Author Archives: Gary Furr
Mothers Day is a happy day, and also a sad one for many. Mothers are both biological and spiritual. They find us as divine grace in life. If we lost one too soon, God seems to put strong, caring women in our lives somewhere to help us survive and grow up into life. I have been blessed with a loving Mom who loves her children and stood by the four of us as we meandered toward adulthood. I am grateful. But I have known extra mothers–my wonderful mother-in-law, teachers, mentors, and an unfair overabundance of wise older women because of my vocation as a pastor. My wife is the greatest mother on the planet. I still learn from her. I am grateful for them all.
As my mother has battled cancer (and is now in remission, thankfully) this last nearly two years, I have become more grateful for the journey with mom and moms everywhere. For all of us, thank you. And so, a poem I wrote not long ago while thinking of my mom as the “teller of stories,” and women in churches who keep the stories that Read the rest of this entry
The passing of Rachel Held Evans unleashed a surprising wave of grief to some. But to readers in the Christian world, and young women in particular, she was a voice of welcoming honesty. In an October 2012 article in Christianity Today called, “50 Women You Should Know,” Katelyn Beaty said of Rachel Held Evans that her blog, which began in 2007, spoke out on many traditional evangelical issues in a fresh and fearless way. Evans, she quoted, wrote that young Christians “aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers. We’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.”
It was intense questioning that led her to start writing in the first place. In 2012 alone, 1.2 million visitors went to her site to hear what she had to say. She was speaking for many others, giving voice to many who were needing one. To a church (in the largest sense) that is always, at least institutionally, last to respond to change, she pushed to make it look at its truth and heart and reassess what it was Jesus meant us to do. Read the rest of this entry
My friend Pat Terry is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever. After a long and successful career in contemporary Christian music, he widened his vision and writing. A successful career in country music as a writer followed, with plenty of hits. He just came out with his latest CD, “How Hard It Is to Fly,” and it’s another great batch of songs. One of my newest favorites, “Clean Starched Sheets” is on this one.
Pat’s heart has always been as a storytelling songwriter. I have been in a couple of his workshops, and he is a master craftsman. I’ve performed with him a time or two here in Birmingham, and I’ve gone more than once to hear him sing. His songs are deeply human. One of my favorites and one of the first I ever heard him perform (while opening for Earl Scruggs!) was “Someplace Green.” It sends me to visions of Eden.
Back in my hometown, everything’s green,
green grass, green leaves, green peaches on the trees in spring. Read the rest of this entry
Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board. In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many. We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days. We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people. One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program. I could go on. But every church has its luminaries.
What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor? Not much. For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership. Let’s not go there. Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.
So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol. Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Read the rest of this entry
Gary Allison Furr
In the years I lived among the peanut farmers,
I breathed October dust and prayed for their harvests.
The church and all of the town waited for the yield,
To tell us what sort of year it would be.
Only a few restaurants, drugstores and movie rental places
No movie theaters, theme parks or malls,
But we had a John Deere tractor dealership out on the bypass
Where the farmers’ trucks had to pass by.
On the most prominent corner, right by the road
the latest double wheel model
with the air-conditioned cab and stereo system.
Plowing without dust and sweat! Hard to imagine
we were so far from the farmers with their mules in the old days,
on a forty-acre farm, working like the Devil to survive
lest the mule be repossessed or die.
But always there was the harrow, evolved from ancient times,
At first, only a tree branch, sharpened to punch open the ground,
The Romans first made them of iron to mass produce
And now they are rows of teeth or knives neatly arranged
Or deadly discs, sharp enough to kill a man, but modern
in their symmetry of tearing open the earth,
They rip open the crust so the seed can go deep, down
Into the moist fertility, then burst open and seek the light above.
“Harrowing” is near-death, danger, all our protection
Torn away from us, some sharp and deadly threat
Gashes open the layers of careful habit and insulation
until death and I stare back at one another
waiting for one of us to make a move.
The medieval Christians said that on Saturday Jesus,
Punched down under the tomb, all the way to the underworld
and preached to the souls in hell.
He led out all those who had no chance to know Easter,
Satan, surely, filed an immediate lawsuit against God
for breaking the rules and letting a dead man breach the underworld
to claim souls Satan thought were a sure thing.
“The Harrowing of Hell” was kept in the Creed
We shake our heads
at the primitive believer thinking He “descended into hell”
Even as we still survive by eating the bounty of earth’s puncture wounds.
Farmers still dig down to the only place where life can emerge.
We are deluded by surface coverings of asphalt and wireless noise
“Virtual” cannot feed the hungry or raise the dead.
For that, earth must be broken, hearts pierced, nails driven.
Down went the Son of God, into Hell itself.
I’d like to think a little disc-plowing is called for,
Some holes punched in hell still on this earth,
Right through hard-hearted souls who deny
there is anything under here worth looking at or saving.
I’d like to think the Son of God, even in the grave,
Cannot help but vanquish every poison weed and pestilence
that threatens the Garden that God put here for us all.
This is a poem I wrote two years ago. During National Poetry Month, my youngest daughter, who teaches middle school in NYC, and I write poems to each other. Many of mine should never see light of day, but that year I wrote poems each day of Holy Week about the events of that day. I stumbled across the tradition of calling this “Spy Wednesday,” after the plotting that was going on that day. Treachery, using, selling out–they are the deepest pain that wells forth from human beings. The deepest pain of Holy Week is the revelation of betrayal of the innocent Jesus by his friend.
What a great name for the day
A friend’s fate was sealed,
Sold out by the man for whom
Dante created an ice rink on the lowest level of hell.
The word sends icy shivers down the spine
Because it requires loving trust as its precondition.
People betray love, not hate.
Enemies try to kill you. It’s what they do. No surprise.
Only friends, lovers, teammates
Sisters, brothers, colleagues betray you.
It has to rip a hole where you felt safe to do its work.
It’s a sordid business—
Traitors sell you out, stab your back
Let you down, break your trust, turn on you
Ruin your faith in people and undermine your capacity to trust again.
Only double minds and hearts, labyrinths of secret compartments
With cracks in the walls, broken floor joists and low light,
Can pull it off.
A loyal spy is still a patriot
But a double agent is up to the highest bidder
At the cost of a soul
Thirty pieces of silver for Jesus puts the condemnation at Simon’s house
In an even more painful contrast. Hers was of love found
His was of love disdained.
His only hope now is “all have sinned and fall short of the glory”
A tiny speck of hope that his wretchedness is but one more evidence
Of what stares back at us in the mirror sooner or later.
So the drama unfolds,
which character, bent, long before it would be set in motion.
The emotions of Holy Week run the gamut. From the wild enthusiasm of Palm Sunday morning to dread and anxiety of Maundy Thursday, the stark hopelessness of Good Friday and “darkness across the face of the earth” to the somber placing of Jesus in a borrowed tomb, the pilgrimage takes us through the full range of human experiences.
Churches will look forward to crowded sanctuaries on Sunday morning, naturally. Children in beautiful new Easter clothes, beautiful ladies’ hats, uplifting music and, unless a pastor has the flu, a message of enthusiastic hope and energy. A great crowd, a holiday,: of course, it will be energetic.
This is the fortieth consecutive year I have preached an Easter sermon. I intentionally do not look back to see how badly I fell short to capture the “extraordinary in the ordinary” majesty of the resurrection and what it means to humanity. I will tell you this, though: As my own experience of call to ministry came in 1971 on a Palm Sunday and was presented to my high school church family on Easter Sunday, I have never forgotten the ups and downs of this week for me. That week I wrangled and struggled and finally decided to accept the call, at least what I knew at that point, to enter the ministry. It was full of anguish. What did I really understand about what this would mean or where it would go? I can assure you, it wasn’t as clear as
And then, forty years from now, you will be standing in your beloved church of more than twenty-five years in Birmingham, Alabama, and you will have a wonderful congregation, one of whom will be in the top ten in American Idol singing competition.* You’ll have some nice facilities and three grandchildren and an excellent staff.
If only the call were so clear! It was little more than, “This is the direction for your life. Come with me.” What did that mean? Where did it lead? I moved toward the leading but still without a lot of clarity about what it would mean.
The late theologian Jim McClendon said of the spiritual life that we must leave room, along with our spiritual disciplines and our spiritual experiences for what he called “the anastatic.” It means, in the ancient koine Greek language, “Resurrection.” Literally, “to stand again,” but Jim took it to mean, “the surprising work of God.”
In the Christian faith, Easter is a surprise. That means people had no right to expect what transpired. So, everyone was surprised, shocked, stunned, overwhelmed. There was no way to anticipate what happened. “Well,” one might say, “Jesus told them this was what happened.” Even so, I imagine it made as much sense at the moment as lecturing your dog about the importance of a good education.
Nothing indicated this was coming. Their hopes were literally in ruins. I have thought of this while grieving the terrible fire at Notre Dame in Paris. I have only had the privilege to visit there one time, but I remember the awe at this magnificent work of human hands motivated by faith in God.
Out of ashes and devastation, we wait. One more Holy Week. One more hard moment in humanity. No reason to expect a surprise. But for those of us who are Christians, we’ve become accustomed to looking to something unexpectedly, undeservedly good to come along when we least expect it. This week, we walk into the cold ashes of human disappointment and wait to see what God might say to enable us to build out of this moment something new and unanticipated.
No matter who you are, where you came from, or whatever has happened, Easter is for you. That is the message. “God is for us. Who can be against us?” That is a word for everyone.
Walk along this week with God’s people. Through it all.
This Wednesday evening we come to the final of four outstanding speakers in our 2019 Speaker series. Each week, a speaker has taken us inside the journey of Christian calling. Too often we have turned the Christian faith into a series of ideas or reduced it to a buttress against our fears and anxieties rather than what Jesus revealed it to be: a dynamic and life-changing adventure. Our final speaker is Dan Haseltine.
For more than two decades, Dan Haseltine has been the founder and primary songwriter for the Grammy-winning music group, Jars of Clay. From a band formed among college friends in Illinois, they skyrocketed in the mid-90s to crossover fame. Their self-titled debut was released in 1995. When the single “Flood” began to climb the charts on mainstream radio stations, Silvertone Records started to heavily promote the song, turning it into one of the biggest mainstream hits ever by a band on a Christian label. The album has since reached multi-platinum certification according to the RIAA. Over the next decades came touring, more Grammys and successful albums.
I met Dan a few years ago while on an interfaith advocacy effort in Washington. We were paired together to talk to congressional leaders about the importance of global health and hunger funding, so we spent a day together. He is one of the most engaging and thoughtful, down to earth people I have ever met. Many years ago my youngest daughter, then in high school, pressed me to go down to the old Boutwell Auditorium, May 2, 1998, to hear Jars of Clay. I had never heard them, pretty well being into acoustic music and bluegrass then, but I went along. I liked them. I didn’t know I’d ever end up walking around DC with that young singer someday.
Last evening, we kicked off our series, “The Callings That Find Us,” with Dr. Danny Potts. An overflow crowd filled the room and was not disappointed as he shared his personal journey with brokenness and new life through his father’s long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It was inspiring and so helpful to all who were there.
Next Wednesday we welcome folksinger Kate Campbell. Kate is a favorite singer-songwriter for many. She is a storyteller and singer with a unique voice that blends faith, justice and humanity in her writing and singing. Growing up in the south as the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and those years left a mark on her.
Her Two Nights in Texas CD received the prestigious Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award. Ballet Memphis featured several tunes from her song catalog as well as a live performance by Kate and band at a ballet entitled South Of Everywhere. Three of Kate’s songs (“Ave Maria Grotto,” “William’s Vision,” and “Fordlandia”) were recently featured in documentary films. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs including Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, Ronnie McDowell, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band who covered her compelling snake-handling song “Signs Following.”
Campbell has played the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Port Fairy Folk Festival (Australia), been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage, and had her story (and haunting song “When Panthers Roamed In Arkansas”) included in the debut issue of The Oxford American’s ultra-hip Southern Music series. Kate’s latest release Damn Sure Blue, a heart-felt collection of tunes that pays a respectful nod of admiration to the Man in Black and reverberates with the soulful sounds of award-winning Americana guitar whiz and producer Will Kimbrough.
Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister a
So much about bad things men do these days. But what about good men? Five years ago today my father-in-law, one of the best men who ever walked this earth, left it. He is surely playing the front nine in heaven if they have a course. From the obit I gave for him in 2014:
The goal, the prize of the high calling, was never about piling up money for its own sake, but for being able to help others. In our early years, Forrest drove, excuse me, a crappy car. It was an old sky blue Ford that seemed a hundred years old. It smelled like a paper mill and the only luxury in it was his golf clubs in the trunk.
In our time, it is wonderful to still find people who work hard and save up so they can care for their family, help their grandchildren and children, and give to those in need. I cannot tell you how many times in our ministry we had some need in somebody’s life and the next thing I knew, Forrest and Betty were sending money. “Don’t tell anyone it came from me.”
Being grateful, truly grateful begets generosity from the heart. Forrest and Betty were thankful people. In 2011, Forrest wrote a short autobiography. It’s funny, so Forrest, his stories written like he talked. He put a picture on the front from the peak of his working life. I told him it looked a little like a mafia don. But the book is a glowing tale of gratitude for his beloved Betty, the love of his life, his three children and their families, his work, parents, siblings. He was glad to be alive, glad to be here. And it ends with these words: “Betty and I are extremely proud of our family, and recognize them as the crowning achievement of our lives. To all who read this, enjoy your life to the fullest.”
Of all the magnificent blessings I’ve had in my life, I believe the three F’s are the crux of life. These three are: faith in Christ, a loving family, loving friends. There is nothing of greater value. If you have these in your life, you are wealthy.”
Notice—nothing about money, lake houses, fame, and having status. Just core treasures that radiate through you. That’s the man we knew.
I had a fourth F. In addition to faith, family and friends, I was blessed to have Forrest. A real man, but also a good man to the bone. I was fortunate to know and love him.
I miss you.