Friday, February 3, 2017

The Broken Cedar Chest I'll Never Give Away

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.

I have a small, rectangular cedar chest that I keep in my study at the house. It holds essential things like my passport and social security card.

The funny thing is the lid is broken length-wise in two pieces and doesn't lay flat. That's precisely why I have kept it for the last 37 years.

Here's the story of this little broken box and why I will never, ever let it go. It reminds me of who I am and where I've come from.

When I was in eighth grade, I think there were times when I had no brain. One of those times I stole some money from the church.

My father was the pastor of the church we attended in a suburb of Birmingham. Once a month, I sang in the youth choir at the early service.

Since the rest of my family couldn't get going that early and attended the later service, on those Sundays my dad allowed me to hang around in his study after I'd put in my time. I would nap on his couch, fiddle at his desk, and walk down the hall to the Sunday School classes and explore.

I learned to drink coffee from the half-sugar concoctions I created when the classroom coffee pots had just been turned off. I practiced the art of cartooning, drawing my favorite figures on the chalkboards.

On one particular Sunday, I happened to check the door of the main office, and the office was unlocked. It never had been before. I just couldn't resist.

As I entered, there in the chair was a bank bag of money. It was offerings from the early service and from Sunday School classes. Wow.

I must pause and tell you that this was one of those moments when the testosterone in my eight grade body outweighed the wisdom of my eighth grade brain.

I thought to myself, "they won't miss one envelope." I took one off the top, stuffed it in my pocket, and got away fast.

When I got home, I pulled it out and saw that the envelope had seventy dollars in it. That was a lot of money in eighth grade.

Well, they did miss that one envelope. The next day, my dad came home for supper and told us at the table that someone had come into the office and taken an envelope with a Sunday School class offering in it.

I'll never forget the next few moments. My mother looked at me. I stared at the ceiling as if I didn't hear what was said or had not noticed her piercing eyes. She kept on looking at me.

Whew. Later that night, just when I thought I was off the hook, my mom came to my room.

"What do you keep in that little cedar chest?" she said. "Oh, my baseball cards and stuff like that." She smiled. "Okay. Open it."

That's when bad went to worse, because my nose started growing. "Um, I can't ... I've lost the key."

She smiled again. "Okay, then go to the kitchen and get a butter knife, and bring it back ... and we'll break it open." She said it with finality. There was no going back and no wiggling out.

So that's how my little cedar chest lid got cracked in two. Needless to say there were seventy dollars in it. Busted!

My dad told the church office that the money had been turned in, and I had to apologize to some man which was pretty uncomfortable.

But I learned something through the grace of God and the loving accountability of a good family. I learned that there is a part of me that can do bad things, and for no good reason.

That was the last time I stole from the church (that's a good thing since I'm a pastor, by the grace of God!).

I asked my mom years later if it was just written all over my face or if I looked just a little suspicious when the subject came up at the dinner table. "No, you looked completely innocent." "Then how did you know?" I asked. "I don't know how to explain it. I just knew."

Mothers amaze me. I don't know how they know these things, but it comes from a magical power, a special sense mothers have been given.

I still see my cracked open cedar chest all the time. I pause to look at it from time to time and remember my shadow side.

I'm not tempted to steal anymore, that's not what I mean. But if I am honest with myself, there's still a part of me that wants MORE.

Yes, I've grown now but if I'm not careful my shadow side can still rear itself. I'm not really talking about material things.

There's a part of me that desperately desires more experiences, more successes, more accomplishments, and (this is the big one) more people pleasing. My shadow side is compounded by our cultural strivings for the "more" and the "better," two things we venerate daily. It's a recipe for darkness. But I choose to live in the light.

So I keep my cedar chest to remind me where I'd be without God, without grace, and without the love of people who hold me accountable. I will always keep a few things in my broken cedar chest because I need to be aware of my shadow side.

I've never thought about this before now, but it's funny that the "valuables" I keep in my cedar chest now are mostly my papers for identification. Maybe that's not an accident.

Our shadow side is part of who we are. It's not that I don't feel forgiven, for I know that I am. But my cracked up cedar chest is a kind of holy relic for me. It's a precious object that carries a revealing memory. It's a picture of what it means to be me, broken as I can be, yet still something priceless because I'm living in grace.

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

Mission Team from Arab Goes to Ghana

This article was published on the front page of The Arab Tribune on Saturday, January 28, 2017.

There is a turn of a phrase in Ghana that catches me by surprise every time I hear it. When greeting those of us who are traveling from the states, Ghanians say "You're welcome." The customary response to this salutation is "Thank you." It seems quite backwards, but it makes perfect sense. When we go, we feel welcome indeed.

During the New Year holidays, a team from Arab First United Methodist Church went to Ghana for the second year in a row. It was a week full of joy, sharing with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We visited the Eugemot Orphanage near Hohoe, in the Volta region of Western Ghana. It is a four hour van ride from the airport in Accra, which is quite an adventure on less than perfect roads.

Each day we would visit the orphanage and spend time loving the children. Game and play time with the kids was the highlight of each day. We got to see the completed barn that we financed and began construction on last year, and we helped out on the farm to begin filling it with its first crops of rice and corn.

Our main project this year was to upgrade the water system and help restore the foundation of the Peggy Good School on orphanage property. The new underground water pipes to the dorm which we financed was complete. We worked on the foundation and left enough money to finish that out, as well as replace the windows and doors to the school.

We also had opportunity to go into the villages and bring food relief, mosquito nets, water filters, and a little money to help families in need. Local pastors identified these families for us and went with us to visit them and pray. One of the families we visited was the home of one of the former orphans we knew.

New Year's is a big holiday in Ghana, more so than Christmas. It's a time to look back on the year in gratitude and look forward to the fresh start of a new year, a "Thanksgiving" of sorts. There are religious services everywhere.

New Year's Eve at the orphanage was a grand feast. There was music, food, and fun. The children shared memory verses and dances to entertain and bless us. Older youth who were away at school were home for the weekend and spoke to the younger orphans words of inspiration and hope. Afterward, there was a huge bonfire with hours of African drumming, song, and dance.

One of the highlights of my life was being invited to preach the sermon at the local Methodist Church in Hohoe on New Year's Day. The service began with a sparse crowd, but by the time I preached, the place was packed. Just before the service, the pastor leaned over to me and told me I would be familiar with the full Methodist liturgy but that I could expect "moments of African spontaneity" as well. And there certainly were.

The choir was dressed in robes and mortar boards, resembling graduation. There were several hymns and scriptures, four offerings brought forward, and two extended praise singing times (complete with drums and dancing in circles). My preaching was translated into Ewe (the local language), and after serving communion, we gave the church a gift for their local ministries.

They sent us out in appreciation and kept on praising with trumpet, drums, and dance as they received their final offering of the day with seven basins ... each person was to place thanksgiving offerings in one of the seven, according to what day of the week they were born. Apparently, everyone in their culture knows the day they were born on because they grew up with a special family nickname because of the day.

As we stepped out, they were planning on another sermon and a luncheon after our departure. The service had started at 9:00 a.m., and we left the service early at 12:30 p.m. Times really does fly when you are having fun, and for African Christians the whole day belongs to the Lord. What an experience of vibrant and beautiful faith.

Leaving the orphanage after our week of working, playing, visiting, worshipping, and giving was hard ... and this was the second time around for me. Yet smiles and joy pervaded the place as we got back on the van one last time for the four hour journey to a much longer flight home.

I used to think that the purpose of overseas mission work was to go and share Jesus Christ with others. I have since realized that we don't bring Jesus, because Jesus is already there. We go to discover him where he is already at work, and get a chance to join him for a while.

I was incredibly touched by the simple and passionate Christian spirituality of the people of this third world country, where it is quite common for local businesses to have names like "God is Great Beauty Salon". We went to give, and received so much more from the experience.

Members of the mission team were Robert Burton, Brian O'Dell, Lois O'Dell, Jill Hinds, Josh Millwood, Caitlyn Scarborough, Marc Scarbrough, Hannah Shirley, Lisa Sloan, Tarah Sloan, and Steve West. Leslie and Lianna Smith were planning to go, but were unable to attend because of a family funeral. Dawn Liebner, Joy Privett, and a number of others from our church kept the trip surrounded in support and prayer.

The team will be sharing a dinner and trip presentation on Sunday, January 29, at 6:30 p.m. in the Arab First UMC fellowship hall. Free-will donations will be accepted toward next year's mission trip. The public is invited and no reservations are required. I hope to see you there.

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

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