Category Archives: Spirituality
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.
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
Encountering God in the Prayers of Others is
our latest collective effort. It springs from experience
in our spiritual lives of prayers
composed by others that have “spoken” to us.
The Trinity group is a self-named group of friends, all Ph.D. grads
in theology or closely related fields who have chosen to journey together theologically for 25 years. The group was initiated by our teacher-friend Fisher Humphreys. It includes missionaries, pastors, college and seminary professors and a chaplaincy supervisor.
Through the years, we have created a space, meeting once or twice a year for multiple days, to have intellectual, spiritual and theological freedom to read, study, comment, question and debate any subject together that interested or troubled us. The glory of such freedom has enhanced all of our lives.
One of our founders, Philip, died six years ago this March. He was the first close friend some of us had lost, and he was in so many ways a force and center of our group. His loss was enormous, but we carried on. That experience, of walking with a friend to his grave, literally in my own case, was profound. And it mirrors what happens in the theological journey—it is always, inevitably, personal at the same time that we seek the loftiest and most universal of vantage points from which to do theology. Read the rest of this entry
2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us. Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String. Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service. Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice. She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance. She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.
This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.” Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here. Bring your heart and hopes with you.
the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation
placed on Him, and purposefully,
for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.
That is and always will be enough.
Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church. Don’t Hate Me.” I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration. I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend. Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.
I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time. In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.
A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.” I have found this to be true, again and again. Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it. Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests. Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.
Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call. The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done. When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that. I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course. Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much. It will pass.
Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church. The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times. Eventually you come to expect it will be there. The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there. I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left. Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?” I was hurt. Now I get it.
In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday. He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving. I hadn’t. He felt differently in time, and so did I. I was hurt, too.
Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure. Maybe it takes a lifetime. So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much. There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over. Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it. They’ll survive. And so will you. Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.
So listen within. Be clear. Turn it loose. The kingdom has survived worse than even us. But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry. It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it. You just live with it and move on. Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. That is and always will be enough.
Anne Lamott has written a new book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential PrayersI This represents a
considerable development in her theology of prayer, because she said in an earlier work that there were really only two variations of prayer–“Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” so I look forward this expanded theology! I haven’t read it yet–I will–but “wow” seems fitting. I believe part of the artistic vision is to tromp around in those parts of reality that hunger from neglect by politicians (a finishing school for becoming a world class dullard if you aren’t careful), scientists, economists, the military and cynics.
You would think the realm of artists and mystics (really, they overlap), would be tiny and easily mapped, but you would be wrong. In this week devoted to giving thanks, counting blessings and generally being glad that we aren’t as bad off as someone else, it might do well to visit this realm. It is where beauty, mystery and wonder abide. The ancient Hebrews would be astounded by us, who surround ourselves with astonishing things and spend little time considering them.
So, I would add to the litany of Thanksgiving an apology for wonder. Thankfulness assumes an enlarged view of life. How mundane if all we were to call thankfulness consisted only of a listing of possessions and good fortune! The ocean belongs to no one, yet who can forget the first time they saw it? The excitement of a small child in a car, eagerly waiting to arrive at the beach, smelling the warm salt air long before arriving, driving along the beachfront road trying to peek between the houses and condos, the incomprehensible moment when at last the child stands and tries to take in a lake with no shoreline; that is a morsel of wonder.
Here are some others:
- the first day in a long time without the pain
- a time of laughter after weeks of draining grief
- The mystical fellowship of fellow worriers in a hospital waiting room
- The never-boring ritual of watching children, then grandchildren discover life
- Mountains, rivers and deserts, or the blades of grass in our backyards
- The good ache of sore muscles at the end of a hard day’s work now finished
- Rich memories of people and places and happy times, available at will whenever I call
- The deep silence of the universe, signifying not emptiness but a different kind of fullness from the noise and clatter of my everyday life–wherein a prayerful heart can trace the embedded pathways of God.
So, “Thanks be to God, ” not just for the relative prosperity that gives me a better chance to survive than someone in the Third World. All around are unburied treasures, opportunities to grow and see and touch and live. We are loved, we are blessed, we are alive if we so choose to be. Thanks, indeed, be to God! We have plenty of those reasons that the dullard realms of money, power and dominance recite to us, but my prayer is to discover and give the thanks goes beyond and that flows our from deep joy. Strangely, it doesn’t usually cost any more than a little time, the right attention and a bit of slowing down. Oh, and a dash of being present!
Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and readers, even if you are not in the US for our holiday. Thanksgiving wonder knows no calendar or border.
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
- Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
- Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
- Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
- Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
- Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races
I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
- Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
- Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
- Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
- Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
- Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
- Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep
Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
Where the years went, I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away
I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago
It’s gone away in yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide
The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away
- Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
I’ll admit it—I long for Mayberry and simpler living.
Maybe it never existed, but something in us says, “It ought to.”
Andy Griffith died today on the Outer Banks of his native North Carolina where he lived. A few years ago, I took my senior adults to the Outer Banks, and, other than seeing the place where “Nights of Rodanthe” was filmed and hearing about how one native got to be examined by Richard Gere as a bit part, the biggest thrill was hearing that Andy
lived there still. “You can still see him in the grocery store and he is an active part of the community,” she said solemnly.
We were the Baptist version of medieval pilgrims tracing the steps of a saint. Andy Griffith, though Moravian, taught more Baptists their character virtues than almost anyone I knew.
Being a native of North Carolina, I fastened onto the Andy Griffith Show at an early age. I was in elementary school when the show was on the air. Andy, Aunt Bee, Otis Campbell, Thelma Lou and Helen, Goober, Gomer, Opie and Barney Fife were childhood friends. I know a lot of the bits by part—I’ve watched and re-watched the reruns my whole adult life. “Why do you watch the same shows over and over?” my wife asks. But even she will watch “Aunt Bee the Warden” (she has a secret desire to imprison lazy men and beat them with a broom) and “Class Reunion,” and “Mr. McBeevy,” and all the others over and over.
It has been analyzed to death, of course. From its lack of diversity to its nostalgia overdoses, the show has taken its share of hits. And we all keep watching. Having lived in small towns, of course, I can say “The Andy Griffith Show” was half of the equation—the ideal, good half. Andy did capture the foibles, silliness and pettiness, but missing was meanness, racism and evil. Read the rest of this entry
It is the day after Memorial Day. I get way too many emails, but I’m 57. I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire. Other times you GET retired. See “getting fired.”
Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.” Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.
Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama. I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center. It was a lovely setting. The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama. I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus. Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through. Something I always wanted to do, but never had before. So I did it. Glorious, insightful, even after all these years. And “retreat” came to be more meaningful. You retreat when your forces are being obliterated. A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”) But sometimes you just run for your life. Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you. No strategic about it, just run, dummy.
Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that. Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth. There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now. What can you do? Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then. Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him. It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. But this is a crazy time, too. Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’” I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo. And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall. A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure. We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.
So, all in all, retreating is not so bad. I still know too many people looking for work. I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday. I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better. No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how. No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now. Elections can wait.” No one is saying, “that’s not news. It’s stupid. Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”
Sound the retreat!
As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there. They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election. Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes. Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church. Oxymoron?
One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers. You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good. It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yeah, I thought, I like that.
Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country. But it was worth it. A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.” Hallelujah! At last!
Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle. I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world. Not so bad.
RETREAT! RUN AWAY!
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.