Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
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:
TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS
AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”
NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)
GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND
MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH
COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.
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
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.
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)
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.
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 “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–
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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”