Category Archives: Theology

Rachel Held Evans’ Questions

Rachel-held-evansThe passing of Rachel Held Evans unleashed a surprising wave of grief to some.  But to readers in the Christian world, and young women in particular, she was a voice of welcoming honesty.  In an October 2012 article in Christianity Today called, “50 Women You Should Know,” Katelyn  Beaty said of Rachel Held Evans that her blog, which began in 2007, spoke out on many traditional evangelical issues in a fresh and fearless way.  Evans, she quoted, wrote that young Christians “aren’t looking for a faith that provides all the answers.  We’re looking for one in which we are free to ask the questions.”

It was intense questioning that led her to start writing in the first place.  In 2012 alone, 1.2 million visitors went to her site to hear what she had to say.  She was speaking for many others, giving voice to many who were needing one. To a church (in the largest sense) that is always, at least institutionally, last to respond to change, she pushed to make it look at its truth and heart and reassess what it was Jesus meant us to do. Read the rest of this entry

Someplace Green

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Looking out from my office desk, to someplace green.

My friend Pat Terry is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever.  After a long and successful career in contemporary Christian music, he widened his vision and writing. A successful career in country music as a writer followed, with plenty of hits. He just came out with his latest CD, “How Hard It Is to Fly,” and it’s another great batch of songs.  One of my newest favorites, “Clean Starched Sheets” is on this one.

Pat’s heart has always been as a storytelling songwriter.  I have been in a couple of his workshops, and he is a master craftsman. I’ve performed with him a time or two here in Birmingham, and I’ve gone more than once to hear him sing. His songs are deeply human.  One of my favorites and one of the first I ever heard him perform (while opening for Earl Scruggs!) was “Someplace Green.” It sends me to visions of Eden.

Back in my hometown, everything’s green,

green grass, green leaves, green peaches on the trees in spring. Read the rest of this entry

Out of the Ashes of Holy Week

The emotions of Holy Week run the gamut.  From the wild enthusiasm of Palm Sunday morning to dread and anxiety of Maundy Thursday, the stark hopelessness of Good Friday and “darkness across the face of the earth” to the somber placing of Jesus in a borrowed tomb, the pilgrimage takes us through the full range of human experiences.

Churches will look forward to crowded sanctuaries on Sunday morning, naturally. Children in beautiful new Easter clothes, beautiful ladies’ hats, uplifting music and, unless a pastor has the flu, a message of enthusiastic hope and energy. A great crowd, a holiday,: of course, it will be energetic.

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Notre Dame, from our visit in 2005

This is the fortieth consecutive year I have preached an Easter sermon. I intentionally do not look back to see how badly I fell short to capture the “extraordinary in the ordinary” majesty of the resurrection and what it means to humanity.  I will tell you this, though: As my own experience of call to ministry came in 1971 on a Palm Sunday and was presented to my high school church family on Easter Sunday, I have never forgotten the ups and downs of this week for me. That week I wrangled and struggled and finally decided to accept the call, at least what I knew at that point, to enter the ministry. It was full of anguish. What did I really understand about what this would mean or where it would go? I can assure you, it wasn’t as clear as

And then, forty years from now, you will be standing in your beloved church of more than twenty-five years in Birmingham, Alabama, and you will have a wonderful congregation, one of whom will be in the top ten in American Idol singing competition.* You’ll have some nice facilities and three grandchildren and an excellent staff.

If only the call were so clear!  It was little more than, “This is the direction for your life. Come with me.” What did that mean?  Where did it lead? I moved toward the leading but still without a lot of clarity about what it would mean.

The late theologian Jim McClendon said of the spiritual life that we must leave room, along with our spiritual disciplines and our spiritual experiences for what he called “the anastatic.”  It means, in the ancient koine Greek language, “Resurrection.”  Literally, “to stand again,” but Jim took it to mean, “the surprising work of God.”

In the Christian faith, Easter is a surprise. That means people had no right to expect what transpired. So, everyone was surprised, shocked, stunned, overwhelmed. There was no way to anticipate what happened. “Well,” one might say, “Jesus told them this was what happened.”  Even so, I imagine it made as much sense at the moment as lecturing your dog about the importance of a good education.

Nothing indicated this was coming. Their hopes were literally in ruins. I have thought of this while grieving the terrible fire at Notre Dame in Paris. I have only had the privilege to visit there one time, but I remember the awe at this magnificent work of human hands motivated by faith in God.

Out of ashes and devastation, we wait. One more Holy Week. One more hard moment in humanity. No reason to expect a surprise. But for those of us who are Christians, we’ve become accustomed to looking to something unexpectedly, undeservedly good to come along when we least expect it. This week, we walk into the cold ashes of human disappointment and wait to see what God might say to enable us to build out of this moment something new and unanticipated.

No matter who you are, where you came from, or whatever has happened, Easter is for you.  That is the message.  “God is for us.  Who can be against us?”  That is a word for everyone.

Walk along this week with God’s people.  Through it all.

 

Good Men and High Callings

So much about bad things men do these days. But what about good men? Five years ago today my father-in-law, one of the best men who ever walked this earth, left it. He is surely playing the front nine in heaven if they have a course. From the obit I gave for him in 2014:

The goal, the prize of the high calling, was never about piling up money for its own sake, but for being able to help others. In our early years, Forrest drove, excuse me, a crappy car. It was an old sky blue Ford that seemed a hundred years old. It smelled like a paper mill and the only luxury in it was his golf clubs in the trunk.Forrest and our girlsvickie-and-dad-e1497743310363.jpg

In our time, it is wonderful to still find people who work hard and save up so they can care for their family, help their grandchildren and children, and give to those in need. I cannot tell you how many times in our ministry we had some need in somebody’s life and the next thing I knew, Forrest and Betty were sending money. “Don’t tell anyone it came from me.”

Being grateful, truly grateful begets generosity from the heart. Forrest and Betty were thankful people. In 2011, Forrest wrote a short autobiography. It’s funny, so Forrest, his stories written like he talked. He put a picture on the front from the peak of his working life. I told him it looked a little like a mafia don. But the book is a glowing tale of gratitude for his beloved Betty, the love of his life, his three children and their families, his work, parents, siblings. He was glad to be alive, glad to be here. And it ends with these words: “Betty and I are extremely proud of our family, and recognize them as the crowning achievement of our lives. To all who read this, enjoy your life to the fullest.”

Of all the magnificent blessings I’ve had in my life, I believe the three F’s are the crux of life. These three are: faith in Christ, a loving family, loving friends. There is nothing of greater value. If you have these in your life, you are wealthy.”
Notice—nothing about money, lake houses, fame, and having status. Just core treasures that radiate through you. That’s the man we knew.

I had a fourth F.   In addition to faith, family and friends, I was blessed to have Forrest. A real man, but also a good man to the bone. I was fortunate to know and love him.

I miss you.

The Callings That Find Us: Lenten Speaker Series

PR LentIn March, our church will welcome a special Lenten time of renewal with a series of Wednesday night speakers entitled, “The Callings That Find Us.”  Our speakers share Christian faith but come from a variety of backgrounds and stories to share their faith journeys—how they

came to Christian faith, how that has lived out, and the unexpected turns that have taken them to new places in their discipleship.  What is the calling that ”found you” along the way of following Christ in that journey?  This series will be open to the public as well and you are encouraged to invite friends to come and hear an exciting series of presentations.

March 13, 2019       

“The Faces That Change Us: A Neurologist’s Experience With Dementia”

Dr. Daniel Potts

Dr. Daniel Potts  is a neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Selected by the American Academy of Neurology as the 2008 Donald M. Palatucci Advocate of the Year, he also has been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

March 20, 2019          “Wonders Along the Way”                   Kate Campbell 

 Singer/Songwriter Kate Campbell has since put together a considerable body of work. Originally from the Mississippi Delta and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the indelible experiences of those years have shaped her heart and character as well as her songwriting. Her music and songs continue to inspire and excite a growing and engaged audience. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs and she has performed widely, including at the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage. Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister and chaplain.

April 3, 2019         

“Ending Hunger:  A Redeemed Hope for Feeding the World”    Dr. Jenny Dyer               

Dr. Jenny Dyer is the Founder of The 2030 Collaborative. As such, she directs the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Faith-Based Coalition for Global Nutrition with support from the Eleanor Crook Foundation.  Dyer teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and she has taught Religion and Global Health at Vanderbilt School of Divinity.  Dyer formerly worked with Bono’s ONE Campaign, Bono’s organization, from 2003-2008 to promote awareness and advocacy for extreme poverty and global AIDS issues.  She is an author and frequent contributor in the media. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband, John, and two boys, Rhys and Oliver.

April 10, 2019                        “Closing the Distance”    Dan Haseltine

Dan Haseltine is the Lead singer/Primary songwriter for the 3x GRAMMY™ winning band, Jars of Clay.  Dan has written 17 #1 radio singles, received multiple BMI Song of the Year Awards, and National Songwriting Association’s highest honors. He is a Producer, Film/Television composer, and Music Supervisor.  Dan is the Founder of non-profit organization, Blood:Water, celebrating 15 years of supporting local solutions to the clean water and HIV/AIDS crises in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Blood:Water has helped more than 1 million people gain access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene training and community health support.  Dan lives in Franklin, TN with his wife, Katie and 2 sons, Noah(18), and Max(15) and two dogs… Gracie and Coco.  Dan is also a columnist, advocate, and thought leader surrounding the work of extreme poverty reduction, and international development

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.  

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.