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Abide With Me

Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life.  He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

 

It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow  clergyman, of which he said

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”[1]

Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals.  In one of the eight original verses is the line  “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”[2]

Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.

Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”

That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.

 

 

[1] Darrell St. Romain, “History of Hymns: Abide with Me” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-abide-with-me

 

[2] St. Romain.

Down in Bethlehem

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

Read the rest of this entry

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” Read the rest of this entry

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. Read the rest of this entry

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry

Johnny Cash’s Music Lives On

Johnny_Cash_-_Out_Among_the_Stars

Johnny Cash material released this week.

Johnny Cash, in many ways, lived as a prism of

the last half of the twentieth century,

at least a Southern version of that.

 

Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, going out in a blaze of recording glory with his last work, four albums titles “American I-IV”.  Ever experimenting and interacting with the musical world, the series, produced with the help of Rick Rubin, was highly acclaimed.  “Hurt,” and the accompanying video, appearing three months before June’s death and seven before Johnny himself succumbed to diabetes.

The brilliant video serves as a summary and eulogy for the man in black.  But apparently it was not the end of his recording career.  This week the world is meeting the music of Johnny Cash once again.  “Out Among the Stars,” a never-released album of songs recorded in 1984, was unearthed by his son and released to the public.  I just got it and am listening through.

Read the rest of this entry

Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

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Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Read the rest of this entry

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Say Hello to Porky for Me…

In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days.   It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel.  When I was a student, I

Miss Jenkins, in my 1973 annual, in her style shamelessly stolen by Flannery O’Connor and Lauren Winner

heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others.  I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers.  Now it was at hand.

I sent biographical info about me ahead of time.  The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives.  Here is what I wrote:

As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary.  Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins.  You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team.  Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby.  The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!

My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking.  I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever.  We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.

Mother and Child. Miss Jenkins was always coming by.

Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us.  We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something  else.  Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful.  It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva.  More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am.  I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.

My teachers changed my life.  Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience.  She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.

Henrietta loved her subject.  She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages.  “By heart” was an apt discussion.  When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.

Unidentified close friend of Miss Jenkins

But she was more.  Henrietta was our neighbor.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month.  A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her.  She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her.  She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer).  And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.

Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety.  He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks  were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible.  Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it.  She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion.  Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class.  “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!”  Every day they happily walked down the street together.

We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years.  She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor.  Our first real neighbor as a couple.  The best.  And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her.  Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss.  He was buried in the backyard of her  home, a different house from the one we knew.  We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack.  No doubt.

Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more.  I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.

But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either.  Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions.  She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.”  She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.

So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time.  We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night.  We sat in the parlor where we courted.  And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.

* * * * * * * * *

My chapel fantasy?  It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way.   Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper.  It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.

Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven.   My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book.  Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone.  I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby.  Life doesn’t stop.  Neither does death.

People who love you even leave eventually.   There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably.  It seems untouched, not altered by time.  A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us.  How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes.  But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,

            ‘Tis in my memory lock’d,         

            And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins.  Thank you for the keys.

Distant cousin of Porky