Category Archives: Christianity

Church Penalties

In a sermon, I once suggested that harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically.  Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person.  All or nothing thinking—and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit–makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life. This is not to say that there are no absolute truths–merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.

My friend D.r. Travis Collins is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.” Here are some possible penalties. Read the rest of this entry

The Heart of Billy Graham

In the late 1920s. my mother told me, my grandfather, her daddy, Henry Price took his oldest daughter, Katherine, to the hospital.  The doctor said that she had diphtheria and if he didn’t take her to the hospital she would die. Having no health insurance, Grandpa had to sell every chicken, cow and piece of equipment he had, as well as his his land and his house to pay the hospital bill.

With few other options, he moved his young family down to Charlotte and got a job with a local dairy farmer delivering milk. He would go out to the farm every day and pick up his deliveries and do his route.

Image #: 32382121 Billy Graham held his first stadium crusade in Birmingham, Alabama on Easter Sunday in 1964 and insisted it to be integrated. AL.COM /Landov

Their daughter survived, and when she was 6 she would go with him and knew the farmer’s son, who was about 12 years old.  She said he would pick on her.  She would later say, “He was mean to me sometimes.” But that boy went to a revival and was converted to faith in Christ, and she would have never guessed that the farmer’s son was Billy Graham, would go on to preach to 215 million people in the world and whose body lies in state in the Capitol as I write.

Most of us around Concord and Charlotte watched his rise to fame and came to love and respect his preaching Ministry. My mother says that when I was a baby, she and dad went out to the Charlotte airport to pick up someone for his work, and there came Billy and a couple of his fellow ministers, walking up the terminal hallway. My dad walked over with me in his arms, and according to family lore, Billy rubbed my head and pronounced me a cute child. I did not notice at the time.

My grandmother sent him money all of her years to support the work that he did to tell others about Jesus Christ. As he grew older zeal gave way to wisdom and Read the rest of this entry

The Valley of Hinnom

In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we read of a defiled valley in Jerusalem where child sacrifice had been practiced through burning. King Josiah, in his reforms, declared it a defiled place.  According to 2 Chronicles. 28:1-3, King Ahaz had offered incense there and offered his sons as a sacrifice.  It was considered accursed, a desecrated place.  So, too, King Manasseh, the wicked King who turned his back on the faith by permitting the horrific practices of other religions (although leading the nation to a prosperous economy) to be allowed, including child sacrifice. occultism, witchcraft and sorcery, channeling and wizardry. This included burning his sons as a sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 33:6).

The prophet Jeremiah thoroughly condemned this practice in Jeremiah 7:31-32 as godless and unholy.  In his prophecy at the Potsherd Gate at the edge of this same Valley, Jeremiah stood and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, declaring that God would bring such evil upon them that whoever heard of it, his ears would tingle, and he linked it in part to sacrifice of innocent blood.  It would become a desecrated place where only those with no burial place, like criminals and outcasts, would have their bodies placed.  An unholy and terrifying place.

By Jesus’ day, the valley of Hinnom was still considered a cursed spot. So when Jesus described hell as a terrifying place, an “unquenchable fire,” (Mk. 9:43), the term for hell is Gehenna, which seems to link etymologically with “hinnom.”  Some scholars have said that this refers to the desecrated valley, which became a trash dump in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

It would have been a vivid metaphor in his hearer’s minds. Like most dumps, it smoldered continuously and was full of maggots (Mk. 9:48-“where the worm never dies and fire unquenched”).  It was an unholy and evil place where only the most abandoned and forlorn souls ended their lives, bodies tossed shamefully onto the refuse of the city and decaying openly.

It is interesting enough that this was the image employed for the word “hell.” It is more intriguing to consider its beginnings as an accursed location. If you take a tour in Israel today, guides will tell this story and point out where it is thought to be.

That hell began with the sacrifice of a nation’s innocents, its children, while the powers that were sat by and tolerated it is astounding. It is horrifying to think of burning children on an altar. But then, I ponder—how do I live amid so much prosperity and yet so indifferent to the value of life—unborn, born, poor, neglected and otherwise?

How have we come to a place in which yet another school shooting numbs us? The same vapid paralysis will follow—the need for gun control and why it won’t matter, and ultimately, back to the same immobilized status quo.  As my school teacher daughter sighed to me, “Dad, if we wouldn’t do a thing after a classroom of preschoolers were slaughtered in Newtown, we won’t do anything about this one either.”

And so we shrug, again. A disturbed 19 year old bought an assault rifle and did what it is designed to do—kill by the masses. And nothing will change. And some day, tour groups may stop, and the guide point to the map and say of us,

This is the valley from which the name Gehenna comes, and it first became accursed because of its association with child sacrifice. They helplessly allowed their children to be sacrificed and to live in fear of dying in their streets and at school. The economy was strong, but still, they were cursed for allowing their young to be consumed without lifting a finger. They were conquered and destroyed, but long before, they rotted from within.  And nothing good ever grew there and no one would live there ever again.


There is still a glimmer of hope. The prophets warned Israel to repent and turn, while there was yet time. This is still a democracy, not a monarchy. There is still time. There is still a nation of citizens, a constitution, waiting for the will and united resolve to galvanize us to seek our better common life and the well-being of our young. We are not yet past the point of no return. But it is getting late.

Parables as Mind Openers

Dr. Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, calls the parables of Jesus “open-ended stories” in his brilliant book, Jesus and the Victory of God.   They are also stories of the coming Kingdom.  In these teachings, he argues, Jesus does four things—he issues an invitation, a word of welcome, words of challenge, and words of decision and calling

Last week,  during my Wednesday morning Bible study, I told about two kinds of thinking that we do about things that matter.  One is convergent thinking—we move toward narrowin

g down to a solution, a focus, to eliminate the options and get to the core issue.   It looks like this:

 

But there is also divergent thinking.It begins from a point, and drives us out into more  and more possibilities. It “opens up” something else, like a brainstorm (even though a lot of brainstorm exercises are often more like a drizzle!). Instead of narrowing down, it widens our thoughts, deepens, and inspiration belongs here. It looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Both kinds of thinking are necessary for life.  The parables brilliantly seem to do both—push us out into the kingdom, great thoughts, “opening up” as well as back to decision—“what must I do now that I have thought about this?”  Over the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday communion tomorrow evening, we will look at and listen to Jesus speaking to us and teaching us—pushing our boundaries, but also calling us to new fixed points and hard decisions to be disciples. In the Tuesday luncheons and the Sunday worship all the way to Easter, Jesus will tell us, as my late friend John Claypool described them, “stories Jesus still tells us.” Come gather round together, as the family tells the stories of Jesus, and as he invites us to new places in our lives.

One of the delightful gifts to Vickie and me in recent years is a little collection of hymn texts from our own Dr. Milburn Price based on the parables of Jesus. The idea was inspired when he wrote a hymn text for my 15th anniversary at the church (ten years ago!).  What resulted was a lovely little book called Lord, May Our Hearts Be Fertile Ground: Singing a Response to the Parables.  We will be actually singing some of these hymns Dr. Price wrote in our morning worship and at the luncheons. Copies will be available if you want one, and they will help to connect us to the stories as our thinking comes back from “opening up” to “making commitment” each week.  It should be a time of reflection and joy!

Wed Feb 14     Ash Wednesday     “To Pray and Not Give Up” Luke 18:1-8

Sun Feb 18                                        “Sowing and Reaping”          Matthew 13:1-8, 13-23

Sun Feb 25                                        “Kingdom Building”               Mark 4:30-34

Sun Mar 4                                         “Seeing Jesus”                           Matthew 25:31-46

Sun Mar 11                                        “Inheriting Eternal Life”      Luke 10:25-37

Sun Mar 18                                       “Who Was the Prodigal?”     Luke 15:11-32

Sun Mar 25     Palm Sunday          “Leaving the Ninety-Nine”   Luke 15:1-7

Sun Apr 1        Easter                       “The Sign of Jonah”                 Matthew 12:38-40

I love the parables. I never tire of thinking about them. They challenge me, as stories always do, in a way that statistics and news reports never do. They open the world up, and open me up.  There are about sixty parables of Jesus in all. They are still vital all these years later.

Down in Bethlehem

Today I am beginning a series of blogs about songs, more specifically songs I have written. I want to write a little about their “births,” as for me, songs are like children, or at least like the ugly ash tray I made out of clay at camp. They are mine, they mean something to me, and I still love singing them. Today, I’ll start with the first cut on my new album, “Down in Bethlehem.” I actually came up with the idea while writing a sermon, I guess it was during Advent of 2015. It’s a bit weird, really, to think of a third of humanity gathering every week to reflect on a two thousand year old set of texts, but in a time when we obsess over the latest thing, it’s a little comforting to me that we can mull over the same writing again and again, and like some prism being slowly turned in daylight, new colors of insight come.

I was struck by the commonality of the major stories about Bethlehem, that of Ruth, a Moabite widow who came as a foreigner immigrating back to her husband’s home’ David, the youngest of eight, who was selected by the prophet Samuel to replace Saul as king, and Jesus, born to a young couple shrouded in unimportance.  Again and again, in the Bible, God “chooses” to work with the “Most Likely Not to Be Chosen.” First I wrote a short poem to use in the sermon, then was haunted by it until this song came.

I was thinking about U2, Springsteen, music that is simple, driving, repetitive and building over time. Brent Warren does some really fine electric guitar work on this cut.  Take a listen and enjoy!  BUY or listen to it here. It still is true, I believe, that hope is a powerful and inexplicable reality, one that rises up unexpectedly and in the most unpromising of moments. That is when I suspect God might be up to something.  (see Ruth, 1 Samuel 16, Matthew 2 for the stories behind the song).  I’ve posted the whole song on my website for a week or so.  https://www.reverbnation.com/garyfurrmusic

Read the rest of this entry

Grace in An Ungrace World

Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.

His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular.  This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.  The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.  Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.

Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.  Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.

It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)

I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”

I wonder.

 

 

 

In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon

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 star-trek-the-experience-castare.  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

God’s Dream and Our Fear

Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:

As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

The problem of life is not faith, but fear.  Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying.  The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement.  Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.

Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken.  It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward.  The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a garymisstep and terrified of suffering.  Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.

Change, all change, brings fear with it.  Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable.  We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.

Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families.  The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.

Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”[1]

As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Read the rest of this entry

Forgiveness: Enough Already!?

NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?

Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval.  He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?”  He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith.  If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person.  I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry

Why Stories Matter


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.

The book, not the movie...

The book, not the movie…

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