and fascists. And radical groups were setting off bombs weekly. We were also fighting over women’s place in the world, sexuality, and the environment. Inflation was a problem. Drug abuse was out of control. Political corruption took out another President. But like I said, it was a different time. Simpler. Of course, we were pretty sure that the world was falling apart. Global hunger worried us. Time was short, and preachers said it was the end of the world. Hal Lindsay wrote a book and set the Rapture in the 1980s. But you live in a very different time.

Anyway, I got married during college. For three years I worked every spare moment for the McKinnon Bridge company building bridges on Interstate 40 in East Tennessee. My co-workers were a distinguished group—including Wise Owl, the crane operator, who did time for murder, and Elmer, a moonshiner who never wore teeth at work and rolled his own cigarettes. 

A fellow carpenter was nicknamed Love. That came from the tattoos on his knuckles. On one hand was L-O-V-E and on the other, H-A-T-E. One day, two of us college boys were trying to decide whether to ask for a promotion or not. He said, “Boys, I’m going to give you some advice. You got to start at the top and work yer way down.” We got the promotion. Good advice. Kind of a reverse Peter Principle.

Now to build a bridge we erected huge logs and set steel beams from one row of logs to another. 

Before setting the steel beams down, we laid down wooden boards, maybe two feet long, on top of each log. Then we put a row of wooden wedges, as many as 8 on each block facing one way. Then we put an equal number of wedges facing the other direction and laid another board on top of that. Then you set one edge of the steel beam on top of the boards, a kind of wedge sandwich. Then we would build plywood forms and put steel reinforcement bars inside and pour concrete. 

Then, when the concrete was dry on the new bridge, we climbed up with sledgehammers and put a hydraulic jack up to the beam and tightened it. Then we started knocking the wedges out. The weight of those forty-foot steel beams settled on the jack instead of the wedges, which fell to the ground. Then we lowered the beam until it could be pulled out and down to the ground.

It was dangerous work at every stage. Think of this—hundreds and hundreds of those wedges, facing toward one another, held thousands of pounds of steel and wood and concrete and a crew of men until the bridge was done. The wedges had one purpose—to point toward one another and hold in place and then, its work done, be knocked aside. The purpose of the bridge was not the wedges. It was to enable people to travel and get across the river or a valley or a low place.

Think about the lowly wedge. It is a lowly task, having people kick you over and over just so you can hold the door for them. They hold open doors for elderly people on their walkers and canes or while funeral directors wheel the body of someone out to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery.

Chisels are metal wedges. An axe head or a hatchet is essentially a metal wedge with a handle to multiply the force while you drive it into a limb or a log. The purpose is simple—to sever and split. Occasionally humans even kill each other with them. 

So, wedges are powerful little things. As such, they have to be wielded with care. But also, they lift something up, little by little. A wedge can divide, split, destroy. It can lift a steel beam or prevent a car from rolling downhill

Wedges are like human words. And words have the capacity to lift up and build, or to destroy and divide. Now we live in a time that is unlike any other.  Our information age has brought with it disinformation and rumors, anarchists and conspiracy theorists. 

Social media and the internet, our own news media across the spectrum from left to right, have been driving the wedges, harder and harder. Our differences are deep and out there to see. And we have pounded them into our common life, harder and harder, and anger drives them deeper than we normally would. 

It would be worthwhile to note what wedges cannot do. They cannot tie things together or bond that which is separated. Wedges don’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. They are not useful for wiping tears and I cannot think of a single joke about wedges that would lift my spirits. They are lowly, mostly limited things. I mean, how many logs do you have to split? And how much of your day should be spent propping doors open?

And all of this brings me to a few words from Jesus. Jesus knew about words. In the Bible, words are everything. God created by His word. Words can bless or curse. Because you can’t just fling them out there indiscriminately. They have power, words do. The Hebrews understood this. Jesus is, in fact, Himself the Word of God, by which the world was made, according to the first chapter of John. The late William Barclay said calling Jesus the Word meant Jesus is himself an expression of Godself to us. If you want to know what God is like, look here. Be like him. Listen to him. Study his words. The order and purpose of the universe is displayed in him. 

Wedges work by pushing apart. The Apostle Paul declared “God was in Christ reconciling the world closer to God.” 

You have been given an extraordinary gift, these four years (I know some of you have probably done a few victory laps, so it may be more). If you are getting an advanced degree, you have even more privileged—you have been gifted with many tools. And you have worked as an advanced student in bridge building, as I see it. You have the gifts that could make ways for humanity to get across the rivers and ravines and deep places and obstacles built by nature, fear, and ignorance.

All of this brings us to this truth—human words, at best, are a sack of wedges. For four years, words have been your central preoccupation. By them you’ve been instructed, learned, been challenged, grown and argued with others and yourselves. Now you take your toolbox and your sack of words and out you go. 

I hope you know this: the highest purposes of a life of learning are not about driving apart but bringing closer, lifting, and bringing all things into great purposes. Our words have all kinds of uses, but they are not necessarily what is the deepest intention of life. Higher education, to me, like the church, is about building bridges, not splitting logs, hairs, or someone else’s skull. 

I do not know what is up ahead. It is a time unlike any other. Maybe it’s time to face the wedges toward one another and lift something up together for the common good. Raise up good families and children. Lift spirits. Raise up the fallen. Build up others. Lift someone else’s burden. Build hospitals and universities and good causes. Our world needs some bridge-builders. Jesus said our words tell who we are. For good or bad. And on the day of judgment, how we deployed our bag of wedges and hatchets, and axes will be brought into the light. It’s a terrifying image. 

But another way to see it is this—we who are trained in the power of words and ideas have the great opportunity to use them for truth and life and reconciliation 

Here are three ways I’d aim my wedges if I were launching out now. First, I’d understand that I have a personal responsibility sometimes that no one else can do. One day, while wrecking out the wedges, a co-worker accidentally lowered one of the steel beams onto the end of his thumb. He started screaming for someone to help him. Unfortunately, he was down in a tight spot. The boss said, “Son, you’re the only one who can do it.”  Take what’s yours and shoulder the responsibility. Don’t be afraid of it. Some things are yours alone to do.

Second, build a bridge wherever you can. Our call is to see the larger blueprint that makes a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King once put it. Not to accept excuses or to selfishly live for how much stuff you can accumulate. At the end that all comes to nothing. Bridges last. Build across suspicion, find solutions, contribute to institutions and the larger good. 

Finally, remember my friend Love’s advice: “Start at the top and work your way down, boys.” It wasn’t what he meant, but I think of the teaching of Jesus, and that brilliant exposition in the letter to the Philippians 2: “Have this mind in you that was in him: he laid aside all privilege and honor and position and took on the form of a suffering servant, even unto death.” This is the way—the servant leader, who finds contentment not in fame, or power, or dancing on TikTok, or making Forbes Magazine’s Richest list, but in what you plant deep into the soil of hope and goodness and your relationships.  This is the heart of all that matters in life.

Pay attention to what you do with your wedges. This will bring you life amid the busyness. Someone has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.” Take your diploma. You earned it, whether you graduated Summa Cum Laude , Magna cum laude, or Laude How Cum, and bless. It’s your time. We need you. It’s a great time to be alive. An important time. Your time.  

Thank you.

Living Through Exile

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.

Safe Distances

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.

 

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What Can We Say?

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 ofACHMC #1 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,

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Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

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?

Two Poems for the Pan*****

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.

Poor Virus

Imagine!

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

In a filthy wet market.

You were bound to be wild.

 

You make people sick.

Your existence is one relationship to the next

And everything you touch is diminished or dies.

Continue reading Two Poems for the Pan*****

After Easter…

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:

  1. 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. “OpenHeres the Church the door,” and you’d unfold your hands and wiggle your fingers, “and there’s the people.”
  2. I see a lot of cooperation, humility and mercy down here on the ground level.
  3. Leaders rise up in the worst of times.  Anybody can lead in good times. Only in the crises can you tell the difference.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Continue reading After Easter…

The Grief Among Us

 

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

A Prayer Amid the Epidemic

Prayer and blessing given at the Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting, Vestavia Hills, Alabama, March 10, 2020, by Dr. Gary Furr, pastor, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.

God of grace and mystery, healing and love

In this moment, we pray

For health workers and the CDC, and all in positions of care

Protect their lives, use their skills, lift them up in their weariness

For lab workers and immunologists, scientists and community leaders

for nurses and physicians, and those already exposed to illness.

 

Above all, protect us from hopelessness and the fear of one another Continue reading A Prayer Amid the Epidemic

Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker

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 88934595_10207096619529365_3686432956290695168_nwe 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

A Guitar for Christmas

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.

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With Woody and Paul, Christmas 1971. Instead of new sweaters.

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.

We were writing songs and Continue reading A Guitar for Christmas

Christmas Time Is Coming

“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

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Benjamin “Tex” Logan

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

Helping Alabama’s Children

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 su
pporting the women and children of Alabama.

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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

Opening page

 

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Grandfather Hopes

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

A Prayer for Simplicity

Invocation and blessing offered at the October 8, 2019 meeting of the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce by Dr. Gary Furr, Pastor, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. 

God Almighty,

The complexity of these times overwhelm us–

too much information, too many problems,

too much acrimony and division,

too many words spoken thoughtlessly.

 

Grant us true simplicity

to see ourselves truthfully

to give our hearts freely

to see others lovingly

to make our decisions faithfully

to speak our words with clarity

and honesty and purpose.

Continue reading A Prayer for Simplicity

Four Echoes of the Divine

From Sunday’s Sermon

“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.

  1. The longing for justice
  2. The quest for true spirituality
  3. The hunger for relationship
  4. 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

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Staying Put

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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

Grace

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 s_s_hopetestament. 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

D-Day

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.

120606022639-d-day-10-horizontal-large-galleryThen 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

The Rememberers– for Mothers’ 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

Rachel Held Evans’ Questions

Rachel-held-evansThe 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

Someplace Green

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Looking out from my office desk, to someplace green.

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.

Back in my hometown, everything’s green,

green grass, green leaves, green peaches on the trees in spring. Continue reading Someplace Green

Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

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 dcc11b02-024a-44ad-8d38-d692770fbac3-150660_2251members 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.

So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol.  Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Continue reading Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

Out of the Ashes of Holy Week

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.

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Notre Dame, from our visit in 2005

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

And then, forty years from now, you will be standing in your beloved church of more than twenty-five years in Birmingham, Alabama, and you will have a wonderful congregation, one of whom will be in the top ten in American Idol singing competition.* You’ll have some nice facilities and three grandchildren and an excellent staff.

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.