Monday, January 1, 2018

Today is New Year's Day, and I am beginning a journey of focusing on two things: losing 20 pounds and finding new direction for my life and ministry.

I have been challenged by my Spiritual Director to spend 30 minutes a day seeking the heart of God for what life will bring during the next 10 years of my journey.

I accepted the challenge.

The first thing that came to mind was this prayer of Thomas Merton. I will keep it handy to begin my 30 minutes a day.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Thomas Merton

Sunday, December 24, 2017

When God Comes Near

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, December 23, 2017.

A number of years ago, long before blogging and social media were something I could imagine (but after email and fax machines were born ... I’m not ancient you know), I figured out how to make my first group list with an email address book.

Woah. This group email thing was new and unheard of technology. Yes, this story ages me, but it was then that I started sharing some devotional writings.

They certainly weren’t the length and breadth of the columns I try to write today, but it was a start. I began with a one-pager called “Faithclick” which went out every week or two.

One year, I got a call from a Birmingham newspaper, asking if they could quote my Faithclick in a piece they were doing on Christmas. I wasn’t even sure how they had gotten hold of it. I was honored and said “sure!”

Little did I know the editor was doing an op-ed piece to starkly contrast my thoughts with that of another pastor. I had no idea what I had gotten into.

The experience is etched in my memory as a reminder of not only the value of diverse faiths but of my intense commitment to the mystery of Christmas.

The other pastor’s point of view was that Christmas was not important. Salvation came through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, not his birth, he argued. So the only holiday that was important was Easter.

Bah, Hogwash.

My point of view is that Christmas is the great feast of the incarnation. The incarnation is that divine-become-human miracle that changed the world as well as the trajectory of salvation history.

Of course the crucifixion and resurrection are incredibly important, and my claim on Christmas is much more than a banal reminder that if Jesus had not been born he could not have died.

Christmas is much more than a birthday party for Jesus. It’s not even his birthday, since we have no idea when that was! Christmas is a feast that beholds the incredible miracle of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are a divine trilogy, if you will, of events of salvation significance. To leave the incarnation off the salvation menu is to abandon the great miracle of God crossing over.

I believe the incarnation is what is most distinctive and unique about Christianity. Other religions believe in one true God, in sin and grace, in prayer and holy writings, in the redeeming quality of suffering, and in loving God and neighbor. But no other historic world religion believes that God became human. In fact, this is the key offense other religions have against it.

Jesus was not just a teacher or prophet. In him we behold God’s glory. God crossed over to us because we can’t on our own cross the bridge to God. No amount of effort or religiosity or right living or correct doctrine can save us. So God came. What a strange way to save the world.

The incarnation is so integral to our faith because this miracle is the nest in which Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are born. And it has a huge impact on Christian spirituality.

Christ is still alive and present, a truth that is confirmed by the victory of Easter. His presence is in the world and the Church is his body. He is the living Word. It’s the reason the virgin birth is so important in the scripture’s narrative.

It’s the reason that in the wisdom of the ancients, folk winter festival traditions were adopted to serve the greater mystery. If you ever get frustrated by the secular and cultural aspects of Christmas or bend to the temptation of believing we are in some sort of culture war, remember that this festival adopting secular enhancements was a choice made long ago. It’s a reminder that the sacred and secular are not entirely opposite.

Just as the divine became human, the human can still point to the divine. This is incarnational spirituality.

I’ve always believed Christianity is something you follow, not swallow. To follow God’s lead, a key feature of our faith is to develop new eyes with which to see God in our midst.

I know Christmas is hard for some, especially for those who are grieving. There can be tears during this season.

Yet in our sorrow, may we know Christ is present. This is because God is, as Carlo Carretto famously said, “a God who comes.”

C.S. Lewis is well known for being a skeptic who, after years of intellectual struggle, converted wholeheartedly to Christianity. He noted many times that what really sold him on Christian faith was the incarnation. He wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken to use as weapons.”

This year, take some time to come home to the miracle of the incarnation. It’s time to stop using religion to support our pre-set opinions and prejudices. Let the incarnation wash over you.

Let Christmas be a holiday for you in the true sense of the word, because a holiday is a “holy day.” Take some time to pause, to reflect, and to be silent ... not just because you need to collapse every once in a while because of all the shopping and parties. Do it because you are intentionally building the beholding of a mystery into the midst.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Steve’s Sayings”



I’ve been reading the memoirs of a contemporary politician, as I have in times past when books have been published. I find them inspiring in a strange sort of way. Whether or not agree with all of their ideas, they are leaders. I look for what it is they hold onto that makes them tick, those deeply held beliefs that drive them to serve against all odds.

This time around, it has spurred me to think of my own core values. What are the primary things I believe? In addition to gospel essentials, of course, what are the things I will always go to bat for, that I will pursue no matter what?

Once, at a going away party hosted by the church I had been serving, they recalled the things they had heard me say. Much of this was for the sake of humor, of course, like the time I had said in staff meeting, “we don’t want people in wheelchairs tripping over wires.“

Reading the memoir got me to thinking what I’d like to be remembered for. What are the essentials that I live for? The stakes I have in the ground? The points of no departure, no matter how much pressure I feel?

So I have come up with a few. Some are phrases I picked up from friends, some I’ve lived with for years, and some are fresh expressions. I confess that these are somewhat random. Some are theological, some are inspirational, and others are leadership principles. That’s just the way they came to me.

1. Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is more people who are fully alive. (from Howard Thurman)
2. I am not what I do, nor what I have, nor what other people think of me. I am a beloved child of God. (from Henri Nouwen)
3. God is love. This is not just sentimentality. This means if it is not loving, it is not of God. Period.
4. If you are looking for the perfect church, you won’t find one. If by chance you do, don’t join it. You’ll mess it up.
5. Self-giving love is the most powerful force in the universe. Really.
6. Jesus boiled it down to love of God and neighbor. Everything else is secondary.
7. Christianity is not about being right. It’s about being in relationship.
8. Religion can get really out of whack when it gets confused with politics.
9. It’s better not to wrestle alligators. They know how to fight in the swamp. If there is a way to drain the swamp, do that. Otherwise stay out, because if you get pulled in, you’ll lose. (from a friend Don Neal)
10. If you have integrity, that’s all that matters. If you don’t have integrity, that’s all that matters.(from a friend Lem Carter)
11. The Church is not perfect. But it’s the gift God gave us. That makes it my hope for the world. (from my friend Stewart Jackson)
12. The true measure of Christianity is faithfulness, not success. The reason we get this mixed up is institutional anxiety about loss. When the church focuses on success, it has sold itself out to culture.
13. There is no right or wrong worship style. Jesus’s only requirements were that it be done in spirit and truth. That means it must be led with a sense of God’s presence and a willingness to take a theological plunge.
14. Christian life is about rhythm that forms you over time. This is not a quest for the fantastic.
15. I am not responsible for everything. That’s God‘s job.
16. The Church is the body of Christ. It’s a mystery. There’s a reason the gospel uses metaphorical language for it.
17. You cannot grasp God and you can not master the Bible. Let God grab your attention, and let the scripture master you.
18. God is profound mystery. Certainty is a myth. Listen for the still, small voice.
19. Christianity is about being continually restored into the image of Christ. Your decision to follow is important, but grace didn’t start there and doesn’t quit after that.
20. Christ must not be reduced to being “my personal savior.” He calls me to live the values of the kingdom of God. If I do that, somebody is not going to like it.
21. Christianity is not about being a fan, it’s about being a follower. We don’t need pep rallies, we need authentic and heart-felt yearning.
22. There is a reason the first name for Christianity was The Way. It is a path, a journey. You never get “there.”
23. There is great diversity within Christianity about political issues. God made the diversity beautiful. It’s us who make it ugly.
24. There is evil in the world, and Christians should call it out. But be prepared to pay a price.
25. I can’t control other people‘s actions. If I live the love God has placed in my heart, that is all I can do.
26. The miracle of Easter is the miracle of worship. Jesus shows up.
27. Worship is not an event. It is a life.
28. If we don’t get things perfectly right, God is not mad.
29. Praise is not something you do. It is something you join.
30. Even with the immense responsibilities of being savior of the world, Jesus took time for himself. Do I think I have more important things to do than Jesus?
31. I don’t talk about people. I talk to them. Otherwise, how can I expect people to do the same with me?
32. Forgiveness is the most essential practice in church. That’s because the Church is a big rehearsal for life in heaven, where we will let it all go.
33. My life is about practicing the presence of God. It’s called practice, because I’m still trying to get it right.
34. There is no replacement for gentleness and kindness. They are sweet but they are also not optional.
35. Nothing good comes after the phrase “I’m just being honest.” Speaking truth in love is absolutely necessary.
36. Fundamentalism and prosperity are the two uniquely American derivatives of real Christianity.
37. You can’t draw from an empty well. I must take time to nourish my own spirituality.
38. Living your baptism is living the deepest truth of who you are as God’s beloved.
39. All are welcome at the table because it’s a table of grace.
40. I have high expectations of what it means to be in Christian community. That comes with a price. Sometimes people will let me down.
41. The way of the cross is the best way to respond to conflict. It’s not fight or flight, it’s a third way, the Christ way. It’s not winning. But it’s also not losing, because if we are faithful to the gospel, that’s all that matters.
42. Love hurts, especially when someone betrays your trust. But the only love other people can have for you is imperfect love. We get our unconditional love from God.
43. The Bible is the unfolding revelation of God’s love. Don’t read it “flat.” The best way to interpret it is through the lens of Christ, who is himself the Word of God.
44. The only true leadership is servant leadership. Teamwork was the way of Jesus, and it’s the only way to change the world. I am not a Lone Ranger.
45. God is not finished with us yet. We are always being formed and shaped.

I’m sure I could come up with more. If my ministry is being a tabernacle (a place of God’s dwelling on this temporary journey we call life), these are the stakes I shove in the ground. They are the values I carry from place to place, as I set up a tent and invite others to experience God with me while I’m here on earth.

What would yours be?

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bless to Me Prayer

I recently took about a dozen friends from our church on a prayer retreat to the Upper Room in Nashville.


One of several highlights was to spend some time with Beth Richardson, the Director of Prayer and Worship at the Upper Room. She taught our group of the ancient Celtic tradition of the "Bless to Me" Prayer and invited us to write one. My thoughts immediately went to what was right in front of me, which so often I fail to be grateful for.

Here is my prayer.

---

Bless to me this pen I hold.
   With it I trace the light
      and the shadows
      of each day,
   putting into words
      the unspeakable nudges
      of the heart.

Bless to me the ink that pours,
   making permanent
      the fleeting thoughts,
      memories, and prayers
      of my spirit.

Bless to me the paper on which I write,
   which allows me to read
      the contours of my
      journey's ups and downs,
   with a larger perspective,
      even God's perspective.

Bless to me those who have written before me,
   tracking the patterns
      of the spiritual life
   so I am going
      where others have gone before.

Bless to me this time,
   for all time spent reflecting
      is the best time spent.

Bless to me the idea that
   I am not writing for others,
      not really.
   I am writing for you,
      and for you to touch
      and heal me.

Bless to me, Oh Lord.

Bless to me.

Amen.
 






Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Southerner Against White Supremacy

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 6, 2017.

Pictured is the portable pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., referenced in the column.

---

I am definitely a southern gentleman. The farthest north I’ve ever lived is Athens, Alabama (why, that’s darn near close to Tennessee!). My mother was a southern lady and I grew up on Dixie cuisine. My soul food is fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and watermelon, and my favorite delicacy is fried chicken livers with ketchup. I have concluded that there are two kinds of tea ... sweet, and "not worth it." As for grits, well, they are manna from heaven.

All four of my grandparents were southern, and all eight of their parents were southern, too. In fact, several of us on my family tree made southern preachers. So I can say with confidence that I speak with a southern voice.

I believe we need to hear southern voices stand up and speak against white supremacy. White supremacy is wrong. It is hateful, it is anti-Semitic, and it is evil. There is no room for it in public discourse, and we can't just normalize it. That's because this kind of racism is not a political issue. It's a gospel issue.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I understand the desire to remember southern heritage. Southerners do not believe we were right (or even just righteous) about the Civil War. We joke about it bring the war of "northern aggression” as a way of honoring our past with a bit of humor. I wonder if those who live outside the south can really understand the sense of southern tragedy that is attached to remembering where we've been. It tastes bittersweet.

That tragic southern memory is in my blood. My great grandfather was an artilleryman at Fort Morgan, captured by the Union army in the Battle of Mobile. Another great grandfather was in the confederate cavalry, captured by the Union army then rescued back by the confederates in an exciting train heist. Another one of my great grandfathers supplied beef for the confederate army.

Yet another set of ancestors came from a county in North Georgia that had outlawed slavery long before the war. The family story is my relatives indeed did not believe in it, but joined the confederate fight simply because they didn't appreciate their town being invaded by Yankees. I wouldn't call that being driven by racism.

So I know from my own blood that the story of race relations in our country is more complicated than it is black and white, proverbially speaking.

I realize that the Charlottesville protest, as offensive as it was, was over a carved symbol of confederate heritage. While I can in no way accept the use of confederate flags with swastikas, and chants with torches, because of the obvious overtones that bring back to life a painful evil in American history, at the same time I know cultural symbols are important. I encourage open conversation over symbols like statues and how they are perceived from various viewpoints. I also believe communities should make their own discerning decisions.

Remembering the power of symbols for good or for evil, I went to see a potent symbol in Montgomery recently. Just a couple of years earlier, I had stood on the steps of the capital where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the confederacy. At the time, I looked down the street and imagined how just a little over 100 years later, the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery culminated at this same spot. I had planned to take a tour someday of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the building in view from this scene on the steps, where Martin Luther King, Jr. started his ministry. Since I had a meeting in Montgomery, this was a great and timely chance.

I stood at the portable pulpit from which King preached the sermon "How Long? Not Long!" at the conclusion of the march from Selma. I considered that the star on the capital steps I had once stood by was indeed an icon of cultural heritage, and that this pulpit was too. The step at the capital is my Alabama, but this pulpit is my Alabama too.

This platform where I stood a few moments was where Dr. King spoke the immortal words, "the long arc of history bends towards justice." I recalled that this march from Selma and its concluding speech happened precisely one month before I was born.

We must not forget it. All of it.

I know that for many of us in southern small towns, life is a fairly insular experience. There are pros and cons to that.

I remember years ago when I was growing in my personal commitment to stand for the gospel of Christ and therefore against the original sin of racism in our great country, and I realized I had no close friends who were African American. I began years of praying until God gave me one, a dear soul friend. This changed my whole life.

I'd like to challenge us all to have a good look within, but also to find a way to connect significantly with someone dramatically different than us. Make a cross-cultural connection. Discuss what symbols are meaningful to their culture and why others may bother them. Listen with your heart and plan to come to a whole new conclusion.

In the meantime, it’s important to call out racism out for what it is. Racism has a very specific definition. There is no racism in "playing the race card," speaking out on political issues, fighting for fair treatment in the criminal justice system, or counter-protesting white supremacists. We can argue about these things, but they are not racism. The dictionary says racism is "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior." That last part is important.

Those who assume that people who oppose white supremacy, or who stand for issues important to African American experience, are racist must be wearing a different pair of glasses from me. White men are not being persecuted by political correctness. Those of us who say that are blind to our own white privilege.

I say all this as a deep fried southern preacher, who loves our southern heritage and desires that we remember it in a way that moves us beyond the hatred of the past and honors the glorious ways we have overcome. Let's actively remember our heritage ... all of it ... so we can move forward, not backward.

In the kingdom of God, there is a way to honor the past without living in it. Jesus said "no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Let's remember where we've been and put our hands to the job of making things better, until freedom's song is sung from sea to sea.

Rev. Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First UMC in Arab, Alabama. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Prayer of Confession

I wrote this prayer of confession for a communion Sunday when I was preaching a sermon "Where's the Fire?", in reflection on the story of Moses and the burning bush.

"Lord of holy fire and living water, God of wind and flame, descend to us now and burn in our hearts. We honestly and earnestly confess our sin, and we ask for your renewing flame to burn away the impurities of our souls. Kindle in us a deeper desire to serve you, for our embers grow cold. Holy fire, blaze before us and draw us out of our chilled complacency into the warmth of your holy light. Through Christ we pray. Amen."

Friday, August 4, 2017

A little girl's $11 offering touches my heart

It was one of those moments that brings it all together.

In an instant, I was reminded of all that I believe and everything that I live for. When one outstanding young lady came forward with her offering, I felt completely washed over with a wave of “this is why I do what I do.”

Last week, our church held our annual Vacation Bible School at “Hero Central”. It was a super experience, well attended and perfectly organized, without a troubling incident.

I always love the kids and enjoy every minute of being a part of something like VBS. I know in my soul that it plants deep seeds of the Word in the fertile soil of young hearts, and what we instill begins to grow like fine wheat over one’s life journey.

At the end of one session, though, this particular little girl planted something in me. I had led one of the skits (yes, I am a ham and come by it honestly). After the song orchestrated by one of our “Harmonious Heroes”, we reminded the kids of our mission offering for the week.

We were raising funds to feed children of our community for the school year with gifts going home in their backpacks, through the “Blessings” program.

When this little girl came forward to bring her offering, she said “I have eleven dollars here. This is all of the money my sister and I made at our lemonade stand this summer.” She smiled and put it in the jar.

I have replayed that moment in my mind countless times. I am left with a lingering memory of the gentle glow of her face when she came to put her eleven dollars in the big purple container. It is as if time slowed, because it was so weighted down with meaning.

I have seen lots of unique “offering moments” in my time. In the congregation I presently serve, I witnessed a creative, lay-initiated miracle movement that raised over a million dollars to pay off our debt this year as we start dreaming about the future.

I have traveled to Ghana in Africa, where I have seen a house of worship filled with jubilant dance as people came forward to place their offerings in one of seven buckets, depending on which day of the week they were born.

I have seen a teenager be so moved by worship that she just had to give something. Since she had no money on her, she removed her brand new socks and put them in the offering plate, and she left the service in tears.

But this one takes the cake as one of the sweetest moments of innocence and beauty, of the sheer joy of giving what one had spent so much time and energy working for.

She didn’t have the words to say so, but it is as if I could peer into her pure soul and see the extreme gratitude she had for life. She was so full of blessing that she wanted to give all she had made toward making someone less fortunate have some of the essentials they need.

I wouldn’t say it was a widow’s mite, not exactly; but I would say it was a summer’s delight.

Here I am, planning my retirement finances with my wife (yes, we just finished paying my son’s last semester in college…it’s time). But at the moment, I’m more fascinated by the creativity that went into the joy of giving those eleven dollars than any speculations about my pension fund.

God gives me these moments, and I hope to treasure them.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com