Friday, April 9, 2021

Invocation for Installation of President Don Killingsworth

Today, I had the privilege of leading a Blessing Service for Don Killingsworth at First United Methodist Church prior to his inauguration. Joining together with three other pastors from the community, we prayed for his leadership, for his faculty and staff, for his students, and for his family.

I also had the honor of praying the invocation at his installation ceremony in the colosseum and joining Governor Kay Ivey and other dignitaries on the platform.

I am sharing my prayer of invocation with you in hopes that you will join the church I serve, the Jacksonville community, and this fine university in support of Dr. Killingsworth as they enter into a new chapter in history together.

Some of the language from my invocation is modeled after the prayer presented at the inauguration of George Washington. I enjoyed studying it as I prepared for this special moment.



Gracious and Loving God, We acknowledge today that you are both creator of beauty in the universe and author of wisdom in the university. You have revealed your glory to the nations, and you have sustained this earth with life. You are both magnificent and benevolent, and so we pause during this important ceremony of installation to give you thanks and praise.

On this day of new beginnings for Jacksonville State University, we pray for this fine institution. We humbly ask that you assist with your spirit of counsel and fortitude the president of this establishment. May his administration be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to the faculty, staff, and students whom he serves. May he encourage due respect for virtue and build character in countless young women and men. May he warm hearts as well as enlighten minds.

Let the light of your divine wisdom direct the deliberations of the leadership of Jacksonville State University, and most especially of President Don Killingsworth. May he seek to preserve its legacy and promote its welfare. May he be enabled, by your powerful protection, to discharge his duties with honesty and compassion.

For we know, oh God, that if you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters. So give him, Lord, what matters, what matters the most.

We likewise commend to your unbounded mercy all the present and future students of Jacksonville State University, that they be blessed with the pursuit of knowledge and sanctified in the practice of good citizenship. May the university be preserved in that peace which the world cannot give; and may we, after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

We pray to you, who are Lord and God, for ever and ever.

And now, with deep respect to the many diverse people of faith that might be represented here, I offer this prayer in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen and Amen.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Beth Moore Speaks Out

I’m a United Methodist, and I respect the faith of my brothers and sisters of other denominations.

But I agree with Beth Moore. I am glad to be part of a denomination that ordains women who are called by God and equipped by the Spirit, and that supports female leadership at all levels of local church life. In fact, the local church I presently serve has been greatly blessed by female clergy on the ministry staff in the past.

I believe the Bible is can be used to reinforce certain attitudes (against women, minorities, Jews, Catholics, the LGBTQ community, etc.) that go past the Bible’s original intent, instead of interpreting all scripture through the lens of Christ, the divine logos (Word of God).

Paul, in his New Testament writings, was simply pastoral and cautious at times, when in actuality the early church’s full inclusion of women was quite progressive for the times, following what was clearly the way of Jesus. His writings should be read in light of other things he wrote in scripture as well as interpreted through Christ.

You can find Beth Moore’s apology for supporting a theology of male dominance here.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Every Morning is Easter Morning!

I woke up with this song on my mind from Sumatanga days! May Easter go with you in the coming days!

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
       from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
       the past is over and gone!

Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear, good riddance!
       Hello Lord, Hello sun!
I am one of the Easter People!
       My new life has begun!

Daily news is so bad it seems the
       Good News seldom gets heard.
Get it straight from the Easter People:
       God's in charge! Spread the word!

Yesterday I was bored and lonely;
       but today look and see!
I belong to the Easter People!
       Life's exciting to me!

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
       from now on!
Ev'ry day's resurrection day,
       the past is over and gone!
Ev'ry morning is Easter morning,
Ev'ry morning is Easter morning,
Ev'ry morning is Easter morning
       from now on!

Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, Words © 1972 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Red Letter Christians

Today, I signed the "Red Letter Christians" pledge. I believe this with all my heart and life. You may want to consider signing it as well.

It is time for Christians to stand up for what is right, what is good, what is gospel. We aren't truly living as Christians unless we are on the journey of giving ourselves to the vision of the kingdom of God. If we do it not unto the least of these, we do it not for Christ. Be a part of the kingdom breaking into our world!

For more information, go here. A copy of the pledge is below.

I dedicate my life to Jesus, and commit to live as if Jesus meant the things he said in the “red letters” of Scripture.

I will allow Jesus and his teaching to shape my decisions and priorities.

I denounce belief-only Christianity and refuse to allow my faith to be a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the suffering world around me.

I will seek first the Kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven – and live in a way that moves the world towards God’s dream, where the first are last and the last are first, where the poor are blessed and the peacemakers are the children of God, working towards a society where all are treated equally and resources shared equitably.

I recognize that I will fall short in my attempts to follow Jesus, and I trust in God’s grace and the community to catch me when I do.

I know that I cannot do this alone, so I commit to share this journey with others who are walking in the way of Jesus. I will surround myself with people who remind me of Jesus, help me become more like him and hold me accountable for my actions and words.

I will share Jesus with the world, with my words and with my deeds. Like Jesus, I will interrupt injustice, and stand up for the life and dignity of all. I will allow my life to point towards Christ, everywhere I go.

Thoughts on Marriage

I found this today in a devotional book I've had for a number of years based on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I thought it was beautiful and expresses my thoughts on marriage.

“Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which God wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In our love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to God’s glory, and calls into the kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility toward the world and humanity. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and humanity. As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above humanity, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (pp. 27-28)

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Say No to "Christian" Nationalism

I have signed this statement from evangelical leaders from across the United States. I hope that other Christian leaders will also take a stand. We need to call out this “Christian nationalism” associated with the insurrection.

I do not believe that this extremist movement is truly Christian (the word "Christian" means "little Christ" and it's a way of living, not just a set of doctrines and certainly not an ideology). Being patriotic is a good thing. For me, this crazy co-opting of Christian symbols and identity with extremist politics, white supremacy, and anarchy needs to be addressed openly. It is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

I want to clarify that I stand against all violence and destruction by any political group, though I believe everyone has the right to peacefully protest. I value the voice of Christian conservatives as well as the voice of Christian progressives. I have varying opinions on matters because my beliefs are rooted in the gospels.

For me, this letter from evangelical leaders is about a unique situation theologically, similar to the KKK using Christian symbols and language. You can find the statement here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

John Rutland, George Wallace, Communion, and the Kingdom of God

February is Black History Month, and we have also entered the holy season of Lent. Our United Methodist Bishops have called the church to a Lenten season focused on dismantling racism. Their devotions may be found here.

This convergence has led me to share a story that I recently wrote down for the first time. 

It's part of an introductory chapter in a book I am writing on the distinctiveness of Wesley's communion spirituality in our times of divisiveness.

Attached is a picture of Rev. John Rutland and his wife Mary.

If there is such a thing as a mind-blowing story about Holy Communion, I have one. I heard it years ago from a man named John Rutland. He had been a friend of my family since long before I was born. John was one of the old time Methodist preachers of the North Alabama Conference, always wearing a white shirt, a blazer or sport coat, a super-wide tie, and an even wider love for Jesus. He had a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, and to me this short, stocky man was always larger than life.

He and my dad had been colleagues in ministry, and John loved to tell of a time he gave me a quarter when I was a child and he was my father’s District Superintendent. Apparently, I got up in his lap and said “Brother Rutland, when you go to that place …” He said, “you mean Annual Conference?” “Yes, and you see that man …” He responded, “you mean the bishop?“ “Yes, will you tell him to send my daddy to Disney World?”

John had told me plenty of stories, though his communion story brought them all together. My wife and I had become associate pastors at the same church he served in his retirement, and he told me numerous tales from his years of preaching in the middle of Birmingham civil rights history and his uncanny tendency to step into it. He once took me to the pulpit area of the old Woodlawn United Methodist Church and pointed to a seating section on the far right, near the exit. “That’s where Bull Conner used to sit … when he was sitting, that is.” I knew, of course, that “Bull” was the infamous commissioner in Birmingham that oversaw the police and fire departments, enforcing segregation and becoming a national symbol of police brutality with police dogs and fire hoses. Conner had been a member of that church during the Civil Rights era when Rutland pastored there. “Sometimes, when I would preach that Jesus loved all people, regardless of the color of their skin, he would stand up, huff, and storm out.” 

Standing by the pulpit that day, he told me the colorful story of the time he walked up to Conner and his deputies standing on the front steps of the church with their arms crossed. After he asked what they were doing, Conner said, “we’re making sure only the appropriate people come to church today.” John got up in his face and said, “let me tell you something, Mr. Conner. I’ve been appointed by the bishop to be pastor of this church, and I will decide who can come in for worship. And if you get in my way, I’ll call your own police department and have you removed.” He then walked away, his legs feeling like limp noodles. As he turned the corner, he heard Conner whisper to his deputies, “let’s go boys. He’ll do it.” John Rutland must be one of the few people that Bull Conner backed down from. 

On another occasion, John told me of a letter he had once gotten from Alabama Governor George Wallace. He had been with a group of preachers who had met with Wallace a few weeks prior to his first inauguration, a meeting when he had made all sorts of promises to these pastors who were in favor of integrating schools. Then at the inauguration, Wallace made the infamous speech with the words, “segregation now … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever!” John was perplexed and wrote Wallace a letter asking how he could possibly change his tune so dramatically in such a short period of time. Wallace wrote back to him saying, “I’ve been out-segged and I’m not going to be out-segged again … you fancy-pants preachers had better watch your back in Alabama.” 

So, you can imagine how I felt when Rutland walked in my office one day and said, “I wish you’d been here yesterday.” I had been visiting the hospitals, and boy was I sorry. “I dropped by to see if you wanted to go with me to serve communion to George Wallace.” He then told me one of the most compelling stories about Holy Communion I have ever heard. 

Our bishop, Lloyd Knox, had called John Rutland to ask if he had a portable communion set. George Wallace, still a Methodist, had called Bishop Knox from his death bed and asked if he would come serve him communion. The bishop had been busy preparing to move away from the Annual Conference at the end of his term, so his was already packed. “John, I want you to go with me to serve communion.” 

“Um, bishop, I’d be glad to loan you my communion set, but I really don’t think you want me to go visit George Wallace with you.” As John put it, the bishop could be very persuasive, as bishops can be. He went after all, just hoping that since it had been so many years, Wallace would not recognize him. But as soon as he walked in the room, Wallace looked at him and said in a booming voice, “John Rutland!” 

 He sheepishly walked into the room. The bishop gathered them around the hospital bed and asked why he wanted to receive communion. Wallace said, “I asked you to come today because for so many years, I was wrong. I was wrong about a lot of things.” He shared that he needed to make his peace with God. Bishop Knox went and got the nurse out of the hallway, and she happened to be African American. They all shared the holy meal together. 

John finished his story with words I will never forget, “Here we were, Bishop Knox, George Wallace, a black nurse, and the ‘fancy-pants preacher’ sharing communion together. Now that’s the kingdom of God!” It certainly is. 

Communion has a way of shedding light on both who we really are and who we are called to be. It is an honest meal. We come to the table being real with God through confession, and Christ comes to us in real ways though his presence, hospitality, and grace. The Lord’s Supper binds us together in mysterious ways, for it is a sacred act of both receiving the grace of God and being the body of Christ with one another. 

John Rutland’s story has stuck with me during the remainder of my life and ministry. It was not just a tale about race relations. It was a crystallized moment in time that sheds light on the holy meal. We taste and see the goodness of the Lord. We get an honest look at who we are, experience how incredibly beloved we are, and get a glimpse of life in the kingdom of God while we are at it. No, it’s not magic. A better word for it would be mystical.

Copyright 2021 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved