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.

 

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. Continue reading “Church Penalties”

Remembering Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again.  It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.

It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.

The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.

I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home  recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation.  But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Uncle Vance’s Guitar

 Writing songs started for me at age 16. I have been singing, though, all my life. I sang in church, hummed to myself, started plucking guitar and piano and anything else with strings. Somehow marrying melody with words came naturally. I would memorize tunes and never forget them. So it was not completely foreign to me when I started trying to do it intentionally. I have so enjoyed in recent years the experience of learning, crafting, writing and performing original songs.

In recent years, I have completed three CDs.  My first was permanent world of pretend, the second was Overload of Bad News Blues and the third was What it Is. Recently I remastered the second and third one and re-did the artwork.  They are now available on CD Baby for purchase and download.  A few weeks ago, though, I finished my newest, four years in the writing and “trying out.” It’s titled Uncle Vance’s Guitar and it centers around the title cut, based on the story of a guitar that’s been in my family. My dad and his brothers all played and sang, and Uncle Vance had a turn playing with a well-known North Carolina performer, J. E. Maynor in the 1940s.  The song is about him, and about how music is a way to express and bear our lives.  I hope you’ll take a listen!

Last Thursday, I had an official CD release concert in Birmingham at Moonlight on the Mountain.  My good friend and fellow songwriter Keith Elder opened for me. I was joined by a very talented group of friends and supporting musicians, Brent Warren on guitars and mandolin, Don Wendorf on mandolin, banjo, drums and harmonica, Rachel Turner on bass and vocals, Mark Weldon on fiddle, and my Shades Mountain Air bandmates Nancy Womble and Melanie Rodgers were special guest artists, stepping up for some extra good work on a couple of songs.

A great crowd turned out, and now the CD is available for purchase. You can get downloads online at CD Baby by clicking here Uncle Vance’s Guitar but if you’re a CD buyer, you can order direct from me and I’ll put it in the mail to you.    The cost is $9.99 plus $3.63 for shipping.  I’ll bill you by email!  Just contact me below!

In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon

This is the sermon I preached this morning, Christmas Day 2016, at 10 am at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Merry Christmas to all!

NRS John 1:. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

My nephew Aaron is a college student, all grown up and mature now, but when he was seven years old my sister Amy and her two boys accompanied her husband Chris on a business trip.  On the way they incorporated a little vacation and stopped in Los Vegas.  They went to the Hilton Hotel, which houses the world famous STAR TREK: THE EXPERIENCE

STAR TREK: The Experience is an interactive adventure based on the voyages of the most exciting futuristic television series of all time — Star Trek. Visitors are immersed in a futuristic world where they see, feel, and live the 24th century!

They walked in and her little boys were absolutely overwhelmed.  They hadn’t been there long when a huge man dressed as a Klingon came walking up.  Now, I’m not a Star Trek fan, but many people star-trek-the-experience-castare.  Vickie never would permit us to watch anything on the television at our house involving mutants or creatures with things on their foreheads with our girls in the house, so I always waited until after bedtime to watch aliens and zombies and such.  Take my word for it, though, a Klingon is an alien who looks pretty weird.

So anyway, this guy comes walking up, he’s about seven feet tall with elevator platform boots on to make him taller and got that “rainy day mutant” look on his face, and he bends over to my terrified little nephews and says, “Where are YOU from, little boy?”  And Aaron’s trembling mouth drops open and he replies, “Earth!”

I sympathize.  I have the same reaction when I think about Jesus arriving here.  It’s such a strange concept.  Star Trek has created a whole universe out of our fascination with what’s “out there.”  The original series began with the phrase describing the Starship Continue reading “In the Flesh: A Christmas Day Sermon”

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” Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)”

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. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”