Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Invocation for JSU Commencement




It was an honor to lead the invocation for Commencement Exercises at Jacksonville State University, held outdoors on August 1, 2020 at the JSU Gamecock Stadium. This was spring graduation that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I carefully wrote my invocation as a gift to the JSU community, and I thought I'd share it here as well.

Let us pray.

God of Solomon and Sophia, God of Divine Wisdom and Grace,

We pause this day to pray. We pause as outstanding scholars are honored here, and we pause to honor the One that merits our greatest respect. We pause to point to the Source and Sustainer of all that is true and all that is good. It is with deep gratitude that we pause, and it is with deep gratitude that we pray.

We pray for these candidates, that the academic degrees awarded today might be more than accolades. May these degrees serve as seeds. May they be seeds that are nourished by the soil of real-life experience, and may they be watered by the rain of struggle. May they be seeds that are fed by the sun of enlightenment, so that they blossom and make the world a more beautiful place.

May these degrees, these seeds, represent not only the accomplishment of knowledge but the continued quest to become.

Fill these candidates with a faith in what the future brings. May they have soundness of mind in a world that can’t seem to agree on what constitutes truth. May they have abundance of hope, no matter if their graduation was delayed due to disease and unease.

May the memories of this day not be overshadowed by a pandemic. May they unleash the power of the academic so that the seeds planted today spread like an epidemic.  

May these commencement exercises be exactly that, commencement exercises. May they be a commencement, a kickoff, a fresh start … not only the ending of a helpful chapter in life but the beginning of a hopeful chapter in life.

May they be commencement indeed. May they also be exercises, knowing that you are not finished with us yet. You are never finished with us yet.

God of both enlightenment and love, we pray (in the words of the Apostle Paul) that these candidates be transformed by the renewal of their minds. In that spirit, we offer these exercises to you.

And now with deep respect for all faiths that might be represented here, I pray in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whom scripture calls the “Wisdom of God.”

Amen and amen.

 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Invocation for School Board



I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to offer the invocation at the Jacksonville City Schools Board of Education meeting recently. Some important decisions were discussed regarding entering the school year in the midst of this pandemic.

Here is my prayer. I am sharing it here in hopes that you will join me in praying it.

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BOARD OF EDUCATION INVOCATION
Steve West – July 22, 2020

God of our wisdom’s years, God of our children’s tears, God who transforms us by the renewal of our minds,

Our hearts are grateful for the gift of this day and the opportunity to share in this way. We thank you for the grand history of the Jacksonville City School System, and for the opportunity to gather tonight because we are concerned about its future. Remind us, oh Lord, that regardless of what disagreements we have or what common ground we discover, we are all on the same team. We are here because we care.

We pray for the precious children and strapping young men and women served by our school system. We pray for their health and safety, and for their vitality and growth. We pray that during these uncertain times, when questions fly faster than answers, we might find a way through the night of this pandemic to the dawning of a better day. For both the safety and sanity of our children, walk us through this wilderness, Lord. Give us a wisdom beyond our natural abilities and a strength that comes from you.

We pray for our teachers and staff, that they might have the courage to make the right decisions for the greater good, and the stamina to lead during strange and uncomfortable times. Fill them with insight as they make the difficult decisions of each day. Give them a peace that passes all understanding to guard their hearts and minds. Help them be graceful and patient with themselves as they manage the multiple expectations of the present situation.

We pray for our community, that they might come around this school system with both patience and perseverance, understanding that none of us have a crystal ball and all of us are doing our best to navigate unchartered waters due to COVID-19. 

We offer this school year to you, oh God, as a humble offering, and commit our lives to strengthening character in our community one child, one youth at a time.

Bless the schools in this system with security along with safety. Bring sanity along with all the sanitizing. Bring a sense of connection along with all the social distancing. Help us be intuitive leaders when forced to use all these new and necessary procedures.

In short, be with us, oh God. Free us for joyful obedience to the task before us, and shape our minds and hearts tonight.

And now, with respect for the many faiths that might be represented in this gathering here, I offer this prayer in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Technology and Tough Times

Here is my mid-week devotional for July 21, 2020.

We are using the technology of our time to share the gospel in tough times ... and it’s not the first time. My Grandpa West did it during the Spanish Flu epidemic.



Friday, July 17, 2020

A Word for Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Jax First UMC has a new YouTube Channel! Join us there for livestreaming on Sundays at 9:00 am. Or you can catch it afterward on YouTube or Facebook! Subscribe at:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxsqwHW4D7Ln9Li4ipO2QOg?fbclid=IwAR1DlO-NkqUHo4POUYuvzYlCQ4p75_iHYrTLpIYzj5yCeYC-jI3hBmb85j4

Today was a really good day. I feel like one of the early American Methodist preachers, who preached and visited during the week from house to house. It doesn't feel sad because of COVID-19. It feels exciting, like we are "back to the basics" of what it means to be the church.

Because of Stacie's brainstorm on how Sandy and I could meet the children of our church during these weird times of pandemic, we joined her this morning for my very first "Popsicle Parade." We showed up with Stacie and her cooler of frozen treats, meeting the first set of families with kids in our children's program and visiting at their doorstep or driveway. And yes, one of the popsicles tasted really good when it started getting warm outside.

It was a delightful morning, and I can't wait to meet the rest of our families with kids. Watch for the Popsicle Parade coming to your neighborhood!

Starting out in a new ministry setting is strange due to COVID, and yet I'm realizing how wonderful it will be. After we finish parading with popsicles over the next few days, I plan to make the rounds to visit our homebound members (socially distanced, with masks, and on the porch steps or through the glass door ... whatever is safe). We will also jump into our "Socially Distanced Socials with Steve and Sandy" in neighborhoods or out under the big tree by the Garden of Eatin.'

This afternoon, I heard some news from the congregation I just came from. Their new pastor's wife tested positive for COVID-19, and they've had to shut down and go back to online-only worship for a few weeks. I'm sad for them, but I feel truly blessed. I'm also aware that we simply have to watch and pray, and be flexible along the way.

So, let's enjoy the strange and wonderful adventure of figuring out the next few weeks and months together. I met with program staff and then trustees yesterday to begin laying out plans to communicate to you about reopening things one step at a time, after meeting with the leaders of Thrive last week to put together a timeline for rebooting. Then today our governor announced an ordinance that requires masks in most public situations, so it all feels like aiming for a moving target. But the God we serve is the rock, the firm foundation of our unwavering faith. We will publish our plans in the next few days so you know what to expect, but they are indeed flexible plans and I personally appreciate everyone's patience.

Thanks for such a warm welcome into the continuing adventure of trusting in the Lord with all your heart, and leaning not on your own understanding. In all our ways, let's submit to God, and he will make our paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Wisdom for Difficult Times



This is my recent podcast on biblical wisdom for difficult times. In it, I reflect on Ecclesiastes 9:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart ... Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun ... Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.”

Here it is:

Monday, May 18, 2020

Salvation is Created

Most of you know we will be moving in a few weeks to serve Christ in Jacksonville, Alabama with a new church family. What you may not know is that marching band is big part of who I am (being first chair trombone at Grissom High School shaped me in powerful ways). So I have always known the JSU Marching Southerners.

I ran across this brief, socially distanced rendition of “Salvation is Created” by Tschesnokoff by the JSU band. It brought tears to my eyes, not only because of memories of playing it at Grissom, but because I am touched that they would go to the trouble in honor of the JSU staff and administration during these pandemic times.

The piece is powerful (and perfect for this). It was the last religious work the composer wrote before the communist party in Russia required him to write only secular music. As if boldly answering this suppression, the words are simple. The translation is “Salvation is created, in the midst of the earth, O God.”

I’m inspired. God is saving us in the midst of this earthly crisis. Do what you can to keep the spirit alive. Follow requested protocols with a good attitude for the sake of others. Maintain a zest for life, hold on and trust God, and be a good neighbor. Don’t give in to negativity. No matter what the earth faces, salvation is created. Amen and amen.



Saturday, May 2, 2020

Making Worship Youth-Friendly

I recently ran across the first article I had published. It has never been available online, so I thought I'd share it. It is about Millennial youth and written in 1995, so you can decide what applies and what doesn't!

It was entitled "Making Worship Youth-Friendly," and I wrote it when I was on staff at Vestavia Hills UMC as Associate Pastor and Minister of Youth and Worship.

I still believe much of what I have written here, though I would definitely say things differently now.

As she left the sanctuary after the Youth Sunday service, she asked me, "is there going to be preaching at the next service? I haven't 'been to church' yet!" This was the most creative Youth Sunday service we'd ever had; but for her, it wasn't "church." On the other hand, passing out parts to read on Youth Sunday doesn't feel like "church" either.

Sunday worship in the average congregation is "R-rated"; it is for adults only. As pastors charged with leading the worship of the Christian community, how can we make worship more "youth-friendly" without compromising the integrity of the liturgical tradition?

Why Change?

Worship is where memory meets practice. The memory of grace through history, celebrated through sacred stories, symbols, and acts, meets our everyday fears. hopes, experiences, and dreams. In worship, God meets us and we meet God. So renewal in worship must happen precisely because of its purpose, which is bringing the gospel to bear on modern experience.

We tend to see youth as basically nontraditional and bored with anything that looks or sounds "old." Sometimes, in an attempt to appeal to a new generation, we try to replace traditional liturgy with something "new."

Boredom with the old and fascination with the new is not the way to make worship youth-friendly. First, it departs from the power of the commonality and familiarity of the liturgy. In a world where youth are exposed to myriad images, ideas, conflicts, and choices, worship is a "sanctuary" for adolescents. It is a place of comfort and familiarity, where they can come home. Second, the attempt to give up on traditional liturgy is based on an inaccurate assessment of the needs of today's youth.

The emerging generation of Millennials (those born after 1982, some of whom are now entering their teens) are more "civic oriented" than their immediate predecessors. In practical terms, this means that they will value optimism, cooperation, community, structure, and tradition. Efforts to form a liturgy that assumes that youth are cynical about tradition are outdated.

I am not surprised to find Millennials described as neo-traditional. More and more, I have found that youth have a loving relationship with tradition. They simply want to be a part of making it. To make worship more meaningful for a new generation of youth, we must go deep into our past and discover where it meets with our experience in the present. We can do this in at least three ways:

Take a New Look

In our quest for innovation, we must remember that our own tradition is our best resource for change. Millennial youth will find greater value in the central structures of worship, such as creeds, psalms, the sacraments, and traditional forms of prayer. However, we need to find new ways to revisit these elements creatively, as if exploring them for the first time. It is important for youth to experience a balanced diet of the new and the old in hymns, music, prayers, and other acts of worship as they connect their lives with our common memory of God's work in the world.

Plan Experiential Worship

Today's youth receive and process most of their information in fast-moving visual and audio images. It is no surprise, then, that Millennial youth are described as activity- and experience-oriented. Our youth will help us rediscover that when we worship, we are doing something, and we are doing it together.

Responsive singing, reading, and praying will be more and more meaningful for our young people. We will need to explore or re-explore forms of communication such as drama, dance, television, congregational movement, and electronic art in worship as these provide opportunities for experiential participation. Our sermons will need to be planned knowing that youth respond better to meaningful images than to formulated doctrinal statements (so do adults, for that matter).

Be Youth-Inclusive

If the trends are correct, youth will increasingly want to move from the periphery to the center of involvement in the worship life of congregations. It is no secret that youth learn more through involvement than through any other form of education. They need to be included at all levels of planning and organizing. Youth choirs, when available, need to participate regularly in Sunday worship. Youth leaders need to be called on to assist younger choirs. Sacred dance and visual art groups are other creative opportunities for involvement. Youth also enjoy instrumental music and may be able to contribute in that arena. Serving as lay liturgists or ushers is another important option for youth. We must also be careful as leaders of worship to make sure our language is intentionally inclusive (for example, youth are not just "our future," they are part of the present congregation).

Worship is, by definition, both expressive of who we are and formative for spiritual growth. So all worship planning must keep our diversity in mind as we discover the needs of the youth among us. The practice of old traditions and the development of new traditions, along with experiential involvement by youth in the worship life of the congregation, are a must for "youth-friendly" worship.

Originally published in Circuit Rider: For United Methodist Clergy from The United Methodist Publishing House in March 1995.