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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ancestral Letter

This is a handwritten letter by Laura Francis Clark Hamby or George Washington Hamby (my great grandparents), sent to their son James Earley  Hamby and his wife Charlotte Goins Hamby after the death of their three year old daughter, Stella. The writers were Stella’s grandparents.

This was found in Jesse M. Hamby’s (1920-2012) photos by his daughter, Jean Suico. She copies it as it is written without changing or interpreting their words.

The poem quoted is an Isaac Watts hymn text. The "Jessie" referred to was the two year old child of the writers, deceased just a decade earlier.

---

Birmingham, Alabama, Feb. 19, 1899
Mr. and Mrs. J.E. Hamby
Winnsboro, S.C.

Dear Ones,

    Words fail to convey our feelings of sorrow on receipt of the sad intelligence of the death of your darling Stella. Our own grief at the loss of this precious one teaches us how crushing must be your affliction. We feel like we would do or say something that would comfort your hearts in this sad hour, if we only knew how. However, we will attempt to write a letter of condolence, feeling it a necessity to do so, though very difficult to compose, since the more earnestly and touchingly it is written the more deeply will it probe the wounds still bleeding under the stab of affliction.

    We recognize the fact this morning that never before has providence in his wisdom sent a great grief or a more bitter sorrow into your hearts and house than in the present dispensation. Never before since the death of little Jessie has our house been sadder or our hearts been made to act with such severance than now.  Therefore, our grief is mutual and you have our deepest sympathy and earnest prayer.
May God sustain you in this trying hour by putting you to remembrance that he has only taken back to himself what was sent you for a short while. He has plucked the little bud from your home that it may blossom and bloom around His throne up yonder. Yes, it was a sweet tender little plant, so delicate that God saw it could not withstand the fiery darts of this troublesome, unkind and unfriendly old world, and He has only come and taken from you to replant it in the Garden of Eden to care for it for you until the dawning of that great morning when all nations and tribes of the earth shall be gathered together that God may from the great assembly make up his jewels.

    The sweet consolation is for you that your darling one who has already preceded you to that throne will be, beyond all questions, one of His brightest jewels. Its little sun had hardly risen from the Easter morning of life before death pleased its shinning.  For about four years its little rays have been peeping over the Eastern hill of life, shinning in your home churning your hearts and brighten all prospects for a useful happy life.  But just after passing the fourth milepost of life and ever before reaching the meridian of time, death overtook it that it might be invested. And today it shines in God’s home with a celestial brightness that it could not have possibly demonstrated here below.  Yes she was a little sunbeam, and now that her light is out the home is dark. But be comforted. For if God left her here just long enough to fasten tight the golden cord of love around your hearts, then be well assured that he holds the other end near his great throne of Grace and after a little while you may meet her.
She is not dead, but asleep in Christ.

As the poet says:
“Hear what the voice from heaven proclaims
For all the pious dead:
Sweet is the savior of their names,
And soft their sleeping bed.

They die in Jesus and are blest,
How calm their slumbers are!
From sufferings and from sin released.
And freed from every snare.

Far from this world of toil and strife,
They’re present with the Lord:
The labors of their mortal life
And in a large reward.

    May God’s richest grace help and sustain you both and help you to bare in submission to His sweet will and feel that the cord of blessed kinship binds you closer to the skies.
No more will its sweet voice be heard on earth tho’ it be dead still it continues to speak.  Its voice used to be heard here below calling pa-pa and ma-ma. But today the same words are murmured in its new home.

    Be faithful father and mother that by-and-by you may meet and have a happy reunion in the sweet hereafter.

   God bless and comfort you both is the prayer of your folks at home.  

Your
Father, Mother & family  

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Grandpa in the Firing Line

It's amazing what you can find on the internet. My grandfather, Rev. C.P. Hamby, was referenced and then quoted in the book "Five Years on the Firing Line: A Book on Earnest Evangelism" by James Oscar Hanes, written in 1913.

This was originally posted on my other blog, The Taylor Legacy, if you want to have a look there.

Here is what I found:






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The "Book of Nature"

This is my column that appeared in the June 6, 2017 issue of "The Arab Tribune."

Displayed is my photograph of the scene at Bon Secour.


It's that time of year.

I imagine you love to get outside as much as I do, now the that the April allergies are a thing of the past. Open the door, here I come!

Even the last few days, I have enjoyed walks in the park with my wife and bicycling around the neighborhood behind us.

My family started responding to the call of the outdoors early this season, taking a week of vacation in the first of May. It's the first time both of my adult children and my daughter's serious boyfriend could join us at the beach.

We enjoyed the food, the sand, the ocean, my first experience with a family "breakout game," and just being together. We also got to take in a deep breath of nature, between parasailing and biking and trying out a Segway tour (that was a new experience for me and my wife!).

My family had to leave toward the end of the week and I had a day or two to myself. This quiet retreat was yet another layer of blessing. I must have biked 35 miles at the state park greenway.

One afternoon, I found myself beholding the most glorious sunset. It was breathtaking as I sat on the edge of the pier, gazing endlessly. I've discovered that if we would just pay attention, we would find that God is speaking.

The "book of nature" is an ancient Greek Christian and philosophical concept. The idea is to view God's creative works with an eye for deepening our understanding of the mystery of God. When it is "read" along with sacred scripture, the "book" of nature shows us God himself.

I suppose I had my own revelatory experience at one special moment during the week. I took my bike to visit Bon Secour. It's a beautiful wildlife reserve along the eastern coastline of a secluded bay which adjoins the edge of Mobile Bay.

I never will forget gazing back upon a stretch of walkable sand that I had already traveled over, a stretch of land which separated two bodies of water in close proximity to each other. Reading about what I was seeing on an informational display, I realized the profound uniqueness of what I was looking at.

On the left side of the slender strip of land was a salt water bay, and on the right side was a fresh water lake. There it was, two sides of liquid reality almost touching.

I carefully traced the contours of each shoreline with my eyes. Even the vegetation was dramatically different. Both sides were water, and both sides were teeming with life. Yet one side seemed to represent the salty side of things, and the other side the fresh experiences life brings.

On the one hand, life is full of tears. There is a certain weight to the water and a depth of soul. Being immersed in the salty side has an almost a healing quality, and though you can't see it on the surface, you know that life lays deep within.

On the other hand, life is a fresh adventure, a flowing mystery to drink in freely. There is a freshness, a clearness, and a clarity that comes from bathing in the fresh side of life.

I recalled that in the scripture, Christ spoke of "living water". He was offering a woman fresh water from a well to quench her thirst (a way of offering her himself), but I couldn't help but wonder. I was gazing at two sides of the world's water, and both were full of life. One I could drink in, the other I could float on. I love both salt and fresh water, yet a swim in each is a very different experience.

Such is the way of immersing myself in the two sides of life.

Bon Secour is French for "safe harbor," and I suppose its seclusion is part of why I enjoyed the quietness of these moments pondering what was before my eyes. In this beautiful display of glory God created, I was reminded that life has both a fresh side and a salty side. God made it that way, and seeing a visual reminder got me in touch with the stirrings of my own soul.

And for that, I am truly grateful.

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.