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 www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Anamnesis


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
Rev. ISAAC TAYLOR
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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

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.