Thank You, Ella Jones: Churches, the Arts and Why They Matter

I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff.  Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting.  It’s just all so predictable and often pompous.  When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always.  You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:






COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.


As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is.  But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years.  Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.

Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations.  It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common.   First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety.  As I heard people

Birmingham News/picture by Jeff Roberts

say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.”  Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one?  We did when I was in the sixth grade.  Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.

Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly.  Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.

If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader.  Aretha Franklin?  Started in church.  I could go on but why?  The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.

I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night.  A way of life is disappearing.  Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me.  But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot.  I am glad for it.

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg.  While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor.  He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals.  He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.”  Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.

It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them.  When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession?  I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists.  But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing.  Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.

Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone.  But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space.  It matters.

A Christmas Eve Thank You

I started this little blog in July with no idea what I was doing.  I’ve been learning as I go, and I do appreciate each and every one who has taken time to read it.  At this point, there have been 6,738 views, which amazes me.  I have met new friends and learned about the web and how it can work.  Four of my posts have been picked up and shared in other places.I am humbled.  Some of you have written about something that really helped.  That blesses me.

For all of you, my hopes for a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.  I hope you’ll stop by again soon.  I have posted a song I wrote a few years back and contributed to a local Christmas CD compilation.  The song is called, “This Christmas Eve.”  I hope you like it.


     This Christmas Eve  (Gary Furr BMI copyright, all rights reserved)

Band of shepherds in the night,

Without a clue what lay in store–

Heaven and earth brilliant with light,

The hope of something more.


This is the wonder

This is the glory

This is the mystery

That a life of flesh and blood,

Came to set us free

If we can only lift our eyes and see!


Wise men left their homes behind,

Seeking the Truth, with gifts they came

But you can also journey home

And find it just the same


This is the wonder

This is the glory

This is the mystery

That a life of flesh and blood,

Came to set us free

This the world’s desire, this Christmas Eve.


I lift my eyes into the night,

Without a clue what lies in store,

Will I look up and find that light,

the hope of something more?


This is the wonder

This is the glory

This is the mystery

This my life of flesh and blood

Longing to be free

Oh, Divine love

Like a sweet dove

Descend with heaven’s peace!

This my deepest prayer this Christmas Eve.

Mary, Springsteen and Nietsche

 NRSV Luke 1:46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

The first signs of the incarnation in the Christmas story is the moving of a child in a womb, a blessing before a birth, a declaration of faith, and a pregnant mother singing.  This is, for Christianity, the hope of the world.

Perhaps the greatest critic of Christianity in the last century was not anyone that most average people know, but his arguments lasted until this day.  The philosopher Nietsche attacked Christianity because of its adoration of humility and weakness.  It was, he said, “the transvaluation of all values,” by which he meant that Christians adore all the virtues that lead to the collapse of humanity.

Perhaps our failings, along with our founding faith, Judaism, was a God who felled the mighty.

Christianity, declared Nietzsche, is the vengeance the slaves have taken upon their masters. Driven by resentment, “a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in imaginary revenge,” they have transvalued the morality of the aristocrats and have turned sweet into bitter and bitter into sweet.

"The Annunciation" by Carravagio 1609

Who is right?  Mary or Nietsche?  Is it power and will and human pride or humility and the song of the outcasts?  Nietsche’s song is the song of children in competition:  “I’m better than you-ou, I’m better than you-ou.”  “Nanny, nanny, boo boo.”

Mary’s song bears some study for us.  We sing things that come from the deepest places in us.  Some people are ashamed to let their songs be heard, so they only sing them in their cars alone, or in the shower, but they sing.  To sing is to release our rational minds and come from our hearts and center.

The question is, “Which song?”

I got an interesting CD several years back entitled, “The Seeger Sessions.”  It’s a real turn for Springsteen—no rock and roll, acoustic, folk songs, and simple.  It was a humbling experience for him to sing, because that rock-n-roll voice don’t sound the same without that wall of sound-a-round.    It’s real, vulnerable, human, even though Bruce has a lot of instruments around him.  It’s an interesting and wonderful experiment.

One of the haunting song there is an old Spiritual that revived in the Civil Rights days called “O, Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan.”  It sounds very New Orleans early jazz-ragtime on Springsteen.  If you want the old full mass choir gospel version, catch Aretha Franklin and choir in 1972 on “Amazing Grace.”

The Seeger Sessions

The “Mary” in that song is actually Miriam, the sister of Moses, who witnessed the miracle of the Exodus on the shores of the Sea when Pharoah’s armies were pursuing the fleeing band of former slaves to kill them.  In a miraculous moment, the waters crash in upon the chariots and soldiers, vanquishing them.  It is the birth of the nation of Israel, their saving event.

The lesson of that moment was, “It is not you who creates the nation, but only God.  Never forget that you, too, were powerless slaves in Egypt, but God, the merciful, delivered you.”  Miriam sang, according to the book of Exodus:

 NRS Exodus 15:20-21  Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

For over three thousand years, we’ve remembered that song, the pure joy of being saved when you thought it was all over.  They had no weapons, no strategy except their faith in a mysterious God who promised.

That song re-emerged in the sufferings of poor black people in slavery in this country, then in their Christian musical tradition.  One of my personal favorite versions is of blues singer Mississippi John Hurt singing in in his recordings in the 1920s.  Then it re-emnerged as a folk favorite in the 1960s, though Pete Seeger, but Mississippi John Hurt’s is my personal favorite.

That same song resonates with Hannah and with Mary.  It is the song of those who have nothing except God to count on.

Two women here—Elizabeth, who cannot have a child and God gives her one.  Mary isn’t ready for one, but God gives him to her anyway.  Mary is exultant not about something she wanted more than anything, but something she hadn’t even thought to wish for but God chose her to give the gift.

Mary’s song connects to the whole of scripture.  But deeply rooted here is a stirring truth—she sees the “turning upside down” of all values in the world.  The nobodies are somebodies to God.  The forgotten are remembered.  The lost are found.

Nietsche attacked Christianity for this very point as a “religion of weaklings.”  One might say that given the church’s track record, we haven’t always felt too strongly about it, either.  For we are constantly tempted to forsake the kingdom of Jesus for the seductions of Caesar.  If we remember to give to the poor we are mighty quick to put the rich on our budget committees and seat them at places of prominence.

Scholars increasingly have doubted that Mary composed this song.  Wouldn’t you know it?  One of the few women in the New Testament to author something and we’ve taken it away with scholarship!  One seminary professor has observed three profound truths about this song of Mary’s–

  1. We’ve “spiritualized” the Christian life, making it only about our feelings and emotions, but God is concerned for all of human life, including social justice and physical needs.
  2. We carry out his kingdom mission within a culture whose values are at odds with his values.  If the shadow people are God’s focus, how can we be Jesus in the world if they are not our focus?  Baptism is not a rite of passage but an initiation into discipleship and membership in a counter culture.
  3. True worship is a spiritual preparation and entry into the agenda of God for our lives and the priorities of God for our lives.

Of course, the question is, “Does this mean exchanging one group of people in control for another?”  And the answer is, “No.”  What we need is not the same game with different players, but something that is beyond what we currently know.  Walter Brueggemann has called it, “The Song of Impossibilty.”

But the beginning of any real change is in the imagination.  To believe that my life could be different, that I could live another way, that there is hope where I see none.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous Christian ethicist of last century, sought to answer Nietsche.  He said, “Yes, you are right.  Christianity DOES turn the values of the world on its head.”  Niebuhr wrote:

The Christian faith is centred in one who was born in a manger and who died upon the cross. This is really the source of the Christian transvaluation of all values. The Christian knows that the cross is the truth. In that standard he sees the ultimate success of what the world calls failure and the failure of what the world calls success. If the Christian should be, himself, a person who has gained success in the world and should have gained it by excellent qualities which the world is bound to honour, he will know nevertheless that these very qualities are particularly hazardous. He will not point a finger of scorn at the mighty, the noble and the wise; but he will look at his own life and detect the corruption of pride to which he has been tempted by his might and eminence and wisdom. If thus he counts all his worldly riches but loss he may be among the few who are chosen. The wise, the mighty and the noble are not necessarily lost because of their eminence. St. Paul merely declares with precise restraint that “not many are called.” Perhaps, like the rich, they may enter into the Kingdom of God through the needle’s eye.

I tell you this:  it is not in our power that we are ever greatest, but in our kindness and compassion.  Without these, we are reduced to the law of the jungle and the survival of the strongest.  A society that worships only power is a society that will one day devour itself.  Greed without stewardship becomes only self-absorption.  Eventually, there is nothing sufficient to satisfy us.  Power without service to others ultimately becomes what we have witnessed since Nietsche’s day—mass extermination and continuous war without peace and security that we continually fight to find.

We find ourselves still mired in the values of the old world.  We seek security by power and it eludes us even more.  We just officially ended the Iraq war, ten years and, conservatively, $709 billion, not to mention 4287 dead and over 30,000 wounded.

We have created entire television shows about people who collapse morally under the weight of success into drugs, addictions of various sorts and self-disaster.  The way of power is not a way that will bring happiness.   The way of power is not all that great when we see the damage left in its wake.

The church is not exempt from this way, either.  We have worshiped the Mary who sang this revolutionary song, but we have more often preferred the methods of the world it undermines—power, influence, wealth and prosperity.

If I have to choose this Christmas, I choose Mary’s way.  I realize that as I do that I, a prosperous American pastor living a privileged lifestyle in a comfortable place, immediately affirm values that undermine my way of life.  It is to choose a way that will never let me be completely at ease.

But the alternative is worse.  If I cannot immediately become one of the poor and forgotten of the world, I can let them into my heart as an act of my love for Jesus.  I can be “poor in spirit,” as Luke put it, and pursue the way of humility and self-forgetting and generosity to others.  I can follow the journey of surrender of my stubborn will and seek to obey the agenda of God in what I buy and how I live.

Mary’s song and Miriam’s song and Hannah’s song and the songs of the early Christians live on.  When we sing them, we sing hope—that our lives can be different, that we can prevail with God’s help over all that is worst in us, that we can persevere in the struggle with our own failings.  We might change the patterns of the past.  We might find healing and health.  We might make a difference in the world.

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drowned

Mississippi John Hurt

O Mary, don’t you weep

Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

One of these days about twelve o clock,

This old world’s going to reel and rock

Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

When I get to heaven goin’ to sing and shout
Nobody there for turn me out

Pharaoh’s army got drowned

O Mary don’t you weep

Do we have any idea what we’re singing?


  •  Brown, Raymond E., “The Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation, and the Magnificat,” Worship, 1988.
  •  Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
  •  Lovette, Roger, “A Vision of Church,” The Living Pulpit, 2000.
  •  Martin, James P., “Luke 1:39-47, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 1982.
  •  Miller, Patrick D., “The Church’s First Theologian,” Theology Today, 1999.
  •   Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996.
  •  Trible, Phyllis, “Meeting Mary through Luke,” The Living Pulpit, 2001.
  •  Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni, “Blessed Are You,” Brethren Life and Thought, 2005. Poetry.

Life Coaching with Napoleon–Dynamite, that is.

Napoleon Dynamite.  It’s been seven years and I still laugh at this movie.  I have it on DVR so I can speed through to favorite moments.  A friend and I were laughing as we sent quotes back and forth this week.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
  • Farmer: Do they have what?
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
  • Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
from Moviefone blogsite

His dialogue is so painfully true to life.  I knew kids just like him, and he talks like them.  The humor is not cruel, slapstick, humiliation or vulgarity–it’s recognition and insight into irony.  You feel the pain and wince because you’ve been there as one of the characters in that movie.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Stay home and eat all the freakin’ chips, Kip.
  • Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage fighter.
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Since when, Kip? You have the worst reflexes of all time.
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  Well, nobody’s going to go out with me!
  • Pedro:  Have you asked anybody yet?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  No, but who would? I don’t even have any good skills.
  • Pedro:  What do you mean?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.

It’s the little details–Don the Jock, mocking and threatening but never actually doing anything but sneering and shaking his head; the bully who kicks Napoleon’s pants to mash his “tots” when he refuses to share them; the kids in the bus screaming when Lyle shoots a cow without thinking about who’s watching; the town rich girl who always wins everything because she was entitled from the get-go and the faceless mass of kids who never have a chance.  Then the principal—lecturing Pedro for his “cruelty” for mocking his opponent with a piñata and later leering at the Happy Hands dancers do their skit bare-footed at the assembly.  I could go on.

Napoleon grabs onto a new kid from Mexico in the desperate hope for a friend who might stick by him.    I winced.  I was that kid.  I spent most of my life as an outsider, since I moved throughout childhood.  I attended seven different school systems in five states before I graduated high school due to my father’s job.  I get “not belonging.”  I had to fit in and figure out a world others created, often obliviously, before I arrived.

I am actually grateful for these experiences.  Any capacity I have for empathy and compassion owes a lot to this experience in my life.  While America is throwing trillions around I think we ought to move everybody in the country at least once, some of us to a foreign country, for at least a year so we can grow up a little and have some informed opinions.  The lack of imagination, openness to others and real knowledge of what it means to be “dislocated” probably has a little to do with our trivial politics and fear-based anxieties about the rest of the world.  Once you’ve been the powerless, unimportant and an outsider, you never see life the same again.

I tell young couples pondering marriage that friendship is one of the most underestimated predictors of marital success.  As I approach 38 years with the same woman, I credit some of it to a sense of humor and the fact that we like each other.  Once when she dramatically said, “Sometimes I just want to RUN AWAY, I asked, “Can I go with you.”

My version of, “I caught you a delicious bass.”

Lessons from JC (Johnny Cash)

Streissguth's bio is a great read

A new friend from New York reminded me of the Cash bio I read a few years back.  Like everyone, I loved  “Walk the Line,” the bio-pic of the life and love of Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash that came out years ago.  It is not a true biography, really.  Robert Streissguth’s JOHNNY CASH: THE BIOGRAPHY is where you get more than the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.

Johnny’s story was, of course, about a many coming out of hard times, his well-known descent into drugs and alcohol that ruined his first marriage and nearly destroyed his career in mid-stream.  The movie ends at the point where he turned his life around, married June, and got his act together again in the late sixties.   It was not “happily ever after,” but for a movie that’s okay.

Johnny was (and still is—he stays on my IPOD) one of my musical heroes in the late sixties, along with Bob Dylan, Willie, James Taylor, Neil Young and a lot of groups you haven’t heard of.

It is also about how the love of a woman saved his life at its worst moment.  He struggled with the poverty of his childhood and of early loss in his life.  He carried a lot of that pain into his adult life and it nearly killed him.  But he rose from the ashes of those shadows.  A part of his journey was returning to the Christian faith of his childhood.  Johnny Cash was earthy and blunt, but he was also unabashed about his love for Jesus Christ.

He once said this of his earlier failures:

“You build on failure.  You use it as a stepping stone.  Close the door on the past.  You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it.  You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space…I learn from my mistakes.  It’s a very painful way to learn…You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that’s part of it:  knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach.”  (Streissguth)

Listen to those last words again:  knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach.  Not a bad word for now or anytime.  Our mistakes are not the final word as long as we’re breathing.  If you’re dwelling in the past—the songs you used to write, the band you once had, or the retirement nest egg you watched dwindle away, hey, it’s time to box up and change addresses to now.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.  Today is a new day, even if you’re greeting at Walmart until a better gig comes along…

For today, here’s a link my daughter sent me from Seattle a few years back when her nephew was part of a guitar recital.  Another little guy, five years old, did “Folsom Prison Blues.”  Pretty awesome if you ever have five year olds still singing your songs after you’ve gone, even if they do say, “I shot a man in Wee-know”

“One Night, One Life, One Song: The Peculiar History of ‘O Holy Night’”

History is an odd and wondrous field in which to run and play.  It’s quite serious but also is filled with miracles, surprises and the never-to-be fully resolved or explained.  Discoveries change the course of things.  Extraordinary lives, moments of courage, unanticipated choices and consequences.  It’s a messy, beautiful truth.

I have been dabbling a bit in my own genealogy.  I’ve been finding websites and people who share my name—Furr actors, writers, scientists, musicians, war veterans, and, yes, a whole list of Furr criminals.  Pictures of the existence, for a while, of a carbonated drink in New Mexico (not sure if it’s still around) called, “Dr. Furr’s Cola.”  Gotta get me some of that.

And I discovered an ancestor of mine that I quite like.  I believe him to be my great, great grandfather, Allen Furr, born Jul 1820, and died in 1873.  He was a man of immense physical strength, fought in the Civil War at age 42, and a recorded interview said this:

His son reported that “Once when his wagon busted a wheel crossing Rocky River he carried it on his back a great distance to have it repaired while his son … stayed with the mules. Allen once won a bet he could hold some huge timbers over his head while serving in the Civil War so he could get a 30 day leave.  [But this is the part I liked the best:] Wilson Mathias Furr that he in fact could drink from the bung hole of a 50 gal. keg of whiskey. [bunghole is the hole drilled in a barrel where a cork is placed]  Must have been quite a site, a grown man elevating a 50 gallon barrel to drink.  I have wondered how many gallons he downed before he’d made his point.  Who was going to criticize a man lifting 50 gallons over his head?

I have had so few opportunities to use the word “bunghole,” and since we don’t use barrels anymore the chances were disappearing.  Bunghole originally came from the word “bunge,” which meant cork.  I came across another man who knew about corks and barrels, a French cooper—a barrelmaker– and winemaker named Placide Cappeau (October 25, 1808 – August 8, 1877).  He was born into those two businesses, and made his living by them.

He was a contemporary of my great-great-grandfather.  Allen was living in the aftermath of the American Revolution, Placide the French.  Cappeau’s life changed at age 9, when playing at a friend’s house.  They were horsing around with a gun that went off and cost little Placide his hand.  It changed the course of his life.  He began to cultivate the life of the mind, art, and literature.  He was good enough, and with the help of the guilt-ridden friend who paid half his tuition, to attend university and, even with only one hand, to win a prize in art.

After, of course, he went into the family business and made wine, barrels and corks.  But his love was literature, especially poetry.  Word people are always being called upon, of course, and so it was that age 39,   that his parish priest encouraged him to try his hand at writing a Christmas hymn.  He was pretty much a non-attender, a political socialist, and anti-clerical, so it must have been intriguing to get a request, and he accepted the challenge.

He later said the inspiration came to him on a stagecoach ride to Paris, but however it happened, he took inspiration from the nativity story in Luke and imagined it from the vantage point of the night.  What resulted was a beautiful poem called, “Cantique de Noelle.”   “O Holy Night.”

He was not a musician, so he called upon a dear musician friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to help him.  Ace Collins described the musician this way:

His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. [There was one small issue]  As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words …represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Isn’t it strange that one of the most beloved songs of Christmas was written by a man who rarely went to church and set to music by a non-Christian Jew?  But that is not the end of it.  The song became wildly popular, sung all over France, but soon the Catholic Church banned it from use when Capelle openly identified with socialism and left the church.  The Archbishop, whose name I think was Maurice de Glenn Beck, ordered it out of worship life because of anti-Catholic and Jewish connections.

Even so, the people loved it.  They kept singing it.  And eventually, a Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, another contemporary of my great-great-grandfather, found it.  Dwight was a transcendentalist and America’s first influential classical music critic and an ardent  abolitionist.  So, in 1860, on the eve of Civil War, he translated it into English and brought it to American popularity.  He was especially taken by the third verse when it says, “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”

And so, there it was.  A hymn by a socialist barrelmaker became an anti-slavery Christmas hymn through a Unitarian liberal abolitionist, and it began to be sung shortly after Allen Furr was lifting barrels over his head and heading off to war on the wrong side of an American tragedy.

Then there was Reginald Fessenden, a professor.  It was on Christmas Eve 1906, that the former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, using a newly developed generator, was able to speak through a microphone and broadcast over the airwaves for the first time.   He chose to read the Christmas story in Luke.  Ace Collins says

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.  Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

It’s a strange little song, isn’t it?  There are legends that during World War I that one reckless Frenchman sauntered out of the trenches near the time of  Christmas Eve 1914 and began to sing “O Holy Night,” and soon others joined in and the scabbed countryside of blood and barbed wire transformed into a shepherd’s field.  When the singing ceased, the Germans answered, not with bombs and bullets, but with another carol.  And unofficial truces kept happening.  The two sides exchanged gifts, greetings and songs.  The commanders were disturbed.  How on earth would they be able to resume the extermination of the enemy if they kept talking about peace on earth, good will to men?  What kind of war could they have?  Commanders ordered Christmas eve shelling, but the tradition continued through the war.

Since the parish priest came to Placide Cappelle, long after the Catholic Church banned it as unfit to sing, and long after my Confederate uncle lifted a barrel, who knows, maybe one the Cappelle family had made, long after Yankees and Confederates killed one another trying to figure out what freedom means, long after the Germans and Frenchmen wept and sang and celebrated, that song keeps being sung around the world.

But isn’t that what Christmas keeps teaching us?  This story is not ours to control or suppress.  God can choose one life–a poor girl in Palestine and a carpenter husband and be manifested to them.  Honored by people the church cannot always abide or fit into its creaky human traditions.  Spread by miracles unexpected like wine flowing out of a barrel, out into our wars and our sins and the nights of the human soul.  One baby, one night, and then one life after another, going here and there, unstoppable, this radiant light of love and hope.  Out through the very air itself, sung around the very earth, so that on that night, it can be heard everywhere.

This simple story is one that touches hearts that even do not like our more generic pill called “religion.”  It is not mostly about principles or philosophies or power and might.  It is of a life, one life, one night, that comes and turns the course of history, again and again.  That’s why a baby, and not manly strength, is the most powerful and unstoppable force history has known, for there is no weapon great enough to defend us from love.


I wrote this piece as a mediation given at the Christmas Banquet at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.  The source material for the historical backgrounds came from Collins, Ace.  THE AMAZING STORY OF ‘O HOLY NIGHT’   posted on BeliefNet; “Placide Cappeau,” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and material on Allen Furr from





Elvis–tragic hero, addict, mystic

Just finished a bio of Elvis Presley I picked up a few years back and had sitting on my shelf by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason.  Elvis is one of those figures whose presence is culturally ubiquitous, so the danger is greater that we think we “know” him, only to discover that we do not know this person at all.

I felt the sadness that so many musical biographies have evoked in me in recent years—bios of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, the Carter family, Eric Clapton, the great blues singers and Hank Williams.  One common thread in this tapestry is the lonely road of fame.  No one knew this more than the King.

If Hank Williams was the first true country superstar, Elvis rocketed down a road no one had ever seen before. Mason’s telling is masterful, even if the story is familiar.  What was new to me was all the dabbling in Christianity and Eastern religion Elvis did, even as he descended into the world of drugs.  If he was the true king of Rock and Roll, he was also the archetype of addictive splitting off into separate selves, isolation from loved ones, and disconnection from life.

At the same time I was reading the Elvis bio, I was also working through The Addictive Personality by Craig Nakken.  He quotes a plaque on a friend’s wall that says, “Fooling people is serious business, but when you fool yourself, it is fatal.”  Elvis’ story is one of a young man whose musical genius could not be suppressed, but whose spiritual and emotional life and growth were assaulted from every angle in the process.  He lived in a prison of impossible expectations, wealth and adoration.  He made the great mistake of addiction: confusing intensity of experience with emotional intimacy.

I love Elvis.  He met the Beatles on my eleventh birthday, August 27, 1965, for the first time, a symbolic joining of the two great musical rivers of my boyhood.  It was a disastrous meeting, one that was filled with misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  They came to offer him homage and he became threatened by it.  Rather than the joyful intersectionElvis between “Colonel” Parker and Ed Sullivanthat might have happened the two roads diverged instead.  Elvis spiraled deeper into isolation in the coming years,  into paranoia and bizarre behavior, drugs, control by the manipulative Colonel Parker,  the succession of vapid and empty movies,  and the banality of Vegas.  But ultimately it is Elvis himself who sat so uneasy on the throne he was handed so early in life.  He once described himself as “hanging on my own cross.”

Another book I have read in recent months, is Elaine Heath’s The Mystic Way of Evangelism.  In it, she describes the three classical stages of the life of prayer—Purgation, Illumination, and Union with God.  Purgation is a dark and terrible place, but also a holy one.  It is a time in which the pilgrim often falls into dryness, spiritual uselessness, and darkness.  Yet it is also the very place out of which great newness comes.  When Elvis came to his darkest times, they were also the moments that offered the possibility of new and different life, had he somehow been able to turn away from the monstrosity of fame.

I was struck by the interesting intersection of these three books—Elvis, the secular child of the South, disconnected from all real relationship and the people who would love him by the fame and fortune that came with his talent, the addict who destroyed himself in the process of expressing the passion in his soul, and the seeker who sought, if only now and then, to cry out against the commercialization and worship that ultimately pulled him into chaos.  He read books on religion, seeking to discover some deeper place in his life, and to draw the spiritual core of his early life into his music and thought.

Finally, the forces who made money from him and rode the train of fortune on his back were too great for Elvis.  Even worse, Elvis’ own craving for acceptance and love from the world without was greater than the fragile quest for peace could withstand.  Yet in his comebacks the “voice” that was authentically emerged again and again.  A cry, “Listen.  I have something to say.”

Tragic hero, addict, mystic.  What burst through that boy in Sun studios when he sang,  that voice and passion that connected so deeply and bridged segregated musical worlds, still reminds us—finding our own voice is a painful, intense, risky business.  It is life and death, and best undertaken with spiritual roots and a few dependable guides along with us.   I kept wishing that someone close to the King had been able to tell him the truth and that he had listened.  We lost him too soon.

Dog Shoots Man–and so it begins

Without the internet, there would be no Justin Bieber, no way to spread our urban legends so quickly, and no way to keep up with the Kardashian-ization of civilization.  Wednesday Yahoo news had among its usual stories a new turn on the “Man bites dog” archetype.  “Man is accidentally shot by his own dog.”

Apparently, a 46 year old man in Brigham City, Utah “got a behind-full of birdshot courtesy of his loyal canine companion when he was out duck hunting over the weekend.”  He and the dog were traveling in a boat and the man stepped into a marsh to set up some decoys.   His 12-gauge shotgun was unattended across the bow of the boat.  According to the police report, the dog was excited to join his owner in the marsh, jumped on the bow where the gun was and somehow caused the gun to discharge.  The shot hit the man in the buttocks with 27 pellets of birdshot.  He called 911 and was taken in and said pellets removed, along with his dignity.

I thought this had to be fictional, but sure enough, there was a news report on the web.  Of course, it could be that news was an accident

sites are fake, too, or unless television news stations get their news from…the web?  Where will this end?

I can see a televised trial coming. Since I have so recently written of the virtues of dogs, I feel compelled to defend this as an accident.   I can imagine that postal workers, newspaper boys, joggers and burglars will come forward to claim that this dog has a history of hostility.  He will have to hire a lawyer, hopefully a firm with a name like, “Shepherd, Barker and Chow.”

I would suggest that they offer the following defense

1.  Most of the prior victims deserved it, since they could usually be demonstrated to have legitimately terrorized the dog–i.e, invading his turf daily, throwing papers on the yard, bringing bills and junk mail to the Master’s door daily with the authority of government, and in the cases of the burglars, breaking and entering.  He was just doing his job.
2.  “Accidental” shooting is not a crime.  The dog was excited and happy and wanted to play with his stupid master.  I would subpoena former Vice President Dick Cheney for the defense.  He didn’t know how guns worked either.  Cheney, a supposedly more educated human, shot his friend in the face, while the canine only put pellets in the owner’s buttocks.

3.  There is no other motive, i.e., insurance fraud from recently changed life insurance.  To date, only humans kill for money.

4.  The man lives in Utah.  Strange things happen there, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, and so there is simply a geographical inevitability about this.

5.  Investigators might want to look at allegations that the entire matter was staged by the owner.  Initial investigative interviews indicate that he had also claimed that his dog ate his homework at age 9, 11 and 14, and that he claimed that his dog was driving the car when police stopped him at 21.  Further investigation showed that he had been reported by his dog for abuse when the dog said his Master had beaten him repeatedly with rolled up newspapers.

Friends, if the animal world gets social media, we may come to see that “Babe” was not as far-fetched as first appeared.  Payback is apt to be miserable.