It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

I confess, I have now been part of a ukelele flash mob, back when mobbing was not a public health crisis. But enough of that.

Every year, the curmudgeons, musicians all, who inhabit the couch and chairs at Fretted Instruments of Homewood, contribute tracks for a Christmas CD that is given away. This is one I did a few years ago–ukelele, mandolin, dobro and guitar played by yours truly. Oh, and banjo, just for good measure. Merry Christmas!

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was penned by Edmund Sears. Sears was a divinity graduate of Harvard and became a Unitarian pastor who “preached the divinity of Christ” according to Dr. Michael Hawn, a church musician and scholar of hymnody. By age 37 poor health forced Sears to give up pastoral work and he spent the rest of his career in publishing and writing.

According to Dr. Hawn,

Sears’ context was the social strife that plagued the country as the Civil War approached. This hymn comes from a Boston publication, Christian Register, published on Dec. 29, 1849. The original stanza three, missing from our hymnals, sheds light on the poet’s concerns about the social situation in the U.S. in the mid-19th century:

“But with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song, which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”

Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.’”

Thinking of this hymn in this way makes us hear the final two verses very differently. In the third verse we know in present versions, humanity, bent low under the crushing loads of our insanity and wars, do not yet know the hope that God sent forth in Jesus. They (we) are exhausted and nearly hopeless. Hear the words repeating through that verse: toil, climbing, painful steps, weary. The world is a heavy place. The angelic singing comes as a musical respite, notes of hope in the night.

Early Bethlehem was not much better. I wrote about this in another song on my last CD, “Down in Bethlehem.” There is a realism about the human condition in the gospels that we do not pay much attention to in the prosperous West, at least not until lately. The multiple burdens of the year 2020 and a world in pandemic lead us back to this hymn in a new way, don’t you think? Now, we too yearn for the fulfillment of that birth,

when peace shall over all the earth 
its ancient splendors fling, 
and the whole world send back the song 
which now the angels sing.

Now it becomes a prayer, a troubled thought in the night. We are not the first people in history to toss and turn in the night.

Holiday Songs

Mark and I are finished with our album. I’ll post the release this week upcoming. One of the songs on it is a recent composition entitled, “Hope to Be Together.” It’s about Thanksgiving, but the mood and message reflected this unusual moment we are sharing–pandemic, separation, isolation and disconnection.

I will be releasing holiday and Christmas music over the coming days and weeks. After a bruising election, pandemic, global grief and sadness and economic hardships, it is not a bad idea to sing (even if we can’t do it together)!

This first one was part of a soundtrack I produced for an indie film by my former bandmate Greg Womble entitled “Visitor to Virgin Pines.” It’s a story about faith, failure and separation and the hope of reconnection with one another, a perennial prayer of Christmas, I think. It was a great short film. This particular song occurs as background to a section in the center of the film when the mother is telling her story. I did all of the music for the movie, and it was a new undertaking for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My bandmate, Melanie Rodgers, played the violin with me on the opening music.

From Here to Okay

This song speaks for itself. It came to me during the summer. The hook was a quote from a news story at a disaster scene, but my mind was on people I loved and knew who lost children. Their stories are the most courageous I have ever met. That they still have any faith at all after such losses is perhaps the closest to real miracles we ever see.

It’s such a long, hard road. In my vocation I traipse alongside unimaginable losses, but children are the hardest from my perspective. It is the loss of love so intense, the loss so against our DNA, that a person’s world is shattered. But they keep going, somehow.

This is on our forthcoming new album. This particular track features my friend since high school, Paul Harmon, a phenomenal musician from the Boston area, along with fiddle work by Mark Weldon.

From Here to Okay
Gary Allison Furr

1. I was telling my favorite story when I heard a knocking sound
It was my neighbor. He said, “You’d best sit down”
I never finished that story. I’ll never tell it again.`
The clock on the wall said 7:10.

2. I’m lost and so angry. She’s just sad all the time,
The shadows go with us everywhere.
Now and then for a while we still act like we used to,
But we still can’t move that empty chair.

CHORUS:
It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us
Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say.
Walk with me a while in the valley of grey
It’s a long way from here to okay

So thank you so kindly for asking about us
And for the fine food that you brought
But please take back home the reassuring words you offered,
It’s not easy answers I’ve sought

Some cope with a bottle, and others with a pill,
Some sit in a circle and pray for God’s will,
But nothing on earth fills the hole left inside
By a love that was once so alive.

CHORUS:
It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us
Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say.
Walk with me a while in the valley of grey
It’s a long way from here to okay

credits

released November 18, 2020
lyrics and music by Gary Allison Furr BMI all rights reserved.

Gary Allison Furr-vocals, guitar
Mark Weldon—violin
Paul Harmon—electric guitar, piano, percussion, bass, drums

New Songs Out

At long last, the new CD, FLAT TIRE ON MEMORY LANE is to be released shortly. I’m posting some of the songs already as singles for you to listen to and enjoy.

“If I Only Had One” is the first single release that will be on our album. The idea is pretty straightforward. “What if this was my last day, year, chance?” What would I do differently? And why don’t i go ahead and live that way now?

Human nature being the way it is, I suppose most of us only focus when we have to. But the thought of it was very meaningful to me. Brought back the quote from Annie Dillard in THE WRITING LIFE: “How you spend a day is how you spend a life.”

“Will You Love Me If I Have One Eyebrow” is a song that was inspired first by the music. Fooling around one evening with some swing-y chord changes and this one came forth. I love swing, funny songs, and anything Harry Connick might do. This is the second song I’ve written for Harry. Of course, he doesn’t know about it, but it’s here if he wants it! Enjoy. It’s about love in the sunset years, when everything starts heading south physically. Your knees start to snap, crackle and pop and hair grows in all the wrong places. Is love strong enough to survive?

Please click and enjoy!

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*****”

Pandemic Haiku

When one day disap-

-pears into the next without

signposts hope erodes.

 

Stop each day to cheer

The heroes leaving work to

group of people wearing face mask
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

IMG_20190427_073604

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.

After Easter…

Sometime I will have to gather my thoughts about this breathtaking revolution that has been forced on us in the larger context.  Mine is one local congregation of people with whom I’ve been for twenty-seven years come July. Things always change, but this one has been especially momentous. Others have had enough to say, but I’ve observed a few little beams of light in the dark. Consider these:

  1. Churches forced to innovate everything we do. How appropriate that Holy Week would be the big test. And the people are still there. Turns out that little rhyme we did with our hands as a kid had something to it.  “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple,” (fingers interlocked and hands folded, index fingers joined in a spire. “OpenHeres the Church the door,” and you’d unfold your hands and wiggle your fingers, “and there’s the people.”
  2. I see a lot of cooperation, humility and mercy down here on the ground level.
  3. Leaders rise up in the worst of times.  Anybody can lead in good times. Only in the crises can you tell the difference.
  4. Imagine that Christianity in a short while has had to watch the burning down of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and Vatican Square empty except for a blind man singing “Amazing Grace” on Easter Sunday after the Pope stood there alone. But people sang “Amazing Grace” all over the world Sunday.
  5. People sewing, volunteering, sacrificing and praying harder than usual. Constant cheering and appreciation for our medical workers. I often pray when I go to a hospital (I miss that right now), “Lord, we know that you’ve given us wisdom and medical knowledge so that these doctors, nurses and workers do every day and routinely what Jesus did miraculously.” Healthcare is a daily miracle. We just appreciate it more right now.
  6. Being away from people we love makes us yearn for their presence and anticipate the first time we can see one another. You can feel it all the way into prayer.
  7. The earth has been given a sabbath of human activity. Sea turtles in India are flourishing during our quarantine, and people can see the Himalayas from a hundred miles away for the first time in years. We ought to remember what we’ve learned.

Continue reading “After Easter…”

The Invitation to Serve

Sermon preached on Sunday, March 29, 2020  at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. You can view the recorded version here.

 NRS Luke 9: 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.  46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

This is the final message in my series on “Better Reasons to Believe” and it is this: “because we are invited to serve.” That sounds strange, I admit. “The chance to sacrifice what I want so someone else can have it” doesn’t top most people’s lists of what matters the most.

The poor lieutenant governor of Texas this past week, in a moment of bravery, said, “We grandparents need to risk sacrificing our lives for the economic futures of our grandchildren, even if we die.” The firestorm was predictable. Whatever his intentions, a lot of people said, “After you, sir.”

But how do we sacrifice in this moment of global pandemic? And will that be enough?  It’s a real question. But not a new one.

This Bible story happened in the aftermath of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when

GARY4
Gary Furr

Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, and then followed the Transfiguration, when three of the disciples went with Jesus to the top of the mountain and saw a vision of Jesus radiant with the glory of God and a mysterious voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son”

After this astounding spiritual experience, though, they went back down the mountain and the next day everything started to go wrong. First, the disciples, giddy with their calling to go forth try to help, try to help a poor child who suffered from convulsions and the father came to Jesus, saying in essence, “Your disciples tried, but they couldn’t help.” Continue reading “The Invitation to Serve”

A Guitar for Christmas

I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.

Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.

Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.

My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar.  My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.

Gary Woody Paul (1)
With Woody and Paul, Christmas 1971. Instead of new sweaters.

Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass.  Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.

We were writing songs and Continue reading “A Guitar for Christmas”

Christmas Time Is Coming

“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.”  One verse goes

Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows

The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’

Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?

When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home

Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became

Image result for tex logan
Benjamin “Tex” Logan

digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.

But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of Continue reading “Christmas Time Is Coming”