Category Archives: Family

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.

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 Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry

Getting Ready to Die … and Live

A friend asked me about this piece.  I wrote it a few years back while talking to an engineer friend who was then trying to prepare for the end of his life. He kept asking me, “Gary, how do I KNOW I’m ready to die.” And I kept answering with pastoral comfort about facing death, quoting verses, and my typical caring responses. When I got home, I expressed my sense of frustration.  “I don’t think I answered his question, because he kept re-asking it.”

Vickie said, “Gary, he wants a punch list.  He’s an engineer (my wife’s father was an engineer), he wants a list of things to do.” Well, Myers Briggs, you did it again. So I set about a list, and she helped me with it. I have shared this often with my deacons in the church, with individuals, and it seemed useful to share it here if it helps. This is my list, so yours may be a little different, and it certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I know this: if you spend time preparing for death, you will really be prepared anew for life.

 

Getting Prepared to Die—and to Live

Gary and Vickie Furr Read the rest of this entry

Daniel Murphy, Sports and Babies

“J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your

confession on the air, will you stop by to receive

penance instructions about being a better father and husband?”

It’s just too easy to weigh in on the comments of Mike Francesca and Boomer Esiason about Daniel Murphy’s decision to take two days to be present for his baby’s birth.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Of course, we live in a time of sportainment.  More and more, as politics becomes hopelessly unresponsive and global problems impinge on every part fo life, sportainment is the way we escape–from real life.  Except that ultimately isn’t an option.

One day I listened in on sports radio–I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure on the way to the hospital or a meeting, in part because I will always laugh at something pretentious, silly or absurd.  And much of what is discussed is fun to consider.  A husband caller complained to Paul Finebaum about a player’s tweet after Alabama lost its bowl game that “it’s only a game.”  His argument was that it isn’t.  He went on, passionately, to say that though he was a member of a church and loved his family, that during the football season he spends more time and money on the sport than on his wife and kids or his church.

My jaw dropped since I am a minister, but why should it?  I like to imagine that I might follow up crazy calls.  What would I say?  Disguised voice: “This is Dr. Hapner Wogwillow.  I am a marriage therapist.  I treat his wife for depression and recognized him in the call.  He needs to go home.  She just left for good with the kids.  I will tell him their names if he’ll call me.  BR-549.”  My other idea was to, “J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your confession, will you stop by to receive penance instructions about being a better father and husband?” Read the rest of this entry

Asking Good Questions: A Sermon for a Young Parent

 I’d want them to know my love was so strong that no matter how bad it gets,

how far down they go, who leaves them and abandons them, I won’t. 

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.    

Looking at a newborn is a pretty overwhelming reality.  It is the age we are in.  Vickie and I were sitting outside in the

waiting room, getting more anxious by the moment for our daughter and her husband and a little one.  Being born is

from cdc.gov site

from cdc.gov site

dangerous, not guaranteed, and full of anxiety, no matter what reassurances we are given.  In fact, the greatest advice from the OB to our daughter the last two months was, “Don’t Google.”

We don’t know how to know what to do with all the information.  In the old days, they took the mother, the father paced outside, and  the baby arrived.  It was the first inkling of what you had—boy or girl.  No paint colors until you knew.

Now, you have more knowledge about this infant than the NSA has of your cell phone.  But what to make of it?  Truth is, there is still a place where we cannot intrude with knowledge, and it is the miracle of life itself.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to know.  And here’s how we got the word.  We’re sitting there, grandparents, waiting, worrying, praying.  Getting texts from our kids and friends—praying for you, hoping, let us know, that sort of thing.  And we occupy ourselves by answering these as we wait.  Naturally, we are watching the other occupants of the room.  A waiting room is pure democracy.  Rich, poor, well-dressed and barely dressed, country and city, every 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

Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

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Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Read the rest of this entry

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Grief Work in the Basement Garden 2: Songs for the Journey

I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs:  “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.”  That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch.  In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years.  Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need.  You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.

There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list.  Maybe it will, maybe not.  But I do like to hear about songs others have liked.  So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.”  You probably have some great additions to this.

  • Peter Rowan, Legacy   “Father, Mother”   This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled.  A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers.  It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
  • Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters  “God Believes in You”
  • Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow    “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.”  Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
  • Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
  • Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin  “Borken Places”  I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago.  After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.

    Ashley Cleveland’s “Broken Places” is one of my favorites

    Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg.   is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places

Chained to the past, chained to the fear  
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races

I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes

  • Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic.  Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
  • Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor.  I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old  Nebraska farmer.  The song speaks for itself.  Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas.  CLICK TO LISTEN
  • Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around.  “Hurt.”  I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made.  It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song.  The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem   “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano.  Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father.  I listened to it again and again in the 1980s.  “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me.  Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
  • Rosanne Cash   Black Cadillac   This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.”  When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father.  Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”  Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died.  It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song.  It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs.  It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!).  You can listen to it all over YouTube.  It continues to speak to those who grieve.
  • Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute.  Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville.  It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999.  Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died.  My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…

     I’ve been walking in my sleep
     Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
     Where the years went, I can’t say
     I just turned around and they’ve gone away
 
     I’ve been sifting through the layers
     Of dusty books and faded papers
     They tell a story I used to know
     And it was one that happened so long ago
 
      It’s gone away in yesterday
      And I find myself on the mountainside
      Where the rivers change direction
      Across the great divide
 
     The finest hour that I have seen
     Is the one that comes between
     The edge of night and the break of day
     It’s when the darkness rolls away

  • Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns?  They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others.  Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds.  Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance.  My other favorites (only a few!):

“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance”  I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip.  I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Amazing Grace”
“Shall We Gather At the River”