Sunday, December 27, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
But if we pause to ponder how powerful the virgin birth is, we might find that this simple detail in our sacred story is a key to unfolding a deep mystery. Christ was conceived of God and of woman. The divine came to live and dwell among us. We’re talking real flesh and blood. The incarnation means that God came not incognito but in “carnate” - in the flesh.
Don’t yawn about this one. Ever since the tower of Babel, we have tried to get a handle on God. We’ve tried to clutch and take hold of the divine. We’ve tried to transcend ourselves but we can’t. That’s why God came to us. The divine became human because the human just couldn’t grasp the divine.
I wonder how many Christians have embraced the power of the cross and even live in the victory of the resurrection but have forgotten the mystery of the manger.
We tend to think of God like we think of our pocketknife. We carry him around with us, pull him out when we need him, and hold him within our grasp. Some even think we’ve got the ability to dispense God’s power if we pray just right. How presumptuous Christians in North America have become! We’ve twisted faith to conform to our culture of functionality and control mentality.
When we develop that kind of spiritual arrogance, we have forgotten what it means to be human and in need of grace. Spirituality starts with the fact that we are less than God. We can’t use Jesus to “get what we want out of life”. The raw truth is that without God, we are a broken, hurting, lonely bunch of people with nowhere to go. As hard as we might try, we’ll never get a handle on God.
That’s why God came to us. The divine became human. An ancient theologian said, “he became what we are so that we might become what He is.”
Let God do the crossing over. Give it up. Stop trying to grab hold of God and maintain control of your life. Receive him instead as if your heart is the manger where he hopes to lay. Let him enter in.
You may indeed be touched by what you can’t possibly grasp.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
The poem notes the pre-existence of Christ in all creation, so beautifully expressed in the first chapter of the book of John, "without him not one thing was made that was made." Yet this master of the universe, the anointed one of God, comes as a lamb, a child. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." In my opinion, this is the most profound mystery of Christianity.
I share these words with you in hopes that they bless your holy season of Christmas. Here they are:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Her carefully chosen words are etched in my memory. I had to sing a solo after that, and I barely managed to sing through my tears. She had left me with a powerful gift.
Every year during Advent, reading Mary's "Magnificat" reminds me that no matter what troubles come, there is always a bigger picture to behold. Mary had plenty to pout about, having gotten pregnant at 15 or 16 only to have others assume the worst. She knew the baby would be born out of wedlock, and would soon take a long trek on a donkey's back only to find that poverty and lack of connections would lead to giving birth in a messy old barn. Yet she knew there was a song to sing because God was doing something. Even heartaches put us in touch with the big picture of God's grace.
Do you remember how the movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" ends? Proud of stealing all the presents from the little town, he stands at the top of the mountain and leans his ear forward. He can't wait to hear the crying and wailing. Yet what does he hear? Singing.
Claiming Mary's and Mom's magnificent spiritualities would mean that no matter what, we sing anyway. We can’t help but sing. We sing and we sing and we sing. Nothing can steal the joy of Christmas away.
Why? Because no matter how hard life is, something new is being born in us.
Friday, December 11, 2009
I ask that you reform me in your image.
I ask not that I can use scripture to search your heart,
But that I can allow you to use scripture to search mine.
I ask not that I can use prayer to love you,
But that I can allow you to use prayer to love me.
Lord Jesus, I place my heart in your Heart.
I place my mind in your Mind.
I place my hands in your Hand.
I place my joys in your Joy and my sorrows in your Sorrow.
I place my pain in your Pain.
I place my hurts in your Hurt and my peace in your Peace.
I place my light in your Light and my dark night in your Dark night.
I place my death in your Death and my life in your Life.
I place my relationships in your Relationship and my brokenness in your Brokenness.
I place my mercy in your Mercy and my justice in your Justice.
I place my strength in your Strength and my weakness in your Weakness.
I place my doing in your Doing, my being in your Being,
My words in your Word, and my silence in your Silence.
I am so tired of taking out of your hands what you have created with them.
And so, Lord God,
In my wetness and dryness, in my deadness and aliveness, in my fullness and my emptiness,
All of who I am I place in All of Who You Are.
By Stephen P. West
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
A friend gave us a Christmas tree, and as they say, you never know what might “come with the box.” Our guests provided lots of entertainment … you should have heard Sandy shrieking with delight.
As soon as our Advent mousecapade was over and our guests were attended to, Sandy let me know it was time to start cleaning. I have gotten started. Cleaning behind the refrigerator was rather interesting. There was an entire ecosystem back there.
I’ve never been a fan of pre-Christmas cleaning. I figure that’s what spring is for. Christmas is something you clean up after. But alas, our resident rodents have forced the issue, and Sandy can be rather persuasive.
During Advent, maybe pre-Christmas cleaning is just what we need. Malachi tells us that God is sending an emissary who comes intending to purify our hearts and cleanse our souls. I imagine he is speaking of John the Baptist, described as a messenger who will come like "refiner’s fire" and "fuller’s soap". John comes every Advent, as if holding a flame in one hand and detergent in the other, announcing the time has come to prepare the way of the Lord.
I have noticed in recent years that when I visit families in the hospital after a new birth, I’m often asked if I have washed my hands before I hold their child. Thank you, dear Christmas mice, for reminding me that Malachi sends me the same Advent message. I have to wash up before I hold the baby.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
But the original American Thanksgiving was not about riches and bounty. It was about gratitude that comes from making it through extremely difficult times to follow the heart. Half of the people on the Mayflower died from disease. They were a half dead and almost starved, barely managing, rag-tag band of pilgrims looking for a place where they could escape persecution and practice religious freedom. And by God, they made it! So they paused to acknowledge their blessings with a feast.
The beatitudes remind me that blessings are much deeper than the things we like. Hard things are blessings because they are things that draw us closer to God. Gratitude is being thankful for the pilgrimage itself.
What would our faith be like if we revived the way of the pilgrim? A pilgrim is one who hasn't yet found what we're looking for. This Thanksgiving, don't just thank God for what you have or for what makes you happy. Give thanks for where you've been and where you're going, and for the journey itself with all its bumps and bruises. True gratitude sees a bigger picture.
As a pastor, I feel like a pilgrim. I serve in a culture that is dispassionate about religion and in one of many American denominations that are highly anxious over the decline of their institutions. Yet the good news is Christianity is not dying. It's simply on a pilgrimage of its own. In church history, transformations have always happened right under the noses of those dedicated to the very institutions they built to preserve previous transformations. And that's how we come back to the spirituality of Jesus.
It's the pilgrimage that matters. Give thanks.
Monday, November 23, 2009
I was in my office reading Isaiah 42 during morning prayer, reflecting on the Messianic hope that you would be a light to the nations. I was contemplating how the Methodist bishops were right, calling us to see the mission of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ "for the transformation of the world." Your Word is clear. You came to touch the blind, the prisoners, the poor, and those in darkness.
Vicki tapped on my door, and there you were, in the face of someone who needed gas and food. She apologized for interrupting me but I'm so glad she did. I helped you with some food from the pantry and took you to the gas station. I asked you to pass on the blessing to someone else and you thanked me. The timing was too perfect for me to ignore it. You visited me to see if I really believed what I was reading.
His name was Joseph but I know it was you. It as a mysterious visit from you when someone asks for help. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, you said "when you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me." Not for you, not on behalf of you, but unto you. When I'm left asking "when did I see you," I remember those who drop by, looking to me with your eyes.
At the church, we follow protocols to keep abuse from happening. We participate in a cooperative program that offers financial counseling and coordinated assistance. It's important to be good stewards in a way that helps us touch those who truly have need. I send larger needs to the cooperative, but I usually help with a little food and gas.
As it turns out, this guy is suspected of stealing tools from a car the parking lot. I know that he probably did. I wish I had remembered to take down his information just in case there was a problem. I usually do.
The missing tools certainly test my resolve that it was you that dropped by. You are teaching me that aside from practical realities, there is a deeper matter of the heart. As far as my relationship with you, I hope that I saw him for whom he truly was deep inside. The parable teaches me that when I stand before you one day, you won't judge me for being too generous with someone who might abuse it and you won't critize me because I let somebody take advantage of me. You will make the claim that when I did for the least of these, I did it unto you.
Joseph is one of your children, the reflection of your glory. His looked at me with your eyes. Maybe he just doesn't know that you are within him. But I knew.
You came to visit my office the other day. I am blessed.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
What about life in the body of Christ? How can meetings, stewardship, and accountability be fun, while we are at it? Here it is, enjoy!
Monday, November 16, 2009
Just ordinary stones, placed by ordinary hands,
Become like living stones when used according to the builder's plans.
I wonder how these stones, so rough and simple, become so beautiful
When placed into a greater plan.
The designs of human minds bring life into ordinary stones.
Just ordinary bread, baked by ordinary hands,
Becomes like living bread when blessed and broken by the pastor's hands.
I wonder how this bread, so plain and simple, becomes so beautiful
When placed into receiving hands.
The designs of heavenly minds bring life into ordinary bread.
Just ordinary lives, made by extraordinary hands,
Become like holy lives when blessed and broken by the master's hands.
I wonder how these lives, so rough and sinful, become so beautiful
When placed into a greater plan.
The designs of heavenly minds bring life into ordinary lives.
Just ordinary stones and ordinary bread,
Our ordinary lives become living stones instead.
Copyright 2000 by Stephen P. West, all rights reserved
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Coventry Cathedral was bombed on November 14, 1940, by the Nazis. The building was destroyed and ruins remain beside the newly constructed cathedral to this day. When the priest initially assessed the damage, he was filled with emotion. The words of Jesus, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," resonated in his mind. For him, the "them" included not only the Nazis but all of humanity, so he felt that walking the road of blame would not bring healing. As a result, the shortened phrase "Father, Forgive" was inscribed on the wall by two charred roof timbers that had fallen in the shape of a cross. This phrase has become part of their ongoing vision for reconciliation ministries.
Each Friday, worshippers gather in the ruins at noon to pray the litany below, and I encourage you to make it your prayer today. You may find more at the Coventry Cathedral website.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, and the refugee,
The lust which dishonors the bodies of men, women, and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another,
as God in Christ forgave you.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
I am continuing to post on my blog some liturgical resources I have published elsewhere. This is a version of the Great Thanksgiving which can be sung to HYMN TO JOY (commonly sung with "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee").
A version set to music may be much easier to read and sing. You may find it published at the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website. Here is the text:
May the Lord our God be with you.
May God also be with you.
Let us lift our hearts and voices.
Yes, we lift them to the Lord.
Let us give our thanks and praise to God Almighty, Lord of love.
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.
We give thanks to you, Creator, maker of the heavens and earth.
You have formed us in your image, breathed into us holy breath.
With your people on the earth and all the company of heav’n,
Now we lift your holy name and join in their unending hymn:
Holy, holy God of power, heav’n and earth are full of you.
Blessed is the one you sent. Hosannah in the highest praise!
Holy are you, and most blessed is your Son, Lord Jesus Christ.
Through your Spirit you anointed him to be our saving grace.
By baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection life
You gave birth to Christ’s new body, Spirit-born and water-blessed.
You delivered us from evil, from our slavery to sin,
And have made of us new creatures, now the Church with faith professed.
(Words of institution may be spoken here, followed by the congregationally sung response below. Or the celebrant may continue singing.)
On the night that Jesus gave his heart for us, he took the bread,
Offered thanks to you and broke it, gave it to his friends and said:
"Take and eat, this is my body I am giving up for you.
As you eat it in remembrance, you will taste of life anew.”
When the holy feast was over, then he took the cov’nant cup,
Lifted it in thanks, and shared it, gave it to his friends to sup:
“Drink this, all of you, this is the blood of life poured out for you,
Every time you drink, remember I’ve poured out forgiveness, too.”
In remembrance of these acts, we give ourselves in thanks and praise.
Holy, living sacrifices, we proclaim faith’s mysteries:
“Christ has died and Christ is risen, Christ will come again one day.”
Pour your Holy Spirit on us, gathered in this place today.
Breathe your Spirit on these gifts of breaking bread and pouring cup,
Make them be for us the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.
By your Spirit, we become Christ’s body given for the world,
‘Til he comes in final victory and we feast forevermore.
Through your Son, Our Savior, Jesus, with the Holy Spirit’s power,
May the Church that you created honor you in every hour.
Yours the glory, yours the kingdom, all who live in love are thine,
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
Adapted by Stephen P. West, copyright 2007 Stephen P. West
Sunday, October 18, 2009
A musical setting to the tune CWM RHONDDA may be found at the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website. Here is the text:
We are people of the mantle, with Elijah’s cloak in hand.
He has passed along the blessings of the Spirit for each land.
As Elijah with Elisha shared the presence of the Lord,
Christ is with us in this love outpoured.
‘Twas the cloth Elijah wrapped in at the opening of a cave,
When he heard the holy whisper of our God who came to save.
Just a simple body covering for protection and for wear
Had become a blessing for his heir.
When the mantle struck the water and it parted to each side,
Then Elisha knew the Spirit of Elijah was his guide.
This began a holy passing of the mantle down the line.
We have taken up a sacred sign.
We’ve received a double portion of the Spirit from each saint.
They have run the race before us, they have walked and not been faint.
Since our lives are lived in context of the faith that’s gone before,
We pass down a mantle ancients wore.
When our hearts are deeply aching and our knees are tired and worn,
When our journey leads to failure, when we suffer loss and mourn,
We recall Elijah’s mantle that we’re holding very near;
For the Spirit of the Lord is here.
Copyright 2005 by Stephen P. West
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
It was originally published by Abingdon Press in the periodical "Church Music Workshop." The music is available for downloadable purchase at the Cokesbury Website. Here is the text:
Refrain: This is the table of welcome, this is the font of God’s grace.
This is the book of love’s beckon, this is the warmest embrace.
Come at the Lord’s invitation, join in the peace of this place.
We are God’s newest creation, gathered in this holy space.
Joseph received all his brothers, setting the stage for amends.
Abraham showered three others, welcoming strangers as friends.
Those to whom grace has been given find that their circle extends.
Love is our reason for living, people the gift that God sends.
“I was the stranger you neighbored, I was the hungry you fed,
I was the prisoner you favored.” These are the words Jesus said.
Welcoming sister and brother into the banquet he spread,
We’ll find the Christ in each other, known in the breaking of bread.
Christ is the source of all healing, he is the kiss of God’s peace.
His light and love are revealing, he brings the joy of release.
All who are hungry and thirsty find that their yearnings will cease,
Wrapped in the arms of his mercy. Come, be his guest at the feast!
Saturday, October 10, 2009
For a setting to music, you may check the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website. Here is the text:
Water and Spirit are joined in this place,
Visible sign of a spiritual grace,
True act of God, not earned but received,
Love we have known before we were conceived.
Eternal streams of your life waters flow,
Creative power one day we will know.
First from the womb, and now from the bowl,
Clean us and wash us by making us whole.
Children of God we forever will be,
Marked with the sign of the flood and Red Sea.
Elder and child are born from above,
Graced with the freedom that leads us to love.
Copyright 2006 Stephen P. West
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I answered, "Grace Church, this is Steve." She said, "Steve ... West?" "Yes it is, who might this be?" She told me her name and where she was from, and she told me her story. She had seen my devotional that morning about praying for those who cause us trouble, realizing they are troublemakers because they are hurting deep inside. She was moved, since her sister was going through a painful divorce and her whole family had been very angry with her husband. She took my devotional over to her sister's house, and they realized that throughout this process they had never prayed for him or thought about how he must have deep pain inside they don't understand. So they wept and prayed together for him for the first time.
She said she had worked really hard to find my number, because she wanted to thank me and tell me the story. "And you know what's really funny?" she added. "My sister's last name is Coon!"
What a blessing that on the week of World Communion Sunday, God has reminded me of the spontaneous ways the Spirit works in bringing people together all across the world!
To read the complete raccoon story the brief Upper Room devotional was based on, click the raccoon picture in the right column of my blog.
Friday, October 2, 2009
More information about the new hymnal may be found at Celebrating Grace. To see the hymn set to music, go to the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website. Here is the hymn text:
Lord, you call us to your service, summon us for work divine,
Reach to us for life’s vocation as the witness you design.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Send us as your kingdom sign.
Great Creator of the living, in the dark your light shines through.
Out of nothing, you have made us priestly people, holy, true.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Make our lives as songs to you.
Son of God, great incarnation, Father’s gift of suffering love,
In your teaching, healing, working, you have shown us life above.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Grant us holy lives thereof.
Prodding Spirit, holy presence, calling each of us by name,
In our leading, preaching, witness, help us not your pow’r to tame.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Lead us, all your gifts to claim.
Lord, you call us to your service, grant us fruit as you ordain.
Risking all, we make disciples, working for your coming reign.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Faithful servants we remain.
Copyright 2006 by William H. Willimon and Stephen P. West
Monday, September 28, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
This is my LifePoints Column which appeared in the "Faith and Values" section of the Huntsville Times on Friday, September 25, 2009 - Steve West
Sometimes death can put life in perspective. Losing a local leader can portray the passing of an era and help us remember where we’ve been.
Rev. Warren Hamby was my uncle. We lost him this summer, but his image, with pipe in hand and a twinkle in his eye, will always be etched in my memory. The brother of my mother and a towering family figure, he was no stranger to Huntsville. He soared above our city as pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church during the 1960’s, the fastest growing time of their history. Huntsville was changing, and our nation was changing more.
I wonder what it would have been like to stand in the pulpit during such a pivotal age, when pastors were under scrutiny and civil rights issues were rampant. Uncle Warren was a great orator, striking the balance between the prophetic and the pastoral.
After Trinity, he went to Galloway Memorial UMC in Jackson, Mississippi, in hopes of bringing integration to the church. He followed the legendary Rev. Bill Selah in that pulpit. Selah had resigned in protest over the church members’ refusal to allow black people to worship with them.
At the funeral in June, my cousin Ren (Warren, Jr.) shared a memory of his father’s formidable character. The home of a family in the church had been bombed, though thankfully no one had been hurt. The following Sunday, Uncle Warren read a statement from the pulpit, denouncing violence and proclaiming that those who remain silent in the face of brutality share some of the blame. It ran in the Jackson newspapers for all to see.
Soon after that, Ren found his father crouched in the carport after dark, his shotgun in his lap. He hastily told his son to go inside. He had been watching cars driving slowly past the house with their lights off. Someone in the cars was shining flashlights into the bushes. Were they to be the next victims of the Ku Klux Klan?
Ren remembered it wasn't long before Uncle Warren came inside, relaxed, and laid the gun in the corner. It turned out the cars belonged to police keeping watch over the house.
For years, Ren remembered this as a heroic example of how his dad was willing to lay his life on the line for his family. But as he grew older, he began to see it differently. Uncle Warren had actually put not only himself but also his family in danger. It would have been safer if he had simply preached about something nice and palatable.
"He didn't have to read the statement," Ren said. "But then, I might have never learned that there are principles that are more valuable than life itself.”
Some things are worth risking your life for. Some may even be worth risking the lives of those you love. They are eternal values that great women and men stand on, even if they seem to stand alone.
It is said that “good guys finish last.” As I remember Uncle Warren, I am more prone to say that good guys last, long after life is finished. They are beacons of light that pierce the storms of history.
Friday, September 18, 2009
I don't believe it's wrong to be angry. Anger can be healthy. It can lead us to take up an important cause for change, defend the poor and those who have been wronged, or to speak the truth in love. It can make a human institution or community a better place when it is dealt with openly and directly in appropriate ways. Anger is a gift. It is an emotion God gave us to be used for God's glory. When we are angry at someone, it is an opportunity to help us both to grow.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
Tuesday, October 11 – Read Exodus 33:12-17
I vividly remember anxieties welling up in me when I was sent as a denominational missionary to start a new church. “Where do I start? What if I fail?” Perhaps the most urgent question on my heart was, “Who can I find to help me?”
I suppose this gives me a partial glimpse of the anxiety Moses had when charged with the daunting task of leading God’s people into the Promised Land. No wonder he starts a friendly argument with God. His fear of “going it alone” is valid. God has called them stiff-necked, told them to go on into the Promised Land, and does not plan to accompany them. “Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.” (33:5, NIV).
Yet Moses faithfully visits the tent of meeting, approaching God like a friend. He becomes the hero of intercessors everywhere. Moses gently persists, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me” (NIV). Like so many wo are called to step out on faith, Moses has no idea how to make it happen without some help.
Maybe Moses was asking for a few assistants, but I am guessing he hoped God had something else in store for him. God seemingly has a change of mind, promising that God’s very presence will go with him.
One secret to developing a heart of gratitude is that we don’t wait for something to be happy about. We stretch ourselves and claim the blessings of God’s presence in every situation, no matter how lonely we may feel. Eventually, we might hear the same voice speak to us as it did to Moses. "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." (NIV)
Join me in my breath prayer, breathing this prayer many times during the course of the day: “Lord, fill my presence with your presence.”
Monday, September 7, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Recently I read of a pastor in Arizona who preached a controversial sermon entitled "Why I Hate Barack Obama" in which he shared with the congregation how he prayed for our president to die. He is quoted as saying "If you want to know how I'd like to see Obama die, I'd like him to die of natural causes ... I don't want him to be a martyr, we don't need another holiday. I'd like to see him die, like Ted Kennedy, of brain cancer." Here is the full story with video footage at Pastor Reiterates Wish for President Obama to Die.
How can a gospel of love become so twisted? What is going on in the hearts of a church that has replaced Christ's call to love enemies and pray for those who challenge us with a call to hate and wish death upon others?
The truth is that in lesser and more subtle ways, we are prone to do the same. In a highly anxious culture during a highly anxious time in history, we do not let the gospel enter so deeply into our hearts that it brings wholeness and healing to our brokenness. We'd rather reinvent the truth than have God's truth reinvent us. So we have continue Christendom's repeated journey of creating the latest inventions in alternative spirituality, from humanism to fundamentalism, from "name it and claim it" to prosperity spirituality. We become dissasociated from the vast mystery of God's love. Yet God is calling us, beckoning us back to the waters of grace.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
The more prosperous we are, the more we become chronically dissatisfied. What we have never seems to be enough, and we join the corporate quest for more and better. It is not just materialism. We tire of relationships and grow bored with opportunities. We shop for a new church when love gets uncomfortable and try the next fad in self-help when what we are doing doesn’t “work.”
Deuteronomy 8 is a fresh reminder of God’s provision. Meditating on the bountiful gifts of the Promised Land can help keep us authentically grounded, remembering where blessings come from.
God brought them “into a good land.” (vs. 7) God describes it with images of streams and springs as well as wheat, barley, vines, and figs. God even mentions the iron and copper ready for mining.
Yet God describes these things to Israel because God wants them to remain faithful. God warns that once they enjoy the land, they might forget where they’ve come from. Their hearts might become proud, and they might begin to think that what they have is because of the power of their own hands. Perhaps the people of Israel were not much different than us.
Trusting in God’s provision is knowing that what we have is enough to find joy. True blessings have more to do with what we’ve been through than what we own.
One of the biggest challenges in our religious culture is “prosperity spirituality.” It is rooted in dissatisfaction and the idea that if I do more for God, God will do more for me. At times, it seems to be little more than an exaltation of my own desires.
God’s greatest desire is to instill gratitude in us, not reinforce our chronic anxiety for more. Perhaps contentment is a form of liberation.
Take some time in your journal to list your blessings. Try to focus less on what you have, including relationships and opportunities, and more on where you’ve been and what God has brought you through. Give praise to the great provider.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Thursday, October 13, 2011 – Read Psalm 99
Reading psalms differs from reading other scripture. We step onto the ongoing prayer path of generations, hopping onto a bandwagon of continual worship that went on long before us and will keep going long after we are gone. Singing and praying psalms takes us beyond surface feelings and our verbal comfort levels into a whole new world.
If we are honest, we might note that Psalm 99 is one that we are prone to skim or skip over. It envisions God enthroned on high. The earth shakes and the nations tremble. An awesomeness accompanies the name of God. It’s not that we don’t believe this; it’s just that we’ve heard it before. And some part of us would rather think of God as warm, fuzzy, and friendly.
But the more I pause to pray the psalm, the more it sensitizes my heart to the holy. It is curious that this week’s readings remind us of God’s presence hovering over a tent and appearing in brief glimpses. This psalm recalls that God spoke to Moses and Aaron in a pillar of cloud. An anonymous fourtheenth-century writer of Christian mysticism described God's presence as the "cloud of unknowing."
The psalmist moves our spirits from the smaller picture of our needs, our hopes, and our wants to the larger picture of God’s mysterious presence. We don’t praise God because we feel like praising but because God is God.
Perhaps praise is not something we do at all; it is something we join. The psalms have a mysterious way of unlocking the secrets of true gratitude by ushering us into the ongoing praise of all creation.
Take time to read and reread this psalm. Let the words sink in. Chant or sing it if you can, letting it become the song of your heart. Let God expand your perspective beyond the blessings and challenges in front of you to a sense of the holy.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
I can’t remember exactly when my blessing changed.
I have had a wonderful twenty-one years with my wife and children. We share table blessings as part of our daily time to eat together. I don’t always lead them. But I have fallen into a certain pattern when I do. It’s not a rhyme, but it flows from a simple, predictable outline.
A few years ago, however, I suddenly changed my typical prayer. Not only did I thank God for the food, our time together, and our many blessings, I began to pray that God would help us to be truly grateful people.
One of the most often quoted scriptures is “for God loves a cheerful giver.” (vs. 7) It has taken me years to understand that this is not some banal reminder to smile and be happy when you write a check. The translation of the Greek hilaros as “cheerful” doesn’t quite do it justice. One can guess, and quite accurately, that this is the root of the word “hilarious.” Paul is talking about more than rosy cheeks. Becoming people of gratitude is about cultivating a joy as deep as your last belly laugh.
The context of Paul’s phrase is that he is making arrangements to receive a generous gift from the church in Corinth for other Christians in need. He reminds them not to give out of some sense of obligation but to give what is on their hearts.
Paul promises that the one who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food” will provide not only the gifts but a new spirit within, which he calls the “harvest of your righteousness.” (vs. 10) Then he says “the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (vs. 12)
Giving doesn’t just reflect our gratitude. It deepens it.
In prayer, imagine yourself lifting your own heart before God. Let it be your gift. Ask God to make it new.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Monday, Oct. 10, 2011 (Thanksgiving Day in Canada) - Read Luke 17:11-19
Jesus clearly tells all ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. In Jewish practice, these are not unusual instructions for those hoping to get well. So they embark on the journey but, surprisingly, experience cleansing en route.
Yet one Samaritan, ironically a foreigner but one that would know about ritual washing practices, turns back as soon as his skin clears. Jesus finds him lying at his feet and commends him.
True gratitude involves more than simply following instructions and mustering up an obligatory thank you. It is being overwhelmed with joy. All ten had experienced the same miracle of healing on the outside. Yet Jesus praised the one who was changed on the inside. “Your faith has made you well.”
We have a difficult time with gratitude because we live in a world of doing and accomplishing. We solve a problem and move on. We get the job done, and we’re on to the next task.
But the tenth leper reminds us that gratitude brings completeness to our healing. I love to worship is because it deepens the thankfulness of my heart, bringing an extraordinary wholeness to the grace I have received.
In a world of functionalism, we are called not just to do our part and follow the basic requirements. We are called to be in relationship with the One who makes us well.
When have you been overwhelmed with joy? Get in touch with memories and moments that have drawn you back to the feet of Christ. Give praise in a way that makes your joy more complete.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Saturday, October 15, 2011 – Read Matthew 22:15-22
Jesus said some strange things. At times, his words project the radical values of the
hen he says “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (NIV) he is doing some of both. Jesus certainly knows the hypocritical attitude of those quizzing him about taxes. But he answers the question nevertheless.
It is hard to live from your center when people seem to be plotting against you! Yet Jesus does not couch his answer in a way that takes sides. Instead it spurred imaginative thought for generations. For Jesus, the way of gratitude boils down to a core question. How much of who we are belongs to God?
Gratitude is not a matter of tipping God for services rendered or volunteering a portion of our time. Our giving reflects our living. My favorite phrase in the wedding liturgy is spoken at the exchange of rings: “With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you.” We might best direct that phrase to the one that gives us life itself.
Many commitments occupy a role of importance in daily life, spanning everything from family to church, from community to career, from nation to denomination. Jesus’ saying on taxes ironically holds both sides of a proverbial coin in tension. It is not that we can only serve one or the other commitment. The question is how we honor God in the midst of all our commitments.
Giving is a spiritual discipline that cultivates a grateful heart. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) We do not give only to change the world. Our giving also changes us.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Friday, October 14, 2010 - Read 1 Thessalonians 1:1-3
I was leading a Bible study in which participants discussed different forms of prayer. As we approached the subject of intercession, a woman exclaimed, “I don’t get anything out of praying for other people. It doesn’t do any good, so why bother? God knows what they need.”
I mustered a response, reminding the class that many people find this way of prayer rewarding. But I admit her comment caught me off guard - many of us miss out on the joys of intercessory prayer. I am also aware that her doubts resonate with where I have been many times along the way.
Paul helps my doubtful stance. Paul opens his letter with gratitude by telling the Thessalonians that he and his companions “continually remember before our God” (NIV) their faithfulness. This idea of persistent remembering captures the spirituality of intercession.
I recall the humorous experience of hearing someone pray for the sick, making sure to mention their hospital room numbers. What if we thought of prayer not as giving God information which God already knows, but as “continually remembering before God” those we pray for?
It is difficult in a culture fixated on functionalism to fathom such mystery. I find that it helps to move intercessory prayer beyond words. At times, I envision lifting those I am praying for into holy light to receive healing and blessing.
This week we have spent time with Moses, the greatest of intercessors. He boldly remembered before God all that God had promised! He interceded not to give God information but to embrace a profound truth. Prayer makes a difference for others; but in our praying, we are also changed. Lifting up others is an essential part of our journey toward gratitude.
Spend some time remembering before God others who you long to pray for. Imagine lifting them into God’s healing light.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Wednesday, October 12, 2011 – Read Exodus 33:18-23
How strange that God would show Moses his backside! We are told in the verses prior to this week’s readings that they spoke “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (33:11) Maybe Moses has grown accustomed to the tent of meeting. I can’t imagine getting used to God's descending in a cloud and being left with a shiny face.
But Moses desires more. He yearns for a sense of God's presence. In today’s reading, he pushes the envelope a little further and asks for a glimpse of God’s glory.
God reminds him that he cannot see God’s face directly, then places him on a rock and passes by, removing a hand from Moses’ eyes long enough for him to get a glance. It gives Moses the assurance he needs.
Grace is strange indeed - both passionately present and mysteriously distant. Experiencing this duality is the essence of knowing the glory of God in Christ.
The journey to a grateful heart begins with a willingness to look for God in mystical moments great and small. We can not grasp God; God is revealed. We do not reach out and touch. God comes to us. Our part is to be attentive.
Many of us desperately search for God. We read books, attend worship, go to Bible study, and apply principles; yet we still experience a profound hunger. Perhaps goodness passes us by all the time. We miss it because we are wired to be consumers rather than people of gratitude. Thank God for those mystical moments that open our eyes!
When have you experienced God this week or caught a glimpse of God’s backside? Ask God for more awareness.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
I’d like to share a briefer version that was published in the September/October 2009 edition of “The Upper Room.”
“Raccoons at the Table”
Read Philippians 1:15-18
What does it matter? The important thing is that … whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. – Philippians 1:18 (NIV)
One night while we were wilderness camping, raccoons tore into a bag of trash I neglected to hang up. I rose early to find a mess. I pondered three simple thoughts. First, This is what raccoons do. Second, They really didn’t hurt me. Third, Next time I’ll tie my trash up higher!
God led me to write in my journal about the “raccoons” in my life, the people who seem to go through my “trash” looking for something – my weaknesses, scars, and unresolved pain – making a mess and causing me problems. One by one, I prayed for and about them, remembering the three thoughts above.
In Philippians, Paul spoke of those who “preached Christ out of selfish ambition, … supposing they could stir up trouble” for him. But Paul had learned to let go of anger at people like this. He said “what does it matter?”
Some people seem to rummage through our weaknesses, trying to “stir up trouble.” But anger, retaliation, and distress are unnecessary. As Jesus told his disciples, we can be “wise as serpents” and “harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:15, KJV). All of us, even troublemakers, are welcome at God’s table.
Prayer: “Lord, help us to face life’s troublemakers with confidence in your power. In Christ’s name. Amen.”
Thought for the day
Troublemakers are troubled people. Pray for them!
Copyright 2009 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Check this video out:
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Some of the other sacred metaphors that have become powerful for me as I explore and seek to understand my spiritual life have been the tree planted by streams of water, the dancer within me, healing and cleansing light, soaring like a young eagle under a mother's wings, floating on streams of living water, and being shaped and molded like clay.
Here's a new metaphor that came across my path - artistry. I share the quote with you.
How to be an artist: Stay loose. Learn to watch snails. Plant impossible gardens. Make little signs that say "yes" and post them all over your house. Make friends with uncertainty.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
When I meditated on the word Guidance, I kept seeing “dance” at the end of the word. I remember reading that doing God’s will is a lot like dancing.
My prayer for you today is that God’s blessings and mercies be upon you on this day and everyday. May you abide in God as God abides in you. Dance together with God, trusting God to lead and to guide you through each season of your life.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
I have requested each aspect of this service to reflect not only my life and loves, but to be a worship time that uplifts and brings healing of the heart. I love worship and I hope this time contains a glimpse of the glory of heaven where I believe we will all feast and fellowship and sing eternal praise. I’m already here. I’ll see you when it’s your time to pull up a chair and join us.
Remember that this service is not for me. It is for you. I have counseled many people through grief and have discovered that everybody grieves in their own way. Allow yourself time and space to walk through the journey with depth and find your joy. Look for the holy moments and find healing. Remember time is your friend and that others can’t really understand or grieve in the same way you do. Give them space to grieve in their way, too. If you get stuck, get some help. Otherwise, know that God is using this time as a means of grace to draw you closer.
The best way you can honor my life is to live yours to the fullest. Learn to sing in a way that “prays twice”, as Augustine taught. Let go of anxiety and behold life as a great adventure. Believe that your joy is a choice. Don’t be afraid of silence, God has spoken to me in amazing ways using that language. Find forgiveness and live life as a miracle to behold. If people oppose or challenge you, consider it blessing to be unraveled. Learn to laugh, and stop taking things so seriously. I have grown to believe what Henri Nouwen taught. We are not what we have, or what people say about us. These are lies. We are children of God, infinitely loved by the one who crafted us, made new by the love of Christ, and shaped by a continual outpouring of grace. Our neighbor is made in the image of God, too, even if they drive us crazy. These truths changed my life.
I hope you will take time to attend to your grief meaningfully so that you can move into a new chapter of your life with a restored joy. Refuse to walk through grief without meaning. Look for holy moments and know that, somehow, I am sharing them with you. Live life and know that you were loved by me.
July 8, 2009