Wednesday, September 5, 2018
This is my column published in the Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 5, 2018.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Won’t you be mine?”
Yes, I’m from that generation. These whimsical words will ring eternally through my mind, because my mind was literally being formed as they were first being sung.
I was three years old when Fred Rogers came to the hood in 1968. I guess you could say I am a “first generation” neighbor to visit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Who can forget the tell tale jazz piano riff that starts the show, while the camera pans over a model of the quaint little town?
What color sweater will he put on today with his sneakers? Will he have any trouble with the zipper?
Who will visit us today? I only recently discovered Mr. McFeely was a name aptly given, not only because the guest postman helped us learn about our feelings, but because McFeely was Fred Rogers’ middle name. He was probably my favorite of the characters (the human ones, that is).
And what will happen today in the Land of Make Believe? The trolley will take us there. I hope we get to see X the Owl today. He’s funny when he gets grumpy. And poor, poor Henrietta Pussycat. I wonder what will upset her today, meow meow.
My apologies. It’s easy to get lost in the Land of Make Believe. Has it really been 50 years since Mr. Rogers welcomed me into his world?
This summer, I saw the movie celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers. It was heartwarming. My son said, “that’s the most wholesome thing I’ve ever seen.” The movie helped me relive a lot of memories.
But there were things I did not realize. One example is how thought provoking he was about social issues of the time. I had not seen the episode where he waded his feet in the pool of water with his African American neighborhood friend. Another example is the now-famous testimony he gave before the Senate to protect funding for public broadcasting.
Sadly, another is that the infamous Westboro Baptist Church picketing his funeral with inflammatory hate speech, because they could not “tolerate his level of tolerance.”
Believing his creed that that “play is really the work of childhood,” he taught me a lot.
He taught me that it’s important to treat other people like neighbors. Sharing a pool of water with the feet of another was only the beginning of what he did with his kind and neighborly demeanor. As a Presbyterian minister turned television educator, he brought the call to “love thy neighbor” to life.
He taught me that emotions are real and they’re not always easy to deal with. And that it’s okay. There were often tears in the eyes of adults in the Land of Make Believe when Henrietta Pussycat confessed her ill feelings, meow meow.
Mr. Rogers taught me that every person is special and treasured. I have held on to this belief all my life, even to the point of being persecuted for it by those who prefer to be more intolerant. We are all children of God, part of the body of Christ, with unique spiritual gifts for building up the body. We don’t have to think like each other to love each other.
He taught me a sense of holy play. Yes, he’s a Presbyterian minister, but I mean more than that. He had a holy regard for others and for working out feelings and thoughts with children.
He taught me to use the gifts I have been given. I knew he did his own puppet voices, and I guessed he helped build the sets. I was surprised to learn in my adulthood that he personally played the incredible jazz piano I’ve always loved. Mr. Rogers was a musician, puppeteer, writer, creator, producer, composer, stage manager, host, and minister.
We need another Mr. Rogers.
I’ve been thinking about our rampant, contemporary propensity for incivility. You can find it everywhere from international terrorism to national politics to social media. We need more models like him, champions of insightful, accepting, warm conversation that gets to the heart of life.
It has been hard to see things getting so divisive in our great country where we practice such freedom of religion, something we all treasure and value. But there is still a tendency to hurt others, sometimes even because of (not just in spite of) religious beliefs.
Yet the wisdom of God is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3:17)
I’ve spent way too much time with Jesus to condemn the people he decided, though others were condemning them, to see promise and hope in. The last time I checked, the very definition of Christian love is to love as Christ loved, including those that are different than us, who disagree with us. Jesus even went as far to say “love your enemies.”
This is not optional. This is Gospel. So here’s to people like Mr. Rogers who continue to teach us.
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.
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
Friday, July 13, 2018
This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
Pictured are steps on the Perimenter Trail at Sewanee, in the section from Memorial Cross to Morgan’s Steep.
This summer, I took a course at Sewanee on images of God in scripture. One of our assignments was to choose a Biblical image and live with it for the summer. I discovered that sometimes you choose an image, and sometimes it chooses you.
I was pondering what in the world I was going to do for the class when I stumbled upon the Sewanee Natural Bridge (when I say I stumbled upon it, I mean that both literally and figuratively).
I had missed a turn and there it was, a massive bridge made of rock, as solid as ... a rock. It stood on the edge of the woods, a high stone path protruding from the ground. It’s stunning beauty resembled the ancient aqueducts of Greece. This path was not designed by utilitarian humans to go from one place to the next. It was crafted by our Creator to stand tall. It was indeed a “high” way, an enduring way.
Jesus said “I am the way.” It’s interesting that that the Greek for “way” in the New Testament almost always means something more tangible than what we think. It’s not just a method, process, procedure, or technique. It is a street or path, a roadside or route. The magi “returned to their county by another route.” “Take no bag for the journey,” Jesus said. They use the same word.
After standing in awe of the natural bridge for a few moments, I began to explore this high, stone path through the woods. I could easily walk under it and eventually climbed to the top to walk across it. It was immeasurable and immovable.
I do believe Christ is the way. It’s funny how people add the word “only” in front of that statement, as if he didn’t clarify his exclusivity enough. There’s not even a “the” in the Greek. Jesus said, “I am WAY.” He is the personification of the path, the embodiment of the expedition, the incarnation of the excursion. He’s a road trip indeed.
Sometimes the way of God is a “high road,” and sometimes the way is a “low road” (a hidden road, that is).
God as the “high road” is easy to imagine. Highway imagery is everywhere in the Bible. In Old Testament times, “highway” meant exactly that ... it was a road built up, raised from its surroundings so ruts and depressions did not become places where water collects. The technology we use now, including shaping a paved road so that the center is slightly higher than the edges to help with water runoff, has been around a long time.
In Biblical times, local roads were just beaten paths, so a highway was pretty special and took a lot of effort. “Build up the highway, clear it of stones,” Isaiah says in chapter 62. “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way” says Isaiah 57.
Sometimes I travel through through Birmingham, where two major interstates, I-65 and I-59/20, come together at what is not-so-affectionately called “spaghetti junction.” Not long ago an eighteen wheeler fell off the top ramp onto the highway below and exploded, making a huge mess. Finally, last year, they started reconstructing it.
I’ve always wanted them to fix it ... until now. It’s taking forever, and I miss a turn every other time I drive through there. Sudden darts of the car are required to manage the latest temporary turn lane.
I have no idea how road construction works, and trust me, I’ve been trying to figure out what they are doing at spaghetti junction. I’ve concluded that it’s way above my head (again, I’m speaking both literally and figuratively).
But what I have learned about road construction is this. It requires a whole lot of planning, design, and earthwork before you even start paving.
First, the building of a highway requires exhaustive plans by a relentless planner. Next the contractor builds embankments using cuts and fills. Then a grader or bulldozer comes and pushes dirt. Leveling the bumps and filling in dips creates a surface that will last.
After that, the screened dirt is sprayed with water and compacted. During this stage, they install drains and sewers. As I have said, the center of the road is made higher than the edges so water will run off. Drainage is critical for life expectancy of the pavement. All this work must then pass strict inspections.
Then the contractor places gravel in twelve–inch layers on the road bed. Workers moisten and compact each layer. Over and over, layers are added and compacted until the road bed reaches the height required. All of this is before anything is paved. Wow.
I also learned that road construction companies boast of what they call “Context Sensitive Solutions.” Context sensitive? God is that personal with you and with me.
The psalmist sings, “lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness ... make your way straight before me.” God who is our path is also our pathmaker. God will diligently work to lay a road before you, perhaps especially for you. God is the chief strategist with a hard had, discerning and planning and analyzing all the way.
Like any smart road planner, God considers crash statistics when making a plan. And oh, do I ever have crash statistics on the road of my life. Yet with the diligence of grace, God makes a way.
Sometimes the way of God is a high road. But sometimes it’s a low road (a hidden path).
I have been fascinated by a Vermont government guide entitled “How to Find Ancient Roads.” Written for aspiring road historians, it gives guidance on how to find and map historic road locations that might just lie beneath your town.
I imagined using this guide to search for God, and the advice in the publication made perfect sense. It noted we should expect setbacks but “go back to it and find the rhythm in it.” It mentions that the project goes better if you have help from others in mapping it. It emphasizes keeping a journal and thoroughly, systematic searching.
And listen to this. It notes that “it is not a job for the weak of heart. This task will take organization, commitment, a few tools, and a good deal of time, more than you think.” The printed guide describes the basic tools (spiritual disciplines, if you will) of road records, maps and how to find them, metes and bounds, local history, deeds, and topography. I reflected on the emphasis on topography. Perhaps my topography is the compilation of life experience that tells you where a “natural place” for a road would be.
As if to encourage the saints, the guide concludes “Do not be surprised to discover you can’t find all the answers from your hard work ... The reward is small victories, the long, hard-earned discovery ... You could be breaking a genetic code or opening a long-lost pharoah’s tomb, for the exhilaration you will feel when you make that wondrous discovery.”
God indeed gives joy to those who search until they find the path already laid out before them in the mystery of grace.
Whether you experience God as a protruding path or a hidden way, a high road or low road, God is an ancient path. We can walk on it and find rest for our souls. I know that sounds like an oxymoron since you don’t rest much when you are walking.
But that’s just it ... we never arrive. I’ll never get “there” but Jesus, who said “come follow me,” wasn’t talking about a destination. He was talking about a path, and it’s the path of Peter and Paul, Martha and Mary. It’s the ancient path so many have walked on before. Just being on the path brings rest for the weary soul.
I just finished my fourth summer term on the mountain. I’ve almost finished hiking or biking all 26 miles of the Perimeter Trail around Sewanee. Almost. Last week, I did one of the hardest parts between the Memorial Cross and Morgan’s Steep.
With my class in mind, I pondered the strange concept of walking on God. If God is the way, the path, the trail, who am I to walk on it?
Then my mind wandered to the Irish blessing, “may the road rise to meet you.” God does that. That’s grace.
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.
Thursday, July 5, 2018
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Over the years, I have contemplated a number of traditions in scripture regarding the kingdom of God and the afterlife. Jesus speaks about the kingdom more than any other subject. It is a great mystery we live into and a reality we pray into being. Jesus taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and this prayer is the centerpiece of our missional theology.
Almost all of Jesus's teaching is dipped in illustrative language such as parables and stories, metaphorical language such as his “I am” statements, and allegorical language such as "if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off." His teaching is about the mystery of the kingdom and how to live in it now. But the promise is that one day it will come into fullness. The classical theology of the kingdom is that it is both “now” and “not yet.” Jesus said very little about getting us into heaven. Most of his teaching is about getting a little of heaven into us.
There is much in the scripture that leads up to Christ’s teaching on the kingdom of God, starting with the longing for an earthly king by Israel, who was tired of the pesky Philistines, and God’s warning about what it would entail (taxes, the draft, giving their daughters away, etc.). Then, as if out of the disappointments that these human kings brought, there emerged in the scripture a longing for a Messianic king. As we flip over to the New Testament, Jesus, the Christ, fulfills these longings as the Messiah and begins to teach openly about the kingdom. From this theological setting, there are strands of tradition that develop in New Testament scripture about the ultimate reality of the coming kingdom. As George Ladd aptly said, in the Christ event the kingdom was “fulfillment without consummation.”
Jesus promises that there is more to the redemption story beyond the grave and beyond present history, and Paul begins to shed light on it. But we are left with mystery about the details. Jesus couldn’t be more clear about the gift of heaven to look forward to, in the midst of controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees over whether there is an afterlife. But by the masterful design of God’s revelation, we are left to trust how the end times pan out.
Personally, I do not buy into the fundamentalist concept that every strand of scriptural tradition is meant to be literal and somehow fits together in an elaborate scheme of the end times. For example, I do not believe in the rapture (a word not in the Bible), but that Jesus was using metaphorical language to describe an aspect of the second coming. Similarly, I do not believe in a thousand years of the kingdom on earth, because it is based on one verse in the book of Revelation, which is chalk full of metaphorical language. There are those who write books and make charts and argue details, and it’s a futile effort in our worship of the one who said that only the Father knows the times and seasons.
Here are some scriptures to study, as I have personally categorized them. In the strands of tradition under “unrealized eschatology,” I hold them up in creative tension rather than trying to be too exacting about how it all happens.
I always emphasize our two-part promise for the afterlife. There is both an immediacy of heaven for those who call on the name of the Lord in this life, as well as a second coming which brings ultimate reconciliation of all things and raises souls that are asleep in the last days (though I don’t believe God will destroy the gift of free will, so I’m not really universalist). With John Wesley, I don’t buy purgatory and see it as an invented solution to this dynamic tension between the “now” and “not yet.” Just holding up the two-part promise, and trusting God for the rest, is what makes the most sense to me personally.
But study it for yourself and see what you think.
The Kingdom is NOW – “Realized eschatology”
Lk 17:20-21 - Jesus said the kingdom is “in the midst of you”
Mt 12:24-28 – Jesus said the kingdom “has come to you”
Mt 11:2-6 – Jesus threw John the Baptist off guard
Lk 4:38-29 – One crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff
Jn 6:15 – Another wanted to crown him king
The Kingdom is NOT YET – “Unrealized eschatology”
Lk 19:11-13 – they “supposed” the kingdom was to appear immediately
Rm 8:18-25 – creation “groaning”, waiting for redemption
He 2:8-9 – we see Jesus but not everything in “subjection” to him
First strand of this tradition – IMMEDIACY of heaven:
Lk 23:39-43 – Jesus said “today” you will be with me in paradise
2 Cor 5:8 – To be absent in body is to be present “with the Lord”
Second strand of this tradition – RESSURECTION of the body:
1 Cor 15:35-44, 51-52 – trumpet shall sound and “dead shall be raised”
1 Jn 3:2-3 – when Christ is revealed, we shall be “like him”
1 Thes 4:16-17 – dead in Christ shall rise first
Third strand of this tradition – SECOND coming:
Acts 1:9-11 – will come back in blaze of glory “as he left”
1 Thess 5:2 – “day” will come as thief in the night
Mt 24:36-44 – the rapture concept
Fourth strand of this tradition – MILLENIALISM (pre- or post-):
Rev. 20:1-6 – Angel binding Satan for 1,000 years
Fifth strand of this tradition – UNIVERSAL restoration:
Acts 3:19-21 – Jesus in heaven “until the time of universal restoration”
Jn 3:17 – not to condemn the world but that the “world” might be saved
Jn 12:32 – when Christ lifted up from earth, will draw “all the world” to self
Unbalanced Views of the Kingdom are PROBLEMATIC
“Sweet By and By” spirituality – fixation on the NOT YET
Prosperity and “Name It and Claim It” spirituality – fixation on the NOW
Gnostic (ancient heresy) spirituality – fixation on SPLIT between now and not yet
A Balanced View of the Kingdom is MYSTERY
Mt 13:10-11 – Jesus speaks of the “secrets” of the kingdom
Jn 18:36-37 – Jesus said the kingdom is not “from this world”
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
This has been an emotional few weeks for me.
I do tend to have a little rush with the coming of spring, but my recent highs and lows are not just because spring keeps coming (after I have gotten my winter clothes back out … again).
I suppose it started with Easter, when the biggest crowd of the year gathered at church to rekindle our joy in the resurrection and our faith that Christ is alive. Then in the middle of that same week, my best buddy (since the age of 15) had surgery to get a new kidney.
It’s a day I have spent much of my life preparing for, because he is a walking miracle and I knew the time would come. His parents were told he wouldn’t live past the age of 8, and he’s made it to 52. I love that way he proved them wrong, but now it was time for that transplant. He’s had a bumpy recovery, but for the new kidney, so far so good. He’s taught me many times how to be full of life, and he’s teaching me again.
As if that were not enough, by the end of that same week my daughter got married. I was giddy. I have performed hundreds of weddings in my life, but I had exactly one moment in time to be father of the bride.
I laid awake at night planning my speech to toast the happy couple. I got to walk her in, I got a big kiss on my cheek … all the things I had dreamed of. The emotions continued, too. It was a small backyard wedding, so naturally we have family party after family party for the relatives (one down, two to go!). Being the extravert I am, I loved meeting my new son-in-law’s folks in Mobile the weekend after the wedding, and wishing the two newlyweds off on their honeymoon cruise.
But to balance the bliss, on the way to Mobile we spent the day in New Orleans, where my wife and I performed the funeral of her dear aunt who died at the age of 88 (you do know, of course, that New Orleans is not on the way to Mobile).
So I’ve had a couple of weeks of big emotions, which I can’t describe without a dad joke. I felt like the circus clown who is always stressed, because every day was “in tents.” They were intense indeed.
Just in case you think Easter, a kidney surgery, a wedding, a funeral, and a weekend of meeting the in-laws were enough, the church I joyfully serve paid their last loan payment on the campus we have been on for 18 years. I had no idea how emotional it would be for me to be there for the photo op at the bank and announce our mortgage burning ceremonies. It was unreal.
Now that all of that is over, I have something to say. Relish the moments. Life is not perfect, love is not perfect, and people are not perfect. Give up your expectations on that. Just let the love of God show you how to see life more perfectly. Enjoy the moments of your life because they will never come again.
I also have something to reflect on. In my roller coaster since Easter, I could hardly sleep at night. Can you imagine how emotional their post-Easter experience was?
Jesus’s followers had spent three intense years with him. Then there was all the betrayal, denial, and arguing around the table before a horrible crucifixion. The first apostles, the women, had told them what must have seemed like wild tales of his risen appearance. So they didn’t know what to feel.
They were behind closed doors, locked away “out of fear,” the scripture says. Then Jesus shows up. He started out with a word of peace. Then he showed them his hands and side, and the disciples threw a party.
Can you imagine the emotions? Mine don’t even compare. This year, in the wake of Easter with all my wild experiences, crazy sensations, and gut reactions, I saw something in this story I’ve never seen before. When Jesus showed up, what did he have to show for it? His hands and side.
I guess I thought Thomas was the one that had the bright idea of sticking his fingers in the holes of healed and resurrected flesh because he was the kind of person that wanted proof. But now I see that maybe he was just plain excited. His doubt was mainly because he wasn’t there the first time Jesus swept in.
Would you have believed it? Showing off his hands and side was Jesus’ idea, not Thomas’s. He did it for the others a full week before Thomas asked for it. That’s because his answer to fear and doubt is grace. We give Thomas a bad rap, but this story is not about the depths of his doubt. It’s about the joy of Jesus’ gift.
When I got in touch this year, in my own little way, with all the emotions of the stunned disciples, I began to read differently Jesus’s comment to Thomas,“blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Maybe it was less of a reprimand and more of a bridge, leading to the next words, which are the key words of the book of John, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe.”
This was not finger-wagging, it was a setup. That’s how grace works.
Jesus could’ve done some other miracle when he popped in that day. He could have changed water to wine again, or multiplied loaves and fishes, but no. No tricks. Jesus showed his wounds, because it is healed wounds that reveal the power of resurrection.
That’s true for us, too. Sharing the love is not just about words and it’s certainly not about miracles. In the wisdom of God, it’s the fleshly, the real, and the practical that makes the difference. Share your wounds.
Not too long ago, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the famous wrestler-become-actor, spoke publicly about his and his family’s struggles with depression. His mother had once attempted suicide, and he reflected on his feelings after that. “Struggle and pain is real. I was devastated and depressed. I reached a point where I didn’t want to do a thing or go anywhere. I was crying constantly.”
When I see “The Rock” on TV, I see someone quite strong, so I was surprised. But I admire him even more. He had the courage to be real, to be honest. His healed wounds can become somebody else’s healing grace.
He said, “We all go thru the sludge and depression never discriminates … [it] took me a long time to realize it but the key is to not be afraid to open up. Especially us dudes have a tendency to keep it in. You’re not alone.”
Openness is not sign of weakness. It’s a testimony of strength. I myself have overcome depression. You may be surprised that a preacher would say that, but don’t be. It is how God grabbed hold of me. It was a living nightmare, but it led to a depth of prayer.
Do you have wounds in your life? See his hands and side. He joins us in our woundedness. Join him in the emotions of those resurrection moments, and share your healed wounds with someone else. Believe. Trust.
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.