Diligence not Goosebumps

There is plenty of good work to do—beyond the ministries of the church itself, we have a world of opportunity.  Children and schools are important to all of us. Hungry children need food. Frightened children need reassurance, even if it’s not certain out there. Lonely children need connection.

The technology that was supposed to make life easy now is only our connection to get things done.  Everything is a lot harder.

Here’s the problem now: the pandemic is going to stretch well into next year, from everything I can read. No vaccine is coming next week. I can see businesses adjusting, schools are figuring it out.

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

A caution in these times when the mind can fly off down Twitter rabbitholes: don’t give in to flights of fancy and fears of apocalypse.  Beware the gloom and doom crowd.  Conspiracy theories come along always in these times. So do second coming fears.  In my lifetime there have been at least a dozen times over forty-one years in the pastorate when

My friend Dwight Moody wrote an excellent piece about this.

“You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made

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Dr. Dwight Moody of The Meetinghouse

a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan).  [at that time, he predicted the end would come at any moment.  [it became the dominant interpretation of evangelicals and Pentecostals, said Dwight. 

I’ve been around this my entire ministry. Again, and again, I remember times when timid and fearful Christians were the equivalent of Forrest Gump when he saw Lt. Dan on the dock and jumped into the water, leaving his boat to crash without anyone to steer.

The problem with this end times philosophy is twofold.  First, it’s built on a very questionable interpretation of the bible, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Revelation.  Second, it is neither the only nor the best interpretation of those books.  And before the early 1800s, it was not dominant among Christians. Most of what you hear as pop Christianity presents this as though Christianity has only had this single approach. It hasn’t.

In the 1970s, the world seemed to be coming apart—racial division, Vietnam, ecological crisis, and the changing mores of the world caused many Christians to see signs that the end was near.  At several points along the way, the same thing popped up again and again. In particular, I remember it at the end of the 20th century Remember that dreaded glitch in our computers that were supposed to make the world stop?  (y2K) Then came the New Year and…life went on.  9/11, the Recession, and now this. Every time, anxious people said to me, “It seems like the Lord may come back any time.”

This is exactly why the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and he said his famous verse that every parent has cited to a young adult that won’t go get a job:  “If they won’t work, don’t let them eat.” People had literally quit working and began sitting on their spiritual keisters to wait for the apocalypse.

 

Paul also said, in Ephesians, these words:

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]

Imagine the difficulty of planting these congregations when they came from pagan backgrounds, little or no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and no guidance.  Paul gave them these basic guidelines because they needed the most elemental things.  He is saying: Focus on these.  Don’t be distracted by speculations, arguments, and divisions. Be kind.

These truths don’t depend on figuring it all out.

When you feel a little discouraged, do something for someone else. Call a family member or neighbor who is alone and listen. When you get angry about something on the news, turn it off and go fix something in the house.

I would suggest never buying books about the rapture, but if you must, at least read something practical to balance it.  Most of those books fall into the category of Christian fiction. They are opinions, interpretations, but they are not beyond dispute.

My friend Dwight said at the end of his piece, “Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because …[we] are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.”

The theology of “Left Behind” and its ilk presents a closed and fatalistic history—nothing matters. Most of creation will be destroyed and the small handful of faithful ones will be preserved but the rest of it done away with. That its enthusiastic supporters always count themselves among the few is glaringly self-centered.

Christian hope is not about terrifying people. It’s meant to…well, give you hope.

Safe Distances

It’s not social distancing.  It’s just “safe distance.”  One of our older ladies’ classes met with me Tuesday morning in two shifts to laugh, hear from each other, and say “See you later” to a member, Martha, who is moving to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We ended each time with a short memorial time for Betty, a member whose whose funeral was last week.  Our friendships and fellowship are alive and well.

Instead of whining about what we can’t do, put your thinking caps on and figure out what you CAN do. All the rest is just being on social media too much. Sunsets, birds, flowers and trees are still there. Books are on your shelf. There are instruments to practice, prayers to pray, money to give to good causes.  Make a call to someone who is alone. Get with it!

These ladies call each other regularly for encouragement and inspiration. It’s getting to a hard time now–we’re over the short burst of crisis adrenaline and now we’re in the long haul. It requires mental toughness, selflessness, determination and regard for others. Some of us are flunking on that last one. But most people where I am are trying hard.

In my sermon Sunday I mentioned a comment by Mark Cuban who said young job applicants (after this is over) had best be ready to answer, “What did you do during the pandemic?” It’s a great question for us all. Get up off the couch, turn off the media and do something worthwhile before it’s too late. And if you’re in your teens or twenties, don’t be forced to say, “Oh, I partied like it was the end of the world.” You can be better than that.

 

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Two Poems for the Pan*****

I agree, but am wearying to say, “we’re in it together,” since we didn’t get a vote. I’m sick of “pandemic” (so I turned it into faux profanity–pan*****),”Covid-19,” coronavirus,” and “webinar.” I don’t like where we are, but left that emotion aside in the press of survival. I did a series of “Pandemic Haiku” earlier, but turn today to a bit of escapist verse. Among my Christian friends (most of mine are of the less literalistic and more reflective types), it is helpful to find Biblical imagery–the exile, an apt one, with its sense of jarring losses and displacement. It’s too simplistic to go straight for the apocalyptic–apocalypticism was a minority tool in the ancient box that people take out in times like these. Dystopian imagery, though, is like a long train ride with Obadiah in the Hebrew scriptures (it’s short, give it a read). We yank it out of the box the way my Dad used to call his hammer a “North Carolina screwdriver” and cram every disaster into the Rapture box. It may get the job done, but leaves holes in the wall. Humor, though, is of great use for this moment. Just as it is in grief–without stories that make us smile, or fond memories, the waves of sorrow would drown us. In grief as in life, it not a straight line of morbidity, but the ocean of feelings, good, bad and otherwise. So, two more little poems. I can’t help it. They just pop out. Whether they spread uncontrollably is, well, not up to me.  Maybe a smile amid the little glimmers of loss that intrude on the day. There’s so much to grieve, so maybe a little dark humor helps.

Poor Virus

Imagine!

Everywhere you go, even though you affect everyone around you

and millions of people fear you and know your name,

that the whole world hates you and wants you to die.

It’s not like you had a great start—born of a bat-bite

In a filthy wet market.

You were bound to be wild.

 

You make people sick.

Your existence is one relationship to the next

And everything you touch is diminished or dies.

Continue reading “Two Poems for the Pan*****”

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…”

Good Friday

Morning coffee comes to our cells,

We are not in jail, we are monks of the pandemic

“Go to your cell. It will teach you everything.”

This time can teach us, too.

We can go to Good Friday here.Jerusalem

 

 

By three o’clock, the world shaken,

The darkness a shadow across our souls,

the failures and oblivion of us all fully revealed and judged.

By three o’clock, the thieves will have died, too.

The crowd dispersed, the disciples disheartened,

His mother and the Beloved Disciple,

Having to keep their distance, wait to receive His body.

All will descend into silence.

 

Even Easter will begin with a graveyard disruption

A woman alone

And disciples hiding behind locked doors.

We can do this.

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 Prayer Amid the Epidemic

Prayer and blessing given at the Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting, Vestavia Hills, Alabama, March 10, 2020, by Dr. Gary Furr, pastor, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.

God of grace and mystery, healing and love

In this moment, we pray

For health workers and the CDC, and all in positions of care

Protect their lives, use their skills, lift them up in their weariness

For lab workers and immunologists, scientists and community leaders

for nurses and physicians, and those already exposed to illness.

 

Above all, protect us from hopelessness and the fear of one another Continue reading “A Prayer Amid the Epidemic”

Everything Happens for a Reason? Review

Review of Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Random House Publishing Group.

By Gary Furr

Kate Bowler begins her book in the doctor’s office.  “I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.” And then, the thud of reality.”

ONE MOMENT I WAS a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me.

There are plenty of books about the problem of suffering, but every now and then one Bowler_Kate_AIF2019comes along that makes us feel it. All humans eventually suffer in life somewhere along the way—but it is undeserved, unfair and untimely suffering that is the most crushing variety. Enter Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and church history. Bowler’s first book came from her dissertation, a study of the Prosperity Gospel, entitled Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel. She befriended and studied the world of name it and claim it Christianity, embodied in the megachurch worlds of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.

This book, though, is a personal one, a wilderness wandering through the most difficult and intractable questions all religious people face: why suffering, why now, why me? She gets my vote for the most interesting title of the year and she does not disappoint. Kate is a wickedly funny writer but also gut-wrenchingly honest about her journey through Continue reading “Everything Happens for a Reason? Review”

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

Continue reading “Down in Bethlehem”