Friday, March 23, 2018

God Bless ...

I recently saw a large church-sponsored billboard in a nearby city that said “God bless America.” It had on the billboard the colors of the American flag, shaped like the map of the continental U.S. Underneath it was the name of the church that was sponsoring the rental of the advertising.

That is a good prayer. That is an appropriate prayer. There is nothing wrong with asking for God’s blessings on this nation, the one we call the land of the free.

We desperately need the blessings of God’s divine compassion for others, of justice and righteousness for all people, and of unity that comes with great awakenings of the Spirit such as those that have swept over our continent in times past. These days, we are an increasingly divided, violent, and secularized country that seems to be losing touch with our civility. We have seen difficult times before. Yet we need the blessings of God as much as we ever have.

Yes, there is much good in the midst of life these days, don’t get me wrong. Progress doesn’t come without price, and sometimes it takes time for things to shuffle themselves out in history.

But I have been thinking that if my church were going to spend that kind of money, I think I’d want our billboard to say “God bless the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.”

What? Why?

It’s simple. Those are the words of Jesus. We call them the Beatitudes. These are the ones God most wants to bless - the poor in spirit, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and the pure in heart. God blesses them in our country and God blesses them beyond our country.

Those are the ones I named in my imaginary billboard above, the “blessed” of the eight beatitudes themselves, in the same order as in Matthew 5.  They are Christ’s very definition of who is blessed in the opening of his Sermon on the Mount.

No, I’m not being un-American, I’m just being unashamedly Christian. I’m certainly not pointing fingers or making any judgments about those who would want to spend money on a billboard to express themselves.

I’m just saying that what makes more sense to me personally are the dear words of Jesus. My deepest desire is that we take the words of Jesus seriously, for the wisdom of his words trumps all cultural values and even, at times, our zealous nationalism.

So if I were going to rent a billboard to pray for blessings, it’s what I’d have to say.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Astonishing Red-Letters of Jesus

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. I found it humorous that the editor entitled the piece "Jesus' red-letter words show he was progressive," since I am, hopefully, claiming a set of Christian ethics that defies political labeling.

Somebody came in my study a few days ago and said, “wow, you have a lot of books. Have you read all of them?”

Why ask a pastor a question like that? Of course I haven’t.

In fact, I pulled one off my shelf and placed on my desk a few months ago … and it has sat right there ever since. It’s on standby. It’s called “Primal” by Mark Batterson, and I suppose I’ll get to it when the time is right.

But the back of the book inspires me. I read it every once in a while.

It says, “What would your Christianity look like if it was stripped down to the simplest, rawest, purest faith possible? You would have more, not less. You would have the beginning of a new reformation—in your generation, your church, your own soul. You would have primal Christianity.”

The book cover continues, “This book is an invitation to become part of a reformation movement. It is an invitation to rediscover the compassion, wonder, curiosity, and energy that turned the world upside down two thousand years ago. It is an invitation to be astonished again.”

Do you long to be astonished again?

If so, I have a suggestion. It sounds simple, and it is ... the simplicity is precisely why we don’t do it. It’s coming back to what Jesus actually said.

Christians focus so much on having Jesus “in my heart,” and holding a ticket to heaven, that we forget being a follower is about our whole life. Following Jesus is about our jobs, our marriages, our families, our neighborhoods, our finances, our health, our priorities, and our politics.

So if you want to be astonished again, go back to the "red letters" of Jesus. You find them in those Red Letter Bibles that highlight the words Jesus actually said.

Honestly I’ve always had mixed feelings about Red Letter Bibles. His words aren’t more “scriptural” than other scripture. But the farther along I get in my faith, the more I see that if I’m really going to live it, those red letters are more fundamental than fundamentalism.

The words of Jesus have profound impact when lifted out. Like raw sugar, it shows us the raw Jesus, pure and unvarnished.

What you discover may surprise you. Jesus did not talk at all about things we tend to make religion about in politics, when we reduce it to a couple of controversial moral issues. But on the other hand he lived an incredibly political life.

He was amazing in his progressive treatment of women. He confronted the racism of his people against Gentiles and Samaritans. He had a heart for the outcast. He lifted up mission with the poor and impoverished. He taught radical peacemaking, saying “those that live by the sword die by the sword.”

He said that it is what comes out of our mouth, not what goes in, that defiles. He spoke of those who are without sin casting the first stone, calling out judgmentalism for what it is. He affirmed those who are poor, meek, mourning, and weak.

He called people to a whole new world of grace, the kingdom of God, which has embedded in it a vision for justice for all people. He said strange things like “the last shall he first and the first shall be last.” He stood squarely against the accumulation of wealth.

These are the “Red Letter” issues.

Are you a “Red Letter Christian?” Or are you content with human, divisive labels like liberal and conservative?

I accept neither label because I’d rather just follow the gospel. It’s time that we disentangle divisive political labels from our faith and let the gospel be our guide.

Mark Lowry is a self-proclaimed "recovering fundamentalist." He sang with the Gaither Vocal Band, then took year off and decided to read the "red letters.”

I heard him speak once, when he said, “Have you ever read the red part of the Bible? It will mess you up!"

He continued, "You know what I found out? We've been hanging around the wrong people. We've got to start hanging around some more prostitutes! Jesus hung out with the outcast. Jesus hung out with the freaks and failures and vagabonds. The only people Jesus chewed out were the religious folks."

Lowry admitted "I didn't make a good fundamentalist because I could never figure out, how do you love the sinner but hate the sin? There's so many of you! I don't have time to hate your sin ... hate your own sin! Hating my own sin is a full time job! The psalmist said 'my sin is ever before me.' I say this ... love the sinner, but hate your own sin! You hate your sin, I'll hate my sin, and let's love each other!"

Now that’s a “Red Letter Christian” if I’ve ever heard one.

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 at

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Post

Today is New Year's Day, and I am beginning a journey of focusing on two things: losing 20 pounds and finding new direction for my life and ministry. I have been challenged by my Spiritual Director to spend time seeking the heart of God for what life will bring during the next 10 years of my journey.

I accepted the challenge.

The first thing that came to mind was this prayer of Thomas Merton. I will keep it handy to begin my time of exploring with God:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Thomas Merton

Sunday, December 24, 2017

When God Comes Near

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, December 23, 2017.

A number of years ago, long before blogging and social media were something I could imagine (but after email and fax machines were born ... I’m not ancient you know), I figured out how to make my first group list with an email address book.

Woah. This group email thing was new and unheard of technology. Yes, this story ages me, but it was then that I started sharing some devotional writings.

They certainly weren’t the length and breadth of the columns I try to write today, but it was a start. I began with a one-pager called “Faithclick” which went out every week or two.

One year, I got a call from a Birmingham newspaper, asking if they could quote my Faithclick in a piece they were doing on Christmas. I wasn’t even sure how they had gotten hold of it. I was honored and said “sure!”

Little did I know the editor was doing an op-ed piece to starkly contrast my thoughts with that of another pastor. I had no idea what I had gotten into.

The experience is etched in my memory as a reminder of not only the value of diverse faiths but of my intense commitment to the mystery of Christmas.

The other pastor’s point of view was that Christmas was not important. Salvation came through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, not his birth, he argued. So the only holiday that was important was Easter.

Bah, Hogwash.

My point of view is that Christmas is the great feast of the incarnation. The incarnation is that divine-become-human miracle that changed the world as well as the trajectory of salvation history.

Of course the crucifixion and resurrection are incredibly important, and my claim on Christmas is much more than a banal reminder that if Jesus had not been born he could not have died.

Christmas is much more than a birthday party for Jesus. It’s not even his birthday, since we have no idea when that was! Christmas is a feast that beholds the incredible miracle of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are a divine trilogy, if you will, of events of salvation significance. To leave the incarnation off the salvation menu is to abandon the great miracle of God crossing over.

I believe the incarnation is what is most distinctive and unique about Christianity. Other religions believe in one true God, in sin and grace, in prayer and holy writings, in the redeeming quality of suffering, and in loving God and neighbor. But no other historic world religion believes that God became human. In fact, this is the key offense other religions have against it.

Jesus was not just a teacher or prophet. In him we behold God’s glory. God crossed over to us because we can’t on our own cross the bridge to God. No amount of effort or religiosity or right living or correct doctrine can save us. So God came. What a strange way to save the world.

The incarnation is so integral to our faith because this miracle is the nest in which Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are born. And it has a huge impact on Christian spirituality.

Christ is still alive and present, a truth that is confirmed by the victory of Easter. His presence is in the world and the Church is his body. He is the living Word. It’s the reason the virgin birth is so important in the scripture’s narrative.

It’s the reason that in the wisdom of the ancients, folk winter festival traditions were adopted to serve the greater mystery. If you ever get frustrated by the secular and cultural aspects of Christmas or bend to the temptation of believing we are in some sort of culture war, remember that this festival adopting secular enhancements was a choice made long ago. It’s a reminder that the sacred and secular are not entirely opposite.

Just as the divine became human, the human can still point to the divine. This is incarnational spirituality.

I’ve always believed Christianity is something you follow, not swallow. To follow God’s lead, a key feature of our faith is to develop new eyes with which to see God in our midst.

I know Christmas is hard for some, especially for those who are grieving. There can be tears during this season.

Yet in our sorrow, may we know Christ is present. This is because God is, as Carlo Carretto famously said, “a God who comes.”

C.S. Lewis is well known for being a skeptic who, after years of intellectual struggle, converted wholeheartedly to Christianity. He noted many times that what really sold him on Christian faith was the incarnation. He wrote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken to use as weapons.”

This year, take some time to come home to the miracle of the incarnation. It’s time to stop using religion to support our pre-set opinions and prejudices. Let the incarnation wash over you.

Let Christmas be a holiday for you in the true sense of the word, because a holiday is a “holy day.” Take some time to pause, to reflect, and to be silent ... not just because you need to collapse every once in a while because of all the shopping and parties. Do it because you are intentionally building the beholding of a mystery into the midst.

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 at

Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Steve’s Sayings”

I’ve been reading the memoirs of a contemporary politician, as I have in times past when books have been published. I find them inspiring in a strange sort of way. Whether or not agree with all of their ideas, they are leaders. I look for what it is they hold onto that makes them tick, those deeply held beliefs that drive them to serve against all odds.

This time around, it has spurred me to think of my own core values. What are the primary things I believe? In addition to gospel essentials, of course, what are the things I will always go to bat for, that I will pursue no matter what?

Once, at a going away party hosted by the church I had been serving, they recalled the things they had heard me say. Much of this was for the sake of humor, of course, like the time I had said in staff meeting, “we don’t want people in wheelchairs tripping over wires.“

Reading the memoir got me to thinking what I’d like to be remembered for. What are the essentials that I live for? The stakes I have in the ground? The points of no departure, no matter how much pressure I feel?

So I have come up with a few. Some are phrases I picked up from friends, some I’ve lived with for years, and some are fresh expressions. I confess that these are somewhat random. Some are theological, some are inspirational, and others are leadership principles. That’s just the way they came to me.

1. Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is more people who are fully alive. (from Howard Thurman)
2. I am not what I do, nor what I have, nor what other people think of me. I am a beloved child of God. (from Henri Nouwen)
3. God is love. This is not just sentimentality. This means if it is not loving, it is not of God. Period.
4. If you are looking for the perfect church, you won’t find one. If by chance you do, don’t join it. You’ll mess it up.
5. Self-giving love is the most powerful force in the universe. Really.
6. Jesus boiled it down to love of God and neighbor. Everything else is secondary.
7. Christianity is not about being right. It’s about being in relationship.
8. Religion can get really out of whack when it gets confused with politics.
9. It’s better not to wrestle alligators. They know how to fight in the swamp. If there is a way to drain the swamp, do that. Otherwise stay out, because if you get pulled in, you’ll lose. (from a friend Don Neal)
10. If you have integrity, that’s all that matters. If you don’t have integrity, that’s all that matters.(from a friend Lem Carter)
11. The Church is not perfect. But it’s the gift God gave us. That makes it my hope for the world. (from my friend Stewart Jackson)
12. The true measure of Christianity is faithfulness, not success. The reason we get this mixed up is institutional anxiety about loss. When the church focuses on success, it has sold itself out to culture.
13. There is no right or wrong worship style. Jesus’s only requirements were that it be done in spirit and truth. That means it must be led with a sense of God’s presence and a willingness to take a theological plunge.
14. Christian life is about rhythm that forms you over time. This is not a quest for the fantastic.
15. I am not responsible for everything. That’s God‘s job.
16. The Church is the body of Christ. It’s a mystery. There’s a reason the gospel uses metaphorical language for it.
17. You cannot grasp God and you can not master the Bible. Let God grab your attention, and let the scripture master you.
18. God is profound mystery. Certainty is a myth. Listen for the still, small voice.
19. Christianity is about being continually restored into the image of Christ. Your decision to follow is important, but grace didn’t start there and doesn’t quit after that.
20. Christ must not be reduced to being “my personal savior.” He calls me to live the values of the kingdom of God. If I do that, somebody is not going to like it.
21. Christianity is not about being a fan, it’s about being a follower. We don’t need pep rallies, we need authentic and heart-felt yearning.
22. There is a reason the first name for Christianity was The Way. It is a path, a journey. You never get “there.”
23. There is great diversity within Christianity about political issues. God made the diversity beautiful. It’s us who make it ugly.
24. There is evil in the world, and Christians should call it out. But be prepared to pay a price.
25. I can’t control other people‘s actions. If I live the love God has placed in my heart, that is all I can do.
26. The miracle of Easter is the miracle of worship. Jesus shows up.
27. Worship is not an event. It is a life.
28. If we don’t get things perfectly right, God is not mad.
29. Praise is not something you do. It is something you join.
30. Even with the immense responsibilities of being savior of the world, Jesus took time for himself. Do I think I have more important things to do than Jesus?
31. I don’t talk about people. I talk to them. Otherwise, how can I expect people to do the same with me?
32. Forgiveness is the most essential practice in church. That’s because the Church is a big rehearsal for life in heaven, where we will let it all go.
33. My life is about practicing the presence of God. It’s called practice, because I’m still trying to get it right.
34. There is no replacement for gentleness and kindness. They are sweet but they are also not optional.
35. Nothing good comes after the phrase “I’m just being honest.” Speaking truth in love is absolutely necessary.
36. Fundamentalism and prosperity are the two uniquely American derivatives of real Christianity.
37. You can’t draw from an empty well. I must take time to nourish my own spirituality.
38. Living your baptism is living the deepest truth of who you are as God’s beloved.
39. All are welcome at the table because it’s a table of grace.
40. I have high expectations of what it means to be in Christian community. That comes with a price. Sometimes people will let me down.
41. The way of the cross is the best way to respond to conflict. It’s not fight or flight, it’s a third way, the Christ way. It’s not winning. But it’s also not losing, because if we are faithful to the gospel, that’s all that matters.
42. Love hurts, especially when someone betrays your trust. But the only love other people can have for you is imperfect love. We get our unconditional love from God.
43. The Bible is the unfolding revelation of God’s love. Don’t read it “flat.” The best way to interpret it is through the lens of Christ, who is himself the Word of God.
44. The only true leadership is servant leadership. Teamwork was the way of Jesus, and it’s the only way to change the world. I am not a Lone Ranger.
45. God is not finished with us yet. We are always being formed and shaped.

I’m sure I could come up with more. If my ministry is being a tabernacle (a place of God’s dwelling on this temporary journey we call life), these are the stakes I shove in the ground. They are the values I carry from place to place, as I set up a tent and invite others to experience God with me while I’m here on earth.

What would yours be?

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

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.


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