Category Archives: Theology and Life

Remembering Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again.  It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.

It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.

The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.

I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home  recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation.  But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

The Valley of Hinnom

In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we read of a defiled valley in Jerusalem where child sacrifice had been practiced through burning. King Josiah, in his reforms, declared it a defiled place.  According to 2 Chronicles. 28:1-3, King Ahaz had offered incense there and offered his sons as a sacrifice.  It was considered accursed, a desecrated place.  So, too, King Manasseh, the wicked King who turned his back on the faith by permitting the horrific practices of other religions (although leading the nation to a prosperous economy) to be allowed, including child sacrifice. occultism, witchcraft and sorcery, channeling and wizardry. This included burning his sons as a sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 33:6).

The prophet Jeremiah thoroughly condemned this practice in Jeremiah 7:31-32 as godless and unholy.  In his prophecy at the Potsherd Gate at the edge of this same Valley, Jeremiah stood and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, declaring that God would bring such evil upon them that whoever heard of it, his ears would tingle, and he linked it in part to sacrifice of innocent blood.  It would become a desecrated place where only those with no burial place, like criminals and outcasts, would have their bodies placed.  An unholy and terrifying place.

By Jesus’ day, the valley of Hinnom was still considered a cursed spot. So when Jesus described hell as a terrifying place, an “unquenchable fire,” (Mk. 9:43), the term for hell is Gehenna, which seems to link etymologically with “hinnom.”  Some scholars have said that this refers to the desecrated valley, which became a trash dump in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

It would have been a vivid metaphor in his hearer’s minds. Like most dumps, it smoldered continuously and was full of maggots (Mk. 9:48-“where the worm never dies and fire unquenched”).  It was an unholy and evil place where only the most abandoned and forlorn souls ended their lives, bodies tossed shamefully onto the refuse of the city and decaying openly.

It is interesting enough that this was the image employed for the word “hell.” It is more intriguing to consider its beginnings as an accursed location. If you take a tour in Israel today, guides will tell this story and point out where it is thought to be.

That hell began with the sacrifice of a nation’s innocents, its children, while the powers that were sat by and tolerated it is astounding. It is horrifying to think of burning children on an altar. But then, I ponder—how do I live amid so much prosperity and yet so indifferent to the value of life—unborn, born, poor, neglected and otherwise?

How have we come to a place in which yet another school shooting numbs us? The same vapid paralysis will follow—the need for gun control and why it won’t matter, and ultimately, back to the same immobilized status quo.  As my school teacher daughter sighed to me, “Dad, if we wouldn’t do a thing after a classroom of preschoolers were slaughtered in Newtown, we won’t do anything about this one either.”

And so we shrug, again. A disturbed 19 year old bought an assault rifle and did what it is designed to do—kill by the masses. And nothing will change. And some day, tour groups may stop, and the guide point to the map and say of us,

This is the valley from which the name Gehenna comes, and it first became accursed because of its association with child sacrifice. They helplessly allowed their children to be sacrificed and to live in fear of dying in their streets and at school. The economy was strong, but still, they were cursed for allowing their young to be consumed without lifting a finger. They were conquered and destroyed, but long before, they rotted from within.  And nothing good ever grew there and no one would live there ever again.


There is still a glimmer of hope. The prophets warned Israel to repent and turn, while there was yet time. This is still a democracy, not a monarchy. There is still time. There is still a nation of citizens, a constitution, waiting for the will and united resolve to galvanize us to seek our better common life and the well-being of our young. We are not yet past the point of no return. But it is getting late.

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.

Grace in An Ungrace World

Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.

His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular.  This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.  The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.  Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.

Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.  Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.

It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)

I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”

I wonder.

 

 

 

Pastoral Prayer at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church by Dr. Gary Furr, Pastor.

Based on an insight from Hugh Heclo’s book, On Thinking Institutionally

Everlasting God,

Who was before all that is, and will be after all ends,

As Creator, You are the ground on which we stand, the order on which we depend

As the Sender of Jesus, You have entered into our tiny frame of mind

felt our crippled spirits, seen our weaknesses, and resisted the sins that kill us.

As Spirit You are ever with us, present in our lives, operating even within the limits

and cruelties of the human spirit.

You accommodate our freedom into greater purpose

and do not leave us to invent our own purpose.george-washingtons-inaugu-006

Thank you for gifts of grace and life, hope and freedom, responsibility and fellowship.

For nation and virtue and for the chance to find a life worth living.

For the privileges of family, of being and having parents, siblings, cousins and grandparents

and knowing the love of all those who care whether we live or die.

For the gifts of friendship and citizenship and neighbor-ship that we may claim.

In this crucial moment in the soul of our nation, we stand at a crossroads–

(more…)

A Prayer for Parents and Children

Yesterday I listened to an NPR story on the radio in my car about Noel Anaya. According to the piece on their website Anaya

was just a year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that’s the age when people in foster care “age out” of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system. (to listen to his letter, go to NPR

While the news is filled with hearings and floods, refugees and wars, this touched me. This young man now launches, out on his own, still searching for a family to love him. Today, I was reflecting on families in pain, intact and broken, and penned this prayer.

God of night and day, dark and light, Lord over joy and pain,

Holder of nations and blesser of babies, witness of Creation and the fall of a single sparrow,

This day, we are comforted that you see the brokenness of your children,

And the brokenness of our children.

In this moment where the road is uncertain, the way unclear

The fog seems to never end, and the light fades ahead,

The path littered with human pain and the wreckage of sorrow,

Help us to look up from our stumbling,

Into the face of Christ,

Who alone knelt in the night of the Garden and remained awake

Who knows what we suffer, for he himself has suffered,

Who was betrayed by his own, hauled away by conspirators of hate and fear,

Tried by those who loved only their own places of entitlement and safety

And condemned by the ignorant and the powerful alike

To die alone with the burdens of the whole world on Him,

And in that face to hear those blessed words,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

But he also looked into the face of his anguished mother

And his beloved disciple and made them into family.

“Mother, behold your Son.”

“Son, behold your mother.”

Give us ears attuned to the cries of the ignored,

Eyes to see the invisible ones,

Hearts to understand and welcome the lonely.

Show us the way,

Hold our hands,

Sturdy our resolve,

Settle our doubts,

And empower us to trust that we can keep walking forward

In our own Gethsemanes and Calvaries of the soul.

Amen.

In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon

This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!

NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip.  On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas.  They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE

STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!

They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed.  They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up.  Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people star-trek-the-experience-castare.  Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such.  Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.

So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?”  And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”

I sympathize.  I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here.  It’s such a strange concept.  Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.”  The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Read the rest of this entry

Morally Uplifting Acts–Post-election Suggestions

Adapted and expanded From my pastor’s column this week.  You can read it at http://www.vhbc.com

Time for Uplifting Acts

Recently I heard someone discussing the psychology of “moral elevation.” By that they meant that just as anger, disgust and depression can be triggered by reactions to negative things said and done by ourselves and others, so we can be affected in the positive direction by morally uplifting actions. The speaker went on to say that emoting over society, one’s circumstances or feelings may lead us downward.

We can choose to act in a more uplifting way. And these actions impact others. This election was a difficult one for our nation. Christians were divided like everyone else between the two personalities. One sign of maturity in a human being is when you understand that someone else can see things differently from you and it doesn’t mean they are, on the one hand, stupid or racist or, on the other, blind and deceived.

Life is complicated. Societies are complex. Our democratic system allows us to vote, it follows certain rules, and when it’s over, we abide by the decision. We are still free not to like it or support it, work to continue advocating what we wish. Protest, write letters to Congress, join an organization, gty_us_constitution_nt_130114_wmainfeed the needy, contribute to what you believe in. You will start to feel better, and you will lift the mood of the nation. But engage life, get off facebook, turn off cable news and start living again.

I appreciate President Obama and Secretary Clinton offering their recognition of President-elect Trump and the decision of the American people. Leadership is hard enough without continuing the election past its end. To people who are afraid, I encourage them to join me in remembering this is America. Whether I agree with you or not, you get to feel the way you feel and say what you need to say. It’s called the First Amendment. I will defend you, whatever your religion or none at all, because my Constitution guarantees that freedom and our forefathers and mothers sacrificed for that freedom. If you are threatened or afraid because of who you are, I will speak up about it. I will not stand by and let people act against who we are. You are entitled to be you and live unafraid.

I also invite us to turn from talking and anger to constructive and morally elevating acts. There is so much for us to do to make our country a good place. Pray for our new leaders, continue speaking your mind, and engage in “morally elevating acts.” We can make a choice to be zealous in acting for the common good. Let’s stand up for one another. And as I quoted my bandmate, Don, to some boys once, “Everybody does stupid things, but don’t make a career out of it.”

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry