Category Archives: Art
This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!
NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip. On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas. They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE
STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!
They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed. They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up. Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people are. Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such. Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.
So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?” And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”
I sympathize. I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here. It’s such a strange concept. Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.” The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Read the rest of this entry
So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us. We should grieve as people of hope—so what does that mean?
Here is where grace enters in powerfully. “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life. Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful. I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her. If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come. If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.
Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”
- Perplexed but not driven to despair
- Persecuted but not forsaken
- Struck down but not destroyed
What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering. It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting
- The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them. Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
- The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience. In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:
When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!
I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry
We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry
Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us. I said, toward the end, these words:
“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”
They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:
I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this: “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”
And this one from G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.
Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
A reflection offered on Friday after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas. By Dr. Gary Furr.
Haven’t we had enough of rage and death? Hasn’t enough blood been shed to convince us that this is a way that leads down into a Pit from which there is no return, no hope, and no end? Is there no capacity for mutual respect left among us for our neighbor, friend, and even the stranger on the street?
Isn’t common humanity, created by God, sufficient for respect? What have we not taught and lived for our children that our streets and systems well up with innocent blood? Is there no way back from the edge on which we balance perilously?
Is the stupidity and uselessness of killing not sufficiently clear to us as the worst way for a society to maintain itself? That we need more than fear and threat to abide together in peace? Is it not obvious that when we must sleep with a weapon under the bed, or in the car or on our hip to feel safe that we have lost our way?
When we see others as enemy rather than “my neighbor” and “the officer who is my friend” and “the man at our school everyone loves” isn’t it clear that something terrible has happened to us? When we rage on social media and retweet and link and forward but do nothing to change the situation that we have done nothing and maybe made things worse?
Don’t we know that “liking” a rant doesn’t repair broken relationships? Isn’t it time to see that nothing has really happened when we speak out, but that real change is something we do before it’s too late? Haven’t we had enough choosing of sides, blaming and finger pointing that lead to nothing?
Should we consider that nothing improves until each person in a free society accepts their responsibility for the mess? Is it possible that lawmakers and police and leaders and those in authority need the community as much as the community needs them?
Is there a way past the helpless resignation, blind rage and frustration to the better question, “so what should we do?” Isn’t it in times when courage and involvement seem the most useless that they matter the most?
Just because I can’t fix everything, am I excused from doing something to help? If I believe in prayer, really believe in it, should I not pray for my nation now more than ever, and listen for the answer God speaks?
Is it time to stop simply deploring our racial divide and meet neighbors and make friends, and go past our fears of others? Is there someone in my circle to whom I can reach out and know better and say, “I know we want better than this. Can we pray for one another?” Can I give to bury the dead, support the children left behind, work for a more just world, weep for the fallen and believe that it is not a waste of my time or the world’s?
Do I believe, as a Christian, that the Jesus way really works? That endless forgiveness is more powerful than endless revenge? That the gospel is good news for all?
O Lord, my mind is so haunted with these questions today. I am so concerned for shedding of blood and the disrespect for life that is before my eyes. Help us, Lord, please. We need You. We need one another. And we need a wave of remorse, repentance, and renewal. These my questions I lay before You. Only You can help us answer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
It is a daunting task to look for books. The book of Ecclesiastes had it right. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Ecclesiastes 12:12 While I in no way can vouch for everything below, it is my best effort to find some useful guides to children’s books. I welcome any additions and helps. Parents are often the best resources for one another, but when it comes to faith, we often feel inadequate. I do, too, especially in the subject of children’s books. Many childrens religious books are trivial, superficial and some are downright wrong about God. You have to be careful when talking about heaven, God, Jesus, death and faith. So, here are some things that helped me.
The Teaching Children Philosophy site is the work of Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from Mount Holyoke College is an interesting site with a terrific booklist, each one having a study guide with summary about the books and suggested questions for discussion. Click here to go to the site. Although it is not specifically a faith-based site, the issues and questions it raises overlaps with faith. A New York Times article about the author gives some background on how it came to be. Spend some time looking around. The summaries are very helpful!
University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has a similar site and has put together a guide also with summaries and issues. It is well-researched, and can help a parent have substantial conversations with children.
In 2013 the New York Public Library published the 100 Great Children’s Books For 100 Years list of the most read (i.e., checked out) and favorite books of all time of the past century. It is a wonderful list of books from 1913-2013, and most of us will recognize some of our favorites, but it’s also a good way to find some new ones. It was chosen by their Children’s librarians.
Amazon books and other booksellers offer similar lists, although they are proprietors and may be a little different and about marketing rather than other criteria. Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime is found at
When it comes to religious books for children, I was overwhelmed by the choices. And not always in a good way. From Mommyblogs to homeschoolers, these were all over the place. So I would say, “Search at your own risk.” You will find whatever you’re looking for, which is pretty much the problem of the internet to begin with—the lack of “guidance” for the uninformed. A good teacher matters! There are lists everywhere—NY Times booklists, Goodreads, Listopia, Religious Tolerance, denominational books, and so on. Oddly, sometimes they are some of the worst books for teaching faith, because they are either so overtly religious and pedantic that they lack the quality of inspiring curiosity, or they are theologically questionable. Still, there are treasures out there. Magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century occasionally make recommendations, and even the Mommyblogs can have some good suggestions. Just read them with a critical eye. Someone’s entusiastic recommendation does not a classic make… Read the rest of this entry
We pray today for these victims and their families— not gay or straight, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew or Muslim or none of the above, but as You see them–beloved sons, daughters, friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and most of all, fellow Americans.
As a minister, writer, and songwriter, I am always vexed when events of great magnitude happen. What words are adequate for such a moment? The shootings in Orlando, done by a single darkened soul under the sound and fury of evil ideology left us once again speechless. Except, everywhere, we started talking, typing, blaming, searching for answers. Many offered easy ones, mostly the same ones, and few people seem to change their minds. “If only everyone would….”
But the children, sisters, brothers and friends are still dead. I have searched my own soul, and pondered, “What more can I do?” There have been, according to a report I heard 133 mass shootings in the US (four or more murdered) in this year. Terror, violence, hatred, fear, loathing of people we don’t know or understand.
I see a dearth of storytelling power, almost an absence in our current public life. We have become a culture of three word slogans, name-calling, distortion and manipulation.
This summer, I decided to preach a series of sermons in dialogue with children’s books. I heard another pastor last year at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga tell about the joy of doing such a series, and I wrote a note then that I wanted to try it.
I will have a Pastor’s time with the children in every service, and we will read from a children’s book. I will post top lists of books for children on our church website for parents, including a list from the New York Public Library list of the most read Read the rest of this entry
I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:
The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves. They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of
their action except death and blood.
They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.
Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Read the rest of this entry
For many years, a member of my church who knows my weird tastes in music (if most people have never heard about it, I might have; if mass media doesn’t write about, I will) gives me the annual Oxford American Southern Music Issue. Given my roots and rootlessness around and on the edges of this bizarre and wonderful region (politics=absolutely bizarre; unelected people generally fascinating and gracious; land, music and layer of cultue—wonderful), he knows it lines up with my interests.
The OA is a journal with as colorful and eccentric history to match the region it writes about, but plenty has been written about it elsewhere. Just a few lines to mention the music issue, which isn’t cheap ($12.95) but well worth it. Every year, a particular state’s rich heritage of famous and not-so-well-known songwriters and performers are showcased. Read the rest of this entry