Category Archives: Theology and Life

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–

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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

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

Take the BOTH AND Pledge

“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things

about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,

I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”

After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.

A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all Be coolriled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat.  Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.

And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Read the rest of this entry

Forgiveness: Enough Already!?

NRS Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?

Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval.  He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?”  He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith.  If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person.  I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man. Read the rest of this entry

Be Like The Samaritan

How providential that today’s lectionary text is the story of the Good Samaritan and my children’s sermon on the book Amazing Grace, about a little African American girl named Grace who is told that she cannot be Peter Pan in the class play because she’s a girl and she’s black. Thank you, God, for divine nudges to our hearts.

I am a long way from the events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, but I want to do something. I offer this prayer from my book, “A Prayer for Justice” POEMS, PRAYERS AND UNFINISHED PROMISES,” p. 63. If you would like a copy of the book, I intend to give all that I receive from the book this week as a donation to the families of the slain officers in Dallas, and the two shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. To order go to my page on facebook. May the God who brings peace from all hate and pain bless all those hurting today and bring the justice that is blessing for all.

Mighty God,
Whose eyes see into our deepest motives
and whose justice is without exception in requirement,

we come as those who have tasted mercy
And now are asked to live it in truth—
People of forgiveness, in the sojourn to wholeness
And learning to live as real neighbors with one another.

Today we listen to what You ask of us all—
To love You truly and with all that we are
and to love our neighbors as ourselves

We need Your help
To see our neighbors, beyond our own self-preoccupation;
To hear cries of pain that are sometimes hidden
by respectability or ignorance or indifference
Make us people who do what is right
beyond what is required and in spite of what we fear.

A children’s book of the Good Samaritan we read our children ended with Jesus saying to his hearers, “Be like this Samaritan.” I want to help. I’m going to do what I can. I hope you will.