Longing For God
A 5-Day Retreat Featuring Dr. Gary Furr & Sr. Dawn Mills
Jan 27 – Feb 1, 2019
I will be presenting daily lectures and music for the 5 Day Academy for Spiritual Formation at Camp Sumataunga, Alabama, near Gadsden. The Academy “is an ecumenical, 5-day retreat designed for clergy and laity. Our purpose is simple: to deepen our relationship with God through a daily rhythm of prayer, worship, study, and reflection.”
Twenty five years ago, this program was life-changing for me. At that time I was coping with a too-busy life, a personal quest for greater meaning in my life, and the loneliness of pastoral ministry. My search led me to one of the earliest Academies. I have written about this in two books, For Faith and Friendship and in Encountering God in the Prayers of Others.
If anything, the relentless pace of our current culture is far worse for all of us than it was for me then. Phones, screens and the pace of life it brings keep us artificially connected and disconnected from one another and deeper reality. Consider the phrase, “virtual life,” and that this means something very much like something else, but not identical to it. What is “the real?” Something about getting off the treadmill, finding solitude and striving for deeper community together with others opens up new focus for the seeker. That is what the Academy seeks to provide.
Come away for five days and live a different rhythm of life and community as Sister Dawn Mills and I speak daily. She is speaking on the long classical tradition of Christian spiritual disciplines in life and I will be speaking on “Five Uneasy Pieces: The Creative Dynamics of the Spiritual Journey.”
The arts and artists come to the longing for the divine in ways that are instructive for persons and communities of faith. We can learn from them. Hope you can join me as we listen to the creation through writing, music, visual art and prayer to move deeper toward God. I believe that in these cultural areas of life we often find surprisingly deep spiritual longings, even with the commercialism and all that goes with that world. In the arts, human beings often find they are on an unconsciously ancient way, one that is often described as “pilgrimage.” If this calls your name, come join us this winter. It may be the best five days of your life in a long time. I will incorporate my music as part of the retreat.
In December, Mossy Creek Press released my new book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises. I have been so gratified by the readers’ enthusiastic responses. From time to time, I want to share a few excerpts with readers. Since we are in the Lenten Season, I share this prayer, found on page 48:
A Prayer for the Beginning of Lent
As a Baptist kid in the South, I had never heard of Lent, but I understood “call and response” instinctively. Someone sings and you sing back to them. In southern gospel, it was often something the basses and altos did, little descants under the melody, like a man and woman when they really speak and hear each other’s hearts. That’s the Lenten journey to me—get quiet, listen and when you finally pick up the song, sing back. You really have to train your ear to hear it.
“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Psalm 42:8-11 NRSV
We welcome a stellar series of speakers to lead us during the season of Lent at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church this year as we study “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Each week on Tuesday at noon, we will have a different guest teacher leading us in Bible study on the traditional deadly sins and talk to us about the power of the gospel to help us as we struggle against them in our lives. Last Wednesday evening, I led off with a presentation on gluttony (following a Baptist Wednesday night dinner and as part of the Ash Wednesday Communion!).
This week we continue with Dr. Ron DelBene. Ron is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, writer, and gifted speaker. He has been a major influence in my own spiritual life and I look forward to his words of wisdom about greed. A light meal follows after and the public is welcome to attend with us. Hope tto see y0u there!
2600 Vestavia Drive
Birmingham, Alabama 35216
Encountering God in the Prayers of Others is
our latest collective effort. It springs from experience
in our spiritual lives of prayers
composed by others that have “spoken” to us.
The Trinity group is a self-named group of friends, all Ph.D. grads
in theology or closely related fields who have chosen to journey together theologically for 25 years. The group was initiated by our teacher-friend Fisher Humphreys. It includes missionaries, pastors, college and seminary professors and a chaplaincy supervisor.
Through the years, we have created a space, meeting once or twice a year for multiple days, to have intellectual, spiritual and theological freedom to read, study, comment, question and debate any subject together that interested or troubled us. The glory of such freedom has enhanced all of our lives.
One of our founders, Philip, died six years ago this March. He was the first close friend some of us had lost, and he was in so many ways a force and center of our group. His loss was enormous, but we carried on. That experience, of walking with a friend to his grave, literally in my own case, was profound. And it mirrors what happens in the theological journey—it is always, inevitably, personal at the same time that we seek the loftiest and most universal of vantage points from which to do theology. Read the rest of this entry
For many years, I have pursued various ways of feeding mind, heart and soul early in the day, mostly to keep myself out of the very large ditches that erode the shoulders where I tend to drive. This summer, free at last of a ton of outside pulls, I am undertaking a small daily discipline of a prayerful reflection on a quote, thought or scripture. They’ll be short, and to be good to myself, I’ll do it every day unless I don’t, in which case, you’re on your own 🙂
It can be found at facebook, but thought I’d let my friends here know, and I’ll be back to the blog now, also. My writing soul is starving from “doing.” The daily quotes can be found on facebook. Click HERE
Today’s reflection to kick it off is from Reinhold Niebuhr, about faith hope and love. Thanks.
Saved by Faith, Hope and Love
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good 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 must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
― Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History
I first heard this wonderful quotation from my friend Fisher Humphreys, Read the rest of this entry
Count me as one of those people who usually “gets it” with multi-layered, highly symbolic and open-ended books and movies. I liked songs in the Seventies that ended on a minor not-home chord to depict “ambiguity. And I was dazzled by Terrance Malik;s glorious “The Tree of Life” link and consider his talents profound.
His latest movie, “To the Wonder” therefore hit me in multiple ways. I was frustrated in many places—mostly by the fact that most of the dialogue takes place inside the heads of the main characters. Olga Kurylenko is Marina, a divorced woman who meets and falls in love with Ben Affleck, an American, while he is traveling in Paris. Neil (Affleck) commits to her and invites her and her 10 year old daughter to live with him Read the rest of this entry
Last Wednesday night I shared “thirty practices you can try in the next thirty days.” It was a reflection on Philippans 4:8-9: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” In this time of so much turmoil and uncertainty, I don’t find most people losing their minds, killing strangers or giving up. They are hunkered down, pulling together, depending on one another, and finding their own solutions to the times. So I thought a series of sermons on “Simple Gifts: Thirty Days to Thanksgiving.” The imspiration, grace and God-givenness of life cannot be conjured up, but we can surely put our attention on it, practice and implement them. I thought it might help to have a simple action each day that we can try that can express, encourage and deepen our sense of gratitude. I hope you find something here that might help.
1. Express appreciation to someone important in your life verbally or with a note. Call or write an old friend and tell them what their friendship has meant in your life. Write your favorite teacher and express what their teaching meant to you. They never got paid what they were worth. Appreciation is about all they get.
2. Volunteer to help in a ministry to those less fortunate. It’s as easy as calling your church office, local service organization or other place of caring and signing up.
3. Choose to forgive someone who made you angry in the past and act toward them as though it never happened.
4. Sing with some other people, not just your ipod. Sing with a baby if you can.
5. Give until it hurts and then give some more until it quits hurting and becomes second nature. Get where you can see somebody else getting help and enjoy it.
6. Change the way you talk about your life. Make a list of the negative things you say most often. Can you turn them into positives instead? Reframe them into deeper truth?
7. Get to know one person you walk past, see every day, sit near in church, work with or see at the store or interact with regularly without ever having bothered to ask their name.
8. Create a behavioral set for your devotional life. Clear out a space or have one place for prayer time. Light a candle, or do the same thing every day to create readiness.
9. Carry your Bible to church as a physical reminder to yourself to read it daily. Memorize some verses. Encourage our children to bring it.
10. Read Psalm 4:8. When you go to bed tonight, pray this prayer. “Lord, I turn the world over to you. I have carried too much of it on my back and it was never mine anyway. Be with me in my dreams, my weariness, and my endless lists of things to do tomorrow. Now go to sleep.
11. Laugh, hard, at least once today and remind yourself that you are not the center of the universe. If you need a little help, go to the funny birthday card section at the drugstore, watch children playing together, or look at your high school yearbook picture.
12. Sit in silence and breathe calmly for ten minutes. That’s all. How was it?
13. Do something for someone you love that tells them you do.
14. Fast from the internet and television for 24 hours and give some of that time to loving someone in your life instead.
15. Put a short appointment on your calendar today and leave it fallow. Sit, even for 15 minutes, and absorb a spiritual truth, look at something beautiful, or pray.
16. Share time and attention with someone who is suffering, in trouble or who needs you. It will pull you out of yourself quickly.
17. Make a list of people who have been mentors, encouragers and who have blessed you. The length may surprise you.
18. Give money and pray for a missionary you know or for a country in the world as you do
19. Practice acceptance. Accept God’s acceptance of you—remind yourself that because of grace, you are free to forgive, free to love and free to welcome
20. Get reacquainted with your inner child—play, do something you’re not good at, draw, or roll on the floor with a baby if you know one. Give it a rest with the serious adult for a while.
21. Accept that God has given you spiritual gifts and start using them for the sake of the church. They have nothing to do with how other people see you and everything to do with what God wants to do through you.
22. Pray without ceasing by spending a whole day praying a verse or thinking about God. Just be there.
23. Make a list of your close calls and then think, “It could have gone really badly for me. I was given a second chance.” Now consider giving someone else a second chance.
24. Put a dollar in the mission offering of your Church for every complaint you make today about your life, the government, Congress, the schools, society, “those people” (whoever they are), your parents, your loved ones, or anyone else. At least you can help missionaries.
25. Read Philippians 4:6. When you start worrying about something today, turn it into a verbal prayer.
26. Try praying all the way through the church prayer list. You don’t have to know what their issue is. Someone was distressed enough to put it there.
27. Spend some time in nature and pay attention to its joyful truth to you.
28. Think back to when you were at your most difficult time. Did you learn anything as you went through it that could help you now?
29. Give out ten affirmations today. Don’t go to bed with one or two still in your mouth unoffered.
30. Spend a little time jotting down everything that touches your life today that took other people to get it to you—at work, your food, every part of your life. In your time of prayer, consider the complexities of God’s giving through others to you.
The Day After Thunder
It was truly a day beyond words in April of this year when record tornadoes tore through Alabama. I put it on my facebook page this way:
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
We were unanimous in wanting to do it. Each of us, our organizations, our churches, will offer what we have to give—money, volunteers, expertise. Somehow, together, we believed that God will provide through us enough to do the job. We have already done some things: our band, Shades Mountain Air, was part of a day of joy and celebration to thank the workers and lift the spirits of the community. The clowns from Childrens Hospital came and were the hit of the day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.