Wednesday, May 1, 2019

What is our Most Essential Belief?

A friend asked “what is the most essential belief in Christianity.” This is what I said:

I’d say the one essential belief (since you asked it that way) is we are created and called for loving God with our whole heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Jesus said this was the most essential thing, and added “do this and you will live” which is profound). But on the next tier, to make that possible in grace, I’d say there are FIVE “sacred mysteries” that are core and essential (the Trinity, humanity and divinity of Christ, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection).



Monday, April 15, 2019

Why is Easter All Over the Map?

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

Few things can be more mind-boggling than the dating of Easter. Who made that decision? And why in the world is it all over the place?

Christmas is easy. It’s December 25. Rain or shine, whether it’s a Sunday or not, it’s always December 25.

That’s basically because we decided it was, a long time ago. It never gives any indication in the Bible that this was the date (don’t tell your kids we don’t really know when Jesus’s birthday is!). In the wisdom of the ancient church, a winter festival was co-opted and Christianized. I don’t mind. It’s brilliant, actually. Bring on the yule logs and the wreaths.

Easter’s not so simple, however. How do we know when it is (besides just trusting your calendar)? The short answer is that Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon, on or after the vernal (or spring) equinox. Try to say that with your mouth full. The spring equinox is when the axis of the earth lines up with the sun, the day and night are the same length, and spring officially begins.

Why such craziness?

It is all because we DO know when Easter happened. The resurrection was the week of Passover, according to scripture. That’s incredibly significant, since Jesus instituted communion on Passover night, just before he was betrayed. And the first Easter happened on the “first day of the week,” so it’s always Sunday. In fact, the resurrection is the whole reason we meet on Sundays.

So in 325 Ad, the Council of Nicea determined the dating of Easter, and they decided to keep it tied to Passover which was (and still is) calculated on the Jewish lunar calendar. It’s different dating than the Gregorian calendar we have used in the West since 1582 (its predecessor, the Julian calendar, is still used in parts of Orthodox faith and is 13 days “behind” … the reason that in Russia, Christmas is on our January 6!).

There it is, mystery solved, it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. But here’s the thing. That’s the rule, but it’s kind of like “I before E except after C” … there are caveats and exceptions. And this year was one of them.

Are you ready to be even more mystified?

All this is based on the “ecclesiastical date,” or the Church’s date, of March 21 as the spring equinox. The actual astronomical event of equinox varies between March 19 and 22, and the date depends on your time zone. Since it is calculated based on the fixed date of March 21, this was one of those “weird years” with a confusing exception.

The astronomical event of equinox was on March 20, while the full moon was actually on March 21 (in some time zones). So Easter should have been March 24, right?

But the decision is made by another fixed “ecclesiastical date” of the full moon being on March 20. So on the church calendar, the full moon was on March 20 and the equinox was on March 21. But what actually happened in the sky is the reverse.

Are you confused yet? Easter is based on the next full moon on the “ecclesiastical” calendar, which is April 18. My brain is tired just thinking about it.

So, what are the earliest and latest Easter dates, since we are talking about this wacky way of calculating it?

The “Paschal Full Moon” (that’s another word for the Church’s date of the first full moon after the equinox, coming from the word “Passover”) ranges from March 21 to April 18. It is way too confusing to explain how the ancient church figures that, but the simple explanation is it is based on a 19 year cycle that approximates astronomical facts.

Since Easter happens on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, it can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25. So …

Easter lands on March 22 in 1761, 1818, 2285, and 2353. In other words, Easter can be as early as March 22 but forget it, not in OUR lifetimes!

The second earliest date of Easter is March 23. Easter lands here in 1788, 1845, 1856, 1913, 2008, 2160, 2228, and 2380. We saw it ONCE and I hope you enjoyed it, because that’s it!

The latest date of Easter is April 25, which happens in 1886, 1943, and 2038. So my Dad saw it once, and if I live to be 72, I will too. I hope so!

The second latest date is April 24, which happens on 1791, 1859, 2011, 2095, 2163, 2231, and 2383. So WE saw it once (and unless you’re a pretty young adult and live to be over 100, you won’t see it again).

You might ask why I am so interested in this.

What can I say, my birthday is April 22. When I turned 8 years old, Easter was on my birthday (that was 1973). We had a huge church egg hunt at the city park for my birthday party (never mind that it was Easter, I thought it was just for me!).

Then again, in 1984, Easter was on my birthday. I turned 19 that year.

If I live until 2057, my birthday will be on Easter one more time. The third time will be the charm. Can I live to 92? Sounds good to me!

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

Monday, April 8, 2019

Why Does Easter Move Around?

I prepared this for a Rotary Program on April 9. I hope you find it interesting!

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after (or on) the Spring Equinox. That’s the short answer. But there’s more …

Why? The resurrection happened the week of Passover. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea determined the dating of Easter. Passover was (and is) calculated by the Jewish lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we have used in the West since 1582 (its predecessor, the Julian calendar, is still used in parts of Eastern Orthodox faith and is 13 days “behind").

There are confusing exceptions! The Church’s date of March 21 is considered the spring (vernal) equinox, regardless of time zone, while the actual astronomical event of the equinox varies between March 19 and 22.

This year is one of those “weird years”! The actual equinox was on March 20, while the full moon was March 21 in many time zones. If we followed the actual astronomical event, Easter would have been March 24. This is further complicated in that it is based on the “ecclesiastical” date of the full moon, March 20 (not the actual astronomical date). CONFUSING!

Easter 2019 is based on the next full moon on the “ecclesiastical” calendar, which is April 18.

Earliest and Latest Easter Dates

The “Paschal Full Moon” (another word for it) ranges from March 21 to April 18. Since Easter happens on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, it can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25.

Easter lands on March 22 on: 1761, 1818, 2285, and 2353. In other words, forget it, not in OUR lifetimes.

Easter lands on March 23 on: 1788, 1845, 1856, 1913, 2008, 2160, 2228, and 2380. In other words, we saw it ONCE and I hope you enjoyed it, because that’s it!

Easter lands on April 25 on: 1886, 1943, 2038. So my DAD saw it once, and if I live to be 72 I WILL see it once! I hope so!

Easter lands on April 24 on: 1791, 1859, 2011, 2095, 2163, 2231, and 2383. So WE saw it once (and PROBABLY nobody in this room might see it, unless you’re one of our young un’s and if you live to be, like, over 100!).

Why am I interested in this?

My birthday is April 22. When I turned 8 years old, Easter was on my birthday (1973). We had a church egg hunt for my birthday party (never mind that it was Easter, I thought it was just for me!)

In 1984, Easter was on my birthday. I turned 19!

If I live until 2057, my birthday will be on Easter. Can I make it to age 92?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Joy and Sorrow

I have had this book for decades but have felt led to go through it again during my morning prayer time. This devotion met me this morning and strikes a chord, during difficult times in our country and larger church. I find joy in the midst. I feel at peace, knowing my place in the universe.

Steve


On Joy and Sorrow
 Kahlil Gibran

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 

Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.



Monday, February 11, 2019

Ghana Always Teaches Me Something New

This is my column which appeared on February 2, 2019, in The Arab Tribune.

It was my third trip to Ghana, and I guess that means it’s becoming a habit. If you do something once, it can be a fluke, and if you do it twice, it’s still just a pattern. But going to Ghana has now become a habit indeed, and it’s a holy habit I’m glad to have.

In one way or another, the church I serve has supported the Eugemot orphanage in the Volta Region of eastern Ghana since it was founded fifteen years ago. But four years ago, the Spirit led us to organize an annual mission trip to put some hands and feet to our prayers and support. I personally got to go on three of the four. Our last mission team came home just a couple of weeks ago.

I thought I had learned what there was to learn on my other two trips, and I was there to support the others like a good pastor should. But as usual, I was wrong.

The newly found wonder I brought back with me this time is capsulated in one simple prayer. One of the older orphans who had been away at school came home for the holidays and went with us to guide us on our tour of the waterfall for our Sunday afternoon Sabbath time. He met our team for lunch beforehand, and we asked him to pray. He paused and told us he would like to teach us the prayer Mama Eugenia had always taught them at the orphanage.

He prayed, “Father, we invite you to come and eat with us. Amen.” I loved that prayer. He told us that at night, they also say “Father, we invite you to come and sleep with us.” There it is.

I have never heard such profound simplicity in prayer, which reflects amazing trust in the very presence of God in our midst. Yes, we know God is the one from whom all things come.

In the churches in our country, we had just finished the busy Christmas holidays honoring Jesus our Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” And our prayers are usually (if we are honest) asking him to bless what we are doing ... from far, far away.

Not that day. Not Bless (that is the young man’s name). He prayed to the “God who comes”, as Christian spiritualist Carlo Carretto describes it. God is a God who eats with us, who sleeps with us, and who holds us close.

As I reflect on the trip as a whole, I suppose that simple, beautiful prayer has become a prism through which I observed the beautiful colors of gratitude in the hearts of these people. They are thankful for the One who eats and sleeps with us, present in the rhythms of every day.

There is something about stepping out of my own culture, and into another place, that helps me see faith come alive. As one of our participants said, “when I go to Ghana, I see God working in ways I never see at home.”

God is here as well as there, of course. But I wonder if we have our spiritual antennas up to detect God’s presence. All of the experiences of this year’s mission trip led me back to this basic truth that Ghanians know in their bones. God is real and God is present.

We were there during the holidays, and while Christmas is less of a fuss, their New Year has energy like an American Thanksgiving, except it’s even better. They thank God over and over for the blessings of the past year, and they ask God to be with them this coming year. Most churches offer Watch Night services that go on for hours up until midnight.

At the orphanage, we built a big bonfire and enjoyed a drum circle, with dancing and singing that takes me to yet another place of heavenly bliss. On New Year’s Day, everyone wears white and we have a great feast, with traditional rice dishes and barbecued meat. The orphanage puts on a show, with memory verses, dances, and encouraging testimonies by some of the older young women and men who have come home.

What I began to see this year is that this gratitude is not just about the holiday; it’s imbued in everyday life. One young woman showed us the river where her family in the village washes their clothes, washes themselves, and gets their water for cooking and drinking.

Once again, I noticed local shops and businesses out on the road, which have openly religious names like “Salvation Mini-Market” where I bought some Milo (a chocolate milk drink). Once again, we shared food relief with families who were so grateful to be alive.

This year, we met a young woman in a wheelchair and visited another woman who could walk again after many years. We celebrated the story of how prayer had healed her. One of our participants gave the woman her metal cane to replace the hand made wooden stick she was using to show us the glory of what God can do. It was inspiring.

We visited churches that were so incredibly hospitable toward us. One was simple and beautiful, made of wooden slats and a thatched roof. In another, they recognized me from when I preached there two years ago and ushered me up to the stage to sit behind the pastor while he was preaching. Then the pastor introduced me (this was a really strange experience, since I had never met him) and I offered a gift for the new mission house they are building.

They treated me as if I honored them with my presence, but I’m the one that is honored. I get to worship with a faith family that is alive with song and drums and dance.

I was really excited about seeing the new orphanage, finally. The dorms had been under construction by work crews from England for years, while the orphanage had been in a three bedroom rental home down the road. Children had spent years stacked like sardines, but now there was spacious room.

It was heartwarming to see a vision become reality, to see the barn we built for them in view just behind the new orphanage wall, and to watch the running water we helped pay for in use. We watched them installing the new whiteboards we were donating for the classrooms at the school in front of the orphanage, which had been built by schools and churches from good old Alabama.

The highlight, of course, was spending time with the orphans themselves. One little boy just couldn’t get enough of my sunglasses and didn’t mind posing for pictures when he looked so cool. We played card games, did crafts with beads, and tussled with the little ones.

This year, there was a piano in the new common room, so I was in my element and we sang some songs. I got to connect at the keyboard with one of the school officials, who was a church music director on the side and asked me to play hymns he had been learning. Mama Eugenia’s son and one of the older girls were wonderful at harmony. The kids just sang and sang.

All these experiences that unfolded during the week were wrapped up together in that simple prayer that kept mulling around in my mind. Father, we invite you to sing with us, to play with us, to work with us. You are here. We depend completely on you.

I brought home another Gye Nyame, a West African symbol which means “except God.” For them, it is a national symbol. It means we could never have what we have, or do what we do, or be who we are, except for God. “Except God.”

I’m looking at one on the wall in my home as I write. Gye Nyames remind me that in so much of American Christianity, we only consider ourselves somewhat dependent on God. It’s up to us to make a difference, rely on our smarts, and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Then we pause to trust God for the rest.

But not in Ghana. God is a God who does it all with us.

Maybe we can get back to that spiritual place in America again. Maybe I can get back to that place in my heart again.

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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ghana Trip Made the Papers

I am blessed with the opportunity to write a column for The Arab Tribune. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that they were able to make room for the pictures. Celebrate with us a life-changing journey.




Friday, December 21, 2018

There's more than one way Christ comes to us








This is my column that appeared in “The Arab Tribune” on Wednesday, December 19, 2018.

Every year during the holidays, it seems that one story, one experience, or one conversation captures my imagination. It's not usually any of the gifts, or all the food (as much as there is of that to be impressed by), or the lights or the parties.

It's something unusual, something unexpected, and something a bit heart-warming. This year, it was a phone call.

Last Saturday, our church held our annual "Christmas and Beyond" party where we hosted most of the 150 children and their families that we help with Christmas. We had done all the shopping in advance, so we shared a Christmas program of songs and games, treated everyone to breakfast, and opened a Christmas thrift shop for their families to enjoy.

When it was all over, I got a phone call from one of my parishioners with a story I'll never forget. During the morning's activities, a grandmother who had brought her three grandchildren to Christmas and Beyond told a story to the volunteers who were fixing her coffee.

She said that the night before, her two nephews, who are ages 21 and 23, were at her house, and they asked her grandchildren what they were going to do on Saturday. The kids said they were going to a "Christmas party" at the Methodist church.

The nephews replied, "Oh, you will have a great time! We went there when we were your age, and they made us pancakes, and we heard the Christmas story, and everyone was so nice to us! You will love it!" One of the nephews said "It is my favorite Christmas memory!"

This brings a little mist to my eyes. As if that is not heart-warming enough, the grandmother continued, "You may not realize it but this party has a lasting impact and this is proof. Twenty years later, my nephews still remember your kindness." That's the best phone call I've gotten in a long time.

I love the Advent season. In my faith tradition, it's a four-Sunday season of expectation of the coming of Christ. The little Christmas surprises ... the serendipitous, heart-warming moments ... have grown to be something I expect.

I try to keep my spiritual antenna's up to see where God is going to show up. That's because there's more than one way Jesus comes.

I shared with my congregation that I have recently discovered the teachings of a 12th century French abbot named Bernard of Clairvaux, who said something to ponder during this holy season. He said there are really three "comings" of Christ.

The first was Christ's coming in the flesh. The second will be his coming again in glory. But there is one "coming" in between, his coming into our hearts.

Here are some words from his sermon: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among humans; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one."

He continues, "In the first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness. In this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power, in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. In case someone should think that what we say about this middle coming is sheer invention, listen to what our Lord himself says; ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him’.”

It is this "middle coming" that seems to show up again and again for me during this season, sometimes when I least expect it but I try to always be looking for it. Because it lies between the other two, it is like a road we travel on from Christ's first coming to his last.

As Bernard put it, "In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life. In this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”

Let him come into your heart today.

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.