Saturday, July 2, 2016

"What about Sandstone?"



This is a five-minute homily I prepared on Matthew 7:21-29 (the wise person who built his house upon a rock and the foolish one who built on sand). I prepared this complete text for chapel at Sewanee last week, and preached an extended version of it the following Sunday.

"May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our ROCK and our redeemer."

As a member of the "M&M&M" (that's the "Magnificent Methodist Minority"), I want you to know that today is the first time I have worn a clerical collar under my robe. Some say "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" but I say to you "when in Canterbury, follow suit"!

This "Methodist among us" tells you all that to begin with the words of Charles Wesley, who was never ordained an elder in the Methodist Church, he was one of YOUR most famous priests:

"See the Gospel Church secure,
And founded on a Rock!
All her promises are sure;
her bulwarks who can shock!
Count her every precious shrine:
Tell, to after-ages tell.
Fortified by power divine,
The church can never fail."

There are a number of vibrant metaphors for the church in scripture: the FAMILY we are adopted into, the BRIDE Christ is married to, the TREE we are grafted onto, the BODY we are members of, but today we might notice that Paul's CONSTRUCTION imagery for the church ... living stones in a spiritual house, with Christ as the cornerstone ... has a friend in Jesus' own words:

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the wise man who built his house on rock."

Honestly, I have not usually been captivated by these construction images. They don't FEEL very fluid. It might be because I am developing a suspicious aversion to institutional thinking in the "second half of life". Or maybe it's because the only kind of construction I'm actually good at is demolition (hand me a sledgehammer!). Or just ask me to construct an argument ... my wife says I'm really good at that.

Rather than being repelled, I have had this voice ringing in my ears every morning for weeks now saying, "let the symbols of scripture resonate within you". So I began to play with this image in ways I never learned in Sunday School.

What if sometimes, my house is built on rock and sometimes, it's built on sand? Or one half is here and the other half there? Or what if it's built on SANDSTONE?

It's so easy in a culture intoxicated with "us and them" mentality to hear Jesus' words as "us and them" words: you know, some people started out right, and others started out wrong, those are the "SAND people! Woe be unto them!" (Mimicked the sound of a house falling)

Maybe, when Jesus is talking about someone who hears the word and does it, he's talking about ME. And when he speaks of someone who hears the word and does NOT do it, he's STILL talking about me.

Are there places soft and hard, sand and rock, concrete and peat moss sharing space underneath us? Could it be that standing firm in Christ feels like being the Tower of Pisa? It leans south some centuries and north during others, never moving more than a half inch a year but somehow it still stands?

Or do we wonder why our foundations sometimes crumble no matter how well built we think we are?

I have been to the 9/11 memorial in New York. I have seen the massive waterfalls carved from the footprints of arguably the greatest foundations history ever built ... a beautifully stark reminder that in today's world, even a solid foundation is not enough to keep a building up.

So Jesus, what happens if life is just not as simple as either rock or sand?

You may have heard of the Winchester Cathedral. When huge cracks started to appear in the massive walls and arched ceilings in the early 1900's, it appeared complete collapse was immanent. The cathedral was built on peaty soil in a river valley. Efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations kept failing, for every time they dug a trench to fill with concrete, water just filled the hole. And they were going to have to fill it to 13 feet below the water table. How?

That's when William Walker appeared. He was a deep-sea diver. He plunged under water every day for 6 years placing bags of concrete. Diligently, relentlessly he dove almost every day for 6 years. To this day, you will find a small statue of him at the far end of the Winchester cathedral.

And I wonder today if Christ will show up, with goggles on his face and a snorkel in hand, at the foot of your wall, gently asking your permission to do his work.

Would you give him your consent? Would you to let him dive in, and dive in deep?

"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Carrying With

This column was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, June 29.

I was familiar with the African tradition of carrying water on the head but had never seen it in person before. She carried it with such poise and grace.

On a mission in Ghana, our team came to a riverbed across the road from the orphanage. There were children squealing with delight in the flowing water, while others sat downstream washing clothes. My gaze rested on one young woman that stood with her feet planted in the stream and a large basin balanced above. Another used a bucket to help her fill it to the brim of capacity.

Soon she toted the vessel with a smooth steadiness, and they walked together with laughter and joy. I wondered if the glow on their faces was from serving their community or the companionship of a friend. Perhaps it was both.

My thoughts wandered to Paul's encouragement that we "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." It strikes me as odd that a few verses later, Paul uses the same Greek verb to say "for all must carry their own loads."

There are some things we bear the heaviness of, and no one can carry it for us. The good news is others can carry it with us. Sharing the path lightens the load, even if one of us is shouldering most of the weight.

The Latin root of the word “suffer” means to “carry from below.” So quite literally, suffering is something we must undergo. It is part of the beautiful yet complex nature of the journey. Yet Christian community happens when we hoist our loads together.

There is a Pentecost icon in a seminary chapel I love to worship in. A number of disciples are gathered together in the house where they are sitting, and tongues of fire rest above each head.

Reading the icon one day, I traced the flames above each figure. The colors and patterns gave me the sense that they were "all together in this." My imagination wandered from the fire above their heads to the burdens they must carry below. Granted, you can't actually see weights dangling from their necks or drooping from their belts, but I imagined they were under their robes just the same, hidden from view as suffering often is.

Even those energized by love have places of heaviness underneath the surface. But we dare to carry our burdens together. It is part of the holy fire of what it means to be in community.

A profound image of this is the story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof by his friends, coming before Jesus for healing. After Christ touched him with forgiveness, he said “stand up, take your mat and walk.” Healing happened when he could carry the pallet himself. How interesting.

There is a reason we say, when praying for someone, we are "lifting" them up. We lift them, not the load they bear. That’s when community brings soothing to the suffering soul.

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, June 1, 2016

The Lydia Among Us

I am blessed to have some strong women in my life.

It started with my mom, who was an amazing witness to her Christian walk. She was a faithful Sunday School teacher for 50 years and a popular speaker at retreats on the spiritual life.

But what I remember most vividly is the way every morning, Mom spent 45 minutes in “quiet time.” There was a certain creaky rocking chair in the kitchen she spent that time in, and her four boys knew that this was NOT the time to bother her.

I have memories of being the kid in the other room, listening to the gentle rocking of the chair and the clicks of her coffee cup on the saucer, anxious to interact with her when she was done.

Only in adulthood did I realize this was her prayer time, which she was making a priority for her (and eventually for me).

My grandmother, too, was an amazing woman of faith. She was a painter and poet, so I suppose that’s where I got an artistic flair. Granny met my grandfather when he was a widower, preaching a revival at her church where his uncle was the pastor. By then, as the local school teacher and post mistress, she had been elected “most popular lady” in Bridgeport, Alabama in 1913, and that’s a fact.

Granny and Mom both make me think of Lydia. In the book of Acts, our history of the radical growth of the early Christian movement, Lydia was an outstanding businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloths. She was the foundational leader of the Macedonian church, the first European church Paul founded.

He discovered her in the place he chose to start his ministry north of Greece, a place of prayer outside the city gates where he supposed women would be gathered to pray on the Sabbath (they weren’t allowed in the synagogue, of course). Lydia was the spiritual leader of her household, who were all baptized because of her faith.

Exactly sixty years ago earlier this month, in May of 1956, the denomination I serve Christ in made a bold move. They decided at General Conference (by a slim margin, I might add) to grant full clergy rights to women. It was a controversial decision at the time, but was done with integrity and careful discernment of scripture though the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

The church I serve here in Arab, First United Methodist Church, holds a special part of that story dear in their hearts.

One of our active church members, Luke Pinegar, is the son of the first clergy woman ordained in the North Alabama Conference of the UMC. I want to take a moment to tell her story, since her family is such a part of the fabric of Arab.

Luke’s father was the pastor of Holly Pond Methodist Church, and tragically died while serving in that pulpit. Estelle, his wife and Luke’s mother, was appointed by their District Superintendent, Jack Chitwood, to serve out his term as pastor of the church. And the rest is history.

A few years later, in the early 1960’s, after pursuing all her educational and vocational requirements, Estelle Pinegar was ordained as the first clergywoman in North Alabama Methodism. And she served with her reputable, fiery personality all of her days. She served on my wife’s ordination committee, in fact.

Yes, I married a clergywoman. I met Sandy in seminary as the floodgates were opening for clergywomen in the late 80’s. It’s like my dad said years ago with a twinkle in his eye, when I asked what he thought about me marrying a female pastor, “if your going to marry a clergywoman, she might as well be a pretty one.”

I’m proud to say my partner in life is finishing her counseling degree and plans to serve as a pastoral counselor, specializing in working with families affected by chronic illness (something she has unique experience in). She begins her internship at The Vine Pastoral Counseling Center in Huntsville this June.

One of the children of Arab First UMC, Fred Webster, married a clergywoman, too. Dorothy Ann and Fred have been good friends and inspirations to me over the years. His father by the same name was in that famous circle at The L Rancho affectionately called "The Liar's Club," sitting at the table when the Poke Salat Festival was created.

I realize there are many faith traditions among us, and they have different practices on such matters. I totally respect that.

But my question for all of us is this. Who is the Lydia in your life? Who is the person who gave of herself, with her gifts of spirituality and hospitality (whatever those gifts may be), to make your faith what it is today?

Thank God for the Lydia among us.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First UMC. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jesus in a Coke Float

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, May 3, 2016. Similar columns also appeared in The Vestavia Voice on June 26, 2013 and in the "Faith & Values" Section of The Huntsville Times on May 9, 2008.

When I was a child, my father served as pastor of a church in Fayette, Alabama. The church was right next door to our home. On the opposite side of us lived a woman I knew only as “Mrs. Eileen”.

I don’t remember a lot about life in Fayette because we moved away when I was four. But I do remember a few images: the large steps in front of the church, the playground, the kitchen and den of our home, and of course Mrs. Eileen.

What I remember about her most is that she was always ready to invite me in for a Coke float. And I loved Coke floats.

I have always had a lingering image in my mind of her gracious hospitality, with glass and spoon in hand. She was the angel in our neighborhood who gave Coke floats to all the little children.

Years later, I had the opportunity to go back to Fayette to preach as a guest in that church. I was curious about Mrs. Eileen and asked one of the church leaders what had become of her. He said she was still alive and lived in the nursing home. “Would you like to go see her?” I was delighted.

I’ll never forget this visit. He brought me to her room and told her there was somebody that wanted to see her. Her eyes turned to me with anticipation.

I reached out my hand and said, “I’m sure you have no idea who I am, but my name is Stephen West.”

She immediately threw her head back and exclaimed, “OH! I remember you! I used to hear you all the time, standing out in the carport crying at the top of your lungs.” She mimicked the sound of my wailing. “One day I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so I opened up my fridge and asked myself, ‘what can I give that boy to keep him quiet?’ And all I could find was some ice cream and a bottle of Coke!”

Until that moment I had no idea why she had been such a person of warm hospitality. She had shown me Jesus in a Coke float.

There is something incarnational, something wonderfully mysterious about self-giving love in the name of Christ.

Most of us roam around in life, crying out in pain. The child in us is screaming, sometimes loudly, sometimes silently. We expect somebody to take the pain away but no person can, not really.

But what we can do for others is share the love of Christ, who is “made known to us in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35b). When we share the love of Jesus in a Coke float, a smile, or a gesture of care with somebody who is hurting, it makes all the difference.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Crossroads of Hope

This is my column that appeared in the Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The editor told me it made him cry. I'm honored (I think!).

There are times when I feel like I’m standing on the crossroads of history, and it always brings with it strangely mixed feelings.

As I see it, standing on crossroads is different than having memories of historical events. I can indeed remember when I was four years old, watching the first man walk on the moon. I was mesmerized on the den carpet.

I can remember being seven when my mother sat me down to watch the president resign and cry on TV. “This is important, you will thank me later” she said.

I remember being on the bus on our college choir tour watching the Space Shuttle explode on television, over and over and over.

I remember the high school classroom where I was hosting teacher appreciation day, sponsored by the church I was starting, on 9/11. Our hospitality room took on a quiet and heavy tone as teacher after teacher came in to watch the news.

All these are powerful memories of potent experiences. But the feeling of standing on the crossroads of history is more than that. It is being in a place where many roads intersect and many memories collide, where my personal recollections blend with corporate remembrances of previous struggles.

One of these crossroads was a result of my involvement with the Marshall County Leadership Challenge. Some 25 leaders from our great county have been on a journey together all year, and this month we went on a field trip to Montgomery to explore state government.

After a fascinating tour of the capitol building, which I had not seen since grade school, I walked out upon the front steps. For a moment, in the midst of a crowd, my emotions were whisked away and there was a strange feeling of silence.

As if suspended in time, I stood on the steps where Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, was inaugurated. From there, I looked out upon a street scene which was the focal point of the march from Selma in March of 1965, peacefully demonstrating for the right for African Americans to vote. From this vantage point, I could clearly see the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. had preached for several years prior to leading that march. To my right, I could admire the “moon tree,” a pine that had grown strong and proud from where it was planted, after Governor George Wallace had its seeds sent to the moon and back.

Our tour guide had already told us that his was the voice narrating the movie “Selma” and he had himself been in that march, having escaped injury on “Bloody Sunday” a few days beforehand. That was certainly impressive, but for me, this quiet space was more powerful than that.

Here in one place, experiencing a few moments to myself, I stood on the crossroads of several layers of bondage and brokenness, of heritage and hope, with stories of struggles stretching well over a hundred years long. Yet I could clearly see them from one standpoint. This is a crossroads indeed.

Since that moment on the Alabama courthouse steps, I have been thinking about my life. I am 50 years old, and a lot has happened in my one little life span. The march for black voting rights, which I experienced in my mind’s eye from the top of the steps, happened just six weeks before I was born. In subsequent weeks, before I saw my first daylight and breathed my first breath of fresh air, the first commercial communications satellite was launched.

Now we have had an African American president for eight years, and I can follow the news on election primaries on my phone which, by the way, holds more power in my pocket than the massive computer that put the man on the moon, an experience I had watched on a black and white TV.

I am an Alabama boy. I’ve never lived north of the Tennessee state line, and not one of my ancestors was a yankee. I am descended from fifteen Revolutionary War patriots and about half that many Confederate soldiers.

But I live in a new South, one that is even newer than the “New South.” It is where I love my heritage, and where I live my hope.

Perhaps my life, in itself, is a crossroads. I suppose that’s part of what makes it worth living. My character has not been forged by its struggles and successes in a vacuum. Our lives are lived in context. They take shape in the midst of the grand movements of history as well as the deeper and more subtle movements of grace.

These are difficult times. There is great hostility and violence, of divisiveness and hurt, in our world. But it’s not the first time, and it’s not the last.

There will always be brokenness, but there will always be healing. There will always be sin but, thank God, there will always be grace. There will always be hopelessness.

But there, on those steps, what overwhelmed me was hope.

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.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Easter Is Not "Over" Yet!


We have made some strange modern amendments to our most ancient Christians traditions.

It seems, for example, that Christmas is so heavily influenced by commercialism that it starts the day after Thanksgiving and ends on December 26. When we succumb to the frenzy, we miss out on the whole spirituality of Advent longing, and forget that Christmas is a twelve day season of feasting until January 6. We take down the tree and move on

Likewise, I wonder why we sometimes treat Lent as if it's a prolonged Easter season, and then go on to other things, as if it's all over, the day after Easter. Actually, like Advent, the tradition of Lent is a season of longing and anticipating, of expecting and journeying. And like Christmas, in our deepest tradition Easter is a season, not a day. It's Eastertide, the season after, which lasts for 50 days until Pentecost (which means, literally, "fifty").

That's why the birthday of the church moves around the calendar with Easter, and can be anywhere between early May and mid-June.

So here we are at the beginning of April, and I proclaim to you that Easter is not "over." There are so many powerful stories and images of new life we shouldn't be so quick to let go of them. It takes time to embrace the deep and multi-faceted power of the resurrection.

I invite those of you who might live in my neck of the woods to come to worship through April and May to explore with me through my sermon series, "We Will Rise." If you live out of town or already have a church home, you can also listen using our website or podcast.

In the series, we will savor the various resurrection appearances. We will use a text I wrote to go with one of my favorite new hymn tunes, YOU ARE MINE. We will add and explore one verse each week. The refrain after each verse is:

Easter is the morning of freedom,
Dayspring of new life in Christ.
Let all voices sing, let hallelujah's ring!
The day is coming, we will rise!

There are so many signs of new life right now, if we only have eyes to see! Let the scripture lead us to see with new eyes.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Adventures in Drawing Close


March is upon us, and we are drawing close to Holy Week. I pray and hope that your Lenten season has been meaningful and powerful.

I think of Lent as an adventure in drawing close. It's an adventure because it's rugged wilderness time for us, when our faith becomes so easily sterile and fragile. After all, Lent is not just about giving up chocolate or getting ready for Easter. It's a time that mirrors the time of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days. It's a time of getting away and out in God's great wilderness of nature, of facing the demons without and within, and allowing the Word of God well up inside of you to give you strength, perspective, and peace. When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he was passionate and ready for ministry. I pray we will be too.

We go through lots of wilderness times in life, it's part of our rhythm. It's a good thing we can't remember being born, because I imagine it's cold and bright and scary. We grow up and we go through the teenage years, which are tough times of emotional swings and trying our best to fit in and find our way. We pursue college and career, which can be very stressful and lacking in clarity and direction. We get married, and the early years of marriage are a wilderness of intrigue, full of difficulties as well as triumphs we were not expecting. We go through the wilderness of becoming parents, and every child is so different that each one would have to have their own instruction book, even if there were such a thing. We go through the wilderness of our 30's when we are trying so hard to build our lives, and through our 40's when we are having our mid-life crises because our lives are not working out quite like we'd hoped. I can't tell you much about the 50's and beyond (I'll let you know) but I know they will have their own unique wilderness experiences.

While some of the wilderness times are part of the rhythm and seasons of life, sometimes they are because of experiences that come our way. My family and I are, once again, going through the wilderness of grief over losing Sandy's dear mother. This is something we all must face, and yet in all the difficulties blessings abound and peace comes, even tears of joy and gratitude.

So Lent is not just an annual season of giving up something and reading scripture and devotionals. It's a liturgical rhythm that gives language and perspective to the wilderness times we all go through. There is something in the Lenten experience that gives life a sense of holiness, knowing that Jesus can be our model for what it means to go through wilderness and emerge stronger than you were before.