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. Read the rest of this entry
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.
Buy the song here
An unfinished cup of coffee
By an unmade bed
Near the concrete balcony
Where a man of God is dead
Looking through an old window
See the painful past
Forever frozen at the last
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
The sound of women weeping
The trickle of my tears
Join the moan of gospel singing
Wailing hope amid the fears
Looking through new windows
In spite of everything we still believ
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
Driving through the city
With memories of that place
In that part of town that’s really gone down
I lock the door just in case
Looking through my car window
At a man who looks back at me
After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
Longing For God
A 5-Day Retreat Featuring Dr. Gary Furr & Sr. Dawn Mills
Jan 27 – Feb 1, 2019
I will be presenting daily lectures and music for the 5 Day Academy for Spiritual Formation at Camp Sumataunga, Alabama, near Gadsden. The Academy “is an ecumenical, 5-day retreat designed for clergy and laity. Our purpose is simple: to deepen our relationship with God through a daily rhythm of prayer, worship, study, and reflection.”
Twenty five years ago, this program was life-changing for me. At that time I was coping with a too-busy life, a personal quest for greater meaning in my life, and the loneliness of pastoral ministry. My search led me to one of the earliest Academies. I have written about this in two books, For Faith and Friendship and in Encountering God in the Prayers of Others.
If anything, the relentless pace of our current culture is far worse for all of us than it was for me then. Phones, screens and the pace of life it brings keep us artificially connected and disconnected from one another and deeper reality. Consider the phrase, “virtual life,” and that this means something very much like something else, but not identical to it. What is “the real?” Something about getting off the treadmill, finding solitude and striving for deeper community together with others opens up new focus for the seeker. That is what the Academy seeks to provide.
Come away for five days and live a different rhythm of life and community as Sister Dawn Mills and I speak daily. She is speaking on the long classical tradition of Christian spiritual disciplines in life and I will be speaking on “Five Uneasy Pieces: The Creative Dynamics of the Spiritual Journey.”
The arts and artists come to the longing for the divine in ways that are instructive for persons and communities of faith. We can learn from them. Hope you can join me as we listen to the creation through writing, music, visual art and prayer to move deeper toward God. I believe that in these cultural areas of life we often find surprisingly deep spiritual longings, even with the commercialism and all that goes with that world. In the arts, human beings often find they are on an unconsciously ancient way, one that is often described as “pilgrimage.” If this calls your name, come join us this winter. It may be the best five days of your life in a long time. I will incorporate my music as part of the retreat.
Of late, not only in my ministry work, but through the connections of social media, I have been highly conscious of the processions of sorrow that go on around us in the midst of life. In my work, we are walking near every kind of brokenness and sorrow in the world every week, then trying hard to stand up and proclaim hope on Sunday.
Brokenness comes in so many different forms, but it all shares one truth–suddenly we are in a room with no walls to keep predators out, no roof to shield us from torrential storms, no floor to stop us from going down. WIth that comes temptation to panic, that we might absolutely burst from the heaviness of it all. It is here that faith matters most if it matters at all.
This prayer is from my 2015 book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises. It was a prayer given originally as an invocation to a performance of the Requiem by John Rutter. If you are in that place, perhaps it would be of some encouragement today.
We came here tonight to wait and to hope
Are only prelude
To seek the Living shepherd,
Beyond our doubts, beyond our fears,
From death into life.
We wait faithfully
You might meet us in our gardens of sorrow as you met Mary,
We wait for unexpected visions in the midst of our tears.
And for you to come to us
As you came to them behind the locked doors of fear
To wait tonight is enough
For tomorrow we will walk to the tomb again Read the rest of this entry
On Monday, I conducted a funeral service for a 43 year old man, Brian Booth, whom I’d known for 25 years. He had never spoken a single word to me, only responding with eye signals and laughs and sounds. Brian lived with cerebral palsy, profound in its limitations. His father shared a story about him.
Brian had a wonderful nurse for a number of years who was originally from Jamaica. Joan was one of those people that Brian would welcome with that beaming dimpled smile. Joan provided Brian with such incredible loving care and he was so appreciative. She would sit in the floor so she would be on his level, and talk to him about all sorts of things. He sincerely enjoyed hearing about other peoples’ trials and travails…so much so that he would laugh out loud when Joan would tell him about things that weren’t going just right. She always said that his laugh would make her forget anything that wasn’t going as expected. She would go home and share Brian’s ministry of laugh with her sister. If things were going off the tracks for her sister, Joan would simple tell her “you need to go see Brian”.
The differently abled and their families have so much to teach us. As a part of that service, I wrote and shared the following.
Yes, Brian was once a little boy.
But not forever. He became a man.
His wheel chair and the helpless limbs kept most of us
From knowing that—but he had a quick mind.
Rapid eyes followed all that passed by.
He did not miss any of life. He lived it
even if it wasn’t like yours and mine.
He lived his days knowing father and mother love
Far more than many who never have it at all;
Brothers and sisters made him laugh
and loved him, loved to be with him and whatever
Scrapes they might have had with each other they knew
What was said to Brian always stayed with Brian
No matter what.
It’s easy to see only limbs that don’t work
And stop seeing a brain that does, a heart that feels,
A young man’s understanding soul inside that laughed
At the name of Jesus. When did you last
Show your Lord such honor?
Reese’s peanut butter cups were just this side of heaven;
Barney on the other hand, never made the cut. Something
About a man in a purple dinosaur suit hit Brian wrong.
But of all the things of earth, the bad was a very short list.
How well have I done to avoid whining,
or being critical, complaining and unhappy?
And what reasons do I have for my hurried ingratitude?
Life is gift, but to know it while you live it? That’s pure grace.
He did. He caused so much love, beyond mere pity.
Yes and No with his eyes would do for ordinary things.
Smiles and laughter and groans and moans
For all the rest. And that is enough to live a life
Impart love to all around you and make it worthwhile
to have been here at all.
It’s the wake behind the boat that shows its power. Not admiration or envy
But waves and waves of love and the ache of its departure..
He was here. Jesus loved him. And he knew it.
That should be enough for any of us. The rest is for show.
Every year on this day, I republish this piece. It has been many years since I first posted it. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. Perhaps, also, in this moment when the Gulf coast is reeling from two batterings by hurricanes and humankind has been humbled before it that we might reconsider whether we can afford to be one anothers’ worst enemies much longer.]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church led in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, butlooking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address. I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.
So as we come toward the tenth anniversary of 9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together. I wonder what our remembering will be? It is still so recent that it might tempt us to re-engage the anger and harder emotions, the disbelief and outrage and fury at human evil.
Or we might just be enervated. Last year, I read Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man, which tells of various characters who were in the buildings that day and cannot seem to get past the tragedy that has suffocated their past and replaced it with a spiritual limbo. At a critical moment, the main character comes upon a performance artist in a harness who re-enacts a man falling from one of the buildings repeatedly, reminiscent of the terrifying photograph of the same name that so defined the horror of that day.
There is another place to go—and it is remembering. Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life. If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.
I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death. She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life. My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all. I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end. However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while. But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.” He was comforted by this.
We do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes. To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory. Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant. Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners. They’re God’s problem now. I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz. He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.” Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting. Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.
Ritual and worship are powerful, too. When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us. Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:
Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship. Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and discouragement. The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV). The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement. We allow ourselves into the presence of others. We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers. We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship. But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church. There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.
I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too. As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.
Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church. They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos. God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized. It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.
I will go to all the 9-11 gatherings I can attend to be with my fellow citizens, forget whether they are a Tea Party Republican or Yellow Dog Democrat, rich or poor, black, white or recent immigrant, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic.
It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are Christians that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history. We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember. And the remembering will help heal our souls.
I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say. The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece. Remember, so that we might be one day healed.
This Sunday, July 29, I’ll be performing with Shades Mountain Air at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Anniston, Alabama at 5 pm. The concert is open to the public and all are welcome to attend! It is located at 1320 Golden Springs Rd, Anniston, AL 36207. I’m looking forward to being there with Rob Angus, our new banjo player, Don Wendorf, and Brent Warren, who plays with us often. These are all topnotch musicians and we look forward to a great time with the good people of St. Mark’s and the surrounding area. If you’re close to there, come out and join us!
If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in
Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.
Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.
Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations. Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.
Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.
It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions
about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.
Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.
Next Thursday, I’ll be in concert, sharing the evening with my great songwriter friend, PAT TERRY. Joining me for my set will be DOn Wendorf on mandolin and tenor banjo, Mark Weldon on fiddle and cello, and Rachel Turner on bass and backup vocals. It will be a great evening of music–original songs in a variety of styles. I hope you can come out if you are in Birmingham or central Alabama!
7:30 pm, Doors open at 7
$12 per person
Moonlight on the Mountain
585 Shades Crest Rd Hoover, AL
Pat is finishing a new CD and I’ve got some brand new songs to roll out.
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