Category Archives: Suffering

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.

Down in Bethlehem

Today I am beginning a series of blogs about songs, more specifically songs I have written. I want to write a little about their “births,” as for me, songs are like children, or at least like the ugly ash tray I made out of clay at camp. They are mine, they mean something to me, and I still love singing them. Today, I’ll start with the first cut on my new album, “Down in Bethlehem.” I actually came up with the idea while writing a sermon, I guess it was during Advent of 2015. It’s a bit weird, really, to think of a third of humanity gathering every week to reflect on a two thousand year old set of texts, but in a time when we obsess over the latest thing, it’s a little comforting to me that we can mull over the same writing again and again, and like some prism being slowly turned in daylight, new colors of insight come.

I was struck by the commonality of the major stories about Bethlehem, that of Ruth, a Moabite widow who came as a foreigner immigrating back to her husband’s home’ David, the youngest of eight, who was selected by the prophet Samuel to replace Saul as king, and Jesus, born to a young couple shrouded in unimportance.  Again and again, in the Bible, God “chooses” to work with the “Most Likely Not to Be Chosen.” First I wrote a short poem to use in the sermon, then was haunted by it until this song came.

I was thinking about U2, Springsteen, music that is simple, driving, repetitive and building over time. Brent Warren does some really fine electric guitar work on this cut.  Take a listen and enjoy!  BUY or listen to it here. It still is true, I believe, that hope is a powerful and inexplicable reality, one that rises up unexpectedly and in the most unpromising of moments. That is when I suspect God might be up to something.  (see Ruth, 1 Samuel 16, Matthew 2 for the stories behind the song).  I’ve posted the whole song on my website for a week or so.  https://www.reverbnation.com/garyfurrmusic

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Remembering 9-11

[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today]

So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11?   A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11.  It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful.  I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day.  It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.

One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction.  It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash.  It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash.  One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.

The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private.  It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast.  Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there.  I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years.  More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers.  It’s hard to get us all together.  Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…

In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!).   I was truly inspired by the experience.  In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart.  I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and Read the rest of this entry

Reality

Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us.  I said, toward the end, these words:

“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”

Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:

I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this:  “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”

And this one from G. K. Chesterton,  The Everlasting Man  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.

Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

A Prayer for the Victims of the Orlando Shooting

We pray today for these victims and their families— not gay or straight, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew or Muslim or none of the above, but as You see them–beloved sons, daughters, friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and most of all, fellow Americans.

As a minister, writer, and songwriter, I am always vexed when events of great magnitude happen. What words are adequate for such a moment? The shootings in Orlando, done by a single darkened soul under the sound and fury of evil ideology left us once again speechless.  Except, everywhere, we started talking, typing, blaming, searching for answers. Many offered easy ones, mostly the same ones, and few people seem to change their minds. “If only everyone would….”

But the child160612082538-08-orlando-shooting-0612-large-1691ren, sisters, brothers and friends are still dead. I have searched my own soul, and pondered, “What more can I do?” There have been, according to a report I heard 133 mass shootings in the US (four or more murdered) in this year.  Terror, violence, hatred, fear, loathing of people we don’t know or understand.

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Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Shot?

 It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.   

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, said that she and her husband once drove across the mountains of central Washington state to a place that would put them in the path of a total eclipse of the sun.  Early in that morning in 1979 they pulled off the highway and waited.  She said: 

The deepest and most terrifying [memory] was this: I have said that I heard screams….people on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun.  But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.  The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.  We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder.  It roared up the valley.  It slammed our hill and knocked us out.  It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon….it was 195 miles wide.  No end was in sight—you only saw the edge.  It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit. Read the rest of this entry

Remembering 9-11and 9-15

1963 cover

1963 by Barnett Wright

So now here it comes again.  For many, a very painful day, still and always.  For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue.  Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same.  This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham.  Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago.  The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began.  Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it.  Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Read the rest of this entry

A Week to Remember, A Week to Inspire

2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us.  Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday.  On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String.  Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service.  Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice.  She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance.  She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.

This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.”  Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here.  Bring your heart and hopes with you.HOLY WEEK

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

Sandy Calls