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.
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.
In March, our church will welcome a special Lenten time of renewal with a series of Wednesday night speakers entitled, “The Callings That Find Us.” Our speakers share Christian faith but come from a variety of backgrounds and stories to share their faith journeys—how they
came to Christian faith, how that has lived out, and the unexpected turns that have taken them to new places in their discipleship. What is the calling that ”found you” along the way of following Christ in that journey? This series will be open to the public as well and you are encouraged to invite friends to come and hear an exciting series of presentations.
March 13, 2019
“The Faces That Change Us: A Neurologist’s Experience With Dementia”
Dr. Daniel Potts
Dr. Daniel Potts is a neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Selected by the American Academy of Neurology as the 2008 Donald M. Palatucci Advocate of the Year, he also has been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
March 20, 2019 “Wonders Along the Way” Kate Campbell
Singer/Songwriter Kate Campbell has since put together a considerable body of work. Originally from the Mississippi Delta and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and the indelible experiences of those years have shaped her heart and character as well as her songwriting. Her music and songs continue to inspire and excite a growing and engaged audience. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs and she has performed widely, including at the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage. Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister and chaplain.
April 3, 2019
“Ending Hunger: A Redeemed Hope for Feeding the World” Dr. Jenny Dyer
Dr. Jenny Dyer is the Founder of The 2030 Collaborative. As such, she directs the Faith-Based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Faith-Based Coalition for Global Nutrition with support from the Eleanor Crook Foundation. Dyer teaches Global Health Politics and Policy as a Lecturer in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and she has taught Religion and Global Health at Vanderbilt School of Divinity. Dyer formerly worked with Bono’s ONE Campaign, Bono’s organization, from 2003-2008 to promote awareness and advocacy for extreme poverty and global AIDS issues. She is an author and frequent contributor in the media. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee with her husband, John, and two boys, Rhys and Oliver.
April 10, 2019 “Closing the Distance” Dan Haseltine
Dan Haseltine is the Lead singer/Primary songwriter for the 3x GRAMMY™ winning band, Jars of Clay. Dan has written 17 #1 radio singles, received multiple BMI Song of the Year Awards, and National Songwriting Association’s highest honors. He is a Producer, Film/Television composer, and Music Supervisor. Dan is the Founder of non-profit organization, Blood:Water, celebrating 15 years of supporting local solutions to the clean water and HIV/AIDS crises in Southern and Eastern Africa. Blood:Water has helped more than 1 million people gain access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene training and community health support. Dan lives in Franklin, TN with his wife, Katie and 2 sons, Noah(18), and Max(15) and two dogs… Gracie and Coco. Dan is also a columnist, advocate, and thought leader surrounding the work of extreme poverty reduction, and international development
“Ministers and congregation both, they came to church year after year, and who is to say how if at all their lives were changed as the result? If you’d stopped and asked them on any given Sunday, I suspect they would have said they weren’t changed much. Yet they kept on coming anyway; and beneath all the lesser reasons they had for doing so, so far beneath that they themselves were only half aware of it, I think there was a deep reason, and if I could give only one word to characterize that reason, the word I would give is hope….
I think it is hope that lies at our hearts and hope that finally brings us all here. Hope that in spite of all the devastating evidence to the contrary, the ground we stand on is holy ground because Christ walked here and walks here still. Hope that we are known, each one of us, by name, and that out of the burning moments of our lives he will call us by our names to the lives he would have us live and the selves he would have us become. Hope that into the secret grief and pain and bewilderment of each of us and of our world he will come at last to heal and to save. “ Frederick Buechener-Originally published in Secrets in the Dark
NRS Psalm 130:7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem
“Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.´ Lin Yutang
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful
makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. Reinhold Niebuhr
NRS Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
“But hope has an astonishing resilience and strength. Its very persistence in our hearts indicates that it is not a tonic for wishful thinkers but the ground on which realists stand.” —Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
“Hoping does not mean doing nothing… It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what He said He will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it His way and in His time.” –Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980/2000), 144.
What a fellowship, what a joy divineLeaning on the everlasting arms.What a blessedness, what a peace is mineLeaning on the everlasting arms.
Chorus:Leaning, leaningSafe and secure from all alarms.Leaning, leaningLeaning on the everlasting arms.
O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim wayLeaning on the everlasting arms.O how bright the path grows from day to dayLeaning on the everlasting arms. What have I to dread; what have I to fearLeaning on the everlasting arms.I have blessed peace with my Lord so nearLeaning on the everlasting arms.
If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in
Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.
Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.
Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations. Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.
Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.
It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions
about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.
Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.
We Could Use Brother Dave Now.
Brother Dave Gardner anticipated our current moment years ago. The self-avowed redneck comedian of the 1960s was a regular listen for me in the only album of his my Dad bought (Brother Dave called them “ablums”). My favorite story was of a promoter who “went around promoting shows.” Somehow it seems to fit our reality TV, bizarro news, political circus sideshows of the moment. Listen and laugh. Any resemblance to current politics or media frenzies are purely worth thinking about.
Thank You, Ethics Daily.
Ethics Daily asked to do a short bio about Yours Truly so here it is. A number of pieces from this blog have wound up in the Ethics Daily website. It was started by my late classmate and friend, Robert Parham. It’s worth your time to go there.
“Healing in the Shadow of Iniquity” A piece written in the aftermath of the Las Vegas Shooting.
“Being Thankful, Even in Times of Great Adversity” A piece that originally appeared on these pages.
Dogs Still Have a Leg Up On Humans, Metaphorically Speaking
Baptist News Global carried a recent piece on the virtues of dogs. At the end, they reference my well-liked piece titled, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven,” that was picked up in a newspaper or two and on various websites. You can read the original here. I agree that if the world is going to the dogs, it would be a step up, not down.
In an article (one of the kind preachers and scholars read and that laypeople would never find, nor would they want to), a professor writes an entire piece on what the apostle Paul meant when he told the Philippians, “Beware of dogs. Beware of evil workers. Beware of the mutilation.” (NKJV) Since mutilation is a reference to circumcision, it came to be seen as a swipe at Jewish people and in most of history interpreted, apparently, as a reversal of Jews calling Gentiles “dogs,” which were “unclean” animals. Besides that being part of a whole ugly history, it is one more blind spot in the human self-assessment.
The author says that the reason for this negativity about our four-footed friends is understandable:
Because dogs parade about naked, defecate, conduct sexual behavior,
and generally carry on without regard for human conventions of modesty
or prudence, they are characterized to be shameless in terms of the
prevailing social terms for proper conduct in human society (Nanor, Mark, “Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’
(Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?”)
However, that had to be prior to this year, when modesty, respectful language and couthy-ness (opposite of uncouth?) went, well, to the dogs. Dogs, in their defense, are neither circumcised nor require it for one another to be acceptable as a canine. While they travel in packs, their tribalism would never lead them to call one another names like, “Crooked Dane” or “Lyin’ Terrier.” And they NEVER tweet at one another, since high frequencies bother their ears. They don’t send drones to kill each other anonymously, have no nukes, never imprisoned a single one of their own and could care less about money. Don’t do drugs, booze or snuff and don’t go to the doctor ever without a human making them.
No, good old dogs have a lot to commend them. Yes, they have fleas, and they are a bit oblivious about public behavior and have a deplorable lack of potty training. On the other hand, they defend their pups to death, and don’t gossip, hack websites, or spread fake news. I think we owe them an apology. And while we’re at at it, maybe we could say I’m sorry to one another, that we don’t seem to be able to rise to the level of a dog in our treatment of one another, public or private.
When the poet Francis Thompson wanted to characterize the haunting love of God that will not let us go, what image did he choose? Not a person. It was “The Hound of Heaven.” “Hound of Heaven” is about a man running from a hound, pursuing him. No matter where he goes, he hears the steps behind him. In the second stanza, he hears that the hound is not out to get him, but is the very One he seeks.
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
I’m sorry, Paul. You should have found another metaphor.
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
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?”
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.
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.