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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

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Grace in An Ungrace World

Last week my wife and I attended the annual Tom and Marla Corts lecture at Samford University, where Philip Yancey was the speaker. To those outside the religious world, Yancey is one of those writers that reaches past the normal barriers to speak to the pain of a hurting world. He spoke from the substance of his newest book, which I bought and look forward to reading as soon as I can, entitled Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?

Yancey writes in such an engaging, thoughtful and undefensive style that he touches those who wouldn’t necessarily listen to preachers or go to churches. You know, people who like Jesus even if they don’t especially like the church. He told us that his writing had circled around two main topics through the years: the question of suffering and the issue of grace. Last night we were treated to the latter. Of grace, he surveyed the present moment and lamented how little sense of embodied grace (my words) seem evident at present in our world. Yancey called it “an ungrace world.” You know, only about power, winners and losers, unforgiveness and people unreconciled.

His largest question was, “Why doesn’t the church look more like grace?” This, along with the hostility in the world at present between the major religions, has resulted in a growing negativity toward religion in general, and toward organized Christianity in the US in particular.  This has been well-documented by the Pew Trust and others.  The disconnect is deep and real, but perhaps not beyond hope, he suggested. The caricatures we haul around toward one another are not the truth, necessarily. But as far as evangelical Christians, whose stock has fallen the farthest, it might do well to enter a time of reflection.  Besides the perplexity of the world about evangelicals’ lockstep support of Donald Trump, a man whose entire life has so contradicted their own values, Yancey pointed to a deeper problem. People do not see the gracious, welcoming, boundary-breaching good news of Jesus of Nazareth in the church today. Too often what they see is legalism, disconnects from our own scripture, and a watering down of the gospel message into a bland pablum of politics and culture religion. What they need to see, he suggested, is Jesus.

Jesus’ teachings, example, love and faithfulness stand as a powerful antidote to the lifeless imitations that pass for his gospel. The good word is that it has always been difficult to be a Christian. Our lack of historical awareness tends to obscure the magnitude of the challenge of the early Christians living their faith amid the culture of the Roman Empire, where infanticide, cruelty, moral depravity and oppression were widespread.  Christians did not, by and large, wait for that culture to agree with it, but lived out its ethic like its Lord–practicing the love of enemies, peacemaking, love of the excluded and forgotten and offering a vision of a better life. People turned to Christianity, said Yancey, not from arguments about issues, but by the power of its persuasive ethic lived out in people.

It was a stirring presentation and reminder tome of an account I once read about the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, a man of great intellect, sensitivity and compassion. He went to see Gandhi to ask him, “How can we make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift?” And Gandhi responded: “First, I would suggest all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” (Ezine article)

I have read those words a number of times through the years and thought about them. There is something so powerfully persuasive about love that anger can never match, no matter how forcefully it tries to shove its way forward. We have a need for deeper grace to one another, and maybe the place to begin for Christians is to ask ourselves, “How well do we understand our Founder, our texts, and its message, and how strongly do others see us practice it in love?”

I wonder.

 

 

 

Lessons From the Waiting Room

This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room.  As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do.  Now the day had come and we had to—wait.  Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
  • Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
  • 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.  

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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 Read the rest of this entry

God’s Dream and Our Fear

Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:

As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

The problem of life is not faith, but fear.  Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying.  The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement.  Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.

Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken.  It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward.  The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a garymisstep and terrified of suffering.  Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.

Change, all change, brings fear with it.  Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable.  We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.

Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families.  The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.

Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”[1]

As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Read the rest of this entry

Thanksgiving, Squanto and Hope

How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims?  They came to America to find freedom, we remember.  Religious freedom.  They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church.  They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide.  As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”

First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom.  Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden.  All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well.  They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.

So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World.  They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back.  Only the Mayflower made it.

During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.”  The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.

There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route.  They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November.  Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least. 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

Reality

Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us.  I said, toward the end, these words:

“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”

Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:

I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this:  “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”

And this one from G. K. Chesterton,  The Everlasting Man  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.

Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

Be Like The Samaritan

How providential that today’s lectionary text is the story of the Good Samaritan and my children’s sermon on the book Amazing Grace, about a little African American girl named Grace who is told that she cannot be Peter Pan in the class play because she’s a girl and she’s black. Thank you, God, for divine nudges to our hearts.

I am a long way from the events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, but I want to do something. I offer this prayer from my book, “A Prayer for Justice” POEMS, PRAYERS AND UNFINISHED PROMISES,” p. 63. If you would like a copy of the book, I intend to give all that I receive from the book this week as a donation to the families of the slain officers in Dallas, and the two shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. To order go to my page on facebook. May the God who brings peace from all hate and pain bless all those hurting today and bring the justice that is blessing for all.

Mighty God,
Whose eyes see into our deepest motives
and whose justice is without exception in requirement,

we come as those who have tasted mercy
And now are asked to live it in truth—
People of forgiveness, in the sojourn to wholeness
And learning to live as real neighbors with one another.

Today we listen to what You ask of us all—
To love You truly and with all that we are
and to love our neighbors as ourselves

We need Your help
To see our neighbors, beyond our own self-preoccupation;
To hear cries of pain that are sometimes hidden
by respectability or ignorance or indifference
Make us people who do what is right
beyond what is required and in spite of what we fear.

A children’s book of the Good Samaritan we read our children ended with Jesus saying to his hearers, “Be like this Samaritan.” I want to help. I’m going to do what I can. I hope you will.

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