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After the Election

The fight is over, the election is done. All the signs and calls and facebook debates have to be taken down and put away.

We’re not used to so much attention. Usually people just stereotype our state

Without knowing how beautiful it is, or how loving its people are

People who work hard, love their children and care about each other.

All of a sudden, we’ve gone viral, and celebrity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

The talking heads were here, the news shows, and all the big names

Flown in for decision and then leave. No matter what side we took,

we are proud of the towns and crossroads and cities where we live and

Tomorrow, we’ll prepare lunches and get in car pool line.

Tomorrow we’ll take our neighbor who lives alone for her chemo.

Tomorrow we’ll go on that date night with the spouse

or watch our little cheerleader at the game

We’ll wave to the neighbors, call the plumber, rake the leaves

Get ready for the company party, mail the cards, call mother to check on her Tomorrow they’ll all be gone and we’ll still be here, working next to the guy

Who roots for the Tide if we’re War Eagle.

Tomorrow we might go to prayer meeting, or out to eat

Meet the new person moving in. Do volunteer work.

They’ll all be gone and miss the best part of living here which is, well, living here.

The election will be done

and we can stop talking and things will go back to normal.

But we’ll still be here, and glad to live here, together, all of us, neighbors, friends

Opponents and disagreeable cusses. And we’ll still be people of faith

They’ll go home and remember the beauty and our hospitality

and how great the food is,

And we’ll hope they really SAW us, not just a stereotype.

Lord, after the election, that’s our prayer today: that we’ll keep seeing one another

For who we are, real people, families, see each other’s needs and struggles,

Understand a little better, forgive a little more, hope a little harder,

Try and fix what we broke, listen longer, trust each other.

That’s where you always are, where those things happen.

That’s our prayer: to see you and love you, see one another with our hearts

And with kindness, see a future together and see one another’s kids

We want to be the Alabama that we touch with bare feet and summer breeze and the laughter of our grandchildren

Despair is always presumptuous, someone said. 

We’ll get up. There’s work to be done.  Amen.

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.

Short Takes…and Dogs, Again….

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.

Profiles in Goodwill: Gary Furr

“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.

 

 

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