Today I pray for the people of Russia, passive victims of a sociopathic leader, taken into war without their voices and opinions being considered, lacking full knowledge or with the benefit of a factual and free press we pray.
Lord have mercy.
For a nation whose history is replete with czars, dictators and authoritarians, who have crushed dissent, stolen her wealth, compromised her people’s trust and repelled her Christian heritage unless it bow the knee to the idols.
Lord have mercy.
For mothers and grandmothers, whose young sons have been sent on a mission of bloodshed against kinsmen for no rational reason, who shell schools and synagogues and hospitals to assuage the egotism of a despot pursuing a delusional past.
Lord have mercy.
For people suffering hunger, deprivation and financial ruin for nothing better than stubborn lust for power and revenge.
Lord, have mercy.
For opposition leaders and true people of conscience, media, reporters, young people, whose future is being destroyed before their eyes. Protect them as they rise up against Nebuchadnezar, Nero, Stalin and Hitler, whose evil spirits still live among us.
Lord, have mercy.
May we be moved to refrain from hating Russia’s people as we loath her failed leadership. May we help her to return and rebuild her economy and standing when the wickedness has passed into dust and we have repented of our sins.
Lord, have mercy.
May they, and we, know again the refreshing waters of reconciliation and peace, the strength of mercy and forgiveness, the hope your grace provides, and may we learn the ways of war no more.
May they see the bleeding children, the desperate mothers, the suffering families, the terrified immigrants, the overwhelmed helpers, the ruin of infrastructure and homes and places of business and community. May they hear the cry of their courageous Ukrainian neighbors and rise up with us all to say, “Enough.”
Lord, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on us all. Amen. #StopTheWarAndViolence
Gary Allison Furr. September 11, 2020
I wasn’t on a plane, or a family member receiving frantic calls,
I was not one of the air traffic controllers or military leaders
Or an advisor to the President. I wasn’t at the Pentegon that day
Or even a taxi driver or cop on duty in New York that day.
I sometimes wished to have been more useful as the Towers fell,
Reaching out to help someone else or at least console them.
I was a witness like the rest, but I was where I’ve been since then,
Watching on television, failing at first to understand what was happening.
I knew people on planes that got stuck somewhere, and know people
Who knew people who were on the planes.
But I am just one of the Americans who watched with disbelief, then despair,
And then rage. I wanted annihilation, if I’m honest,
of the merchants of Nihilism guised as a religion,
who hijacked their own faith along with the planes into fanaticism,
carrying us all into a cauldron of misery and death and revenge.
Justice is as elusive now as then, consequences were dealt but no one seems to have learned.
A generation starting their lives changed course,
And Lord, the mourning, etched on us, next to Challenger and Columbia
And Saigon and tsunamis and Katrina and Pearl Harbor for the eldest,
Who remembered shock and fear when there was no instant news.
I was just there, helpless, watching with everyone else,
Paralyzed, then on high alert, then grieving and outraged.
We prayed. We read stories, of lives and people and restaurant workers
Of miraculous escapes, brave firemen and women, lucky misses
Bodies, surrendering to the inevitable, hurtling to the ground
To die by choice rather than smoke and fire. We wanted to know
about the enemies who did this and their perverted spirituality,
their hate of us, their idolatry of a cult of destruction and a single man who caused it,
And we read about war that came to us and mushroomed,
Dead sons and daughters and the boiling clouds of poison and bloodshed
Across the region where three religions were born and peace always goes to die.
And most of all, we watched the cities, the centers of our economic and political lives
Brought to a complete and unnatural stop.
I prayed and led memorials, put out my flag on the mailbox, and prayed some more.
“We’ll never forget this,” we said, and for a while we meant it, truly did.
But time moves on and the present presses memory aside for the next terrible darkness.
Now there are those who don’t remember it at all. And the Pearl Harbor guardians,
They are gone, almost all. Now it is up to those of us who were there.
We can remember every terrible piece of that time, not alone but together.
We can remember stories and read them, cultivate decency and help for each other,
Try to remember how just for a short time we stopped complaining about our lot in life
And blaming one another. For just a while, we revered the dead and honored the heroic.
For one bittersweet episode, our pride and competitive ruthlessness gave way
To family and neighbor and the brevity of things.
There were terrible reactions, and there were stupid people who did thoughtless things
But more often there was a determination not to forget, to comfort the grieving
And to hold onto the deepest about us.
God, we need it back.
One day, we went to the memorial, stared down into that terrifying waterfall
Pouring down, down, disappearing into the earth. It is hard to look at,
And saw families stopping next to names cut out in the ribbon of memory,
Some touching one, perhaps their son or sister or father or friend.
They paused, or left flowers or a note, a wailing wall for Americans.
I saw names I recognized from that day and from my years of remembering,
People who were about an ordinary day, flying to a business meeting,Or to start a vacation, or driving to
the restaurant with the best view To have coffee and breakfast
when the Evil same upon us the earth
And so I remember how fast all can disappear
And hope in a time when we cannot seem to speak to friends
Who voted differently or who don’t share our ideas
That we won’t forget what it felt like to be united in sorrow
And humbled by death
And laid down our selfishness for a holy indignation for what had been done.
I will carry these memories as long as i can, try to hand it on,
tell its stories, and let them speak.
This week I remembered a conversation I had with a woman many years ago. I had gone to teach a series on the family at a friend’s church in another state. She came up to me after the presentation and asked to talk with me. Of course, I said.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“Well, I feel like such a failure in my faith. I suffer from depression. It was affecting my marriage, my children, and most of all, my faith in God.”
“Why did you feel it made you a failure?” I inquired.
“I’ve tried everything. I prayed and prayed for God to take it away, but it didn’t leave. Finally I went to a psychiatrist and he put me on medication.”
“Did it help?”
“Oh, I started feeling better soon.”
“Are you still on it?”
“So why is that a problem, spiritually?”
“Well, it makes me feel like a failure, like I don’t have enough faith to overcome this on my own.”
“Ah, I see. Well, let’s consider this another way. First, when the book of James encourages those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil, anointing might be considered ancient medical treatment. In other words, pray and see the doctor. Then, let’s consider Jesus’ healing example. His healings were instantaneous. Nevertheless, I would never consider it to contradict the natural order, not if God created that order. Sometimes I tell people that doctors now do routinely and every day what Jesus did instantaneously and miraculously to their way of thinking.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“And then, think of this. The Apostle Paul had the same problem with something he called ‘his thorn in the flesh.” Was it depression? Vision issues? Epilepsy? Scholars don’t really know. And he prayed and prayed but God only said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ He believed, but he was left with trust. Not every question ends with an instant answer. He had to keep holding onto his faith. But the failure to solve it did not mean he had no faith in God. He was humbled by it.”
“Now, let me leave you with one more thought about this. Who created this world?”
“God, of course”
“And who is Lord over that world?”
“So who is responsible in this creation for the beauty of a creation where the body can heal itself through knowledge, insight, medicine and care? You see my point. Medicine, including anti-depressants, are not a substitute for faith. They are a gift of God. Think of taking your pill as a daily reminder, a humbling one, of the grace of God. Grace is the truth that we cannot save ourselves, heal ourselves, solve every problem or make it alone. Grace acts before we do. So think about your medicine as a daily act of faith, not a failure of faith. Your faith is not the problem. It’s a theology, a belief, that isn’t large enough for the truth. Open it up, and see God’s hand of care. You like your psychiatrist?”
“Oh, he’s wonderful. Talking to him helps me so much.”
“Then I would suggest you rejoice. God has answered your prayers. Take your medicine and thank God for it. If we could conjure up a miracle every time we needed one, we’d have replaced God I think. God has given us thinkers and researchers and people who give money and authorize systems of healing, all kinds of wonderful gifts. Or as folk theology sometimes puts it, we are His hands and feet in the world. This applies to science and medicine as much as anything else.”
And to paraphrase the gospels, “she went on her way rejoicing.”
I think if I know someone who is struggling with whether to take the vaccine or not, especially as an issue of faith, I’d have the same kind of conversation. I wouldn’t ridicule them for believing inadequately in magical religion any more than I would make fun of my granddaughters for believing childish ideas of God and the universe. What is the point of that? Besides, after all these years and education I’m still haunted by a magical idea or two myself.
I would try to help them think about their faith in a more mature way. I would try to understand which of the many anxieties was at the root of their fear. I would gently listen and offer some antidotes to bad religion with the real thing. And I would never stop caring for them.
I hope that’s what I would do. They are struggling with all the bad actors and shallow theology out there confusing the issue. The truth is this: this is God’s world as people of faith understand it. We are not simply waiting for the End, whatever that will be. Life is God’s gift, and medicine is one of God’s many blessings sent to us all in the lives of those who live it as a calling. Listen, learn. Pray about it if you need to, but be sure you pray in openness to the idea that what might need healing is not just the problem but a faith that needs to grow up some more.
That’s what I might do. How about you?
When I first began to preach as a pastor it was in small churches in Central Texas. They were mostly blue collar and working folks, farmers, retired people who had moved out from the city, an assortment of people who end up in a church together by virtue of geography.
As I was just beginning my ministry, I desperately read books about how to preach and how to be an administrator and how to do all of this and that. But I particularly remember one preaching book that encouraged me to try to turn my main point into a positive affirmation. This became central in my life, even if I didn’t always do it well.
Having trained academically, I had a disposition toward thorough analysis and preface. It meant that I could spend a long time, and in those early sermons I surely did on those poor people, explaining why it was I was going to tell them what I was going to tell them. That usually meant 8 or 10 reasons why the world was going to hell and why they needed the one good thing I was going to slip in right before the final hymn. Only later did I learn to move more consistently to the affirmations of the gospel. people don’t need nearly as much analysis as we are inclined to give.
I find that to be generally true, though, these days. If you look at the Twitter feeds of sports teams, you would believe that every coach is an absolute disaster every player incompetent and no team having any idea what they were doing. We are heavy on criticism and analysis and a little short on blessing. It is a difficult exercise to begin to turn your negativity into affirmation. It goes against the grain of so much of our brokenness.
I preached plenty of sermons that were heavier on analysis and what needs to be fixed. But the best ones were always the ones that moved to the extraordinary good news of hope and transformation. The latter were what Jesus brought to the world, as has every other great religious leader who has ever lived and for that matter the best people in our lives. They have the capacity to take something that can be cast in the negative and turn it into an fresh affirmation. There is a place, an important one, for analysis and criticism. We need to evaluate and reconsider. But one of the great failings of our time is the predominance of the negative. Too much is centered around what’s wrong with the other person or those people or this or that bogeyman created by our collective fears.
Dr Samuel Proctor was a wonderful African American preacher, educator, theologian and scholar. He honored me by contributing a chapter to a book that I helped edit once. He once said of a contemporary, “Well, his “whereases” are pretty good but his “therefores” are a little weak.” It’s the therefores that finally make the difference.
You always remember when someone has forcefully taken familiar and empty concepts and words and recast what had seemed a dark and empty time into something surprisingly filled with hope. This is the genius of authentic leadership and authentic servanthood.
“Reframing” refers to taking something and recasting it so it can be seen afresh. In pastoral conversations, it can convey great power to respond to some statement of despair with, “Of course, another way to look at this…” and to see a light go on in the eyes. Blessing has great power. It is not denial, and it is not romanticized optimism. Blessing comes from Truth. It is an ultimate statement of “the way it is,” beyond our filters and negative predispositions.
Someone once said to me, “It can help to begin to use new words, to state things differently, when we are trying to change.” So, this might be a powerful spiritual practice. Take your dread, fear or hopeless assumption and begin to speak of it anew. Invite a larger perspective, one that allows for blessing, not curses, to be the final word for you.