Dr. Tom Wright, the New Testament scholar, calls the parables of Jesus “open-ended stories” in his brilliant book, Jesus and the Victory of God. They are also stories of the coming Kingdom. In these teachings, he argues, Jesus does four things—he issues an invitation, a word of welcome, words of challenge, and words of decision and calling
Last week, during my Wednesday morning Bible study, I told about two kinds of thinking that we do about things that matter. One is convergent thinking—we move toward narrowin
g down to a solution, a focus, to eliminate the options and get to the core issue. It looks like this:
But there is also divergent thinking.It begins from a point, and drives us out into more and more possibilities. It “opens up” something else, like a brainstorm (even though a lot of brainstorm exercises are often more like a drizzle!). Instead of narrowing down, it widens our thoughts, deepens, and inspiration belongs here. It looks like this:
Both kinds of thinking are necessary for life. The parables brilliantly seem to do both—push us out into the kingdom, great thoughts, “opening up” as well as back to decision—“what must I do now that I have thought about this?” Over the season of Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday communion tomorrow evening, we will look at and listen to Jesus speaking to us and teaching us—pushing our boundaries, but also calling us to new fixed points and hard decisions to be disciples. In the Tuesday luncheons and the Sunday worship all the way to Easter, Jesus will tell us, as my late friend John Claypool described them, “stories Jesus still tells us.” Come gather round together, as the family tells the stories of Jesus, and as he invites us to new places in our lives.
One of the delightful gifts to Vickie and me in recent years is a little collection of hymn texts from our own Dr. Milburn Price based on the parables of Jesus. The idea was inspired when he wrote a hymn text for my 15th anniversary at the church (ten years ago!). What resulted was a lovely little book called Lord, May Our Hearts Be Fertile Ground: Singing a Response to the Parables. We will be actually singing some of these hymns Dr. Price wrote in our morning worship and at the luncheons. Copies will be available if you want one, and they will help to connect us to the stories as our thinking comes back from “opening up” to “making commitment” each week. It should be a time of reflection and joy!
Wed Feb 14 Ash Wednesday “To Pray and Not Give Up” Luke 18:1-8
Sun Feb 18 “Sowing and Reaping” Matthew 13:1-8, 13-23
Sun Feb 25 “Kingdom Building” Mark 4:30-34
Sun Mar 4 “Seeing Jesus” Matthew 25:31-46
Sun Mar 11 “Inheriting Eternal Life” Luke 10:25-37
Sun Mar 18 “Who Was the Prodigal?” Luke 15:11-32
Sun Mar 25 Palm Sunday “Leaving the Ninety-Nine” Luke 15:1-7
Sun Apr 1 Easter “The Sign of Jonah” Matthew 12:38-40
I love the parables. I never tire of thinking about them. They challenge me, as stories always do, in a way that statistics and news reports never do. They open the world up, and open me up. There are about sixty parables of Jesus in all. They are still vital all these years later.
Yesterday I listened to an NPR story on the radio in my car about Noel Anaya. According to the piece on their website Anaya
was just a year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that’s the age when people in foster care “age out” of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system. (to listen to his letter, go to NPR
While the news is filled with hearings and floods, refugees and wars, this touched me. This young man now launches, out on his own, still searching for a family to love him. Today, I was reflecting on families in pain, intact and broken, and penned this prayer.
God of night and day, dark and light, Lord over joy and pain,
Holder of nations and blesser of babies, witness of Creation and the fall of a single sparrow,
This day, we are comforted that you see the brokenness of your children,
And the brokenness of our children.
In this moment where the road is uncertain, the way unclear
The fog seems to never end, and the light fades ahead,
The path littered with human pain and the wreckage of sorrow,
Help us to look up from our stumbling,
Into the face of Christ,
Who alone knelt in the night of the Garden and remained awake
Who knows what we suffer, for he himself has suffered,
Who was betrayed by his own, hauled away by conspirators of hate and fear,
Tried by those who loved only their own places of entitlement and safety
And condemned by the ignorant and the powerful alike
To die alone with the burdens of the whole world on Him,
And in that face to hear those blessed words,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
But he also looked into the face of his anguished mother
And his beloved disciple and made them into family.
“Mother, behold your Son.”
“Son, behold your mother.”
Give us ears attuned to the cries of the ignored,
Eyes to see the invisible ones,
Hearts to understand and welcome the lonely.
Show us the way,
Hold our hands,
Sturdy our resolve,
Settle our doubts,
And empower us to trust that we can keep walking forward
In our own Gethsemanes and Calvaries of the soul.
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 are. 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
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 misstep 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.”
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
A reflection offered on Friday after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas. By Dr. Gary Furr.
Haven’t we had enough of rage and death? Hasn’t enough blood been shed to convince us that this is a way that leads down into a Pit from which there is no return, no hope, and no end? Is there no capacity for mutual respect left among us for our neighbor, friend, and even the stranger on the street?
Isn’t common humanity, created by God, sufficient for respect? What have we not taught and lived for our children that our streets and systems well up with innocent blood? Is there no way back from the edge on which we balance perilously?
Is the stupidity and uselessness of killing not sufficiently clear to us as the worst way for a society to maintain itself? That we need more than fear and threat to abide together in peace? Is it not obvious that when we must sleep with a weapon under the bed, or in the car or on our hip to feel safe that we have lost our way?
When we see others as enemy rather than “my neighbor” and “the officer who is my friend” and “the man at our school everyone loves” isn’t it clear that something terrible has happened to us? When we rage on social media and retweet and link and forward but do nothing to change the situation that we have done nothing and maybe made things worse?
Don’t we know that “liking” a rant doesn’t repair broken relationships? Isn’t it time to see that nothing has really happened when we speak out, but that real change is something we do before it’s too late? Haven’t we had enough choosing of sides, blaming and finger pointing that lead to nothing?
Should we consider that nothing improves until each person in a free society accepts their responsibility for the mess? Is it possible that lawmakers and police and leaders and those in authority need the community as much as the community needs them?
Is there a way past the helpless resignation, blind rage and frustration to the better question, “so what should we do?” Isn’t it in times when courage and involvement seem the most useless that they matter the most?
Just because I can’t fix everything, am I excused from doing something to help? If I believe in prayer, really believe in it, should I not pray for my nation now more than ever, and listen for the answer God speaks?
Is it time to stop simply deploring our racial divide and meet neighbors and make friends, and go past our fears of others? Is there someone in my circle to whom I can reach out and know better and say, “I know we want better than this. Can we pray for one another?” Can I give to bury the dead, support the children left behind, work for a more just world, weep for the fallen and believe that it is not a waste of my time or the world’s?
Do I believe, as a Christian, that the Jesus way really works? That endless forgiveness is more powerful than endless revenge? That the gospel is good news for all?
O Lord, my mind is so haunted with these questions today. I am so concerned for shedding of blood and the disrespect for life that is before my eyes. Help us, Lord, please. We need You. We need one another. And we need a wave of remorse, repentance, and renewal. These my questions I lay before You. Only You can help us answer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I see a dearth of storytelling power, almost an absence in our current public life. We have become a culture of three word slogans, name-calling, distortion and manipulation.
This summer, I decided to preach a series of sermons in dialogue with children’s books. I heard another pastor last year at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga tell about the joy of doing such a series, and I wrote a note then that I wanted to try it.
I will have a Pastor’s time with the children in every service, and we will read from a children’s book. I will post top lists of books for children on our church website for parents, including a list from the New York Public Library list of the most read Read the rest of this entry
I’d want them to know my love was so strong that no matter how bad it gets,
how far down they go, who leaves them and abandons them, I won’t.13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Looking at a newborn is a pretty overwhelming reality. It is the age we are in. Vickie and I were sitting outside in the
waiting room, getting more anxious by the moment for our daughter and her husband and a little one. Being born is
dangerous, not guaranteed, and full of anxiety, no matter what reassurances we are given. In fact, the greatest advice from the OB to our daughter the last two months was, “Don’t Google.”
We don’t know how to know what to do with all the information. In the old days, they took the mother, the father paced outside, and the baby arrived. It was the first inkling of what you had—boy or girl. No paint colors until you knew.
Now, you have more knowledge about this infant than the NSA has of your cell phone. But what to make of it? Truth is, there is still a place where we cannot intrude with knowledge, and it is the miracle of life itself.
But don’t get me wrong. It’s great to know. And here’s how we got the word. We’re sitting there, grandparents, waiting, worrying, praying. Getting texts from our kids and friends—praying for you, hoping, let us know, that sort of thing. And we occupy ourselves by answering these as we wait. Naturally, we are watching the other occupants of the room. A waiting room is pure democracy. Rich, poor, well-dressed and barely dressed, country and city, every Read the rest of this entry
2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us. Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String. Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service. Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice. She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance. She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.
This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.” Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here. Bring your heart and hopes with you.
the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation
placed on Him, and purposefully,
for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.
That is and always will be enough.
Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church. Don’t Hate Me.” I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration. I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend. Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.
I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time. In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.
A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.” I have found this to be true, again and again. Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it. Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests. Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.
Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call. The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done. When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that. I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course. Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much. It will pass.
Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church. The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times. Eventually you come to expect it will be there. The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there. I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left. Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?” I was hurt. Now I get it.
In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday. He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving. I hadn’t. He felt differently in time, and so did I. I was hurt, too.
Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure. Maybe it takes a lifetime. So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much. There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over. Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it. They’ll survive. And so will you. Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.
So listen within. Be clear. Turn it loose. The kingdom has survived worse than even us. But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry. It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it. You just live with it and move on. Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. That is and always will be enough.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.