Everything Happens for a Reason? Review

Review of Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Random House Publishing Group.

By Gary Furr

Kate Bowler begins her book in the doctor’s office.  “I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.” And then, the thud of reality.”

ONE MOMENT I WAS a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me.

There are plenty of books about the problem of suffering, but every now and then one Bowler_Kate_AIF2019comes along that makes us feel it. All humans eventually suffer in life somewhere along the way—but it is undeserved, unfair and untimely suffering that is the most crushing variety. Enter Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and church history. Bowler’s first book came from her dissertation, a study of the Prosperity Gospel, entitled Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel. She befriended and studied the world of name it and claim it Christianity, embodied in the megachurch worlds of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.

This book, though, is a personal one, a wilderness wandering through the most difficult and intractable questions all religious people face: why suffering, why now, why me? She gets my vote for the most interesting title of the year and she does not disappoint. Kate is a wickedly funny writer but also gut-wrenchingly honest about her journey through Continue reading “Everything Happens for a Reason? Review”

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”

Remembering 9-11

[Now it has been many years since I first published this piece. It remains one of the most read pieces 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 of hope 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 reconsider 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. I have edited the original to a shorter version, but it is important to me to remember.]

In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life.   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, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot memorialwhere 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 mark yet another anniversary of  9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together.  I wonder what our remembering will be?  Now the years are passing, and the anguish and fury and violation have dulled into annual observances. We have found a whole new litany of grievances and sorrows to lament. An 18 year old having their birthday today was born on that day.

Remembering matters, but it also shifts and changes with the years.  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. To be remembered and not forgotten is to continue to be loved.

firemen_flagWe 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.

It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are people of faith 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.

Listen

 

 

 

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

pic

 

 

 

 

 

Staying Put

Picture1Gary Furr PR

 

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”