Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Made It to "Finals" for Hymnal Committee!

Thanks to those of you who offered prayers and assistance as I made myself available for consideration for the Hymnal Revision Committee!

As I feared, with all the categories for inclusivity the Council of Bishops had to pay attention to, I was not included on the final list of at-large members of the Hymnal Revision Committee.

While I'm disappointed (only because it got this far!), I knew it was a longshot from the beginning. I also knew there was a good possibility I would not wind up on the committee, though I was one of the 2 nominees from the Southeastern Jurisdictional Council on Bishops. I guess you could say I made it to the "finals" ... and I really enjoyed trying!

Just so you are aware of how "nearly miraculous" it would have been to be selected, there were 2 nominess from each Jurisdiction (it was an incredible honor to be nominated at this level). But once the 10 nominees from across the country were put together, an Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops had to make sure 3 were laymen, 3 were laywomen, 2 were clergywomen, and only 2 were clergymen. They needed to be sensitive to racial inclusivity as well. As I said, it was a longshot.

My name was, however, forwarded by the bishops as one of the "consultants" that the committee and staff may call on. I am not sure what the next steps are, but I will probably be involved in the process through some level of feedback and consultation. I'm looking forward to being part of a new hymnal for the United Methodist Church in whatever way I can, and again, it was a thrill to be seriously considered for this venture!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Movement from Illusion to Prayer

This quote from Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out resonates in my soul.

"The movement from illusion to prayer requires a gradual detachment from all false ties and an increasing surrender to him from whom all good things come. It takes courage to move away from the safe place to the unknown ... giving up the familiar and reaching out with open arms toward him who transcends all our mental grasping and clinging makes us very vulnerable ... It is a sign of spiritual maturity when we can give up our illusory self-control and stretch out our hands to God. But it would be just another illusion too believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering. Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go. But we know that without going there we will not find our life."

Over the last ten years, I have been on this wayfaring journey from illusion to prayer. It has not been easy, but it is so lifegiving to hear Nouwen and others articulate the transformation of the heart that I have been slowly experiencing. God is opening a whole world of grace, which brings both a peace beyond all understanding and a depth of pain and compassion for the hurting world.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Holy Moments of Electing a Bishop

I am back from my first experience at Jurisdictional Conference and reflecting on what it was like to participate in the election of Bishop Leeland. There was something deeply spiritual about it and I have been trying to discern what it is. I felt a sense of holiness because participating in this act of “apostolic succession” put me in touch with a vast tradition of preserving the unity and order of God’s church. The apostle Paul called us “stewards of the mysteries of grace.” As messy and imperfect as church life can be, I felt as if I were joining something that has been flowing powerfully through many centuries. I was caught up in a current that is larger than me, and that gives me a profound sense of trust in what God is doing despite our flaws and culture's moods. The worship preparing us for elections was a deep, meditative reminder that this is all about discerning God’s will. How can we keep our focus on the Holy Spirit when it is tempting to simply think in terms of politics? I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Left Behind" Meets "You've Got Mail"

Sometimes that which is a faithful effort for some can strike me as truly humorous. One of my parishoners showed me this. Did you know that for $40 a year, you can arrange for dozens of friends and family to receive an email message 6 days after the rapture? "You've Been Left Behind gives you one last opportunity to reach your lost family and friends for Christ," reads the website. An added feature is that a few can get 150 megabites of personal documents from you. Check it out at http://www.youvebeenleftbehind.com/ .

Monday, July 14, 2008

Prayers While I'm at Jurisdictional Conference


Hello everyone! I'm leaving for Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church where I will be serving as a delegate, elected by clergy peers here in North Alabama. I will enjoy a few days of vacation after that while in North Carolina. If you would join me in prayer during this meeting for discernment, I'd really appreciate it. Here is some information on Jurisdictional Conference that might help you hold me in prayer. You can see what Jurisdictional Conference is, and even read daily reports and see live video feeds. It's at http://www.sejumc.org/sej2008.aspx .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Meditation on Ruby Falls

This is my article which is published in the January/February 2009 issue of "Alive Now." - Steve West

There is a deep, beautiful chasm within us waiting to be discovered and explored.

I recently took my son to Ruby Falls, a magnificent underground waterfall in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had forgotten how glorious a place it is. I love to visit caves because they capture my imagination and remind me of the context of our lives in the expanse of history. For some 200 million years, this chasm had been forming, slowly growing in beauty and yet completely undiscovered until one man, looking for another cave altogether, stumbled into it with a drill and shone the first light in that dark space. I can only imagine what it must have been like to crawl into it the very first time, with fear and trembling, and see the first sparkles of light reflect off the water cascading from the cavern above.

The difference between what was completely obscured, frightening, and dangerous, and what was beautiful to behold, was the introduction of light. The beauty was already there but remained vast, dark, and unseen. Now that it is illuminated, it is a wonder to behold.

Many of us live our lives on the surface of who we are, in the world of doing and functioning and relating. By doing so we can live very good and faithful lives. Perhaps we have no idea what lies underneath the thick crust of our personalities, or perhaps we have an inkling that something is there but dreadfully fear what might lurk in the darkness. So we stay on the surface where the playing field is predictable. Yet by God’s grace, there comes a time of deepening awareness, when we stumble into the dark night of the soul while looking for who knows what. We find a whole new undiscovered realm of spiritual beauty awaiting our attention.

It took me years to discover this interior space and begin inviting Christ into the dark places underneath the surface of who I am, shining his healing and cleansing light to chase away the fear and evil and illuminate the inner beauty God had been creating in me. For although I am a sinner in need of grace, I was created in the image of God.

There is a reason Jesus and the writers of the New Testament loved the metaphor of light. Christ’s light "shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it" (John 1:4). When we become willing to go to that hidden, silent space and invite God in, Christ’s light blesses and beautifies. We can lead active and productive lives on the surface with a transformative connection to our inmost self, our quiet center in God that has been carved out for us since the foundation of the earth. We have always had this interior place of the soul, but out of fear we dared not open it up and explore it. By grace, God cracks open our shell and it becomes a place that Christ's light can fill and make new.

This is the Christian spiritual journey.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why I Went to the Academy

The Director of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, Jerry Haas, asked me why I went to the Academy. Here was my answer to him.

After years of ministry, I found myself spent and was drawing from an empty well. I had become really good at doing church work and had at the same time neglected my own soul. It took a painful situation to expose this chasm of emptiness to my own awareness, and as I embarked on the journey of healing I discovered a whole world of spirituality and passion within me for something more. I began to see that all I was experiencing was a dark night of the soul that put me in touch with centuries of spiritual flow. I set out on a quest that brought me first to a monastery, then to the writings of spiritual masters, and then to the Academy. I felt undeniably drawn to it because the rhythm and balance enlivened a craving for silence, authentic community, and a life of prayer in me. Through the Academy, I found rootedness for the first time in my life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Raccoons Are Welcome

A "Folk Mystic" Finds Forgiveness
by Steve West

The early years of ministry left me with a few scars. I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from occasional experiences of conflict in the household of God.

One spring, my family went camping at Cumberland Island, Georgia. A national wildlife preserve, the island features armadillo, palmetto, and wild horses running on the beach. Arriving at our campsite, I was struck by the sight of two poles. The first held a lockable food cage and instructions on how to outsmart raccoons scavenging at night. The second was to hang trash out of their reach.

One night, I neglected to tie up my trash. The night was filled with noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. I rose early next the morning to see the sight. Indeed the raccoons had come.

The scene drew me into meditation. Sitting in the midst of a mess, I spent time with three weighty thoughts. The first was “this is what raccoons do.” There’s no reason to be angry. Secondly, “they really didn’t hurt me.” Aside from the hassle, there was no pain. Finally, and most importantly, I thought “next time, I’ll tie my trash up higher.”

I opened my journal and feelings poured out. I listed the raccoons in my life, people who had “sorted through my trash” looking for something to criticize or consume. I prayed over them in light of my three revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn’t hurt me, not really. And maybe it’s time for me to learn a few boundaries, keeping my “trash” tied up higher.

I was led to the first chapter of Philippians. Paul was writing from prison of the raccoons in the church, not unbelievers but Christian preachers who had been sorting through his trash. “Some proclaim Christ from envy or rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.”(1:15-18a) What acceptance Paul had about life’s raccoons! Not only could he let go of their pain, he rejoiced in them.

The following Sunday, my sermon title was “Raccoons are Welcome.” I told my story, encouraging them to let go of anxiety about what others have done to us (or what we perceive they have done). In God’s household, raccoons are welcome. If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul’s raccoons were other preachers. And what does it matter? In all things, Christ is glorified.

On Monday, I felt a nudge, as if to say, “Steve, do you believe what you preached yesterday?” I pulled out a file of old letters from occasional conflicts I had experienced over the years. Why was I holding on to these raccoons?

On top was a more recent letter, so I thought “I’d better keep this one, just in case.” Laying it aside, I took the rest of the file and headed to the outdoor prayer trail. Sitting on a bench, I went through them one by one, praying and burning the letter. It was a time of release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain. Once all were burned, I entered a time of stillness. The Spirit nudged me again. What about that letter still on my desk? Why not burn it too?

Suddenly, I heard a rustle in the bushes. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He raised his head and looked at me quizzically, then turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I said, “God, you have a sense of humor.”

Needless to say I burned that last letter.

Copyright 2008 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Sunday, July 6, 2008

God Has Spoken Himself Into That Very Situation With Grace

A couple of days after leaving my previous post, I watched a popular TV preacher say quite the opposite of what I have proposed. He said that God honors expectations with blessing, that "God meets us at the place of our highest expectations." He noted that God wants to make our dreams come true, and that we need to change our thoughts to claim the blessing of good things that are going to happen to us. I personally find prosperity spirituality to be a dead-end street. It feels more like "spiritual self-help" than a spirituality of the cross. It leaves me hungry for more of God and less of me. The greatest joy comes not in pursuing my goals and getting Jesus on my side to make it happen, but in looking beneath the struggle to see that God has spoken himself into that very situation with grace. If there is a restlessness in us for something more, it is not because we need God to pursue our dreams. It's because we need God.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Letting Go of High Expectations

After I left my response to a reader's comment on the previous post, I thought I should post a great link I found. It's a wonderful article entitled "Great Expectations". It notes how Christian spiritualists of old discovered the truth that letting go of high expectations leads to spiritual freedom. As a pastor, it has been an amazing journey to find that as I grow to tend to my own soul, rather than focusing on my expectations of everybody else, it's a journey of freedom. It's the grace of letting go and finding joy and humor in all of life.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Work of Spirituality

Here is a quote from Eugene Peterson's "The Contemplative Pastor" that resonated with me:

The work of spirituality is to recognize where we are - the particular circumstances of our lives - to recognize grace and say, "Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or my kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and suffering?"

One of the biggest fixations in our culture is that we expect others to live up to our expectations! It is a kind of "cultural perfectionism." We are profoundly disappointed when families, teachers, or churches do not love us perfectly or take care of our needs completely. Christian spirituality, however, leads us on a journey of discovering that only God loves with unconditional love. When we experience profound loneliness because we expect from each other what we can not give to one another, this pain draws us back to Christ. God is doing something in us in the darkness this suffering, for it is our own hearts that need changing.