I have been AWOE (Absent without explanation) these past few months. No need to explain much these days, of course, given a pandemic, a failed coup, and a world in disconnect, but in addition, I am in the process of retiring from my fulltime job as a pastor for the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. I expect I will do a lot more retrospect in the days ahead, but I am wrapping up this week. This evening, given my love for all things Garrison Keillor and my penchant for funny stories, my celebration committee is having an event they have titled “A Gary Home Companion.”
I don’t know what all will happen, but given that the deacons sent me out of my final deacons meeting with a kazoo orchestral version of “Bad to the Bone” Sunday evening, I think it is fair to say this will be a lot of laughter, celebration and fun. After nearly twenty eight years together, we have continued to laugh–at ourselves, together, and joyfully.
Humor, especially self-deprecating kinds, is in great shortage today. Churches and preachers tend to take themselves seriously to the point of idolatry. Most highminded religiosity is in need of a good puncture to its hot air balloon now and then. God is to be taken with ultimate seriousness. God’s self-appointed spokespeople–not as much.
I love this church. No one has been more fortunate than I to serve here. Anyway, it will be livestreamed and you are welcome to join us at 6 pm CST. You can find us onYouTubeor on Facebook. Brent Warren and I will play a couple of songs and we will, I am sure, have some laughs at my expense. Why not? Join us. More information here.
One of the songs we’ll do is from our latest CD, and it’s perfect for the retiring types.
There is plenty of good work to do—beyond the ministries of the church itself, we have a world of opportunity. Children and schools are important to all of us. Hungry children need food. Frightened children need reassurance, even if it’s not certain out there. Lonely children need connection.
The technology that was supposed to make life easy now is only our connection to get things done. Everything is a lot harder.
Here’s the problem now: the pandemic is going to stretch well into next year, from everything I can read. No vaccine is coming next week. I can see businesses adjusting, schools are figuring it out.
A caution in these times when the mind can fly off down Twitter rabbitholes: don’t give in to flights of fancy and fears of apocalypse. Beware the gloom and doom crowd. Conspiracy theories come along always in these times. So do second coming fears. In my lifetime there have been at least a dozen times over forty-one years in the pastorate when
“You may know this phrase—Late Great Planet Earth—as the title of a book. It was written fifty years ago and sold more than 35 million copies. Which of course made
a lot of money for the author (Hal Lindsey) and the publisher (Zondervan). [at that time, he predicted the end would come at any moment. [it became the dominant interpretation of evangelicals and Pentecostals, said Dwight.
I’ve been around this my entire ministry. Again, and again, I remember times when timid and fearful Christians were the equivalent of Forrest Gump when he saw Lt. Dan on the dock and jumped into the water, leaving his boat to crash without anyone to steer.
The problem with this end times philosophy is twofold. First, it’s built on a very questionable interpretation of the bible, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Revelation. Second, it is neither the only nor the best interpretation of those books. And before the early 1800s, it was not dominant among Christians. Most of what you hear as pop Christianity presents this as though Christianity has only had this single approach. It hasn’t.
In the 1970s, the world seemed to be coming apart—racial division, Vietnam, ecological crisis, and the changing mores of the world caused many Christians to see signs that the end was near. At several points along the way, the same thing popped up again and again. In particular, I remember it at the end of the 20th century Remember that dreaded glitch in our computers that were supposed to make the world stop? (y2K) Then came the New Year and…life went on. 9/11, the Recession, and now this. Every time, anxious people said to me, “It seems like the Lord may come back any time.”
This is exactly why the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, and he said his famous verse that every parent has cited to a young adult that won’t go get a job: “If they won’t work, don’t let them eat.” People had literally quit working and began sitting on their spiritual keisters to wait for the apocalypse.
Paul also said, in Ephesians, these words:
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[b] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[c]
Imagine the difficulty of planting these congregations when they came from pagan backgrounds, little or no knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, and no guidance. Paul gave them these basic guidelines because they needed the most elemental things. He is saying: Focus on these. Don’t be distracted by speculations, arguments, and divisions. Be kind.
These truths don’t depend on figuring it all out.
When you feel a little discouraged, do something for someone else. Call a family member or neighbor who is alone and listen. When you get angry about something on the news, turn it off and go fix something in the house.
I would suggest never buying books about the rapture, but if you must, at least read something practical to balance it. Most of those books fall into the category of Christian fiction. They are opinions, interpretations, but they are not beyond dispute.
My friend Dwight said at the end of his piece, “Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson are old people now, having gotten wealthy on predictions that proved false. The rest of us, however, are the poorer for it. We are suffering through the worst year since the Depression and the World War, largely because …[we] are still distracted (and deluded) by a book published a half century ago.”
The theology of “Left Behind” and its ilk presents a closed and fatalistic history—nothing matters. Most of creation will be destroyed and the small handful of faithful ones will be preserved but the rest of it done away with. That its enthusiastic supporters always count themselves among the few is glaringly self-centered.
Christian hope is not about terrifying people. It’s meant to…well, give you hope.
It’s not social distancing. It’s just “safe distance.” One of our older ladies’ classes met with me Tuesday morning in two shifts to laugh, hear from each other, and say “See you later” to a member, Martha, who is moving to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We ended each time with a short memorial time for Betty, a member whose whose funeral was last week. Our friendships and fellowship are alive and well.
Instead of whining about what we can’t do, put your thinking caps on and figure out what you CAN do. All the rest is just being on social media too much. Sunsets, birds, flowers and trees are still there. Books are on your shelf. There are instruments to practice, prayers to pray, money to give to good causes. Make a call to someone who is alone. Get with it!
These ladies call each other regularly for encouragement and inspiration. It’s getting to a hard time now–we’re over the short burst of crisis adrenaline and now we’re in the long haul. It requires mental toughness, selflessness, determination and regard for others. Some of us are flunking on that last one. But most people where I am are trying hard.
In my sermon Sunday I mentioned a comment by Mark Cuban who said young job applicants (after this is over) had best be ready to answer, “What did you do during the pandemic?” It’s a great question for us all. Get up off the couch, turn off the media and do something worthwhile before it’s too late. And if you’re in your teens or twenties, don’t be forced to say, “Oh, I partied like it was the end of the world.” You can be better than that.
Songs and poems about mothers and mothering are an ocean of sentiment stretching back through human history. The bond of mother and child is a pillar of human survival and civilization and a profound mystery to those of us who are male. If we’re even slightly mature, we are awed by women and the impact they have on our children (if it was good).
I got curious about this subject in popular music, most especially in the Southern roots music in which I grew up and live in. Mother’s Day was a big deal growing up, with churches somehow developing the tradition to give out roses to mothers in the congregation. It was a once per year tip of the hat to women without whom church would not exist at all. They brought the children, raised them, prayed for them and furnished virtually all the volunteer hours, particularly in the old days before women were paid for anything they did. And we didn’t ordain women then (which is, in reality, “recognizing,” isn’t it, and blessing?).
It was an odd tradition, this giving of the roses. It usually was various categories to award—the youngest mother, the oldest mother, the most children, and so on. In a small church, it would be the same ladies every year, sparking rumbles of disregarded people in the center, without a category. Churches later found more democratic ways—giving some little item out to all. In the churches with screens and fog machines, I have not a clue what they do now.
Still, in the old days, “mother” was a highly revered and honored position. Kids knew it.
A mother gave you life, got you to ball practice and without whom you might actually starve to death in a house. In a society where all is economic (the word economy, ironically, springs from the Greek word oikos, house or household). An economy is an environment of values, work, production and relationships, not, as we have perverted it, “bling.” It exists only for the Continue reading “Mothers in Old Time Songs”→
I’ve begun a weekly short video devotional online called, “Looking Up.” In part I got the title from the King James Version of Luke 21:28
And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
The context of the verse is Jesus teaching about “signs of distress” and how to interpret them. That seemed useful to me in this moment. Anxiety causes many well-meaning but not well-informed folks to assume that every time the world goes through calamity that it means “the end is near.”
Beyond the obvious observation that Jesus warned his hearers that, as Paul Simon put it in “Slip Sliding Away,” “the information is unavailable to the mortal man,” it is also an interesting insight into both prophetic thought and the teachings of Jesus. In short, I put it this way, “When things look good, watch out. Trouble is on the horizon.” and when things look like the handbasket for the ride down to the fire, look up! God does some great work when all indications look bad.
So, I will post these on a separate page on the blog. Today’s blog is below.
“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.” One verse goes
Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows
The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’
Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?
When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home
Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became
digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.
But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of Continue reading “Christmas Time Is Coming”→
Alabama Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children
This Giving Tuesday, consider making a small donation to help mothers and children in Alabama receive the help they need to live happy, healthy lives. Our website and app are designed to provide information and access to food banks, diaper banks, clothes, and other vital resources. Join us in supporting the women and children of Alabama.
EVERY dollar will go to the work of spreading our effort to connect all faith-based and public organizations help give easier access to information and help to the public so that we may improve the health of Alabama’s children and empower Moms and Dads too to give their children a strong future! In 2020 we will be rolling out our app to the public, expanding our resource listings and funding our ongoing IT costs to make this resource available to EVERYONE! visit us at www.achmc.com
Review of Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. Random House Publishing Group.
By Gary Furr
Kate Bowler begins her book in the doctor’s office. “I had lost almost thirty pounds by the time I was referred to a gastrointestinal surgeon at Duke University Hospital.” And then, the thud of reality.”
ONE MOMENT I WAS a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer. Before my mind could apprehend it, it was there—swelling to take up every space my imagination could touch. A new and unwanted reality. There was a before, and now there was an after. Time slowed to a pulse. Am I breathing? I wondered. Do I want to? Every day I prayed the same prayer: God, save me. Save me. Save me.
There are plenty of books about the problem of suffering, but every now and then one comes along that makes us feel it. All humans eventually suffer in life somewhere along the way—but it is undeserved, unfair and untimely suffering that is the most crushing variety. Enter Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School and church history. Bowler’s first book came from her dissertation, a study of the Prosperity Gospel, entitled Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel. She befriended and studied the world of name it and claim it Christianity, embodied in the megachurch worlds of Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen.
This book, though, is a personal one, a wilderness wandering through the most difficult and intractable questions all religious people face: why suffering, why now, why me? She gets my vote for the most interesting title of the year and she does not disappoint. Kate is a wickedly funny writer but also gut-wrenchingly honest about her journey through Continue reading “Everything Happens for a Reason? Review”→
“In his book Simply Christian NT Wright says there are four traces of the call of God in every human being. They are the echoes of the Creator’s voice in us.
The longing for justice
The quest for true spirituality
The hunger for relationship
The delight of beauty
These four echoes are truly the best of what it means to be a human being. Since if they truly represent God‘s highest purposes in life, then those of us who aspire to that life should see evidence of these things as we make progress.”
If you would counter the ugliness of the present moment and avoid the despair of our violent culture, consider making these four things the focus of your activity and choices. What leads you to one or all of them? Take these paths and you will have a plan to resist the darkness and shallowness or our current culture.
N. T. Wright has been one of my favorite scholars through the years, and I read everything of his I can find. Samford University is hosting him in its first Provost Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring two public events with Dr. Wright, a lecture on, “Space, Time and History: Jesus and the Challenge of God,” in the Wright Center at 7 p.m. On Sept. 11, Wright will debate Messianic Jewish theologian Mark Kinzer on the meaning of Israel in the Wright Center at 7 p.m. Information
I live in the vulnerability of my need for grace. Grace I ought to give, grace I hope someone else will extend to me. Undeserved kindness, mercy, love. Most of all, the grace of God. Pure, unmerited, unsettling grace.
Grace, finally, is not dependent on anything more than the nature and reality of God. It is not what this or that preacher says it is, or what some friend tells us that comes out of their own need.
God is love. This is the highest statement of the revelation of God’s being in the New testament. Count on that more than any other statement about the Christian gospel. It does not free us to live as we please. Damage comes from our refusal of grace, consequences to our self-destructive alienation. But if the gospels are right, grace can restore a prodigal who had wasted everything, a woman with five marriages, a tax collector who was a traitor to his people, a murderer like the apostle Paul, and a woman caught in utter shame of adultery by a group of lascivious onlookers. It can reclaim even a thief nailed next to Jesus who barely knew his name. And if this is so, then there is hope. Continue reading “Grace”→