Category Archives: Family

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

Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection

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

Brussels Subway system attacked

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

Getting Ready to Die … and Live

A friend asked me about this piece.  I wrote it a few years back while talking to an engineer friend who was then trying to prepare for the end of his life. He kept asking me, “Gary, how do I KNOW I’m ready to die.” And I kept answering with pastoral comfort about facing death, quoting verses, and my typical caring responses. When I got home, I expressed my sense of frustration.  “I don’t think I answered his question, because he kept re-asking it.”

Vickie said, “Gary, he wants a punch list.  He’s an engineer (my wife’s father was an engineer), he wants a list of things to do.” Well, Myers Briggs, you did it again. So I set about a list, and she helped me with it. I have shared this often with my deacons in the church, with individuals, and it seemed useful to share it here if it helps. This is my list, so yours may be a little different, and it certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I know this: if you spend time preparing for death, you will really be prepared anew for life.

 

Getting Prepared to Die—and to Live

Gary and Vickie Furr Read the rest of this entry

“Sixty is Just Alright”

It’s a good time to polish up friendships, love family, forgive, thank and bless.

So I turned sixty, and for some reason the people around me celebrated for a week.  I know with Ebola, the Ukraine, ISIS  and Israel causing the end-of-the-worlders to crank out their book my firthday isn’t a big deal globally, but it has been to me.

Sixty

Sixty is alright for sure.

Over the last five years I have laid to rest a close friend, a father-in-law (who was a second father to me) and a mentor and colleague I have known for 21 years and was my predecessor.  The Shadow has been around lately.  I have grandchildren.  There is likely more life behind than before me years-wise.  You know—morbidity hangs around.  Joints ache a little more.

You’ve poured a lot of concrete by sixty.  Decisions, patterns, character, and events harden into tracks out of which it’s hard to escape.  On the other hand, those same tracks give a certain comfort and stability to life.  It’s hard to break them up.

The upside has surprised me, though.  A certain amount of “I just don’t care about that anymore.”  I don’t care very much at all what others think about what I think.  I don’t need to correct them all Read the rest of this entry

Asking Good Questions: A Sermon for a Young Parent

 I’d want them to know my love was so strong that no matter how bad it gets,

how far down they go, who leaves them and abandons them, I won’t. 

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.    

Looking at a newborn is a pretty overwhelming reality.  It is the age we are in.  Vickie and I were sitting outside in the

waiting room, getting more anxious by the moment for our daughter and her husband and a little one.  Being born is

from cdc.gov site

from cdc.gov site

dangerous, not guaranteed, and full of anxiety, no matter what reassurances we are given.  In fact, the greatest advice from the OB to our daughter the last two months was, “Don’t Google.”

We don’t know how to know what to do with all the information.  In the old days, they took the mother, the father paced outside, and  the baby arrived.  It was the first inkling of what you had—boy or girl.  No paint colors until you knew.

Now, you have more knowledge about this infant than the NSA has of your cell phone.  But what to make of it?  Truth is, there is still a place where we cannot intrude with knowledge, and it is the miracle of life itself.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to know.  And here’s how we got the word.  We’re sitting there, grandparents, waiting, worrying, praying.  Getting texts from our kids and friends—praying for you, hoping, let us know, that sort of thing.  And we occupy ourselves by answering these as we wait.  Naturally, we are watching the other occupants of the room.  A waiting room is pure democracy.  Rich, poor, well-dressed and barely dressed, country and city, every Read the rest of this entry

Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

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Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Read the rest of this entry

Disappointing Others for God: A Reply to Elizabeth

the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation

placed on Him, and purposefully,

for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. 

That is and always will be enough.

Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church.  Don’t Hate Me.”  I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration.  I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend.  Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.

I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time.  In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.

A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.”  I have found this to be true, again and again.  Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it.  Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests.  Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.

Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call.  The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done.  When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that.  I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course.  Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much.  It will pass.

Gary Publicity 2012

Gary Furr

Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church.  The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times.  Eventually you come to expect it will be there.  The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there.  I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left.  Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?”  I was hurt.  Now I get it.

In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday.  He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving.  I hadn’t.  He felt differently in time, and so did I.  I was hurt, too.

Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure.  Maybe it takes a lifetime.  So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much.  There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over.  Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it.  They’ll survive.  And so will you.  Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.

So listen within.  Be clear.  Turn it loose.  The kingdom has survived worse than even us.  But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry.  It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it.  You just live with it and move on.  Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.  That is and always will be enough.

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Love and Sorrow Mingled Down in Newtown: A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.

Friday morning, I got up early.  I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off.  I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.

Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Christian calendar

Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece.  Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves.  I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen.  The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song.  What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?

A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood.  I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product.  And here is what I wrote:

“Greg:  I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar.  The mood suggested a title for the piece:  “Weeping in Ramah”   CLICK TO LISTEN   from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents  What do you think?

 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

 Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home.  Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours.  I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired.  The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.

I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition.  Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable. Read the rest of this entry

Cynicism and Forgiveness

“Forgiveness” is my wife’s favorite song on my new CD.  (Click HERE to listen to the song)  The chorus goes:

It’s impossible to give forgiveness

It’s even worse to have to ask

If letting go is the answer

Living like it’s gone is the task.

How else you going to deal with the past?

Lance Armstrong and General Petraeus in one year are maybe more than we can take, even in our jaded time.  I find myself turning it all off more and more just to preserve my soul.  Cynicism can cripple the spirit.  It can rest on the

How else you gonna deal with the past?

belief that everything is a con, everybody is out to get you, all politicians are evil, and all human beings’ motives are bad.  While Christians might be seen to have a lot in common with that, what with the fall of humanity and all, I’m here to say, “Not really.”

The Christian gospel is not as much about how bad we are as that God knows it and loves us anyway.  Sin is not what lives on at the end of the day.  Its moment is the middle of a Friday with a dark sky and a rugged cross and a man yelling, “It is finished.”  But the last word is an empty tomb, followed by a hopeful church, a Holy Spirit, and a kingdom to come.

So as Thanksgiving approaches, it might do well for us to think about how to defeat it in our lives.  I want to offer two helpful practices from our faith that can be an antidote to cynicism. Read the rest of this entry