Thursday, January 23, 2020

Letter from the Bishop during the Civil Rights Movement

I have a gift from the family of the late Rev. Talmadge Clayton that has now taken up permanent residence in my study.

It was written by Kenneth Goodson, the resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church. I did have the fortune of meeting him at a dear friend's wedding before he died, but this letter comes from a time before my time. It's a letter expressing support for voting rights of African Americans during a time when it was quite controversial in Alabama. I include the postal stamp in the display case because it reminds me that this was mailed to the members of the Annual Conference the very month I was born, April of 1965. For those of you with a keen sense of history, you may know that this was just a few weeks after the March from Selma to Montgomery by those who believed in the constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression.

I will keep this on the wall in my study and read it from time to time. It gives me hope that the church always has, and always will, endure trying times for the sake of the truth of the gospel and the purity of love. In many ways we have come a long way, and yet history repeats itself and we have a long way to go. We are on the road to perfection, as John Wesley would say. Notice that I keep his bust close by.







Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Accepting our Sinfulness in a Time of Hypocrisy

By my desk I keep the devotional book "A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer," which my daughter thoughtfully gave me for Christmas in 2007. I've never been regimented about doing one devotional each day, but from time to time I plunge in for a number of weeks.

Today, I arrived at this one. It resonates with me as I think about the new year, and ponder the resolution rekindled in me to live in the "wonders of his love" as a person of great compassion for others.

It is so imperative during the massive struggles of Christ and culture in North America today that we do this. I'd like to share this quote with you as we all seek a faith that is more real, relevant, and relational in the midst of "cushy Christianity" and hypocrisy that seems so exposed right now by the winds of change.


"The Pious Community"

"Confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16). Those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone. It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together, and all their community through service - that the final breakthrough to community does not occur precisely because they enjoy community with one another as pious believers, but not with one another as those lacking piety, as sinners. For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone in our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 108.

May you have more than a "happy" new year. May it be a time to be real with yourself, with God, and with your Christian community. With Thomas Merton, I have no idea where I'm going or how I'm going to get there, but I trust that my desire to please God does in fact please God. Yet I do know this. We are here by the grace of God, not by our own perfectionism. The only perfection I strive for is perfection in love.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Keeping the X in Xmas

This is my Christmas Eve column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Tuesday, December 24, 2019.

I imagine that some of you are pretty surprised by the title of my column. I can almost hear the voices, “What do you mean, keeping the X in Xmas? Aren’t you a pastor, for goodness’ sake?”

It happens every year. Statements come out during the holidays decrying the use of the abbreviation "Xmas.” They proclaim our need to "keep Christ in Christmas" and not "X him out.”

I do understand the desire to keep Christmas faithful to the true reason for the season, of course. I get it. But it's a fairly common abbreviation that you can find scribbled with a Sharpie on the storage boxes in my attic.

Is it unfaithful? Should this be on the forefront of the culture wars to “keep Christ in Christmas?”

Actually, no. There's a huge misunderstanding about the etymology of this abbreviation that could help Christians learn about our faith heritage. Instead of criticizing the use of it, maybe we should lean into it.

The use of "Xmas" is actually a remnant of a tradition in the historic art of Christianity which is dear to our spiritual heritage. In the ancient church, there were times of great persecution when Christians met in the catacombs, which are cave tombs and underground burial grounds that Romans and other officials wouldn’t go near. Christians met in catacombs and other secret places to worship freely and safely.

Some of the art found on the walls of ancient catacombs feature the use of the Greek letter “X” (pronounced chi in the original Greek) to represent Jesus because it was the first letter in the Greek word Christos, the New Testament word for Christ. It became sort of a secret symbol.

This is similar to the use of the ichthus, the characteristic little symbol of the fish, in the ancient church to represent the Christian faith. The sequence of letters in this Greek word for fish, ichthus, were an acronym for a statement of faith. Each letter of the word was the first letter of words translated “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Christians used this fish symbol to identify each other and safe places to gather for worship in times of persecution. And a picture said a thousand words.

You can find remnants of these traditions in religious art even today. The X (chi) is quite common in sanctuaries. As a matter of fact, you can find them in the building my congregation worships in.

When we put our Chrismon (“Christ-monogram”) tree up during the season of Advent each December, the “X” symbol is on several of the ornaments. It is often paired with a second letter that resembles a “P” (actually pronounced rho) to form a chi rho. These are the first twoletters in the Greek word for Christ.

A chi rho is pictured here, often found on the pulpit or the paraments (pulpit cloth) where a pastor preaches.

The use of “Xmas” in modern English is as old as the 16th century and has been found in headlines, abbreviations, and informal writing (like my attic boxes) ever since.

I’d say writing "Xmas" on a box is no more unfaithful than putting the symbol of the fish on the bumper of your car. I think it’s actually quite beautiful.

The use of the abbreviation Xmas is not "X-ing out Christ." On the contrary, one could look at it as a statement of faith. Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.

As I tell my confirmands every year when teaching these ancient truths, Christ is not Jesus' last name. It's his divine title. It means that he is not only the human Jesus who walked the earth. He is Christ the anointed one, the Messiah.

So don’t worry that “Xmas” is part of a grand conspiracy to keep Christ out of Christmas.

In the words of the late Rachel Held Evans, a young evangelical writer, “The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up—not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble.”

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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Random Acts of Gratitude

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, November 27, 2019.

I was appointed to pastor my first church at the ripe old age of 24.

Sandy and I had only been married for a year, and this was the first time we had gotten out of an apartment and set up house. We couldn’t wait to get started.

We moved into the modest little home next to our church in Fyffe, Alabama and the journey began. After setting up our new post office box, I started to check the mail every day. But only one letter stands out in my memory from that whole first year in our home.

When I think of that letter, it takes me back. I visualize the whole setting, including the extra wide sidewalk in front of the post office.

What was this singular letter? It was what I now call a “random act of gratitude.”

The handwritten letter was from Rev. John Rutland, who was many years my elder, a retired pastor in North Alabama.

He knew my family well, but he was mostly the stuff of legends to me. He had taken a progressive stand during the civil rights era when that wasn’t so popular in Alabama. He had stood toe to toe with his own parishioner, the infamous Bull Connor of Birmingham, and had worked hard to integrate the Annual Conference of the Church. I’d heard stories of his contentious relationship with Governor George Wallace over issues of segregation. And he was an incredibly loving man.

I couldn’t imagine why such a prominent figure in ministry would write a note to little old me. But I can still remember how the scribbled black ink flowed on the creme colored personalized stationary. He wasn’t being a legendary figure that day. He was all pastor.

He told me how proud he was of me, how much he loved my family, and how thankful he was that I was starting out in ministry. He described how every November, he made a list of 30 people he was thankful for and wrote one every day. He said today was my day. The card stock stationary just oozed with gratitude.

You’ve heard of random acts of violence, and maybe you’ve heard of the movement to counteract them with random acts of kindness. Whenever I ponder the idea of random acts of gratitude, I think back to John Rutland’s letter. It has stuck in my mind all these years because it was a completely unexpected and serendipitous expression of the quality of being thankful. I found it incredibly encouraging as a young pastor.

Perhaps the latter part of November, at least, could lead you to perform some random acts of gratitude.

Go out of your way to express your thanks. Share a word of appreciation in a way that’s unexpected, if not wild and crazy. Make thanksgiving not only something you give to God but something that spills over onto everyone else. Let gratitude be way more boundless than the obligatory annual family prayer over turkey and dressing. Let it be a daily attitude, not confined to a holiday but something that makes every day a little more holy for someone.

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thanksgiving Blessing from “The Fonz”



“I live by two words, gratitude and tenacity. Tenacity gets me where I want to go, and gratitude does not allow me to be angry along the way.” - Henry Winkler

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Thought from Kahlil Gibran

This thought resonates with me today from Kahlil Gibran.

“Speak to my soul, oh Lord. May it continue to unfold itself unhindered. May the treasure you have placed in me be revealed to my eyes. My ears indeed thirst for my heart’s knowledge.”

This is what draws me to the table in my studies, because it gets at the heart of me, and the heart if the matter, in ways beyond words.





Friday, November 15, 2019

Bound by Love

“As a Christian, when confronted by a tension between a religious certainty which leads me to violate the law of love and a deep unknowing that still moves in the direction of ‘loving my neighbor as myself,’ I am bound to choose the latter course.”

Cynthia Bourgeault