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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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Remembering 9-11

[Five years ago, I published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today]

So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11?   A few weeks ago our church lead in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11.  It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful.  I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day.  It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.

One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction.  It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash.  It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash.  One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.

The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private.  It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast.  Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there.  I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years.  More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers.  It’s hard to get us all together.  Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…

In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!).   I was truly inspired by the experience.  In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart.  I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and Read the rest of this entry

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry

Another Day of Terror: Holy Week Reflection

I woke up to the bad news from Brussels, Belgium today. We are so numbed to the violence on our globe, we have to wonder about the ambivalent gift of “information.” There is no time to digest, reflect, pray, consider. We are, instead, an endless echo of bad news cycles, compounded by the “unsocial media” that encourages the worst among us to speak loudly even if it is unworthy to hear. Here is the reflection I sent to my congregation today:


The recurring horror of terrorism is found in the terrorists themselves.  They are, finally, demented haters of life, of humanity, of our collective existence—that is the essence of terrorists’ acts. There is nothing in them but absolute despair of hope, and the desire to destroy it in all others for the sake of fantastic delusions of forcing the hand of the universe to bend to their will. There is nothing at the end of

Brussels Subway system attacked

their action except death and blood.

They are not new. Throughout all of history, they have killed, as governments and society seek to kill them in response. On and on the fatal disaster continues, hopelessly. It is into Holy Week that the latest delusion happens. In Brussels the fanatics strike civilization once more, convinced that they will prevail, and destined absolutely to fail.

Of all weeks, this one should comfort those who believe in Christ Jesus. Of all people, we began in a story of unjust death, amid terrorists who led people into the desert (Acts 21:38) and to the top of Masada only to die for nothing and their hopes dashed. Those who waved the palms would flee for their lives—and for what? The emptiness of a lost cause. Read the rest of this entry

Remembering 9-11and 9-15

1963 cover

1963 by Barnett Wright

So now here it comes again.  For many, a very painful day, still and always.  For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue.  Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same.  This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham.  Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago.  The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began.  Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it.  Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Read the rest of this entry

Love and Sorrow Mingled Down in Newtown: A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.

Friday morning, I got up early.  I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off.  I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.

Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Christian calendar

Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece.  Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves.  I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen.  The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song.  What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?

A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood.  I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product.  And here is what I wrote:

“Greg:  I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar.  The mood suggested a title for the piece:  “Weeping in Ramah”   CLICK TO LISTEN   from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents  What do you think?

 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”

 Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home.  Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours.  I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired.  The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.

I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition.  Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable. Read the rest of this entry

Sandy Calls

Love Lifted Me: a 9-11 Story

Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places

that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history

 What do 9-11, a pregnant woman, an orphan immigrant from Burkina-Faso, and a store specializing in Afro-pop music have in common?   And on a day of such sadness, are there flickers of hope to fasten to?

Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history and humanity’s terrible bent to self-destruction.  If we cannot always fathom the great purposes of God in the

Ken Braun

rumblings of nations and enemies, we can listen to stories.  My daughter Katie is a member of Metro Baptist Church in Midtown Manhattan, a thriving small congregation with dynamic social ministries and a loving fellowship.  Last year, one of their members, Ken Braun, shared his story of that day.  It was about his friend and colleague, Alberto Barbosa.  “Berto,” as Ken calls him, was born in a  poor village in west Africa.  Orphaned, he made his way as     a teenager, first to Portugal and then to New York.

Ken met Berto when he first came to New York and when Braun   started a company dedicated to African music, Berto was his first employee.  The business was located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center.  Eventually, they both moved their families to New Jersey and would meet in Newark and commute on the Path train every morning to the World Trade Center terminal and walk to work from there.

On September 11, Braun says he had some errands to do, so he didn’t take the Path train, instead taking the bus to the Port Authority.  He never made it to work, and we know why.  Braun said, “The bus route takes an elevated highway over the Meadowlands, and from there you can see almost all of Manhattan, especially when the sky is a lucid blue like it was that day.  I saw the flames and smoke from the North Tower.  I had no idea what was going on.”

Traffic ground to a halt above the Lincoln tunnel and as they stared out the windows, they had a panorama seat to see the South Tower impaled by the second plane.  They could get no closer, and chaos ensued.   It took a long time for Ken to make his way home and he spent the rest of that day calling friends, leaving a message at the school for his children, and following the unspeakable horror.  He was particularly eager to contact colleagues because they all would have been going to that part of the city that morning.

He heard from everyone but Berto was the last.  He was anxious, worried about him taking the train right into the station under the buildings.  Finally, Berto called, and Braun anxiously sputtered, “Where the hell have you been?  And he said, “Well…hell.’   I’ll let Braun himself tell the rest.

He had been on the last train to come into the World Trade Center, and when he exited into the underground terminal, people were shouting and running in all directions, so he thought, “I better get out of this and get to work.”   So he went up to the ground level and exited the building and walked into pandemonium.  Debris was falling and fireballs were falling, and he said, “Some I the things I saw, I didn’t want to look at them, I don’t want to know what they were.  I just wanted to get out of there.”

So he kept walking toward the office, but he didn’t get far, because he came upon a woman, a very pregnant woman, sprawled out on the sidewalk, and he knelt down beside her.  She was gasping for breath.   He thought she was having her baby.  He tried to motion for a policeman or a medic, and there were many, but they were all rushing toward the fire, and no one noticed him or the pregnant woman on the ground.

So he picked her up in his arms and he carried her as far as he could and then he set her down in the shelter of a doorway, and took out a bottle of water and gave it to her.  And when she could finally catch her breath, she said, “I’m not in labor, I’m just terrified.”  And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.”

And when she had enough strength, he helped her to her feet, and he put his arm behind her waist, and they walked.  They walked north, and whenever she needed to rest, which was frequently, they would stop and then keep going.

It took them seven hours to walk seven miles.  She lived in New Jersey, so they went to the Hudson River Ferry crossing on West 33rd Street, and there were masses of people there because that was the only way to leave Manhattan.

Berto found a bench for her to sit on, so he went to find a person of authority to help her get on this ferry ahead of all the people who got there first, so eventually he found somebody and they escorted her up the ferry.  She said, “I will not go without this man,” so they brought him and he went with her.

When they got to Hoboken, there were masses of people there, too, but had no place to go because the buses and taxis were full.  But someone with a car saw how pregnant she was and said, “I’ll take you wherever you have to go.”  But there wasn’t room for Berto, so he said, “You’ll be okay now.  Good night.”  Then he made his own way home, which took another two hours.   He got home at 9:00 that night.

In 2009, Berto was shopping and a woman bumped into him and said, “Alberto!”  he recognized her and said, “I know you.  Where have we met?”  And she identified herself as the pregnant woman and told him he had saved her life.  Berto said, “Ah!  I didn’t save your life!  You were strong.  We helped each other.”

She said, “Alberto, when death surrounded me, I prayed to God that He would spare my baby, and when I opened my eyes, there you were.  And you lifted me up and carried me away from danger.  You saved me and my baby.”

What  moment that had to be!  He asked how the child was and she said, excitedly, “Wait here.”  She ran off into the store and returned with a smiling man and young boy in tow.  The husband threw his arms around him and a party broke out.

The woman said, “Every night I thank God for you and pray that we will meet.  I want you to meet our son.  Alberto, this is our son.  His name is Alberto.”

Berto, still uncomprehending, said, “Oh!  Is that a name in your family?”

And the father said, “It is now.”

Listen to Ken Braun tell the story on the Metro Baptist Church website.

A New York Times piece about Ken Braun’s love of African music.

The Songs Remember When Part II by Gary Furr

…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.

 

 

The Day Alabama Almost Died by Gary Furr Remembering April 27, 2011

Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,

Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters

And the skycams filming it

Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,

Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself

Gobbled into darkness

We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place

Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to

Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet

Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares

Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out

We still remember .  How can you forget 63 tornadoes,

Taking down a state a town at a time?  Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks

Flying everywhere.  That was the picture everyone shared

But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken

Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years

A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors

Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend

Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.

The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away

Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to

Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority

Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter

Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke

Losing a job that blew away in a second.  Going to church when it mattered

Listening for God when God seemed gone

Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be

Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap

Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs

Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value

Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,

A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves

But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived

Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.

But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world

Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul

For just a moment, to take it in.  We will never forget if we rebuild it all again

What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.