The Difference One Life Makes

Recently, I was asked to give remarks at a retirement dinner for Frances Ford of Perry County, an extraordinary person whose passion to rebuild healthcare in Perry County has inspired thousands of people from around the nation who came to help. In 2016, Frances was inducted into the Alabama Healthcare Hall of Fame. Permit me to quote that article:

Citing her faith in God and the influence of her parents, Ford said she is guided by the principles of “giving back, helping others, and [showing] the love of Christ”. Throughout her career, Ford has followed a deep calling to make a difference in her spheres of influence. A graduate of Judson College (B.S.) and the Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing (R.N.) at Samford University, Ford devoted her nursing career to serving her neighbors in the Black Belt region of Alabama…In 1999, Ford accepted the position of Health Care Coordinator for Perry County in order to begin rebuilding healthcare infrastructure in the community after the closure of the County’s hospital in the same year. Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Ford coordinated projects to increase the number of healthcare professionals, expand the services of outpatient clinics, and remove regulatory barriers that inhibited the delivery of healthcare services in rural and medically-underserved parts of the state.

Her efforts influenced state and federal officials to establish a primary care center in Marion and to revise regulations that prohibited End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) facilities from operating in areas more than 10 miles from a hospital. This change, which Ford accomplished through her involvement with the Governor’s Black Belt Action Committee, allowed for the establishment of the Davita Dialysis Center in Marion, eliminating a 40-mile drive two to three times per week for more than 50 dialysis patients in Perry County.

Ford also developed and led an initiative to connect children in Perry County with health insurance programs, which accomplished a ten-fold increase in their coverage. This initiative was incorporated into the work of Sowing Seeds of Hope, which Ford joined in 2005 as Executive Director.

Makes you feel lazy, doesn’t it? I was honored to share remarks for her, a true Alabama saint. I share them with you here.

Frances, so many eloquent things have already been said about you and I tried to think what I could add to that. I am here merely to bless you. You have made such a difference in this state and in your community. You have changed the well-being of so many. As a pastor I have watched as you answered the call and stepped forward to do such extraordinary work for the people of Perry County, and in the process changed the lives of all whom you invited to join with you.

Permit me a small vanity as my blessing. At the Baptist state convention in the mid-1990s, I went with as group from my church. Arthur Weeks, a retired Samford law school dean and elegant gentleman and his wife, Carol, were among those going.It was early in my ministry, so we were just getting to know one another. We were remonstrating about the political chicanery in our state convention at the time and Arthur was telling a story. And in the story, he said, “And  I said, “Well, hell…” and couldn’t finish the story. His shocked wife was horrified to hear him swear in front of their new pastor and she blurted, “ARTHUR!”

He matter-of-factly turned to her and said, “Why, Carol, I’m just quoting myself.” So for my blessing I’m going to quote myself here in just a moment.

The very first time I was with Frances was many years ago. We were traveling to the Alabama State convention meeting together in Huntsville, early on, probably nearly two decades or more ago. But we were riding in our church bus and one lady on the bus from my church was famous for her hysterial laugh, which was easy to start and hard to stop. And I told Frances that I bet her I could get her to laugh 20 times before we got to Huntsville. It was over 25 by the time we got there. We had a grand time, she was fun to be with, but I came to know that gentle spirit, good heart and great spirit. I had no idea who I was sitting with. Only later I saw the impact that she had. I saw the measure of her life both in Perry County and everyone who visited there.

And through the years, as we were part of the arts camp there and many other efforts, I would see my members come back changed by what they experienced and by the impact that her work was having on the people there. You made difference to me. You have made a difference to the people here, your family.

You loved your community, and you love your neighbors and you love the land that you live on and invested yourself in a way that has changed them all. We will never be the same. Thank you.

So now I’m going to quote myself. This is a song lyric that I wrote back during the pandemic. I was inspired by thinking about Saint Paul’s tendency in every letter he wrote to say, “I thank God every time I think about you.” It seems perfect.  Frances, we thank God every time we think about you and the difference that you have made. Here are the words that I wrote and they are for you. 

Every Time I Think of You

Gary Allison Furr  (for all who every prayed for me)

I tried to fly above the angels with nothing but self-centeredness

But I only found the way to heaven from wandering in the wilderness

I took this road a long time ago without knowing where it went

when I thought I’d lost my way, I felt the prayers you sent

I thank God when I think of you, You are a gift to me

Of faithfulness and hope and love and generosity

For all my sins and weaknesses I now feel gratitude

Without them I might never have known how much I needed you.

When fear and anger silence truth, and mercy is ridiculed as weak,

I remember you still pray for me And I find my voice and speak. 

I thank God when I think of you, You are a gift to me

(these lyrics appear in Gary Allison Furr, Shadow Prayers: Reflections from a Pandemic Year, Parsons Porch, 2021, p. 172.)  A recording of the song can be heard at

Writing Together

For over thirty years, I have been part of an extraordinary community of theological friends. In our careers we were pastors, missionaries, seminary and college professors, and a university president. All of us were productive writers and thinkers and published individually a great deal over the years.

We began coming together during the time that the Southern Baptist Convention was imploding over politics and theological disagreement in the 1980s. It was formed with three members and they soon began to invite the rest of us to join . This group became a wonderful place of freedom and fellowship. We found that we were able to voice any thought without judgment and have it tested by our colleagues and friends, sometimes quite intensively.

The Trinity group (some of us) in my home, many years ago. From left to right, Philip Wise, Paul Robertson, Paul Basden, me, Fisher Humphreys (seated), Dwight Moody (standing), Rick Wilson (seated).

As the years went on the group became more and more weighted toward deep friendship as we walked through losses, job crises, and suffering together. One of the founding members of our group passed away at age 60, but we have continued to meet for most of that time, twice a year and during Covid continued over Zoom because our relationships were a sustaining reality for us. But also we grew theologically by the instrument of mind sharpening mind.

It kept me alive as a pastor, made me read books I otherwise would not have known, and expanded my thinking which, I am certain, benefitted my congregations and listeners in various settings. There is something unavoidable in the statement of Jesus that “where two or more are gathered, there am I among them.” In the broadest sense, part of the defect of current Christian life is our compartmentalized and self-reinforcing orthodoxies that gather according to sameness and agreement rather than for genuine growth and maturity (which comes only through testing). Churches today look too much alike, conformed by politics, culture and a longing for security from the world instead of a fearless love for that world.

We do not agree with each other on many things theologically, but we are all Christians in our confession and the one unifying factor is that everyone in the group has a PhD degree and is a theologian by calling. We have also most interestingly published some books together.

The first one was at the time of the death of our founder and friend, Philip Wise, and it is called For Faith and Friendship.  (Fisher Humphreys, T. J. Mashburn, Richard F. Wilson, Editors.  Covington, Louisiana:  Insight Press, 2010). It is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics.

We so enjoyed the effort that some years later we worked together again with a book entitled, Encountering God in the Prayers of Others Paul Basden, Editor. Cleveland, Tennessee: Parson’s Porch Books, 2014). Each of us wrote several chapters reflecting on a written prayer from Christian history that had become meaningful to us in our spiritual lives. It is a wonderful book and the chapters of other members blessed me as much as I hope mine blessed those who read it.

Most recently, we had conversation with Pat Anderson, the wonderful editor of Christian ethics. Today, one of our members, Dr. Fisher Humphreys is on the board of CET and pitched the idea of our group writing an entire issue of the journal and Pat immediately accepted. We had also done this once earlier when we did an entire issue of The Theological Educator (Spring 1998 No. 57) on the theme of theology for the church. My article there was “Intersections of Grace: Theology and Pastoral Care in the Local Parish,” about the importance of theology for doing the work of pastoral care in ministry with integrity.

My own article in this issue is entitled, “Bridge Builders: Turning the Wedges in a World of Division.” It is an expansion of a sermon that I also shared as a commencement address at Samford University last December about the peril of division and the work of reconciliation for Christians, in this divisive time.

I have listed below the other titles in the issue and I would invite all of my readers, to take a moment, to go to the link, and become a subscriber. If you wish, there is no charge for either the online or receiving Christian ethics today, it’s always worth reading.

Sometimes CET will outrage you but it will always challenge your thinking. I hope you’ll go to the link and read mine and the other articles and thanks for being my readers. I would hope many Christian people would seek out the opportunity to grow through fellowship and gatherings that do not merely reinforce what we always think but by helping us to think more clearly, honestly, faithfully and humbly.

READ the issue free (click the link)

Introduction to the Trinity Group By Fisher Humphreys
The Dangers of Christian Nationalism
By Paul Basden
Afghan Refugees and The Honor Deficit
By Gerald Wright and Grayson Beemus
Bridge Builders: Turning the Wedges in a World of Division
By Gary Furr
A Christian Understanding of Punishment
By Fisher Humphreys
Approaches to Religious Dialogue (with Cautions)
By Richard Francis Wilson
Seeking and Speaking the Truth: Descartes, the Kung San Tribe, and Readers of Christian
Ethics Today
By T. J. Mashburn
Eating That Gospel Pie: Religious Rhetoric in the Songs of John Prine
By Dwight A. Moody
When Life Takes Your Song
By Roger Sullivan
Hospital Visits: A Primer
By Paul Robertson
Practicing Hospitality
By LaMon Brown

Blessing for an Anniversary

Now that I am retired, I am still busy, but not consecutively. I bounce from one “one-time” event to another–a funeral, a wedding or two, a concert here and there, and writing. That along with the avalanche of priorities for caring for two parents and family priorities. My joke is, “I do lots of things, but not two in a row.” My other is that now I mostly do “leavings, cleavings and (when I fill in for a preacher) relievings.”

Relationships abide past the end of work, and recently we were invited to celebrate a sixtieth anniversary of two dear friends in my former pastorate, Crawford and Marlene Taylor. I was their pastor for most the past twenty-nine years, and we gathered to have a party. We celebrated the marriages of their son and daughter, and welcomed their grandchildren together. Our new pastor, Dr. Eric Spivey, gave the opening prayer and blessing for the meal, and their children shared a hilarious parody of “Old Man River,” entitled “Old Married Couple.”

I was asked to bring a benediction. We have come to mean benediction as “marking the end” of something, but it is in fact a blessing as we go, continuing the “word” we have shared back into our going. Here is what I shared for these two wonderful friends.

Crawford and Marlene,

We have all come here to rejoice. The two of you have interwoven into our lives, else we would not be here, except for the free food, of course. But we have known generosity, and laughter and intensity of faith in you both. You are not the same, but as you have journeyed through life, you have created what only faithful determination to “do it together” can—abiding love, deeper understanding, laughter and tears. You are now long become fixed points of navigation to the people who sail along nearby. Thank you. So, I say today, as next year we have known one another thirty years, that friendship has no expiration date. It continues, even into death as memory. And so may I offer this blessing for marriage to you, from Irish author and priest, the late John Donohue, as long as you are privileged to dwell together.”    Dr. Gary Furr, on the occasion of your anniversary, August 28, 2022.


As spring unfolds the dream of the earth,

May you bring each other’s hearts to birth.

As the ocean finds calm in view of land,

May you love the gaze of each other’s mind.

As the wind arises free and wild,

May nothing negative control your lives.

As kindly as moonlight might search the dark,

So gentle may you be when light grows scarce.

As surprised as the silence that music opens,

May your words for each other be touched with reverence.

As warmly as the air draws in the light,

May you welcome each other’s every gift.

As elegant as dream absorbing the night,

May sleep find you clear of anger and hurt.

As twilight harvests all the day’s color,

May love bring you home to each other.

O’Donohue, John. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

It occurs to me in this moment of insufferable and infantile tirades and resentments that we might need more parties, more rejoicing, more marking of times, and far more blessing. Rev. Myron Maddon famously wrote that we have “the power to bless.” The companion of that, naturally, is the power to curse. In a moment of constant accusations, blaming and vulgarity, wouldn’t a little more blessing be in order?

Poplar Tent Memories: album release

I have updated and re-released an album I put together with some friends ten years ago, POPLAR TENT MEMORIES. The name of the album comes from the road where I lived after I was born, Poplar Tent Road, in Concord, NC.  There was no Interstate 85 roaring through, moonshiners lived down the road and my grandpa and grandma were two houses away. I attended Poplar Grove Baptist Church before I could walk. My Grandpa Price led the music, and I have memories of the singing from pre-age five.

Poplar Tent Memories is sixteen songs from the 2011 album and some I have added in recent years. It features several friends, including Michaela Bundon (Take a listen to her on “Tell Me the Story of Jesus”!), Nancy McLemore, Melanie Rodgers and Beth McGinnis among others.

I still have my grandfather’s old Broadman hymnal, a shaped note edition from 1940. The church musicians of Baptist life gave us a rich heritage of hymn singing. My grandfather led music in revivals, every Sunday in church, and sang in a quartet that included my mother. So I grew up, as so many Baptists then did, with an affordable upright piano in the house and a piano bench full of gospel music.

Regrettably, I resisted and won on giving up on the piano, but the guitar found me at nine or ten, and the hymns continued to be a great source of personal devotion for me in all the years that followed. I love hymns because they taught me the basics of my faith.  “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” and dozens of others were my first instruction in the faith.  We sang every time we came together, over and over we recited and sang them until we knew them by heart.

I miss that part of life. I wonder if part of why we’re so messed up now is that we don’t sing together like we used to. I know people sing in arenas to the latest pop microhit, but that’s not the same. Moreover, it’s how we learned the faith. Sermons, other than the really scary ones at revivals, I remember almost nothing. But hymns, I have emblazoned all over my brain. They bubble up all the time.

When I sing, somehow the crazy part of my brain shuts off for a bit and I touch a deep place again, where Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Beethoven and Lowell Mason speak to  me. The hymns give voice to longings, pain, sorrow and hope, and above all, to Jesus, who is always better than most of Christianity. When I keep looking at that beautiful life, I don’t feel as lost.

I once opened for rocker and contemporary Christian singer Ashley Cleveland at the old Moonlight on the Mountain music venue. Like so many in the music world, addiction overtook her life for a while. It was part of her journey back to her childhood faith. During that harrowing time, she said, it was the old hymns that came back to her and carried her through.

I hope you enjoy these hymns, whether you are a church person or not. There is something universal and accessible to anyone in them.

Reframing to Blessings

When I first began to preach as a pastor it was in small churches in Central Texas. They were mostly blue collar and working folks, farmers, retired people who had moved out from the city, an assortment of people who end up in a church together by virtue of geography.

As I was just beginning my ministry, I desperately read books about how to preach and how to be an administrator and how to do all of this and that. But I particularly remember one preaching book that encouraged me to try to turn my main point into a positive affirmation. This became central in my life, even if I didn’t always do it well.

Having trained academically, I had a disposition toward thorough analysis and preface. It meant that I could spend a long time, and in those early sermons I surely did on those poor people, explaining why it was I was going to tell them what I was going to tell them. That usually meant 8 or 10 reasons why the world was going to hell and why they needed the one good thing I was going to slip in right before the final hymn. Only later did I learn to move more consistently to the affirmations of the gospel. people don’t need nearly as much analysis as we are inclined to give.

I find that to be generally true, though, these days. If you look at the Twitter feeds of sports teams, you would believe that every coach is an absolute disaster every player incompetent and no team having any idea what they were doing. We are heavy on criticism and analysis and a little short on blessing. It is a difficult exercise to begin to turn your negativity into affirmation. It goes against the grain of so much of our brokenness.

I preached plenty of sermons that were heavier on analysis and what needs to be fixed. But the best ones were always the ones that moved to the extraordinary good news of hope and transformation. The latter were what Jesus brought to the world, as has every other great religious leader who has ever lived and for that matter the best people in our lives. They have the capacity to take something that can be cast in the negative and turn it into an fresh affirmation. There is a place, an important one, for analysis and criticism. We need to evaluate and reconsider. But one of the great failings of our time is the predominance of the negative. Too much is centered around what’s wrong with the other person or those people or this or that bogeyman created by our collective fears.

Dr Samuel Proctor was a wonderful African American preacher, educator, theologian and scholar. He honored me by contributing a chapter to a book that I helped edit once. He once said of a contemporary, “Well, his “whereases” are pretty good but his “therefores” are a little weak.” It’s the therefores that finally make the difference.

Dr. Samuel Proctor

You always remember when someone has forcefully taken familiar and empty concepts and words and recast what had seemed a dark and empty time into something surprisingly filled with hope. This is the genius of authentic leadership and authentic servanthood.

“Reframing” refers to taking something and recasting it so it can be seen afresh. In pastoral conversations, it can convey great power to respond to some statement of despair with, “Of course, another way to look at this…” and to see a light go on in the eyes. Blessing has great power. It is not denial, and it is not romanticized optimism. Blessing comes from Truth. It is an ultimate statement of “the way it is,” beyond our filters and negative predispositions.

Someone once said to me, “It can help to begin to use new words, to state things differently, when we are trying to change.” So, this might be a powerful spiritual practice. Take your dread, fear or hopeless assumption and begin to speak of it anew. Invite a larger perspective, one that allows for blessing, not curses, to be the final word for you.