Category Archives: Suffering

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.

Read the rest of this entry

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

The Songs Remember When Part II by Gary Furr

…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.

In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory.  A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.

Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists.  Some believe that  “there is no self or soul.  We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”

But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.  Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms.  Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.

I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method.  It is this:  you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know.  And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right.  I give up.”  Why do you do this?”  What is it that you DO believe?

Then I heard something fresh.  “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.”  There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so.  Wonder.  Amazement.  Delight.  Joy.  They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah.  But why do they exist at all?

On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia.  Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality.  Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities.  He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.

Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed.  He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana.  I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan,  what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.

He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence.  He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion.  This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words.  They said it was Alzheimer’s.

One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service.  As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.”    As we began to sing, something came over Tige.  He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me.  Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home.  I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.

He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me.  There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song.   When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.

Then he went back to his seat.  When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life.  Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn.   Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything.  We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion.  Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something.   Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.

Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience.  There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions.  Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life.  Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:

Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.

 The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP.  But institutional religion can commit the same sin.  People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us.  This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be.  The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.

I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand.  In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?”  We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged.  This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery.  There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us.  And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity.  That is enough.  To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.

 

 

The Day Alabama Almost Died by Gary Furr Remembering April 27, 2011

Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,

Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters

And the skycams filming it

Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,

Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself

Gobbled into darkness

We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place

Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to

Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet

Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares

Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out

We still remember .  How can you forget 63 tornadoes,

Taking down a state a town at a time?  Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks

Flying everywhere.  That was the picture everyone shared

But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken

Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years

A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors

Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend

Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.

The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away

Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to

Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority

Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter

Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke

Losing a job that blew away in a second.  Going to church when it mattered

Listening for God when God seemed gone

Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be

Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap

Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs

Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value

Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,

A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves

But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived

Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.

But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world

Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul

For just a moment, to take it in.  We will never forget if we rebuild it all again

What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.