Saturday, January 7, 2017

Paws for the Holidays

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, January 4, 2016.

Every year, it seems something unusual makes my Christmas holidays delightful. It serves to remind me that blessings always come, if we just pay attention.

One year, when my daughter was a little girl, it was decorating her dollhouse with the same paint and carpet from our newly remodeled home. Another year, it was musing over the mice scurrying in our basement.

Still another year, it was having an exchange student from Germany in our home. After taking her to our Christmas reunion where we told the family holiday stories of me and my three brothers, she said, "I just have one question. How did your mother survive?"

Last year, it was the John the Baptist Christmas ornaments that appeared on my tree from generous parishioners, after I mentioned in a sermon that nobody makes John the Baptist Christmas ornaments. I think they enjoyed proving me wrong.

Who'd have thought that this year it would be having a puppy home for the holidays?

Let me introduce you to Jameson. He is the cutest and best behaved puppy on the entire planet, of course. He is a small terrier mix that belongs to my daughter, who is in nursing school in Birmingham.

My wife and I got to keep him for the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas while his "Mommy" had exams. It was pure joy (most of the time). He loves to play ball and chase bones, and he has the cutest little growl when he plays tug of war. He always comes back immediately when we let him out in the yard to do his business for a few minutes and then call him ... unless he gets distracted by something of a canine or feline variety.

Jameson is less than a year old, so the first time I took him on a leash to Arab City Park during the holidays, he had never seen Christmas lights. He wasn't so sure about the tunnel of light between the park and the historical village, especially with little girls running through it. But we went so many times, he overcame his anxiety.

He can sit, lay down, hop up on his hind legs, and (thanks to his holiday stay with us) shake hands. He is learning to roll over. When his roaming snout draws him toward a plate of holiday food, the words "leave it" keep him from eating it. Boy, he's smart.

He learned a less conventional trick during the holidays on his own. When I am laying on the couch reading or playing on my phone, sometimes it suddenly gets quiet. Too quiet. Then I feel his doggie breath.

He has sneaked up behind me and careful placed his tennis bone (yes, that's a "thing") just above my shoulder. He's just daring me to notice, grab the bone, and throw it again. I'd like to say we trained him on this one, but now that I think about it, I think he trained me.

We created a most unusual game with Jameson. We were sitting around in the living room drinking hot apple cider and I theorized that he always jumps in the lap of whoever moved last. So we started taking turns wailing and wiggling our arms in the air. This was of course a thoroughly scientific method and provided evidence that my theory was correct.

As a man of faith, I know what Christmas means. It is much more than a glib acknowledgement that it's Jesus's birthday (news flash ... nobody knows what day he was born). The reason it's a such a great feast is because it's about the miracle of the incarnation.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. It was the kind of glory that chose to come through enfleshed humility, a love that only begins to unfold from a wrapped up baby in a barn. It is a love born to an unwed mother everybody must have been gossiping about, but that shepherds heard the truth about from a more reliable source.

And there were animals conspicuously hanging around in every aspect of the nativity.

Somehow, in his own simple way, Jameson enfleshes the love of his creator, too. Just as the "grand miracle" of Christmas (thank you, C.S. Lewis for that phrase) is this divine-become-human strange way of saving the world, my "grandpuppy" reminds me of the lesser miracles of life and love, of joy and playfulness, that are wrapped up in the greater miracle of the incarnation.

Jameson reveals to me the reasons why even the animal kingdom expresses the hope of the Messiah. So much of the prophesy of the coming of Christ is a picture of the "peaceable kingdom" where lion and lamb lie together.

As I am writing this, here he is, laying his head on my stomach. His eyes are finally getting droopy and he is falling asleep. I thought he'd never want to quit playing fetch. We are laying in the couch by the fire, and it's 10:37 pm.

If Jameson is my grandpuppy, I guess that makes me a "grandpappy". And it's no coincidence that grandpappy rhymes with "happy."

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Gets Fired Up Might Just Fizzle Out

This is my column which appeared in the Dec. 14, 2016 issue of The Arab Tribune.

I was astounded by the bright, swirling bits of fire expanding in a quiet, seemingly random pattern. My mind desperately rushed to focus on them before they were gone. But there were too many to focus on.

Light was blazing and quickly falling. I wondered how something so random could descend with such grace, tracing patterns of light in the darkness. I had never seen such dangerous energy, such striking beauty, in the night sky.

It made an imprint on my mind and drew my imagination toward bigger things. The universe is indeed a majestic place.

No, I'm not describing the fireworks I saw on the 4th of July. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be gazing into the night sky when I saw a full meteor shower. I can count on two fingers the number of times I've send a "shooting star", but this was different.

I know a little of the science of it. Every year in November, the earth passes though debris from a comet. Pieces of that comet, which can be as small as a pea, hit the atmosphere and fall toward the surface. The air resistance causes the crumbs to ignite into burning balls of fire.

But this is the first time I had my head up and saw the show. If I hadn't been looking, I wouldn't have seen it. It was intense, but it was short and sweet. To my eyes, it appeared as if one larger meteor entered the atmosphere and promptly broke up into numerous pieces. The pieces just whirled in the air.

I have heard of these meteor showers. But I had no idea that seeing one would take my breath away. It happened fast, and it sure looked furious. And then, in a few moments, it was gone.

Most people in the world didn't see it. But they could have if they had been focused on the sky at just the right moment. I wonder how many times in my life things that have seemed big and powerful at the time have fizzled away after their momentary madness. And the rest of the world scarcely noticed.

Some of the things that bother me just blaze and burn in this expanse we call "now," but they grow cold and dark given a little time. Someone spreads a false rumor and it stings. Or I respond as gracefully as I can to a disgruntled parishioner. Or I fail to achieve a goal that I had my heart set on. I get caught up in a misunderstanding. Or I feel blue about something I see on the news. Or I make it through a most troublesome and divisive election season (sound familiar?).

Whatever it is usually seems pretty huge. The strange thing about a meteor shower is that since we have a look from a distant enough perspective, there is a quiet beauty in the burning. And yet no matter how bright it is, soon it will be gone.

Most everything that bothers me is temporary. It is the things of virtue that are lasting, and there is a strange power in the fizzling away of the fleeting.

I often say that if I have my integrity, nothing else matters. I have had lots of challenges, but in regards to my faith, the only thing that ultimately matters is love. So I try my best to live a life that lends itself to passion for my God and my neighbor.

I admit that sometimes I keep replaying difficult experiences in my mind. I've heard it said that you can't move on to the next chapter in life if you keep re-reading the last one.

But my faith tells me that in Christ, I am a new creation. I don't think Paul is saying that just happens once. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul adds that "inwardly we are renewed every day." He says this "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal."

Perhaps something about that meteor shower changed me. Next time I gaze at the stars, admiring the expanse of the universe, I will try to take notice of the eternal things, the beautiful things, the unseen things. Not just the dazzling lights that I might chance to see. They catch my eye and monopolize my attention. But they, too, shall pass.

If it's true in the night sky, it's true in life as well.

There is a greater majesty lying deeply behind the flashes of light. So I will try not to get so caught up in what I can't really control. I will give myself to love, and love will see me through.

After all, love is the transcending mystery that binds the universe together and brings patterns of grace to all that burns.

I am tired of living for the blaze of glory. I suppose I am beginning to long for the greater perspective. How about you?

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Don't Let Your Spirit Be "Politically" Sharpened

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, October 26, 2016.

Have you noticed there's an election coming up?

That's a silly question. Of course you have. It's just a couple of weeks from the national elections, and I'm getting really tired of watching the news. It's starting to all sound the same.

There are, of course, important issues at stake. There always are. Voting is both an honorable duty and a wonderful privilege. I'm so thankful I have a voice in our national life.

But I never tell my congregation who I think people should vote for, nor do I ever hash out partisan issues in the pulpit. Instead I encourage my congregants to be good citizens, to stay informed, and to vote according to their best ability.

The gift the Church has to offer is the gift of the Word, which reveals both the mercy of Christ and the mystery of God. It's more about plunging into the depths of abundant life and less about easy or obvious answers.

So I try to help people interpret the Word through our wealth of tradition, healthy reasoning, and awareness of human experience. And to vote as you feel led to vote as a result.

The founder of my particular brand of Christianity, John Wesley, remarked on elections in England, just before the American Revolution began. In his journal on October 6, 1774, he said:

"I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side."

No party or candidate has a monopoly on being right. It's not a perfect system, and there are imperfect solutions to complex problems.

Perhaps more than usual, I'm aware that there are only imperfect people running for office. But I will speak no evil against the winner. I will not let my spirit be sharpened.

No matter who is elected president, it's really going to be okay. We have a system of checks and balances to keep things from getting too badly off track, and it is a self-correcting system.

I'm not dismissing the importance of voting based on the issues that are important to you. I'm just saying it's not the end of the world if your favorite candidate doesn't win (or, in this case, perhaps I should say the one you dislike the least).

Over the years, sometimes my "fave" has made it to the top, and other times he has not. We have a democratic process and that's the way it goes. It's not perfect, but it's better than having a king or a dictator ... or a one party system for that matter.

In short, no president or party can save us. Only Jesus saves.

The rest is trying our best to make it work, and there are multiple issues to consider. You won't agree with every aspect of any candidate or party. At least I hope you don't, otherwise I wonder if you are thinking for yourself.

I just hope I never speak evil, and I hope my spirit never gets sharpened. If I do, I am the one that loses.

Here's an idea. Focus on Jesus on the day of elections.

As for me, I will be opening our church doors for "come and go" communion on the morning of November 8. Anyone in the community may drop by our sanctuary, anytime between 7:30 and 9:00 am. There will be quiet music playing. People can come, sit, and pray as long as they like, then when they are ready, come forward to receive the gift of bread and cup.

Why? To focus on Christ and receive his grace. There is no agenda, there will be no materials, and there will be no leaflets. Just Jesus. Because he is the one who can save us.

Then as you go about your day, go and vote according to your conscience. Then let's all accept the outcome.

After the election, whoever becomes our president is OUR president, so take the high road no matter what. Support and pray for that person and work with him or her.

That's the way it should be. That's the way it has to be!

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Three Ways to Pray Scripture

This is the handout I prepared for the "Intro to Spiritual Formation" workshop at Camp Lee on September 29, 2016 sponsored by the Spiritual Formation Team of the North Alabama Conference. I compiled material from a variety of sources.

In addition to praying and singing psalms and canticles as a way of joining in the ongoing praise of the saints, I suggest that there are three classic and deeply spiritual ways to pray scripture:

1) Entering the Narrative Imaginatively

Ignatius of Loyala (b. 1491) is credited with this method. He discovered how useful the imagination could be in fostering a deeper relationship with God, and imaginative prayer is one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality. He integrated imaginative prayer into the approach to the spiritual life outlined in his work the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius presents two ways of imagining. The first is demonstrated in a meditation on the Incarnation. He asks us to “enter into the vision of God.” We imagine God looking down in love on our turbulent world. We see God intervening by sending Jesus. This imagining helps us see things from God’s perspective and take on God’s qualities of compassion and understanding.

The second method is to place ourselves within a story from the Gospels. We become onlookers or participants and give full rein to our imagination. We feel the hot sun, the itchy clothes, or our stomachs rumbling. We notice the faces. Above all, we watch Jesus in the story, seeing gestures and the look in his eyes. We hear him speak, and we imagine other words he might have spoken.

The best-known example of this is contemplation on Jesus’ birth. Imagine the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, and the smell of animals. You find yourself holding the holy child and gazing into his eyes. What feelings fill your heart? Through the narrative, you have entered the prayer space of adoration. Many scenes from the Gospels are ripe for imaginative contemplation. This way of prayer helps us experience Jesus filling our senses, rather than simply thinking about Jesus.

Try it … 

• Choose a scene from the Gospels that captures your attention before you begin.
• Find a quiet place, breathe, and rest in God. Read the story.
• Set your Bible aside. Relax. Let your imagination take you deeply into the scene. What are the sights? Sounds? Smells? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. What does he do? What does he say to others? What does he say to you? How do you respond?
• After a long period of imaginative prayer, record your reflections in your journal.

2) Chewing on the Text 

Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word to be feasted on.

Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps:
    1) Lectio - reading
    2) Meditatio – meditating
    3) Oratio – praying
    4) Contemplatio – contemplation

The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, we feast on the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" the text.

The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict.

Try it … 

• First a passage of Scripture is read, slowly as if savoring a meal rather than quickly eating fast food. The plain meaning of the text is comprehended. A shorter passage is better for praying the scripture than reading large passages for study.
• Second, after a while the passage is read again. This time, notice a word or phrases that the Spirit brings forth to capture your attention. You don’t need to know why. Just let it emerge, like nuggets that appear on the surface when panning for gold. Then spend time chewing on it. Why is this speaking to you? What is the Spirit saying to you? Let it touch a deep place in you.
• Third, read the passage again and this time, respond to God in prayer. It may be helpful to journal your prayers and thoughts.
• Fourth, read the passage again and rest with it. Simply contemplate the majesty and mystery of God. Feel God’s presence as you have communed with him through scripture.

3) Gazing on the Symbol 

Symbol is, in its essence, the way we know what we cannot see. The origin of the word symbalon, means to throw. Indeed, symbols “throw” meaning into life. We use them in the way we talk, think, and process information.

There is a vast treasury of symbol and metaphor in scripture. Like narratives and parables, they are God’s unique ways of conveying truth in the Bible. To “gaze” with the heart on a scriptural symbol takes prayer to a place beyond words and concepts.

Symbol grows more meaningful as Christianity matures. It is interesting that when Paul talks about maturing in Christ, he uses metaphor of “milk” and “solid food.” As the journey progresses, truth is unveiled layer by layer, until the day when “with unveiled faces” we experience the glory of the Lord.

Try it … 

• Light a candle to focus, as this is one of the profound symbols of Christ’s presence.
• Choose a scripture that contains symbol, like an elemental symbol such as rock, fire, or water (Moses striking the rock, the day of Pentecost, the woman at the well, etc). Or choose metaphors of Jesus like light and salt. Or choose an “I am statement” Jesus makes in the book of John. Or choose a passage with the metaphor of the tree, the door, the gate, or a scriptural symbol that might be most meaningful to you. It might well be a favorite contained in a piece of art, church paraments, or stained glass you are familiar with.
• Draw, paint, view a natural version of, or gaze upon a piece of art containing this symbol. Or imagine it in your mind’s eye. Or let your body take its shape.
• Spend time with it. Experience it. What truth does God speak to you through it? What draws your attention to it? What healing does it bring? How does it shift your perspective? What prayer does it well up in you?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where's the Fire?

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, August 31, 2016.

My mother was a really organized person. She orchestrated our family reunions, she kept a list of who was getting what from whom for Christmas, and she added a little order to my life when I needed her to. Yes, I was a teenager once.

After she and Dad retired, they enjoyed several years of traveling. It seems like they went everywhere. They scoured the United States. They coordinated overseas trips and cruises.

But my mom had a funny little habit. She was so organized that whenever they arrived at a hotel, the first thing she did was go through her mental checklist. On that list was finding the fire escape. She had to know, just in case.

One time when they were on a trip, in her usual fashion she went on her quest to find it. A small door on the end of the hall looked like it might be the right one. She opened it to take a look.

There, inside the door, was a man in the bathroom. "Oh, my goodness, I'm sorry," she said. "I was just trying to find the fire escape."

She quickly closed the door. Red as a beet, she headed down the hall toward her room.

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so surprised that a few minutes later, down the hall came that man with a very fast pace, frantically pulling up his pants. "Where's the fire? Where's the FIRE?"

It's the question we still ask. Where's the fire, when we feel like our flame just fizzled out? When we are tired or a little bit depressed? When the things we once believed in so passionately don't seem to work for us anymore?

Where's the fire?

One of the simplest pleasures I have always loved is a campfire. I love to build it, I love the careful tinkering of getting it started, and I love hoping it "takes". I love the thrill of watching it finally burst into flames.

I love to feed the fire, to be warmed by the fire, to roast marshmallows on the fire, and to smell the hot dogs sizzling in the fire. I love the taste of the charred, gooey white sugar and the crunch of the toasted bun around that meaty frank.

Sometimes I go camping without one, and it's just not the same. I lay awake in the cold night air, thinking "why didn't I just go ahead and build a fire?"

That's because there is something about fire that gets you in touch with what it means to be deeply human. After all, the campfire is where social life began. It's where song, story, dance, and ritual got its beginnings.

Thousands of years later, we still gather around the fire and we call that "worship." Yes, maybe a good old fashioned campfire rages more than a candle gently placed on the altar, but either way it warms the heart.

We still gather around the fire to sing the song, to tell the story, and to join the dance of the soul. It's ritual behavior at its best. And we don't do ritual just because we are Christian, or even because we are religious.

We do it because that's what it means to be human. And that fire is the fire of the Spirit.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016


This is my devotional, shared at the North Alabama Conference Board of Ordained Ministry Meeting on August 11, 2016.

"Do this in remembrance of me."

I have no idea how many times I have uttered these words.

Anamnesis, the New Testament Greek word translated "remembrance", is one of most important words pastors say, recalling the words of Jesus according to 1 Corinthians and Luke.

Long before the New Testament was written, it was a common word in Platonic philosophy. Socrates (Plato's teacher) believed we are reincarnated souls who carry memories across generations, though the trauma of birth makes you forget. So learning, for Plato, is remembering what you already have inside you. Asking questions accesses that inner knowledge. That's Plato's doctrine of anamnesis.

I like the translation "recollection" better than "remembrance", for we are not so tempted to reduce it to cerebral exercise of recalling facts. Communion is not a memorial, nor is it a funeral for Jesus. It is not an object lesson or a teaching tool to convey a principal about sin and forgiveness.

We "re-collect." We recollect our deep memory of the table at which Jesus transformed living memory itself, reshaping the story of deliverance of Israel into one of drawing the world to his own heart. The Great Thanksgiving is a great recollection.

Anamnesis is our hope, because that's how we recollect ourselves, too. We collect ourselves from all corners of the earth, in all our brokenness, to this one place, which is timeless truth fused into one moment in which we can "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord.

Why is it important? We need anamnesis because we get amnesia.

I am a fan of Richard Rohr, because he speaks an uncomfortable truth. We are consumed by the myth of the "us and them" and are so very prone to dualistic thinking. We live in a world of divisive politics, a new level of schism in the Church, and competing phrases such as "black lives matter, all lives matter," and "blue lives matter," as if theses are somehow mutually exclusive.

Anamnesis, or holy recollection, is not just about reclaiming the past. It means that in times of forgetting who we are, unity comes from above not from below.

We will never be able to create unity amongst ourselves. It is a gift given.

Recently, you may know that I had an article published in the United Methodist Reporter. It was a story I told a couple of years ago at the Gathering of the Orders. This was my story of standing in front of my ancestor's grave, and the Spirit speaking to me, as if to say, "Steve, you were ordained in the United Methodist  Church. Your dad was ordained in the Methodist Church, a difference denomination. His father was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. This ancestor was ordained in yet a fourth denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

"Steve, I don't care what you call it. This is my church."

It gave me hope to share Christ freely, no matter what.

We live in times of great uncertainty in our denomination. Yet we are servants swimming in the greater movements of history we can't control.

So swim, and swim with joy. Let's recollect ourselves around what means to be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Going Back to the Graveside

This is my article that appeared in The United Methodist Reporter on July 25, 2016 and in The Arab Tribune on July 27, 2016.

The United Methodist Church I love so dearly is navigating rough waters. Recently, our Western Jurisdiction (comprising the churches of 12 western states) stepped out in nonconformity against denominational rules on ordination, marriage, and sexuality. Naturally, some consider this a courageous act of progress, while others consider it a major violation of covenant.

When changing tides shift the sands, I gently come back to a vivid memory that never fails to refresh my perspective. Almost 20 years ago, I visited the grave of my third great grandfather, Isaac Taylor. The moments I spent there became etched in my soul in a way that shaped my entire life and ministry.

He is buried at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church near Trussville, Alabama. He was a Methodist circuit rider in the early 1800's, one of a trio of brothers who were traveling preachers in early Alabama history. Grandpa Taylor is buried next to his brother, who started the church, preaching at a nearby water hole.

When I get a little hard on myself, I remember that he wasn't the most perfect of ministers either. Historical records (written by my wife's ancestor, ironically) show that he barely passed his ordination exams, he was so uneducated and uncouth.

Later in life, he had to step out of ministry for a while because of a scandal. His wife disappeared, and critics of the Church accused him of killing her. Only later was his name cleared by someone who saw her in Texas with another man.

Anyway, I hadn't been ordained pastor very long when I was asked to preach for the homecoming at Taylor Memorial. In between services, I headed out to his grave.

This was just after a church protest had taken place out west, an incident that made me ponder whether the Church would divide during my lifetime. I wondered, as a relatively young United Methodist pastor, what in the world I had signed up for. It was downright depressing.

Yet there I stood at his grave. I stood there, weeping as a wave of peace came over me. The Spirit spoke to me, as if to say "Steve, you were ordained in the United Methodist Church. Your father was ordained in a different denomination, for it was called the Methodist Church.

"Your grandfathers were ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, yet another denomination. This ancestor, whose grave you stand in front of, was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, still another denomination, distinct from the rest.

"Steve, I don't care what you call it. It doesn't matter how you organize it, because this is my Church. The fire of faith will keep burning."

It struck me, as I stood there praying and looking at the years etched in the stone, that during Grandpa Taylor's life and ministry, the church divided over issues of slavery. Yet the Spirit kept moving. In fact, it was a season when the Church in America was growing like wildfire.

And so I began the long process of letting go and trusting God for the future.

My ministry has been a journey of realizing that I have stepped into a larger picture of the movement of the Holy Spirit across many generations, with all its struggles as well as its joys. My life is lived in context.

I can't fix the big issues. I am called to serve the gospel faithfully and trust my God for the rest. The future belongs to God.

His grave stone reads:

In memory of
was born January 27th, 1802
died May 5th, 1871
He was a minister of the gospel 50 years and died in the hope & Consolation of the same. --- "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."

My denomination is having some rough times. As the most evenly spread denomination in the United States, naturally there is different consciousness in different parts of the country.

But I have no fear. God is with 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