Category Archives: Faith

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry

Grace in An Ungrace World

Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.

His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular.  This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.  The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.  Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.

Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.  Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.

It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)

I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”

I wonder.

 

 

 

Lessons From the Waiting Room

This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room.  As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do.  Now the day had come and we had to—wait.  Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
  • Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
  • 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.  

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Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry

Take the BOTH AND Pledge

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

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

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

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

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

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