LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
Your Bag of Wedges: A Commencement Address
I was invited by President Beck Taylor to give the afternoon Commencement Address for Samford University’s winter graduation on Saturday, December 18, 2021 2 p.m. This is my text.. This reflection was originally part of a sermon that appears in my forthcoming book, Shadow Prayers. it will be out soon through Mossy Creek Press.
Congratulations, graduates! What an accomplishment! We are proud of you today and you should be, too. Let me share the three measures of maturity that I gave my three daughters years ago: You’re out of the house, out of school and out of my money. My middle daughter, a Samford grad, came up to me and said, “Two out of three isn’t bad, Dad.”
I know you go out into an odd world. I feel for you. I grew up in such a different time. I graduated college in 1972. We didn’t have these problems.
Of course, we had witnessed the assassination of a President, his brother, and Martin Luther King, jr. There were protests over the war in Vietnam and racism. Oh, and we were arguing about communism and fascists. And radical groups were setting off bombs weekly. We were also fighting over women’s place in the world, sexuality, and the environment. Inflation was a problem. Drug abuse was out of control. Political corruption took out another President. But like I said, it was a different time. Simpler. Of course, we were pretty sure that the world was falling apart. Global hunger worried us. Time was short, and preachers said it was the end of the world. Hal Lindsay wrote a book and set the Rapture in the 1980s. But you live in a very different time.
Anyway, I got married during college. For three years I worked every spare moment for the McKinnon Bridge company building bridges on Interstate 40 in East Tennessee. My co-workers were a distinguished group—including Wise Owl, the crane operator, who did time for murder, and Elmer, a moonshiner who never wore teeth at work and rolled his own cigarettes.
A fellow carpenter was nicknamed Love. That came from the tattoos on his knuckles. On one hand was L-O-V-E and on the other, H-A-T-E. One day, two of us college boys were trying to decide whether to ask for a promotion or not. He said, “Boys, I’m going to give you some advice. You got to start at the top and work yer way down.” We got the promotion. Good advice. Kind of a reverse Peter Principle.
Now to build a bridge we erected huge logs and set steel beams from one row of logs to another.
Before setting the steel beams down, we laid down wooden boards, maybe two feet long, on top of each log. Then we put a row of wooden wedges, as many as 8 on each block facing one way. Then we put an equal number of wedges facing the other direction and laid another board on top of that. Then you set one edge of the steel beam on top of the boards, a kind of wedge sandwich. Then we would build plywood forms and put steel reinforcement bars inside and pour concrete.
Then, when the concrete was dry on the new bridge, we climbed up with sledgehammers and put a hydraulic jack up to the beam and tightened it. Then we started knocking the wedges out. The weight of those forty-foot steel beams settled on the jack instead of the wedges, which fell to the ground. Then we lowered the beam until it could be pulled out and down to the ground.
It was dangerous work at every stage. Think of this—hundreds and hundreds of those wedges, facing toward one another, held thousands of pounds of steel and wood and concrete and a crew of men until the bridge was done. The wedges had one purpose—to point toward one another and hold in place and then, its work done, be knocked aside. The purpose of the bridge was not the wedges. It was to enable people to travel and get across the river or a valley or a low place.
Think about the lowly wedge. It is a lowly task, having people kick you over and over just so you can hold the door for them. They hold open doors for elderly people on their walkers and canes or while funeral directors wheel the body of someone out to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery.
Chisels are metal wedges. An axe head or a hatchet is essentially a metal wedge with a handle to multiply the force while you drive it into a limb or a log. The purpose is simple—to sever and split. Occasionally humans even kill each other with them.
So, wedges are powerful little things. As such, they have to be wielded with care. But also, they lift something up, little by little. A wedge can divide, split, destroy. It can lift a steel beam or prevent a car from rolling downhill.
Wedges are like human words. And words have the capacity to lift up and build, or to destroy and divide. Now we live in a time that is unlike any other. Our information age has brought with it disinformation and rumors, anarchists and conspiracy theorists.
Social media and the internet, our own news media across the spectrum from left to right, have been driving the wedges, harder and harder. Our differences are deep and out there to see. And we have pounded them into our common life, harder and harder, and anger drives them deeper than we normally would.
It would be worthwhile to note what wedges cannot do. They cannot tie things together or bond that which is separated. Wedges don’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. They are not useful for wiping tears and I cannot think of a single joke about wedges that would lift my spirits. They are lowly, mostly limited things. I mean, how many logs do you have to split? And how much of your day should be spent propping doors open?
And all of this brings me to a few words from Jesus. Jesus knew about words. In the Bible, words are everything. God created by His word. Words can bless or curse. Because you can’t just fling them out there indiscriminately. They have power, words do. The Hebrews understood this. Jesus is, in fact, Himself the Word of God, by which the world was made, according to the first chapter of John. The late William Barclay said calling Jesus the Word meant Jesus is himself an expression of Godself to us. If you want to know what God is like, look here. Be like him. Listen to him. Study his words. The order and purpose of the universe is displayed in him.
Wedges work by pushing apart. The Apostle Paul declared “God was in Christ reconciling the world closer to God.”
You have been given an extraordinary gift, these four years (I know some of you have probably done a few victory laps, so it may be more). If you are getting an advanced degree, you have even more privileged—you have been gifted with many tools. And you have worked as an advanced student in bridge building, as I see it. You have the gifts that could make ways for humanity to get across the rivers and ravines and deep places and obstacles built by nature, fear, and ignorance.
All of this brings us to this truth—human words, at best, are a sack of wedges. For four years, words have been your central preoccupation. By them you’ve been instructed, learned, been challenged, grown and argued with others and yourselves. Now you take your toolbox and your sack of words and out you go.
I hope you know this: the highest purposes of a life of learning are not about driving apart but bringing closer, lifting, and bringing all things into great purposes. Our words have all kinds of uses, but they are not necessarily what is the deepest intention of life. Higher education, to me, like the church, is about building bridges, not splitting logs, hairs, or someone else’s skull.
I do not know what is up ahead. It is a time unlike any other. Maybe it’s time to face the wedges toward one another and lift something up together for the common good. Raise up good families and children. Lift spirits. Raise up the fallen. Build up others. Lift someone else’s burden. Build hospitals and universities and good causes. Our world needs some bridge-builders. Jesus said our words tell who we are. For good or bad. And on the day of judgment, how we deployed our bag of wedges and hatchets, and axes will be brought into the light. It’s a terrifying image.
But another way to see it is this—we who are trained in the power of words and ideas have the great opportunity to use them for truth and life and reconciliation
Here are three ways I’d aim my wedges if I were launching out now. First, I’d understand that I have a personal responsibility sometimes that no one else can do. One day, while wrecking out the wedges, a co-worker accidentally lowered one of the steel beams onto the end of his thumb. He started screaming for someone to help him. Unfortunately, he was down in a tight spot. The boss said, “Son, you’re the only one who can do it.” Take what’s yours and shoulder the responsibility. Don’t be afraid of it. Some things are yours alone to do.
Second, build a bridge wherever you can. Our call is to see the larger blueprint that makes a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King once put it. Not to accept excuses or to selfishly live for how much stuff you can accumulate. At the end that all comes to nothing. Bridges last. Build across suspicion, find solutions, contribute to institutions and the larger good.
Finally, remember my friend Love’s advice: “Start at the top and work your way down, boys.” It wasn’t what he meant, but I think of the teaching of Jesus, and that brilliant exposition in the letter to the Philippians 2: “Have this mind in you that was in him: he laid aside all privilege and honor and position and took on the form of a suffering servant, even unto death.” This is the way—the servant leader, who finds contentment not in fame, or power, or dancing on TikTok, or making Forbes Magazine’s Richest list, but in what you plant deep into the soil of hope and goodness and your relationships. This is the heart of all that matters in life.
Pay attention to what you do with your wedges. This will bring you life amid the busyness. Someone has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.” Take your diploma. You earned it, whether you graduated Summa Cum Laude , Magna cum laude, or Laude How Cum, and bless. It’s your time. We need you. It’s a great time to be alive. An important time. Your time.
Turning the Page to a New Day
Some people can look at the big picture and take it in. Others of us have to plant down on the earth and focus on digging the one hole that is ours to do. When you’re trying to get it together, simple is best. You can’t fix the entire universe, but you can fix a healthy breakfast. You can’t answer the question of suffering humanity, but you can lend a hand to one person hurting.
We live in time. It’s different for each of us. But what we do with the hand dealt us will finally determine how the story is written. I don’t even engage in the teacup tempests on social media anymore. I finally realized I can’t correct every misperception out there. And you can’t argue with a stump, unless that pleases you. Some of those online rants remind me of the Calvinist predestinarian fellow who fell down a flight of stairs and got up, dusted himself off and said, “Whew. Glad I got that over with!”
Nothing changes from the arguments. You have to get up and do something to get your life back. It can be a movement, or a cause, but a lot of folks are struggling on a more basic level. I had a wise spiritual director named Ron who told me that when he encourages people to try journaling he sets a goal of two sentences a day. He knew that they would overwhelm themselves with trying to write books (he was talking to me!) for the ages. “Just write couple of sentences.”
It is the little things not the big ones that really get you where you want to go. For stability and peace we look out for the things right by us to get us there. Set simple goals. First thing everyday, get up and do the same things. Make your bed. I read that that is one of the real indicators of depression, surprisingly, and just the simple act of doing that little thing is a discipline that begins to move us out of the funk and into control of living. Find something good to do as soon as you can. Once Basil Pennington was asked the secret of prayer. He said, “First you have to sit down.”
Maybe when you’re struggling you need to lower your own bar a little. One item on the list? Check it off. You’ll sleep better. Tomorrow we’ll try two.
Psalm 131 (New International Version. Copied from biblegateway.com)
A song of ascents. Of David.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Every Mother’s Day for the last dozen years of my ministry as a pastor, we’d combine Mother’s Day with Graduate Recognition. This is because our college students ended earlier than high school students and if we wanted to see them all before they went to Cancun or their senior trip, we’d better get it done.
So, oddly, we celebrated Mother’s Day (which is lauded above Father’s Day). For all of my childhood, I figured Mother’s Day was in the Bible and we often got a sermon on the woman described in Proverbs 31. This was the only time we heard a sermon on this text unless a woman over 75 died, in which case they had asked that it be read to describe them as a virtuous and industrious woman, whether their family had recognized it or not. By Mary and Martha, those unappreciative kin were going to hear it on her way out.
Graduate Recognition is a time when a church, well, marks the end of one phase of mothering, so to speak. As I told one son-in-law when they announced their marriage, “Son, I’ve done all I can do. She’s all yours.”
Now they move to the next phase, which in this most odd time is less clear. Will the moving be metaphorical (Online college? A virtual backpacking trip to Europe? A job, perchance?)? or will it be literal (huge carloads of stuff to cram into some undersized cubbyhole of a dorm room)?
Whatever comes next, the American Dream of parents is what I called in a sermon the “threefold test of maturity.” You are:
- Out of the house.
- Out of school.
- Out of our money.
My daughter Erin said, grinning, “Two out of three isn’t so bad, Dad.”
But this “getting out on your own” has really flown into the Twilight Zone over the past year, and it isn’t over yet. I remember at the end of my freshman year of college packing up a Mustang Grande with my entire dormroom and driving to Denver, Colorado alone at age 18. No cell phone, no credit card, just a “gas card” and cash. That world actually existed.
Yet I WAS going “home.” My favorite definition of “maturity” isn’t that one above. It is this, given my by a counselor, and I have not been able to trace the author: “Maturity is to accept oneself and one’s origins as non-negotiable.” You won’t achieve that after high school graduation or even college, and certainly not in your twenties. You are likely to spend decades figuring out what the heck that means.
Let me just say that what you discover isn’t far from what the poets tell us, that there is something permanent and real right here in us, with us, next to us, in the people we’ve been given, but we cannot know that right away. Wendell Berry said it so beautifully in his short poem:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
(Wendell Berry, “The Real Work.”)
So out you go, but the prayer of a parent is you will find your way back home. If you have to stay a while until you get it back together or if you have to, as John Denver once sang of the Prodigal Son, make your “way back home again over many a rugged mile,” you will discover the way. And it will be familiar and deep. What you loathed and couldn’t wait to escape or the great treasure you seek isn’t out there anywhere. It is within.
This past year has had plenty that was terrible and depressing. But it has called forth from us something by necessity—to connect where we can with other humans. Loneliness and distance have caused us to dwell in the Far Country even as we didn’t leave home for months and months. And an ache for the people who mattered most and on whom we counted grew deep until we thought perhaps we might not take them for granted ever again.
On this Mother’s Day, just after my wife and I returned home from the embraces of grandchildren from whom we’d been separated for over a year, as we survived an invisible virus and the stupidity of our fears toward one another, something eternal has endured. And the stream that is bouncing off the stones is singing. Listen.
Blessings on you all. Stay connected to the people you love.
From Here to Okay
This song speaks for itself. It came to me during the summer. The hook was a quote from a news story at a disaster scene, but my mind was on people I loved and knew who lost children. Their stories are the most courageous I have ever met. That they still have any faith at all after such losses is perhaps the closest to real miracles we ever see.
It’s such a long, hard road. In my vocation I traipse alongside unimaginable losses, but children are the hardest from my perspective. It is the loss of love so intense, the loss so against our DNA, that a person’s world is shattered. But they keep going, somehow.
This is on our forthcoming new album. This particular track features my friend since high school, Paul Harmon, a phenomenal musician from the Boston area, along with fiddle work by Mark Weldon.
From Here to Okay
Gary Allison Furr
1. I was telling my favorite story when I heard a knocking sound
It was my neighbor. He said, “You’d best sit down”
I never finished that story. I’ll never tell it again.`
The clock on the wall said 7:10.
2. I’m lost and so angry. She’s just sad all the time,
The shadows go with us everywhere.
Now and then for a while we still act like we used to,
But we still can’t move that empty chair.
It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us
Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say.
Walk with me a while in the valley of grey
It’s a long way from here to okay
So thank you so kindly for asking about us
And for the fine food that you brought
But please take back home the reassuring words you offered,
It’s not easy answers I’ve sought
Some cope with a bottle, and others with a pill,
Some sit in a circle and pray for God’s will,
But nothing on earth fills the hole left inside
By a love that was once so alive.
It’ll be a long time ’til we put it behind us
Just sit with me. There’s nothing to say.
Walk with me a while in the valley of grey
It’s a long way from here to okay
released November 18, 2020
lyrics and music by Gary Allison Furr BMI all rights reserved.
Gary Allison Furr-vocals, guitar
Paul Harmon—electric guitar, piano, percussion, bass, drums