Category Archives: Politics

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

Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama

Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become

Rev. Arthur Price

Rev. Arthur Price

friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other.  Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together.  He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together.  The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.

kthompson_PKDHAZ6R

Rev. Keith Thompson

Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South.  It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.   (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)

One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches.  We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years.  Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that.  We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.

After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened.  Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry

Sandy Calls

Lessons in Politics from a Baptist Preacher

I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now.  Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess.  I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.

Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around.  They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote.  Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of

We are one in the spirit

diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion.  We have to run for election every year.  It’s called “the budget.”  A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long.  Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.

So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before.  He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?”  And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”

A little unsolicited advice:

  1. You have to learn how to build consensus.  Winning 51-49 is not winning.  You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
  2. You will learn humility willingly or eventually.  Willingly is much less painful.
  3. Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one:  “Learn to tell a story.  Keep it simple.  Tell the truth.  Truth doesn’t need help.”
  4. The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end.  They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
  5. It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement.  Even if you and your mother think so.  God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
  6. Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
  7. You have to trust others to make real changes.  Nobody does it by themselves.
  8. Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
  9. Forgive and move on.  It’s just that simple.  Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
  10. Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall.  There are worse things than losing your job.
  11. Believe in Someone or Something larger than you.  Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
  12. It’s not your church.  It’s not their church.  It’s God’s church.  Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
  13. If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it.  It’s not rocket science.
  14. Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
  15. A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
  16. Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular.  Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
  17. No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
  18. Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
  19. Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.  Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
  20. As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
  21. Love really is the great truth of life.  Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.

Breaking News Update from “What If…”

(Another Imaginary News Update, to be repeated 97 times on Imaginary CNN when there is nothing else to talk about)–

In a late-breaking development in the Native American Immigration Crisis (read the original story here http://garyfurr.org/2012/07/16/what-if/

Canadians illegally in the United States today gathered simultaneously at IHOPs across the country, as they believe that they are diplomatically immune spaces.  In a giant Skype call, they decided that should the Native American effort to oust Europeans proceed and threaten them as well that their strategy will be to return to Canada on a single day, forcing a crisis in the Great North.  The emigres hope that it might result in an emergency deportation back to the United States.

Stay tuned.

In other news, Stephen Colbert was ordered by the Supreme Court to no long market his show on the Comedy Network since a recent survey indicated that the majority of Americans could not tell that he was kidding.  Most discouraging was that the percentage of elected officials who thought he was “a serious journalist” exceeded the general population.

What If…

Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:

Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of

Euro-Americans

Squanto called “a sell out”

(Imaginary Press Release)   The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands.  Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit.  They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.

They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather.  They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally.   The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated.  If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.

Red Cloud and friends

Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team.  They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.

The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases.  Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place.  The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.

In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed.  While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.

Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands.  Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.

Cavemen expected to enter the dispute

The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies.  Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts.  Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security.  Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs.  Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not.  In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them.  The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.

A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday.  The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation.  “This affects millions of voters…er, people.  We have to fix this.”  Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.

Dangling Participles: News at 6

The 24-7 news cycle has changed our lives and made even

the most meaningless information a way to waste time on the planet.

A story on the morning news recentlywas about a local election in Arizona.  The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a law this week that banned a woman who could not speak English proficiently from running in a local city council race.  The

BREAKING NEWS

point of those who sued to remove her was that a certain level of sophistication in the English language was essential to being an elected official.  Who in the world came up with THAT?

The woman, who spoke in elemental English, was actually given a hearing in which she was examined for her language skills.  A clip on the news showed a lawyer asking the following:

            Lawyer: “And when did you go to high school?”

            Woman: “In the 1980s.”

            Lawyer: “And where was that at?”

Excuse me?  Buddy, you just dangled a participle.  My old-school English teachers would be all over you.  If you can be a lawyer without proficiency in grammar, it seems reasonable that you could run for office and let the voters decide.

It is the silliest of seasons, that is, an election year.  Actually, “election year” has followed the 24-7 news cycle to become a 24-7 political season.  Pols immediately begin re-election campaigns the day after they get elected now.  Since there are only about 18 minutes of actual newsworthy occurrences each day and the major news networks only cover about 11 of that, it leaves a lot of time to fill.  Fortunately, tomfoolery and goofiness fills the void.

There are now three major forms of commentators that have evolved in this present environment.  First, there are the pioneers, the radio partisans and their television counterparts.

“Momma, there’s something wrong with that man…”:

The  Wingnuts of every kind dominate here.  The form is simple:  you go on the air/television and talk ceaselessly to an imaginary person for hours.  You would never respond to an enraged man walking down the street like this, fuming and talking to an imaginary person..  You would call 911 and report him so the state hospital could come pick him up before he hurts himself or someone else.

The second form is more sophisticated.  People sit together and argue about politics in front of everyone watching.  There is more value perhaps, but still, not much is left to say after, oh, about four minutes on a particular item.

C. S. Lewis said in his autobiography that his father and their friends would often sit and discuss politics.  He and his brother concluded that nothing very interesting ever came of these discussions.  Their real passion was the world of imagination and ideas.  So at least we have politics to thank for Narnia and The Great Divorce.  A great thesis for some Oxford young don:  “Boredom’s Contribution to the Imaginative Work of C. S. Lewis.”

The third, of course, is comedy politics.  Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have cornered the market here.  Colbert is the more sophisticated—he pretends to be the very things he ridicules and takes it to hyperbolic excess.  He exaggerates, too.  One has to observe, this is too easy. Read the rest of this entry

The State of the Union–of Love and Truth

Gary Furr

Love and truth belong together.  So why is it that they are so often found separated?  Moral life arises from the recognition of eternal truth, the acceptance of the reality of others in that same truth, and the sensitivity to feel the connection between them.  Puritan preacher Richard Baxter said love for one’s neighbor is akin to hunger and food connecting.  It makes possible a new and different conversation.

Truth and love cannot live divorced from one another.  Otherwise we are, in the former case, driven to principles rendered only as power, devoid of kindness and the graces and kindnesses of feeling for the other. Read the rest of this entry

Thank You, Ella Jones: Churches, the Arts and Why They Matter

I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff.  Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting.  It’s just all so predictable and often pompous.  When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always.  You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:

TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS

AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”

NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)

GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND

MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH

COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.

CURE FOUND FOR CANCER (see G17)

As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is.  But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years.  Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.

Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations.  It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common.   First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety.  As I heard people

Birmingham News/picture by Jeff Roberts

say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.”  Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one?  We did when I was in the sixth grade.  Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.

Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly.  Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.

If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader.  Aretha Franklin?  Started in church.  I could go on but why?  The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.

I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night.  A way of life is disappearing.  Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me.  But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot.  I am glad for it.

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg.  While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor.  He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals.  He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.”  Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.

It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them.  When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession?  I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists.  But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing.  Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.

Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone.  But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space.  It matters.

The Other Two Sides of the Coin

Do you remember the old television show, “Newhart?”   It lives only on reruns now.  Bob Newhart and actress Mary Frann played an author and his wife who owned an inn in a weird little rural Vermont town. Among the strange characters who inhabited the town were three goony looking brothers, only one of whom ever spoke, named Larry.  Larry introduces the group the same way every time they make an appearance: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

It’s crazy.  How can there be three brothers with two names?  Life tends to be flat in our minds a lot of the time.  A friend recently told me about something an old fellow told him one time:  “We often say, ‘There’s two sides to every coin.’ But there are actually three—heads, tails, and the edge.’”

Three-dimensional space is a geometric notion. These three dimensions are length, width, and depth (or height).  The edge of the coin is most frequently forgotten part of things—“depth.”  For me it represents the narrow place that many false polarities might share.  There is only one edge on a coin, not two.  It is, in a sense, its own place.  It gives a third dimension.

So many complex questions and problems require the edge for solutions.  First, the notion of creativity and depth requires the capacity to see the other side as well as our own, to truly sympathize with an opponent’s positions if they are not simply disingenuous.  Second, it means holding out in our deliberations for the idea that there may be a “thicker” set of possibilities than first appear in the “coin flip” approach to theology, ethics, and politics.

There was an episode of the old Twilight Zone called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.”  The main character, Hector, is a timid guy who’s never advanced in his job at the bank.  He’s likeable, but his life is stuck.

Watch out...there's the sign up ahead!

One day he buys a newspaper, and flips a coin into the collection pan, where it lands on its edge. As a consequence, all day that day, he can hear people’s thoughts, and it changes his life.  He discovers love in the thoughts of a woman who is attracted to him that he never had the courage to ask out.  He reads the mind of an old teller who is stealing from the bank and turns him in.  He negotiates a better position and a raise and even gets help for the old teller who had stolen the money.

At the end of the day he stops by the newsstand again and buys a magazine and throws in another coin, this time knocking the coin off its edge and his telepathic powers are gone.  But he is a new man.  He has seen into the depth of his life, discovered things he did not have the courage on his own to see.

A lot of public issues turn into coin flips these days—somebody wins, the other guys loses.  Never is there the possibility that it could land on the edge and find another possibility.  This is different from compromise.  Compromise is resolving without the coin—both of us agree to be mildly unhappy.

Gandhi

The creative depth of life offers possibilities yet unimagined.  We have to learn to look there.  Who would have thought that the 2,000 year old teachings of Jesus about non-violence would bring down British rule in India or Jim Crow laws in the American South?  But it happened.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw a new possibility between violent overthrow and acquiescence and discovered the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder in our political landscape of the moment—what are we missing?  If ever we needed the dimension of depth to apply to problems of economy, work, immigration, homeland security and the other vexing issues of our time, it is now.  The great problem of politics is not merely electing different people from the ones we have at present, but in putting forth solutions that move beyond the impasses.  For that, we will require a level of creative possibility that is largely unknown in the landscape of the culture wars, limited as they are to the  “heads” of progressive change from what is on one side and the “tails” of conservative resistance on the other.

Hope resides on the edge.  May the creative leaders who can see it find us for this time.