Category Archives: Theology

Investing in Grace

Hope depends upon the capacity of a person to trust in the ultimate goodness of things rather than on the evidence of any particular moment’s appearance. That is important for the living of these days.

In the fractures of our present politics, our divisions, our radical differences of how we see the same world, it is tempting to withdraw from the fray. It is also tempting to deepen the gulf. And neither of these options helps either us or the world. And it is not particularly useful to God’s kingdom in this moment.

In his wonderful book “Vanishing Grace: Sharing Real Grace with a Thirsty World,” Philip Yancey writes: “Jesus had the uncanny ability to look at everyone with grace-filled eyes, seeing not only the beauty of who they were but also the sacred potential of what they could become. We his followers have the same challenge: ‘So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view,’ Paul told the Corinthians.”

He continues: “Evidently we are not doing likewise since many people think of faith, especially evangelical faith, as bad news. They believe Christians view them through eyes of judgment, not eyes of grace. Somehow we need to reclaim the ‘goodnewsness’ of the gospel, and the best place to start is to rediscover the good news ourselves.”

It is not natural for us to see one another this way. We survive by a healthy suspicion of all but those who clearly love us or have demonstrated they will not con us, use us or manipulate us to make a buck or sometimes even for simple apparent cruelty. We warn our children of the risk of strangers. Our media heightens our sense of constant threat by others to our well-being.

This suspicion of others is not without reasonable experience to back it up. Unfortunately, it cannot accomplish very much in the way of turning the tide of disintegration of human life.

Consider, for a moment, the calmness of Jesus, who in every situation that could have brought distress or anxiety – death, disease, mental disintegration, political threats, abandonment by family and friends, even finally the loss of his own life – kept clear. He seemed to see something else in the outcasts and even in his enemies that they could not see themselves.

I think that’s what Paul was writing about in 2 Corinthians 5 when he described this “ministry of reconciliation” that has been given us. It is the ability to “see like Jesus” in the midst of a very turbulent life.

Ours is the ministry of grace. It is our privilege to express it to one another and to others who have all but abandoned hope that such a way could truly exist. I see it in the tenderness of all of you in the face of death, dying and personal troubles. Faith abides.

It is important for Christians to remember that what we are committing to together is not merely a place to worship or programs to occupy our time, not even merely causes in the larger society, but to the ministry of grace and to providing new eyes for everyone we can – the eyes to see as Jesus saw. I am more grateful for this vision than ever.

The place where this wonderful message of grace can be effective is when we first believe it for ourselves and then begin to share it with others. We trust that in spite of our failings, brokenness, self-doubts and fears, such grace thrives precisely when it seems most preposterous from the appearance of things around us. Such a grace is worth a life.

A version of this article first appeared on Vestavia Hill Baptist Church’s pastor’s blog.  

Living to a Different Rhythm: Join Me in January on Retreat

The Academy provides a setting for prayer, worship and personal spiritual growth in an extended retreat setting

Longing For God    

A 5-Day Retreat Featuring Dr. Gary Furr & Sr. Dawn Mills

Jan 27 – Feb 1, 2019

 I will be presenting daily lectures and music for the 5 Day Academy for Spiritual Formation at Camp Sumataunga, Alabama, near Gadsden. The Academy “is an ecumenical, 5-day retreat designed for clergy and laity. Our purpose is simple: to deepen our relationship with God through a daily rhythm of prayer, worship, study, and reflection.”

Twenty five years ago, this program was life-changing for me. At that time I was coping with a too-busy life, a personal quest for greater meaning in my life, and the loneliness of pastoral ministry. My search led me to one of the earliest Academies. I have written about this in two books, For Faith and Friendship and in Encountering God in the Prayers of Others. 

If anything, the relentless pace of our current culture is far worse for all of us than it was for me then. Phones, screens and the pace of life it brings keep us artificially connected and disconnected from one another and deeper reality. Consider the phrase, “virtual life,” and that this means something very much like something else, but not identical to it. What is “the real?” Something about getting off the treadmill, finding solitude and striving for deeper community together with others opens up new focus for the seeker. That is what the Academy seeks to provide.

Come away for five days and live a different rhythm of life and community as Sister Dawn Mills and I speak daily. She is speaking on the long classical tradition of Christian spiritual disciplines in life and I will be speaking on “Five Uneasy Pieces: The Creative Dynamics of the Spiritual Journey.”  

The arts and artists come to the longing for the divine in ways that are instructive for persons and communities of faith. We can learn from them. Hope you can join me as we listen to the creation through writing, music, visual art and prayer to move deeper toward God. I believe that in these cultural areas of life we often find surprisingly deep spiritual longings, even with the commercialism and all that goes with that world. In the arts, human beings often find they are on an unconsciously ancient way, one that is often described as “pilgrimage.” If this calls your name, come join us this winter. It may be the best five days of your life in a long time. I will incorporate my music as part of the retreat.

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Church Penalties

In a sermon, I once suggested that harsh “rulemaking” does not maturity make, either religiously or psychologically.  Nowhere do we see this more than in rigid religion in a person.  All or nothing thinking—and in this regard, dogmatic atheism and fundamentalism look very similar in spirit–makes the building of community with others quite difficult. It requires a spirit of “it’s this and nothing else” in life. This is not to say that there are no absolute truths–merely that to trust that such things are true is not exactly identical with my absolute knowledge of them.

My friend D.r. Travis Collins is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama. His hobby, remarkably, is being a referee for high school football. When I heard him speak on this, I thought, “What a nice idea for churches.” Here are some possible penalties. Read the rest of this entry

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

 

Start Young

If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe

Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.

Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.

Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations.  Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.

Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.

It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions

about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.

Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.

Parables as Mind Openers

Dr. Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, calls the parables of Jesus “open-ended stories” in his brilliant book, Jesus and the Victory of God.   They are also stories of the coming Kingdom.  In these teachings, he argues, Jesus does four things—he issues an invitation, a word of welcome, words of challenge, and words of decision and calling

Last week,  during my Wednesday morning Bible study, I told about two kinds of thinking that we do about things that matter.  One is convergent thinking—we move toward narrowin

g down to a solution, a focus, to eliminate the options and get to the core issue.   It looks like this:

 

But there is also divergent thinking.It begins from a point, and drives us out into more  and more possibilities. It “opens up” something else, like a brainstorm (even though a lot of brainstorm exercises are often more like a drizzle!). Instead of narrowing down, it widens our thoughts, deepens, and inspiration belongs here. It looks like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Both kinds of thinking are necessary for life.  The parables brilliantly seem to do both—push us out into the kingdom, great thoughts, “opening up” as well as back to decision—“what must I do now that I have thought about this?”  Over the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday communion tomorrow evening, we will look at and listen to Jesus speaking to us and teaching us—pushing our boundaries, but also calling us to new fixed points and hard decisions to be disciples. In the Tuesday luncheons and the Sunday worship all the way to Easter, Jesus will tell us, as my late friend John Claypool described them, “stories Jesus still tells us.” Come gather round together, as the family tells the stories of Jesus, and as he invites us to new places in our lives.

One of the delightful gifts to Vickie and me in recent years is a little collection of hymn texts from our own Dr. Milburn Price based on the parables of Jesus. The idea was inspired when he wrote a hymn text for my 15th anniversary at the church (ten years ago!).  What resulted was a lovely little book called Lord, May Our Hearts Be Fertile Ground: Singing a Response to the Parables.  We will be actually singing some of these hymns Dr. Price wrote in our morning worship and at the luncheons. Copies will be available if you want one, and they will help to connect us to the stories as our thinking comes back from “opening up” to “making commitment” each week.  It should be a time of reflection and joy!

Wed Feb 14     Ash Wednesday     “To Pray and Not Give Up” Luke 18:1-8

Sun Feb 18                                        “Sowing and Reaping”          Matthew 13:1-8, 13-23

Sun Feb 25                                        “Kingdom Building”               Mark 4:30-34

Sun Mar 4                                         “Seeing Jesus”                           Matthew 25:31-46

Sun Mar 11                                        “Inheriting Eternal Life”      Luke 10:25-37

Sun Mar 18                                       “Who Was the Prodigal?”     Luke 15:11-32

Sun Mar 25     Palm Sunday          “Leaving the Ninety-Nine”   Luke 15:1-7

Sun Apr 1        Easter                       “The Sign of Jonah”                 Matthew 12:38-40

I love the parables. I never tire of thinking about them. They challenge me, as stories always do, in a way that statistics and news reports never do. They open the world up, and open me up.  There are about sixty parables of Jesus in all. They are still vital all these years later.

After the Election

The fight is over, the election is done. All the signs and calls and facebook debates have to be taken down and put away.

We’re not used to so much attention. Usually people just stereotype our state

Without knowing how beautiful it is, or how loving its people are

People who work hard, love their children and care about each other.

All of a sudden, we’ve gone viral, and celebrity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

The talking heads were here, the news shows, and all the big names

Flown in for decision and then leave. No matter what side we took,

we are proud of the towns and crossroads and cities where we live and

Tomorrow, we’ll prepare lunches and get in car pool line.

Tomorrow we’ll take our neighbor who lives alone for her chemo.

Tomorrow we’ll go on that date night with the spouse

or watch our little cheerleader at the game

We’ll wave to the neighbors, call the plumber, rake the leaves

Get ready for the company party, mail the cards, call mother to check on her Tomorrow they’ll all be gone and we’ll still be here, working next to the guy

Who roots for the Tide if we’re War Eagle.

Tomorrow we might go to prayer meeting, or out to eat

Meet the new person moving in. Do volunteer work.

They’ll all be gone and miss the best part of living here which is, well, living here.

The election will be done

and we can stop talking and things will go back to normal.

But we’ll still be here, and glad to live here, together, all of us, neighbors, friends

Opponents and disagreeable cusses. And we’ll still be people of faith

They’ll go home and remember the beauty and our hospitality

and how great the food is,

And we’ll hope they really SAW us, not just a stereotype.

Lord, after the election, that’s our prayer today: that we’ll keep seeing one another

For who we are, real people, families, see each other’s needs and struggles,

Understand a little better, forgive a little more, hope a little harder,

Try and fix what we broke, listen longer, trust each other.

That’s where you always are, where those things happen.

That’s our prayer: to see you and love you, see one another with our hearts

And with kindness, see a future together and see one another’s kids

We want to be the Alabama that we touch with bare feet and summer breeze and the laughter of our grandchildren

Despair is always presumptuous, someone said. 

We’ll get up. There’s work to be done.  Amen.

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

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COMING UP SMA on Dugger Mountain Theater

Shades Mountain Air on “Dugger Mountain Music Hall,”

ALABAMA PUBLIC TELEVISION (APTV) Tuesday, June 27 at 10:30 pm

Back in May, Shades Mountain Air (myself, Nancy McLemore, Don Wendorf, Greg Womble and Melanie Rodgers) loaded up and traveled to Dugger Mountain Music Hall in Piedmont, Alabama. It sits in as unlikely a spot as the crossroads where the boys in “O Brother Where Art Thou” picked up Tommy Johnson on the way to Tishomingo. DMMH came from the vision and ministry of Bob McLeod, a talented and charismatic former professional musician and studio engineer.  Following a profound personal spiritual crisis, Bob McLeod began to seek to minister to people in trouble–in prisons, jails, streets, and those caught in addiction.

Eventually he established Dugger Mountain Music Hall as the public face of Our Father’s Arms, where they take in people in need of help.   He describes the place as “a Christ centered family.” It is located in the middle of open country north of Anniston, Alabama in a former Baptist church that had ceased to exist. The building was given to him for a ministry, and he brought together his love of music with the ministry.  Fast forward, now the facilities include a 30 acre farm with a home for men; a 3 acre home nearby for women, mothers and their children known as Eagles Nest; and a state-of-the-art recording studio, offices, fellowship hall and the Dugger Mountain Music Hall. In 2010, the television program was born.  On the nights of performances, they open the doors to welcome the community, enjoy supper and bands and performers, some touring through and others from nearby places in Alabama, perform. Read the rest of this entry