Category Archives: Ethics

Investing in Grace

Hope depends upon the capacity of a person to trust in the ultimate goodness of things rather than on the evidence of any particular moment’s appearance. That is important for the living of these days.

In the fractures of our present politics, our divisions, our radical differences of how we see the same world, it is tempting to withdraw from the fray. It is also tempting to deepen the gulf. And neither of these options helps either us or the world. And it is not particularly useful to God’s kingdom in this moment.

In his wonderful book “Vanishing Grace: Sharing Real Grace with a Thirsty World,” Philip Yancey writes: “Jesus had the uncanny ability to look at everyone with grace-filled eyes, seeing not only the beauty of who they were but also the sacred potential of what they could become. We his followers have the same challenge: ‘So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view,’ Paul told the Corinthians.”

He continues: “Evidently we are not doing likewise since many people think of faith, especially evangelical faith, as bad news. They believe Christians view them through eyes of judgment, not eyes of grace. Somehow we need to reclaim the ‘goodnewsness’ of the gospel, and the best place to start is to rediscover the good news ourselves.”

It is not natural for us to see one another this way. We survive by a healthy suspicion of all but those who clearly love us or have demonstrated they will not con us, use us or manipulate us to make a buck or sometimes even for simple apparent cruelty. We warn our children of the risk of strangers. Our media heightens our sense of constant threat by others to our well-being.

This suspicion of others is not without reasonable experience to back it up. Unfortunately, it cannot accomplish very much in the way of turning the tide of disintegration of human life.

Consider, for a moment, the calmness of Jesus, who in every situation that could have brought distress or anxiety – death, disease, mental disintegration, political threats, abandonment by family and friends, even finally the loss of his own life – kept clear. He seemed to see something else in the outcasts and even in his enemies that they could not see themselves.

I think that’s what Paul was writing about in 2 Corinthians 5 when he described this “ministry of reconciliation” that has been given us. It is the ability to “see like Jesus” in the midst of a very turbulent life.

Ours is the ministry of grace. It is our privilege to express it to one another and to others who have all but abandoned hope that such a way could truly exist. I see it in the tenderness of all of you in the face of death, dying and personal troubles. Faith abides.

It is important for Christians to remember that what we are committing to together is not merely a place to worship or programs to occupy our time, not even merely causes in the larger society, but to the ministry of grace and to providing new eyes for everyone we can – the eyes to see as Jesus saw. I am more grateful for this vision than ever.

The place where this wonderful message of grace can be effective is when we first believe it for ourselves and then begin to share it with others. We trust that in spite of our failings, brokenness, self-doubts and fears, such grace thrives precisely when it seems most preposterous from the appearance of things around us. Such a grace is worth a life.

A version of this article first appeared on Vestavia Hill Baptist Church’s pastor’s blog.  

Between Cross and Easter

Of late, not only in my ministry work, but through the connections of social media, I have been highly conscious of the processions of sorrow that go on around us in the midst of life. In my work, we are walking near every kind of brokenness and sorrow in the world every week, then trying hard to stand up and proclaim hope on Sunday.

Brokenness comes in so many different forms, but it all shares one truth–suddenly we are in a room with no walls to keep predators out, no roof to shield us from torrential storms, no floor to stop us from going down. WIth that comes temptation to panic, that we might absolutely burst from the heaviness of it all. It is here that faith matters most if it matters at all.

This prayer is from my 2015 book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises.  It was a prayer given originally as an invocation to a performance of the Requiem by John Rutter. If you are in that place, perhaps it would be of some encouragement today.

We came here tonight to wait and to hope

That tombs and sorrow and death and loss

Are only prelude

To seek the Living shepherd,

Beyond our doubts, beyond our fears,

From death into life.

We wait faithfully

Hoping that

You might meet us in our gardens of sorrow as you met Mary,

We wait for unexpected visions in the midst of our tears.

And for you to come to us

As you came to them behind the locked doors of fear

To wait tonight is enough

For tomorrow we will walk to the tomb again Read the rest of this entry

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

Remembering Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again.  It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.

It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.

The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.

I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home  recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation.  But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Start Young

If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe

Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.

Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.

Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations.  Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.

Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.

It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions

about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.

Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.

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.

It’s Simple: Buy Some Music, Help Mothers and Children in Alabama

For every album download sold during January-March, I will give $5.00 to the Coalition toward its project of an app for mothers and children to use for help!  For every single sold, I will give .50 cents!  Enjoy some music and help out a great project! Tell a friend and help us fund a project

Buy link:  GARY FURR MUSIC

I am spearheading a new Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children. The coalition, formed in 2016, is comprised of a group of healthcare, medical, faith, academic and para-health organizations and leaders who seek to collaborate their efforts to better serve the needs of mothers and children in Alabama. The Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children offers a robust networking system for better efficiency of programs through partnerships and support as well as a powerful force for advocacy for these families.  We  seek to be a voice for those who are often disconnected from help, and build partnerships across the usual lines of specializations, religious affiliations and other ways that sometimes lead to isolation or lack of awareness.

Right now we are undertaking to create an app to be given away in our state that helps young mothers with infants and young children find the many organizations that stand ready to encourage them and give assistance to give their child the best start possible. We are raising funds for the creation of the app and for the internships to gather the information. There are two ways you can help. First, if you’d like to simply give something, you can donate through our PayPal button.  Second, for the months of January, I’m offering to give all income from my songs to the Coalition to help spark our drive. Go to my downloads here and buy a song for $.99 or a CD for $6.99-8.99 and $5 from CDs and .50 cents from songs goes straight to the cause. You can help me by asking a friend to “buy a song for kids.”   Read the rest of this entry

After the Election

The fight is over, the election is done. All the signs and calls and facebook debates have to be taken down and put away.

We’re not used to so much attention. Usually people just stereotype our state

Without knowing how beautiful it is, or how loving its people are

People who work hard, love their children and care about each other.

All of a sudden, we’ve gone viral, and celebrity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

The talking heads were here, the news shows, and all the big names

Flown in for decision and then leave. No matter what side we took,

we are proud of the towns and crossroads and cities where we live and

Tomorrow, we’ll prepare lunches and get in car pool line.

Tomorrow we’ll take our neighbor who lives alone for her chemo.

Tomorrow we’ll go on that date night with the spouse

or watch our little cheerleader at the game

We’ll wave to the neighbors, call the plumber, rake the leaves

Get ready for the company party, mail the cards, call mother to check on her Tomorrow they’ll all be gone and we’ll still be here, working next to the guy

Who roots for the Tide if we’re War Eagle.

Tomorrow we might go to prayer meeting, or out to eat

Meet the new person moving in. Do volunteer work.

They’ll all be gone and miss the best part of living here which is, well, living here.

The election will be done

and we can stop talking and things will go back to normal.

But we’ll still be here, and glad to live here, together, all of us, neighbors, friends

Opponents and disagreeable cusses. And we’ll still be people of faith

They’ll go home and remember the beauty and our hospitality

and how great the food is,

And we’ll hope they really SAW us, not just a stereotype.

Lord, after the election, that’s our prayer today: that we’ll keep seeing one another

For who we are, real people, families, see each other’s needs and struggles,

Understand a little better, forgive a little more, hope a little harder,

Try and fix what we broke, listen longer, trust each other.

That’s where you always are, where those things happen.

That’s our prayer: to see you and love you, see one another with our hearts

And with kindness, see a future together and see one another’s kids

We want to be the Alabama that we touch with bare feet and summer breeze and the laughter of our grandchildren

Despair is always presumptuous, someone said. 

We’ll get up. There’s work to be done.  Amen.

Abide With Me

Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life.  He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

 

It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow  clergyman, of which he said

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”[1]

Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals.  In one of the eight original verses is the line  “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”[2]

Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.

Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”

That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.

 

 

[1] Darrell St. Romain, “History of Hymns: Abide with Me” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-abide-with-me

 

[2] St. Romain.