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Mothers Day is a happy day, and also a sad one for many. Mothers are both biological and spiritual. They find us as divine grace in life. If we lost one too soon, God seems to put strong, caring women in our lives somewhere to help us survive and grow up into life. I have been blessed with a loving Mom who loves her children and stood by the four of us as we meandered toward adulthood. I am grateful. But I have known extra mothers–my wonderful mother-in-law, teachers, mentors, and an unfair overabundance of wise older women because of my vocation as a pastor. My wife is the greatest mother on the planet. I still learn from her. I am grateful for them all.
As my mother has battled cancer (and is now in remission, thankfully) this last nearly two years, I have become more grateful for the journey with mom and moms everywhere. For all of us, thank you. And so, a poem I wrote not long ago while thinking of my mom as the “teller of stories,” and women in churches who keep the stories that Read the rest of this entry
Gary Allison Furr
In the years I lived among the peanut farmers,
I breathed October dust and prayed for their harvests.
The church and all of the town waited for the yield,
To tell us what sort of year it would be.
Only a few restaurants, drugstores and movie rental places
No movie theaters, theme parks or malls,
But we had a John Deere tractor dealership out on the bypass
Where the farmers’ trucks had to pass by.
On the most prominent corner, right by the road
the latest double wheel model
with the air-conditioned cab and stereo system.
Plowing without dust and sweat! Hard to imagine
we were so far from the farmers with their mules in the old days,
on a forty-acre farm, working like the Devil to survive
lest the mule be repossessed or die.
But always there was the harrow, evolved from ancient times,
At first, only a tree branch, sharpened to punch open the ground,
The Romans first made them of iron to mass produce
And now they are rows of teeth or knives neatly arranged
Or deadly discs, sharp enough to kill a man, but modern
in their symmetry of tearing open the earth,
They rip open the crust so the seed can go deep, down
Into the moist fertility, then burst open and seek the light above.
“Harrowing” is near-death, danger, all our protection
Torn away from us, some sharp and deadly threat
Gashes open the layers of careful habit and insulation
until death and I stare back at one another
waiting for one of us to make a move.
The medieval Christians said that on Saturday Jesus,
Punched down under the tomb, all the way to the underworld
and preached to the souls in hell.
He led out all those who had no chance to know Easter,
Satan, surely, filed an immediate lawsuit against God
for breaking the rules and letting a dead man breach the underworld
to claim souls Satan thought were a sure thing.
“The Harrowing of Hell” was kept in the Creed
We shake our heads
at the primitive believer thinking He “descended into hell”
Even as we still survive by eating the bounty of earth’s puncture wounds.
Farmers still dig down to the only place where life can emerge.
We are deluded by surface coverings of asphalt and wireless noise
“Virtual” cannot feed the hungry or raise the dead.
For that, earth must be broken, hearts pierced, nails driven.
Down went the Son of God, into Hell itself.
I’d like to think a little disc-plowing is called for,
Some holes punched in hell still on this earth,
Right through hard-hearted souls who deny
there is anything under here worth looking at or saving.
I’d like to think the Son of God, even in the grave,
Cannot help but vanquish every poison weed and pestilence
that threatens the Garden that God put here for us all.
This is a poem I wrote two years ago. During National Poetry Month, my youngest daughter, who teaches middle school in NYC, and I write poems to each other. Many of mine should never see light of day, but that year I wrote poems each day of Holy Week about the events of that day. I stumbled across the tradition of calling this “Spy Wednesday,” after the plotting that was going on that day. Treachery, using, selling out–they are the deepest pain that wells forth from human beings. The deepest pain of Holy Week is the revelation of betrayal of the innocent Jesus by his friend.
What a great name for the day
A friend’s fate was sealed,
Sold out by the man for whom
Dante created an ice rink on the lowest level of hell.
The word sends icy shivers down the spine
Because it requires loving trust as its precondition.
People betray love, not hate.
Enemies try to kill you. It’s what they do. No surprise.
Only friends, lovers, teammates
Sisters, brothers, colleagues betray you.
It has to rip a hole where you felt safe to do its work.
It’s a sordid business—
Traitors sell you out, stab your back
Let you down, break your trust, turn on you
Ruin your faith in people and undermine your capacity to trust again.
Only double minds and hearts, labyrinths of secret compartments
With cracks in the walls, broken floor joists and low light,
Can pull it off.
A loyal spy is still a patriot
But a double agent is up to the highest bidder
At the cost of a soul
Thirty pieces of silver for Jesus puts the condemnation at Simon’s house
In an even more painful contrast. Hers was of love found
His was of love disdained.
His only hope now is “all have sinned and fall short of the glory”
A tiny speck of hope that his wretchedness is but one more evidence
Of what stares back at us in the mirror sooner or later.
So the drama unfolds,
which character, bent, long before it would be set in motion.
This Wednesday evening we come to the final of four outstanding speakers in our 2019 Speaker series. Each week, a speaker has taken us inside the journey of Christian calling. Too often we have turned the Christian faith into a series of ideas or reduced it to a buttress against our fears and anxieties rather than what Jesus revealed it to be: a dynamic and life-changing adventure. Our final speaker is Dan Haseltine.
For more than two decades, Dan Haseltine has been the founder and primary songwriter for the Grammy-winning music group, Jars of Clay. From a band formed among college friends in Illinois, they skyrocketed in the mid-90s to crossover fame. Their self-titled debut was released in 1995. When the single “Flood” began to climb the charts on mainstream radio stations, Silvertone Records started to heavily promote the song, turning it into one of the biggest mainstream hits ever by a band on a Christian label. The album has since reached multi-platinum certification according to the RIAA. Over the next decades came touring, more Grammys and successful albums.
I met Dan a few years ago while on an interfaith advocacy effort in Washington. We were paired together to talk to congressional leaders about the importance of global health and hunger funding, so we spent a day together. He is one of the most engaging and thoughtful, down to earth people I have ever met. Many years ago my youngest daughter, then in high school, pressed me to go down to the old Boutwell Auditorium, May 2, 1998, to hear Jars of Clay. I had never heard them, pretty well being into acoustic music and bluegrass then, but I went along. I liked them. I didn’t know I’d ever end up walking around DC with that young singer someday.
It’s time change Sunday agaiu. We “Spring Forward” (move clocks forward one hour) just as in the fall we “fall back,” as in move them back an hour. We spend an inordinate amount of time dreading, hating and complaining about the changes. It’s fairly well known that it messes up our sleep patterns, too.
According to the website, LiveScience, it was Ben Franklin that first came up with the notion. The Germans were the first to do it, during the first World War. Woodrow Wilson and FDR also followed in wartime, to save fuel and economize. They also point out that today only forty countries follow it. Farmers, contrary to the myth, hate it because they lose early daylight.
All that said, we in the churches would have to say we dislike it the most. It does not change during the Super Bowl. It does not change during the NBA Finals or the opening bell on Wall Street. No, it changes just before we are trying to raise the dead for Sunday morning worship. Priorities, I say. Our choir email included a clever hymn text about time change, which inspired me to write my own. I hope that it may ease thy misery by turning it into song. Rise, O Sleepers.
Come, Ye Sleepers
Gary Allison Furr
Come, ye sleepers, don’t roll over,
Change thy clocks and get thee up
Time change isn’t aimed at business
It’s worship drinks the bitter cup.
Come ye slackers prone to snooze on
Lounging in your terrycloth
Get ye up and out the front door
What sprang forward is now lost.
Worry not about thy news shows
Twenty four and seven they run
DVR can save thy programs
There is nothing new beneath the sun.
Put thy Sunday raiment on thee
Hear the choir and the holy truth
Thus thou need not hide when eating
When the pastor sits behind thy booth
RESTORATION Walker’s Southern
Every year on this day, I republish this piece. It has been many years since I first posted it. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. Perhaps, also, in this moment when the Gulf coast is reeling from two batterings by hurricanes and humankind has been humbled before it that we might reconsider whether we can afford to be one anothers’ worst enemies much longer.]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church led in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, butlooking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address. I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.
So as we come toward the tenth anniversary of 9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together. I wonder what our remembering will be? It is still so recent that it might tempt us to re-engage the anger and harder emotions, the disbelief and outrage and fury at human evil.
Or we might just be enervated. Last year, I read Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man, which tells of various characters who were in the buildings that day and cannot seem to get past the tragedy that has suffocated their past and replaced it with a spiritual limbo. At a critical moment, the main character comes upon a performance artist in a harness who re-enacts a man falling from one of the buildings repeatedly, reminiscent of the terrifying photograph of the same name that so defined the horror of that day.
There is another place to go—and it is remembering. Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life. If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.
I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death. She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life. My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all. I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end. However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while. But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.” He was comforted by this.
We do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes. To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory. Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant. Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners. They’re God’s problem now. I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz. He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.” Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting. Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.
Ritual and worship are powerful, too. When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us. Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:
Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship. Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and discouragement. The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV). The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement. We allow ourselves into the presence of others. We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers. We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship. But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church. There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.
I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too. As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.
Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church. They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos. God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized. It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.
I will go to all the 9-11 gatherings I can attend to be with my fellow citizens, forget whether they are a Tea Party Republican or Yellow Dog Democrat, rich or poor, black, white or recent immigrant, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic.
It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are Christians that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history. We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember. And the remembering will help heal our souls.
I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say. The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece. Remember, so that we might be one day healed.
We Could Use Brother Dave Now.
Brother Dave Gardner anticipated our current moment years ago. The self-avowed redneck comedian of the 1960s was a regular listen for me in the only album of his my Dad bought (Brother Dave called them “ablums”). My favorite story was of a promoter who “went around promoting shows.” Somehow it seems to fit our reality TV, bizarro news, political circus sideshows of the moment. Listen and laugh. Any resemblance to current politics or media frenzies are purely worth thinking about.
Thank You, Ethics Daily.
Ethics Daily asked to do a short bio about Yours Truly so here it is. A number of pieces from this blog have wound up in the Ethics Daily website. It was started by my late classmate and friend, Robert Parham. It’s worth your time to go there.
“Healing in the Shadow of Iniquity” A piece written in the aftermath of the Las Vegas Shooting.
“Being Thankful, Even in Times of Great Adversity” A piece that originally appeared on these pages.
Dogs Still Have a Leg Up On Humans, Metaphorically Speaking
Baptist News Global carried a recent piece on the virtues of dogs. At the end, they reference my well-liked piece titled, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven,” that was picked up in a newspaper or two and on various websites. You can read the original here. I agree that if the world is going to the dogs, it would be a step up, not down.
In an article (one of the kind preachers and scholars read and that laypeople would never find, nor would they want to), a professor writes an entire piece on what the apostle Paul meant when he told the Philippians, “Beware of dogs. Beware of evil workers. Beware of the mutilation.” (NKJV) Since mutilation is a reference to circumcision, it came to be seen as a swipe at Jewish people and in most of history interpreted, apparently, as a reversal of Jews calling Gentiles “dogs,” which were “unclean” animals. Besides that being part of a whole ugly history, it is one more blind spot in the human self-assessment.
The author says that the reason for this negativity about our four-footed friends is understandable:
Because dogs parade about naked, defecate, conduct sexual behavior,
and generally carry on without regard for human conventions of modesty
or prudence, they are characterized to be shameless in terms of the
prevailing social terms for proper conduct in human society (Nanor, Mark, “Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’
(Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?”)
However, that had to be prior to this year, when modesty, respectful language and couthy-ness (opposite of uncouth?) went, well, to the dogs. Dogs, in their defense, are neither circumcised nor require it for one another to be acceptable as a canine. While they travel in packs, their tribalism would never lead them to call one another names like, “Crooked Dane” or “Lyin’ Terrier.” And they NEVER tweet at one another, since high frequencies bother their ears. They don’t send drones to kill each other anonymously, have no nukes, never imprisoned a single one of their own and could care less about money. Don’t do drugs, booze or snuff and don’t go to the doctor ever without a human making them.
No, good old dogs have a lot to commend them. Yes, they have fleas, and they are a bit oblivious about public behavior and have a deplorable lack of potty training. On the other hand, they defend their pups to death, and don’t gossip, hack websites, or spread fake news. I think we owe them an apology. And while we’re at at it, maybe we could say I’m sorry to one another, that we don’t seem to be able to rise to the level of a dog in our treatment of one another, public or private.
When the poet Francis Thompson wanted to characterize the haunting love of God that will not let us go, what image did he choose? Not a person. It was “The Hound of Heaven.” “Hound of Heaven” is about a man running from a hound, pursuing him. No matter where he goes, he hears the steps behind him. In the second stanza, he hears that the hound is not out to get him, but is the very One he seeks.
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
I’m sorry, Paul. You should have found another metaphor.
Aunt Johnnie is a real person. She was my “cool Aunt” growing up. Meaning, she was just barely older than all the cousins. She was Grandmaw’s little late gift in life, the final of eight children. One time during a visit, she got Grandpaw’s old car, I seem to remember it was a Dodge, but I may be wrong, and loaded all us kids up and off we went, down a little dirt road that ran beside the country store my grandparents ran. It had those old gas pumps (Gulf brand, regular and premium only, leaded all) where white numbers on a black background turned slowly while your gas went in. Johnnie was maybe 13, 14, years old, but off we went. Crazy. That we survived was a miracle. Anyway, this is one of those songs that sort of “came out” one day, and it has been a lot of fun in concert for the crowds, who remember those less-regulated, more life threatening days! Johnnie had a birthday this week. Happy birthday, Aunt Johnnie!
Down the Dirt Road With Aunt Johnnie
with Brent Warren, Don Wendorf, Rachel Turner and Mark Weldon
Hop in the Dodge, pedal to the floor
Down the old dirt road next to Grampa’s store
Hole in the backseat floor and the road flies by
Aunt Johnnie starts laughing and so do I
Riding Down the Dirt Road With Aunt Johnnie
Jump the railroad tracks with Aunt Johnny
Its three fourths scary and one half funny
Better hold on for your dear life, honey
Riding Down the Dirt Road With Aunt Johnnie WATCH THE LIVE VIDEO
How did a meek and mild Jesus fashion a whip and scald the hides of the buyers and sellers in the temple? How did meek and mild Jesus get angry and denounce the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs?”
Currently I am preaching a series on the family, around certain words that seem to me both important biblical words for Christians and important skills for families in this current weirdest of times. I have preached about family a lot through the years and if I thought the need was done, I only have to listen to some of the arcane mental gymnastics of a fellow preacher still trying to hammer 21st century people into tiny first century cultural forms. The point of biblical study does not end when we ask, “What did something mean in the first century when the text was written?” Otherwise, we’d simply have to stand up and read ancient texts and proclaim, “Ok, go do that.” It has to be interpreted. Always.
That said, last week’s word was “Meekness,” which is a word not much in vogue, of course. It is one of the Beatitudes in the sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
We have tended to look at the meek as doormats or docile, weak persons without any power. We equate power with physical strength, domination, authority “over” others. You can see why we equate “meekness” with “Weakness.”
The word shows up in the New Testament a few interesting places. This is the Greek word πρᾳΰτης (“prautes.”) It is often rendered “meekness.” As in “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” Yet this is indeed a central remembrance of the church about Jesus. I’ve always wondered, “How did a meek and mild Jesus fashion a whip and scald the hides of the buyers and sellers in the temple? How did meek and mild Jesus get angry and denounce the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs?”
I think “meek” and “mild” need to be permanently separated. Prautes actually means strength, not mildness. It is a word that means “having the right tone, soothing the other when they are angry, keeping the conversation the right way.” It is also a word that is used of the training of animals. It means “teachable.”
You know people who are proud and hard-headed. They think they always are right. No one can tell them anything. They are virtually unteachable. And their lives and relationships are miserable for it. Psalm 147:6 uses the Hebrew of this word. In the NRSV it says, “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.” But the old KJV keeps this sense of the word when it says, “The LORD lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground.” Read the rest of this entry
If You Had a Father…
…and you did, if you’re still standing in this world. Mine is a good man, who worked hard, because that’s what a real man did for his family. He had one little boy, then another, and a third, and finally my mother got an ally, my baby sis. Dad was a basketball star, a talented carpenter and cabinetmaker who built our first house with his own hands in his “spare time.” If he was quiet, he was affectionate and a mountain to aspire to as a child.
We wanted to be like him. We were in awe of him, And he was there, always there. Even if he traveled, he always came back. Not all Fathers live up to that, but if they don’t, they aren’t really Fathers. The fathers God gives always show up, hang in there, are there for you. Yours might have been Uncle Joe or Grandpa or somebody you weren’t related to, but they always came back.
My wife had a father like that—engineer, Dale Carnegie graduate, never came out of the room without being dressed for work at the mill. No complaining, no excuses. If it’s hard, overcome it. If it’s broken, fix it. If you can pay for it, it isn’t a problem. We’re in this world to do for others, not ourselves.
These two men, along with a pretty long list of men who “fathered” me in sports, church and school, grandfathers and neighbors and Sunday School teachers, fathered me. “Fathering,” to me is this: you take responsibility for the people you love. You protect the weak. You help and defend the helpless. You stand up for what’s right and mend what’s wrong.
Fathering means helping little boys and girls know what a good man acts like. It means sacrificing, working, helping and coaching. It means helping them grow up when you’re still growing up yourself. It means doing whatever you can for your children because they come first.
If you had a father, and if you’re functional, you did. Even if that father wasn’t your biological Dad. If a man adopted you, looked Read the rest of this entry