Living Through Exile

I wrote this to our church back at the beginning of April. I hoped, like all of us, that we’d be “back to normal” by now. But we aren’t. So in looking back at this, it’s more relevant than I thought. We’re in it for a while. Hold on.

The exile in ancient Israel was a traumatic disruption.  The city of Jerusalem and all the towns of any size were sacked and burned, people scattered and all the Judaeans with any talent, leadership or education were marched across the desert to Babylon Iraq where they lived in an ethnic ghetto, not speaking the language or having any access to power, wealth and influence in their new land.

It was a time of terrible devastation. Excavations at Debir, Lachish and Beth-shemesh show enormous devastation.  No town in the south escaped. Many died in the siege, many died of disease and starvation.  The population decreased from 250,000 in the 8th century to perhaps 20,000 after the return .

The Exile presented many problems. First, of course, was simple survival. And how do you live in an  interim?  But by far the most profound was a theological and spiritual crisis. Their whole world, the one they knew, had disappeared from under their feet.

It became a profound time of spiritual change. They began to transfer and organize their scriptures from collections and memories into books. The synagogue was born, since the Temple was gone. But above all their was their shared memory.  Psalm 137:5-6 comes from the exile.

                        If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

                        Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

                        if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

It was a time when they realized that only God could taken them home again–and they eventually did. At times, as in Jeremiah 29, they had premature hopes that it would happen fast, but eventually they settled in for the long haul. Exekiel 37, a vision of resurrection for the nation (from which James Weldon Johnson’s wonderful“Dry Bones” comes from), saw a return to the life they loved. But alas, not right away.

It is breathtaking how quickly our full and prosperous lives of ballgames, family gatherings and entertainment venues was collapsed by a tiny little virus. Now we sit in our homes, even unable to come to God’s houses to worship together. Hugging our friends, sitting together on the pews, choir rehearsal, Wednesday night supper, is now cut off for a little while. No ballgames, no concerts, no movies at the theater.

We’re making the best of it, and praying, helping and trying to keep the kids going, as much normal as possible. It dawns on us that this passage is going to be tough. So what to do?

We’re figuring out how to survive, how to do the interim, keep it going. We post things to lend a little courage to one another.  But the spiritual crisis is also pervasive. And it’s not what self-anointed prophets of doom proclaim. I’ve been listening to those people since the 1970s, convinced that the end of the world is now at hand. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus said you and I don’t get to know that. Period. (Acts 1:7). The book of Revelation is not a how-to book of prediction for us to know ahead. It’s a promise that God will outlast evil.

Interestingly, there are people who can help us. A member of our church whose husband received a heart pump in a near death crisis five years ago emailed me this week and said, “We’ve laughed and said that actually everyone is now living our lives that we inherited five years ago — that we can never be apart from each other and we really go very few places anymore.” People in nursing homes understand, as do caregivers of the elderly, prisoners and parolees. Life is has edges that are determined by realities external to your will.

So what now? Just keep on. Live your faith, teach your children, laugh and rejoice all you can. Help out, and pray for the helpers. But above all remember that this is not the first time of crisis for the world. The spiritual opportunity is not about scaring people into faith—it’s about revealing that the way of a cross always was the way. The only way over it is through it.

As we finish this Lenten journey, the tone of our moment is matching the Jesus story in a remarkable coincidence. We aren’t just reading about disciples afraid of the unknown up ahead. It’s real. We don’t know where it’s going or how many of us will get through it unscathed. There is only surviving, holding on, trusting in faith.

There is precedent for this moment. And with that I tell you, “Hold on.” There’s always something on the other side of every cross.

At least that’s what I trust, even when my knees are shaking a little. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again, a lot. This one is a hard song, but still speaks to me.

After Easter…

Sometime I will have to gather my thoughts about this breathtaking revolution that has been forced on us in the larger context.  Mine is one local congregation of people with whom I’ve been for twenty-seven years come July. Things always change, but this one has been especially momentous. Others have had enough to say, but I’ve observed a few little beams of light in the dark. Consider these:

  1. Churches forced to innovate everything we do. How appropriate that Holy Week would be the big test. And the people are still there. Turns out that little rhyme we did with our hands as a kid had something to it.  “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple,” (fingers interlocked and hands folded, index fingers joined in a spire. “OpenHeres the Church the door,” and you’d unfold your hands and wiggle your fingers, “and there’s the people.”
  2. I see a lot of cooperation, humility and mercy down here on the ground level.
  3. Leaders rise up in the worst of times.  Anybody can lead in good times. Only in the crises can you tell the difference.
  4. Imagine that Christianity in a short while has had to watch the burning down of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and Vatican Square empty except for a blind man singing “Amazing Grace” on Easter Sunday after the Pope stood there alone. But people sang “Amazing Grace” all over the world Sunday.
  5. People sewing, volunteering, sacrificing and praying harder than usual. Constant cheering and appreciation for our medical workers. I often pray when I go to a hospital (I miss that right now), “Lord, we know that you’ve given us wisdom and medical knowledge so that these doctors, nurses and workers do every day and routinely what Jesus did miraculously.” Healthcare is a daily miracle. We just appreciate it more right now.
  6. Being away from people we love makes us yearn for their presence and anticipate the first time we can see one another. You can feel it all the way into prayer.
  7. The earth has been given a sabbath of human activity. Sea turtles in India are flourishing during our quarantine, and people can see the Himalayas from a hundred miles away for the first time in years. We ought to remember what we’ve learned.

Continue reading “After Easter…”

The Invitation to Serve

Sermon preached on Sunday, March 29, 2020  at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. You can view the recorded version here.

 NRS Luke 9: 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.  46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

This is the final message in my series on “Better Reasons to Believe” and it is this: “because we are invited to serve.” That sounds strange, I admit. “The chance to sacrifice what I want so someone else can have it” doesn’t top most people’s lists of what matters the most.

The poor lieutenant governor of Texas this past week, in a moment of bravery, said, “We grandparents need to risk sacrificing our lives for the economic futures of our grandchildren, even if we die.” The firestorm was predictable. Whatever his intentions, a lot of people said, “After you, sir.”

But how do we sacrifice in this moment of global pandemic? And will that be enough?  It’s a real question. But not a new one.

This Bible story happened in the aftermath of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when

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Gary Furr

Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, and then followed the Transfiguration, when three of the disciples went with Jesus to the top of the mountain and saw a vision of Jesus radiant with the glory of God and a mysterious voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son”

After this astounding spiritual experience, though, they went back down the mountain and the next day everything started to go wrong. First, the disciples, giddy with their calling to go forth try to help, try to help a poor child who suffered from convulsions and the father came to Jesus, saying in essence, “Your disciples tried, but they couldn’t help.” Continue reading “The Invitation to Serve”

A Guitar for Christmas

I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.

Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.

Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.

My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar.  My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.

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With Woody and Paul, Christmas 1971. Instead of new sweaters.

Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass.  Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.

We were writing songs and Continue reading “A Guitar for Christmas”

Christmas Time Is Coming

“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.”  One verse goes

Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows

The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’

Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?

When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home

Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became

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Benjamin “Tex” Logan

digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.

But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of Continue reading “Christmas Time Is Coming”

Someplace Green

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Looking out from my office desk, to someplace green.

My friend Pat Terry is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever.  After a long and successful career in contemporary Christian music, he widened his vision and writing. A successful career in country music as a writer followed, with plenty of hits. He just came out with his latest CD, “How Hard It Is to Fly,” and it’s another great batch of songs.  One of my newest favorites, “Clean Starched Sheets” is on this one.

Pat’s heart has always been as a storytelling songwriter.  I have been in a couple of his workshops, and he is a master craftsman. I’ve performed with him a time or two here in Birmingham, and I’ve gone more than once to hear him sing. His songs are deeply human.  One of my favorites and one of the first I ever heard him perform (while opening for Earl Scruggs!) was “Someplace Green.” It sends me to visions of Eden.

Back in my hometown, everything’s green,

green grass, green leaves, green peaches on the trees in spring. Continue reading “Someplace Green”

Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our dcc11b02-024a-44ad-8d38-d692770fbac3-150660_2251members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board.  In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many.  We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days.  We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people.  One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program.  I could go on.  But every church has its luminaries.

What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor?  Not much.  For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership.  Let’s not go there.  Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.

So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol.  Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Continue reading “Pastor to An Aspiring Idol”

Lenten Speaker Series Continues: Kate Campbell

Last evening, we kicked off our series, “The Callings That Find Us,” with Dr. Danny Potts.  An overflow crowd filled the room and was not disappointed as he shared his personal journey with brokenness and new life through his father’s long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  It was inspiring and so helpful to all who were there.

Next Wednesday we welcome folksinger Kate Campbell. Kate is a favorite singer-songwriter for many.  She is a storyteller and singer with a unique voicrockcitye that blends faith, justice and humanity in her writing and singing.  Growing up in the south as the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and those years left a mark on her.  

Her Two Nights in Texas CD received the prestigious Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award. Ballet Memphis featured several tunes from her song catalog as well as a live performance by Kate and band at a ballet entitled South Of Everywhere. Three of Kate’s songs (“Ave Maria Grotto,” “William’s Vision,” and “Fordlandia”) were recently featured in documentary films.  A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs including Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, Ronnie McDowell, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band who covered her compelling snake-handling song “Signs Following.”

Campbell has played the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Port Fairy Folk Festival (Australia), been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage, and had her story (and haunting song “When Panthers Roamed In Arkansas”) included in the debut issue of The Oxford American’s ultra-hip Southern Music series. Kate’s latest release Damn Sure Blue, a heart-felt collection of tunes that pays a respectful nod of admiration to the Man in Black and reverberates with the soulful sounds of award-winning Americana guitar whiz and producer Will Kimbrough.

Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister a

PR Lent

The Callings That Find Us: Lenten Speaker Series

PR LentIn March, our church will welcome a special Lenten time of renewal with a series of Wednesday night speakers entitled, “The Callings That Find Us.”  Our speakers share Christian faith but come from a variety of backgrounds and stories to share their faith journeys—how they

came to Christian faith, how that has lived out, and the unexpected turns that have taken them to new places in their discipleship.  What is the calling that ”found you” along the way of following Christ in that journey?  This series will be open to the public as well and you are encouraged to invite friends to come and hear an exciting series of presentations.

March 13, 2019       

“The Faces That Change Us: A Neurologist’s Experience With Dementia”

Dr. Daniel Potts

Dr. Daniel Potts  is a neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Selected by the American Academy of Neurology as the 2008 Donald M. Palatucci Advocate of the Year, he also has been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

March 20, 2019          “Wonders Along the Way”                   Kate Campbell 

 Singer/Songwriter Kate Campbell has since put together a considerable body of work. Originally from the Mississippi Delta and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the indelible experiences of those years have shaped her heart and character as well as her songwriting. Her music and songs continue to inspire and excite a growing and engaged audience. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs and she has performed widely, including at the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage. Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister and chaplain.

April 3, 2019         

“Ending Hunger:  A Redeemed Hope for Feeding the World”    Dr. Jenny Dyer               

Dr. Jenny Dyer is the Founder of The 2030 Collaborative. As such, she directs the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Faith-Based Coalition for Global Nutrition with support from the Eleanor Crook Foundation.  Dyer teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and she has taught Religion and Global Health at Vanderbilt School of Divinity.  Dyer formerly worked with Bono’s ONE Campaign, Bono’s organization, from 2003-2008 to promote awareness and advocacy for extreme poverty and global AIDS issues.  She is an author and frequent contributor in the media. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband, John, and two boys, Rhys and Oliver.

April 10, 2019                        “Closing the Distance”    Dan Haseltine

Dan Haseltine is the Lead singer/Primary songwriter for the 3x GRAMMY™ winning band, Jars of Clay.  Dan has written 17 #1 radio singles, received multiple BMI Song of the Year Awards, and National Songwriting Association’s highest honors. He is a Producer, Film/Television composer, and Music Supervisor.  Dan is the Founder of non-profit organization, Blood:Water, celebrating 15 years of supporting local solutions to the clean water and HIV/AIDS crises in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Blood:Water has helped more than 1 million people gain access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene training and community health support.  Dan lives in Franklin, TN with his wife, Katie and 2 sons, Noah(18), and Max(15) and two dogs… Gracie and Coco.  Dan is also a columnist, advocate, and thought leader surrounding the work of extreme poverty reduction, and international development

Come, Ye Sleepers: A Hymn for Time Change Sunday

It’s time change Sunday agaiu.  We “Spring Forward” (move clocks forward one hour) just as in the fall we “fall back,” as in move them back an hour. We spend an inordinate amount of time dreading, hating and complaining about the changes. It’s fairly well known that it messes up our sleep patterns, too.

According to the website, LiveScience, it was Ben Franklin that first came up with the notion. The Germans were the first to do it, during the first World War. Woodrow Wilson and FDR also followed in wartime, to save fuel and economize. They also point out that today only forty countries follow it.  Farmers, contrary to the myth, hate it because they lose early daylight.

All that said, we in the churches would have to say we dislike it the most. It does not change during the Super Bowl. It does not change during the NBA Finals or the opening bell on Wall Street. No, it changes just before we are trying to raise the dead for Sunday morning worship. Priorities, I say. Our choir email included a clever hymn text about time change, which inspired me to write my own. I hope that it may ease thy misery by turning it into song.  Rise, O Sleepers.

Come, Ye Sleepers

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Gary Allison Furr

Come, ye sleepers, don’t roll over,

Change thy clocks and get thee up

Time change isn’t aimed at business

It’s worship drinks the bitter cup.

 

Come ye slackers prone to snooze on

Lounging in your terrycloth

Get ye up and out the front door

What sprang forward is now lost.

 

Worry not about thy news shows

Twenty four and seven they run

DVR can save thy programs

There is nothing new beneath the sun.

 

Put thy Sunday raiment on thee

Hear the choir and the holy truth

Thus thou need not hide when eating

When the pastor sits behind thy booth

 

RESTORATION  Walker’s Southern