Living Through Exile

I wrote this to our church back at the beginning of April. I hoped, like all of us, that we’d be “back to normal” by now. But we aren’t. So in looking back at this, it’s more relevant than I thought. We’re in it for a while. Hold on.

The exile in ancient Israel was a traumatic disruption.  The city of Jerusalem and all the towns of any size were sacked and burned, people scattered and all the Judaeans with any talent, leadership or education were marched across the desert to Babylon Iraq where they lived in an ethnic ghetto, not speaking the language or having any access to power, wealth and influence in their new land.

It was a time of terrible devastation. Excavations at Debir, Lachish and Beth-shemesh show enormous devastation.  No town in the south escaped. Many died in the siege, many died of disease and starvation.  The population decreased from 250,000 in the 8th century to perhaps 20,000 after the return .

The Exile presented many problems. First, of course, was simple survival. And how do you live in an  interim?  But by far the most profound was a theological and spiritual crisis. Their whole world, the one they knew, had disappeared from under their feet.

It became a profound time of spiritual change. They began to transfer and organize their scriptures from collections and memories into books. The synagogue was born, since the Temple was gone. But above all their was their shared memory.  Psalm 137:5-6 comes from the exile.

                        If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

                        Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

                        if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

It was a time when they realized that only God could taken them home again–and they eventually did. At times, as in Jeremiah 29, they had premature hopes that it would happen fast, but eventually they settled in for the long haul. Exekiel 37, a vision of resurrection for the nation (from which James Weldon Johnson’s wonderful“Dry Bones” comes from), saw a return to the life they loved. But alas, not right away.

It is breathtaking how quickly our full and prosperous lives of ballgames, family gatherings and entertainment venues was collapsed by a tiny little virus. Now we sit in our homes, even unable to come to God’s houses to worship together. Hugging our friends, sitting together on the pews, choir rehearsal, Wednesday night supper, is now cut off for a little while. No ballgames, no concerts, no movies at the theater.

We’re making the best of it, and praying, helping and trying to keep the kids going, as much normal as possible. It dawns on us that this passage is going to be tough. So what to do?

We’re figuring out how to survive, how to do the interim, keep it going. We post things to lend a little courage to one another.  But the spiritual crisis is also pervasive. And it’s not what self-anointed prophets of doom proclaim. I’ve been listening to those people since the 1970s, convinced that the end of the world is now at hand. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus said you and I don’t get to know that. Period. (Acts 1:7). The book of Revelation is not a how-to book of prediction for us to know ahead. It’s a promise that God will outlast evil.

Interestingly, there are people who can help us. A member of our church whose husband received a heart pump in a near death crisis five years ago emailed me this week and said, “We’ve laughed and said that actually everyone is now living our lives that we inherited five years ago — that we can never be apart from each other and we really go very few places anymore.” People in nursing homes understand, as do caregivers of the elderly, prisoners and parolees. Life is has edges that are determined by realities external to your will.

So what now? Just keep on. Live your faith, teach your children, laugh and rejoice all you can. Help out, and pray for the helpers. But above all remember that this is not the first time of crisis for the world. The spiritual opportunity is not about scaring people into faith—it’s about revealing that the way of a cross always was the way. The only way over it is through it.

As we finish this Lenten journey, the tone of our moment is matching the Jesus story in a remarkable coincidence. We aren’t just reading about disciples afraid of the unknown up ahead. It’s real. We don’t know where it’s going or how many of us will get through it unscathed. There is only surviving, holding on, trusting in faith.

There is precedent for this moment. And with that I tell you, “Hold on.” There’s always something on the other side of every cross.

At least that’s what I trust, even when my knees are shaking a little. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again, a lot. This one is a hard song, but still speaks to me.

Diligence not Goosebumps

There is plenty of good work to do—beyond the ministries of the church itself, we have a world of opportunity.  Children and schools are important to all of us. Hungry children need food. Frightened children need reassurance, even if it’s not certain out there. Lonely children need connection.

The technology that was supposed to make life easy now is only our connection to get things done.  Everything is a lot harder.

Here’s the problem now: the pandemic is going to stretch well into next year, from everything I can read. No vaccine is coming next week. I can see businesses adjusting, schools are figuring it out.

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A caution in these times when the mind can fly off down Twitter rabbitholes: don’t give in to flights of fancy and fears of apocalypse.  Beware the gloom and doom crowd.  Conspiracy theories come along always in these times. So do second coming fears.  In my lifetime there have been at least a dozen times over forty-one years in the pastorate when

My friend Dwight Moody wrote an excellent piece about this.

“You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made

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Dr. Dwight Moody of The Meetinghouse

a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan).  [at that time, he predicted the end would come at any moment.  [it became the dominant interpretation of evangelicals and Pentecostals, said Dwight. 

I’ve been around this my entire ministry. Again, and again, I remember times when timid and fearful Christians were the equivalent of Forrest Gump when he saw Lt. Dan on the dock and jumped into the water, leaving his boat to crash without anyone to steer.

The problem with this end times philosophy is twofold.  First, it’s built on a very questionable interpretation of the bible, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Revelation.  Second, it is neither the only nor the best interpretation of those books.  And before the early 1800s, it was not dominant among Christians. Most of what you hear as pop Christianity presents this as though Christianity has only had this single approach. It hasn’t.

In the 1970s, the world seemed to be coming apart—racial division, Vietnam, ecological crisis, and the changing mores of the world caused many Christians to see signs that the end was near.  At several points along the way, the same thing popped up again and again. In particular, I remember it at the end of the 20th century Remember that dreaded glitch in our computers that were supposed to make the world stop?  (y2K) Then came the New Year and…life went on.  9/11, the Recession, and now this. Every time, anxious people said to me, “It seems like the Lord may come back any time.”

This is exactly why the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and he said his famous verse that every parent has cited to a young adult that won’t go get a job:  “If they won’t work, don’t let them eat.” People had literally quit working and began sitting on their spiritual keisters to wait for the apocalypse.

 

Paul also said, in Ephesians, these words:

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]

Imagine the difficulty of planting these congregations when they came from pagan backgrounds, little or no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and no guidance.  Paul gave them these basic guidelines because they needed the most elemental things.  He is saying: Focus on these.  Don’t be distracted by speculations, arguments, and divisions. Be kind.

These truths don’t depend on figuring it all out.

When you feel a little discouraged, do something for someone else. Call a family member or neighbor who is alone and listen. When you get angry about something on the news, turn it off and go fix something in the house.

I would suggest never buying books about the rapture, but if you must, at least read something practical to balance it.  Most of those books fall into the category of Christian fiction. They are opinions, interpretations, but they are not beyond dispute.

My friend Dwight said at the end of his piece, “Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because …[we] are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.”

The theology of “Left Behind” and its ilk presents a closed and fatalistic history—nothing matters. Most of creation will be destroyed and the small handful of faithful ones will be preserved but the rest of it done away with. That its enthusiastic supporters always count themselves among the few is glaringly self-centered.

Christian hope is not about terrifying people. It’s meant to…well, give you hope.

Safe Distances

It’s not social distancing.  It’s just “safe distance.”  One of our older ladies’ classes met with me Tuesday morning in two shifts to laugh, hear from each other, and say “See you later” to a member, Martha, who is moving to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We ended each time with a short memorial time for Betty, a member whose whose funeral was last week.  Our friendships and fellowship are alive and well.

Instead of whining about what we can’t do, put your thinking caps on and figure out what you CAN do. All the rest is just being on social media too much. Sunsets, birds, flowers and trees are still there. Books are on your shelf. There are instruments to practice, prayers to pray, money to give to good causes.  Make a call to someone who is alone. Get with it!

These ladies call each other regularly for encouragement and inspiration. It’s getting to a hard time now–we’re over the short burst of crisis adrenaline and now we’re in the long haul. It requires mental toughness, selflessness, determination and regard for others. Some of us are flunking on that last one. But most people where I am are trying hard.

In my sermon Sunday I mentioned a comment by Mark Cuban who said young job applicants (after this is over) had best be ready to answer, “What did you do during the pandemic?” It’s a great question for us all. Get up off the couch, turn off the media and do something worthwhile before it’s too late. And if you’re in your teens or twenties, don’t be forced to say, “Oh, I partied like it was the end of the world.” You can be better than that.

 

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What Can We Say?

I finally ventured out yesterday to buy some new tennis shoes. Wearing a mask, I went to a local store and followed the rules. I was waited on by a very sweet and helpful young woman, also in a mask. She happened to be African American. As I was trying on shoes, I asked, out of habit, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine, how are you?” A typical exchange of pleasantries.

Something moved me inside to say, “Actually, my heart is broken. That horrible killing ofACHMC #1 George Floyd in Minneapolis has left me heartsick.” And like that, our conversation changed. She opened up, not angry, but surprised that a masked stranger buying tennis shoes would venture the subject, I suppose, but she spoke more frankly that she shared my sadness and a trace of exhaustion. We have to hope and pray things can get better, she said.

It didn’t last long, but it reminded me that we can live on the surfaces and not know anything about what’s underneath with each other. Something has blown open this week in the soul of our country. It is not new. It’s painful, a wound that gets better for a time but never fully heals.

Racism is not only cruel; it is irrational and ultimately brings death and destruction. It is far past time to call it out wherever it is and require our corporate life to reflect who we hope to be at our best—fair for everyone in our society, just in treatment of one another,

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and fierce to speak out for our neighbor, not just ourselves.

In 1996 Alabama experienced a string of church burnings. Our church made a gift to one of the churches and I drove down to meet with one of the church leaders. Our missions committee donated to them to help rebuild. I wrote these words then, twenty-four years ago. I wish they were not still relevant now. I wish I could say, “That was then, this is now.” I wrote this after standing among the ruins of that church in 1996:

          “Racism” is a loaded word.  When it is spoken, defenses are erected almost immediately.  “Oh, no, some of my best friends are…”  Some definitions are so sweeping that they cause despair.  Often, African Americans and Anglo-Americans don’t even mean the same thing by the word. Continue reading “What Can We Say?”

Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun.  I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day).  It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by 800px-US_Navy_040531-N-6371Q-223_Marines_and_Sailors_march_in_the_Little_Neck_Memorial_Day_Parade_in_Queens_N.Y._during_the_17th_Annual_Fleet_Week_2004a talented young soloist from Nashville.

Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called.  As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream?  What was it like for them?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that Forgotten Memorialorganized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

                                         — http://www.usmemorialday.org/

800px-bn3q09604_candle_lightTo a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort.  To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful.  But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.

I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.

Remembering is a holy act.  Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us.  In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort.  At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief.  It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember.  And we are sad, too.”  Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion.  At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.

Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured.  The price is always enormous.  I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together.  They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.

The toll is deeper than we know.  It is good to pause and remember and count the cost.  It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it.  They carry a heavy load.

I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration.  And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.

But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.

I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.

Two Poems for the Pan*****

I agree, but am wearying to say, “we’re in it together,” since we didn’t get a vote. I’m sick of “pandemic” (so I turned it into faux profanity–pan*****),”Covid-19,” coronavirus,” and “webinar.” I don’t like where we are, but left that emotion aside in the press of survival. I did a series of “Pandemic Haiku” earlier, but turn today to a bit of escapist verse. Among my Christian friends (most of mine are of the less literalistic and more reflective types), it is helpful to find Biblical imagery–the exile, an apt one, with its sense of jarring losses and displacement. It’s too simplistic to go straight for the apocalyptic–apocalypticism was a minority tool in the ancient box that people take out in times like these. Dystopian imagery, though, is like a long train ride with Obadiah in the Hebrew scriptures (it’s short, give it a read). We yank it out of the box the way my Dad used to call his hammer a “North Carolina screwdriver” and cram every disaster into the Rapture box. It may get the job done, but leaves holes in the wall. Humor, though, is of great use for this moment. Just as it is in grief–without stories that make us smile, or fond memories, the waves of sorrow would drown us. In grief as in life, it not a straight line of morbidity, but the ocean of feelings, good, bad and otherwise. So, two more little poems. I can’t help it. They just pop out. Whether they spread uncontrollably is, well, not up to me.  Maybe a smile amid the little glimmers of loss that intrude on the day. There’s so much to grieve, so maybe a little dark humor helps.

Poor Virus

Imagine!

Everywhere you go, even though you affect everyone around you

and millions of people fear you and know your name,

that the whole world hates you and wants you to die.

It’s not like you had a great start—born of a bat-bite

In a filthy wet market.

You were bound to be wild.

 

You make people sick.

Your existence is one relationship to the next

And everything you touch is diminished or dies.

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

Mothers in Old Time Songs

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Songs and poems about mothers and mothering are an ocean of sentiment stretching back through human history. The bond of mother and child is a pillar of human survival and civilization and a profound mystery to those of us who are male. If we’re even slightly mature, we are awed by women and the impact they have on our children (if it was good).

I got curious about this subject in popular music, most especially in the Southern roots music in which I grew up and live in. Mother’s Day was a big deal growing up, with churches somehow developing the tradition to give out roses to mothers in the congregation. It was a once per year tip of the hat to women without whom church would not exist at all. They brought the children, raised them, prayed for them and furnished virtually all the volunteer hours, particularly in the old days before women were paid for anything they did. And we didn’t ordain women then (which is, in reality, “recognizing,” isn’t it, and blessing?).

It was an odd tradition, this giving of the roses. It usually was various categories to award—the youngest mother, the oldest mother, the most children, and so on. In a small church, it would be the same ladies every year, sparking rumbles of disregarded people in the center, without a category. Churches later found more democratic ways—giving some little item out to all. In the churches with screens and fog machines, I have not a clue what they do now.

Still, in the old days, “mother” was a highly revered and honored position. Kids knew it.

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A mother gave you life, got you to ball practice and without whom you might actually starve to death in a house. In a society where all is economic (the word economy, ironically, springs from the Greek word oikos, house or household). An economy is an environment of values, work, production and relationships, not, as we have perverted it, “bling.” It exists only for the Continue reading “Mothers in Old Time Songs”

Pandemic Haiku

When one day disap-

-pears into the next without

signposts hope erodes.

 

Stop each day to cheer

The heroes leaving work to

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Rest in dreadful fears.

 

Nightmares rise up now

Inflame the stupid hearers

With disinformation.

 

Carrying virus

Sharing death without knowing

The Fall incarnate

 

Fear of each other

Loss of all human embrace

Alone together

 

Glued to devices

Exhaustion without labor

Unable to sleep.

 

Thrown out of routine

The crisis awakens us

To innovations.

 

Separated by

the fear of death we cling to

love we have within.

 

Working now from home

Go to work when I wake up

Don’t know when to stop.

 

It has been so long

Since I cherished trees and birds

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And moved so slowly.

 

Dying all alone

Amid caring strangers here

Wearing masks and gloves.

 

 

The earth rests from us

Our noise has ceased from the land

Creation is glad

 

Daily briefings last

On and on the numbers rise

And the people talk.

 

Televangelists

Sit in empty rooms just like

Those with little faith.

 

Planners meet daily

To anticipate and plan

What cannot be known.

 

People do research

On facebook and internet

To determine facts.

 

Scientists were nerds

We made fun of during school

Now we have regrets.

Looking Up

I’ve begun a weekly short video devotional online called, “Looking Up.” In part I got the title from the King James Version of Luke 21:28

And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.

The context of the  verse is Jesus teaching about “signs of distress” and how to interpret them. That seemed useful to me in this moment. Anxiety causes many well-meaning but not well-informed folks to assume that every time the world goes through calamity that it means “the end is near.”

Beyond the obvious observation that Jesus warned his hearers that, as Paul Simon put it in “Slip Sliding Away,” “the information is unavailable to the mortal man,” it is also an interesting insight into both prophetic thought and the teachings of Jesus.  In short, I put it this way, “When things look good, watch out. Trouble is on the horizon.” and when things look like the handbasket for the ride down to the fire, look up!  God does some great work when all indications look bad.

So, I will post these on a separate page on the blog.  Today’s blog is below.

 

 

 

 

New Ways for a New Time

Gary Furr PRThis is a time of many “firsts.” I suspect this is true of everyone. Our church staff, like all congregations and organizations, are having to ask, “How will we do this now that we cannot do it as we once did?” “Touch,” connection, and being together is so crucial to the existence of any organization, but there are peculiar ways that we do church. Communion, literally “in common” is ideally done with shared loaf and common cup. But we have done our first “virtual” Maundy Thursday and Easter, too.

As the mind anticipates the weeks ahead, it has raised a lot of interesting challenges. How do we ordain without the laying on of hands? How do we have Sunday School for children and Vacation Bible School without being in the building? Should we take temperatures and administer tests before baptism? A lot to think about.

This is not without precedent, of course. The church has been through all sorts of times in history when gathering was difficult or even temporarily impossible. And innovation always results from such times. These become the new “rituals.” Ritual is necessary. It is the way we negotiate passages in life. So, we’re having to reinvent them. What they become are our “rhythms” of life. You can’t work all the time, play all the time, or heaven forbid, be online all the time. You have to do other things. Some carry on as is, others have to be reconceived. People are figuring it out, more or less.

On Monday, of course, we did our first online memorial service for Dr. William Poe. The only live event was the graveside service in Tuscaloosa with eight of us present–three caregivers, his son Allan and daughter Jody, Cherri Morriss and two funeral directors. It was a beautiful day and we stood round the outside of the green awning over the grave. Everyone was masked except me. The Lord’s Prayer by Malotte and Amazing Grace were sung acapella.  I read a selection from a little book Dr. Poe had written, a memoir. The Continue reading “New Ways for a New Time”