Thursday, May 28, 2009

Psalm 107 and Going Through Tough Times

Having a hard time? Psalm 107 reminds me of the deep sense in which only those who have gone through great life struggles can truly "say so," claiming God's steadfast love endures forever.

The parallelism in the song is amazing. It describes four types of crisis situations God brings us through. It could be said that these four describe, in a nutshell, all of life's dark valleys.

Sometimes life is like wandering in a desert wildnerness, and sometimes it is like being imprisoned in darkness. Sometimes it is like being sick in sin, sometimes like being caught up in a storm. After each case is described, we come back to the sung refrain of thanksgiving for all that God brings us through.

This psalm could be the key to radically re-imagining your pain and difficulties. Spend a week with it and see what God does. Only the "redeemed" can possibly speak of such joy in God. In the midst of each of these kinds of dark journeys, we are made new.

What is it about walking through a dark valley that makes us more fully human and also more blessed by the divine? I've known all these journeys and it is part of the refining fire that has matured my spirituality. I'm presently walking through a journey of chronic illness with Sandy. Lord, show us our way through, our healing wholeness.

What about you?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Dream for the Next United Methodist Hymnal

This is my brainstorm about the next United Methodist hymnal that is a “bridge hymnal” into a new kind of hymnal resource. It would be a hybrid.

1) We would honor historic tradition and serve churches who enjoy a touch and feel, paper, bound hymnal.

2) However, purchasing and owning these hymnals would also be purchasing an entry key into a vast and evolving internet based resource. It would not just “come with a multimedia CD” because that would be obsolete in a few years. Rather, it would be an internet based resource so it could grow and change and supplements and songs could be added continually. It could literally have a web page address printed in the front of the hymnal and something like a password just for your congregation.

3) The internet resource would have all the advantages of Song Select (permission to download and print song words in inserts, bulletins, or for projection legally) but would have so much more for Wesleyan worship. The resource would cull the world of song for the best (of various styles) and also only include that which is sound theology and fosters Wesleyan spirituality.

4) Each song in the printed hymnal would have an array of downloadable resources related to it (such as alternative tunes, jazz or praise band arrangements, and translations into other languages). Sometimes these could be printed just for choirs and accompanists and sometimes for the whole congregation.

5) When a congregation knows and loves a certain tune, there can be downloadable resources related to that (such as other traditional and contemporary hymn texts that go well with that tune).

6) When a congregation has a unique flavor (such as a love for global song, Taize, contemporary praise band worship, or songs in Spanish or Korean) there are vast resources for them to use rather than the few songs a printed hymnal is limited to.

7) All supplementary material previously in printed hymnals would be online only (such as indexes, seasonal prayers, alternative Great Thanksgivings, and orders for daily prayer). This would both expand room for music in the printed version and also allow these resources to be much more thorough.

8) There could be so much more creativity in how psalms are arranged (rather than using the same model for all of them) including options across the board from contemporary praise versions to antiphonal chant.

9) The internet resource could be funded through advertizing bars like other successful sites that are free to the user (though it’s not really free because you bought the hymnal that gives you the rights to it). For churches that just don’t want a printed hymnal, you could have a fee for legally accessing and use the resource site as a church.

10) Much of what is presently in the Board of Discipleship Worship Website would also be included in this internet resource (such as publishing songs and liturgy that people freely submit).

11) This makes your hymnal completely customizable for the local church’s setting. My gosh, you could even have your printed hymnal (or a section of it) customizable and have choices about what is included in your printed version!

That’s my dream! It’s doable, and it’s a bridge into a whole new way of thinking of “hymnal.” But it has clear advantages over internet-only resources and honors our tradition of a bound book.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Methodist Hymnal Project Delayed

I just heard the Hymnal Committee threw in the towel (due to UM Publishing House financial constraints) and will not work any more this quardennium. Maybe it's good I didn't make it past the "finals" to be on the committee ... they only had one meeting. Sad, but maybe the effort can start again in 4 or 8 years.

I have hopes for a "bridge hymnal" into a new kind of hybrid hymnal that goes beyond the page into cyber resources, but true to tradition as well. Something emergent that is an entry point into a larger body of resources for our diverse church. Something that is not static (i.e., these are our hymns and there are no others) but dynamic (i.e., we are a very diverse people experiencing vital worship and this is our launching pad). Something we can touch and feel but that is also a bridge into vast and diverse ways of resourcing worship for the future.
We'll see. Some observers of culture say there will never be another hymnal, others say this will be the last one. I personally think this is an incredible time to build a bridge while still being true to the power of our own tradition.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Prayer from Mother Teresa's Prayer Book

Deliver me, O Jesus,

from the desire of being loved,
from the desire of being extolled,
from the desire of being honored,
from the desire of being praised,
from the desire of being preferred,
from the desire of being consulted,
from the desire of being approved,
from the desire of being popular,
from the fear of being humiliated,
from the fear of being despised,
from the fear of suffering rebukes,
from the fear of being calumniated,
from the fear of being forgotten,
from the fear of being wronged,
from the fear of being ridiculed,
from the fear of being suspected.
Deliver me, O Jesus.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Best Stimulus Package Ever

This is my column published in LifePoints, the religion section of "The Huntsville Times," on May 15, 2009. - Steve West

Our nation is debating over what stimulates the economy. Everyone agrees we’ve got to do something, but there is little agreement over what. Do we invest in programs that create jobs or cut taxes to create spending? Do we need regulation or deregulation? Is government involvement the solution or the problem?

I don’t know much about economics, but I do know something about the greatest stimulus package … ever. It involved a cross and resurrection. The details of this enormous package were outlined recently in churches during Holy Week.
We need to claim our share of it when we find ourselves spiraling out of control. This is not new. The Bible is full of people who got stuck in deadly patterns. In God’s time, we were given a stimulus plan to loosen these patterns of death.

Jesus called some religious leaders "whitewashed tombstones," a metaphor for people who wanted to look alive but were dead at the core. Our economy is faltering. Do we continue patterns of death such as partisan posturing? Or do we let imagination stir us to life?
People who live in denial about our deadness can’t be raised. The cross and resurrection give us a jolt, a real shock treatment.

In Mark, Easter is anything but nice. The women at the tomb were so profoundly shaken they couldn't follow the angel's instructions to go and tell. They were confounded, perplexed, disturbed, disordered, and confused.

I looked up “stimulus” in the dictionary. I found most definitions unsurprising, but one entertained me. It is "something that incites especially a violent response." Not only does that remind me of some news commentators on the national plan, it sounds to me like the women at the tomb.

Maybe we need a bit of their bewilderment. The cross and resurrection have messed with our assumptions about life and death and what it means to win or lose. This stimulus kicked in to create a whole new “economy” in which self-giving love is the greatest power on the planet.

We may not bring oil and spices to tombs anymore, but we do bring fragrant flowers. Imagine coming back to the grave of someone you love a few days later, only to find a hole in the ground. The coffin lid is flung open, and their suit or dress is neatly folded. Would your first response be “How nice, let’s go hide eggs?” I believe it would be more along the lines of screaming.

We need a little shaking up. We choose patterns of death, not intentionally but subtly, living in a functional atheism. We believe in God with our heads, but in our hearts it's still all up to us. We've still got to fix everything or please everybody.

I hope we can let the cross and resurrection really bother us, get under our skin, and perturb us. Maybe we’ll be so irritated we can’t go back to sleep.
Copyright 2009 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Would We Do Without Grandmothers Who Pray?

This Mother's Day, I recalled a precious story from the informal annuls of family lore and I would like to share it with you. When my mother was six years old, she stepped on a Copperhead in the woods and was bit in the foot. As you can imagine, in those days it was hard to get to the doctor quickly. By the time they got her there, some of the flesh in her ankle had been eaten away by the poison. The doctor told my grandmother that her daughter would never walk normally again.

My grandmother was a spiritual giant in many ways. She could not accept such news without the outflowing of prayer. According to my mother, my grandmother spent all night at the church in prayer before God, interceding for her daughter.

Soon after that, when they returned to the doctor and he removed the bandage, my mother remembers his shock and surprise. “I've never seen flesh heal itself like that!”

This story explains my mother's phobia about snakes. The biggest mistake in my childhood was the time I put a rubber snake in her bed! But more importantly, it illuminates the maternal faith sharing of my family. What would we do without grandmothers who pray? Where would I be?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Position Papers on Constitutional Amendments

Sorry to bore those of you not interested, but I thought it best to post position papers I wrote concerning the proposed Constitutional Amendments we will be voting on at Annual Conference. As a "good ole' moderate Methodist," I offer my viewpoints for consideration.

For the amendments and a balanced summary of pros and cons, see the West Ohio Conference's notes on the Proposed Constitutional Amendments.

Here are my "position papers!

Position Paper Concerning Amendment I

This proposed amendment affirms the availability of the ministry of the church to all people. The present statement in the Discipline reads that all persons are of sacred worth and eligible to attend, participate, receive sacraments, and become members “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.” The amendment removes this language listing specific categories and makes other minor adjustments so it becomes a more general statement that all people are of sacred worth and are eligible for these ministries.

I am in favor of ratifying this amendment because of the nature of Biblical hospitality. The statement as amended frames the value of open eligibility without the need to continue to be specific about various categories to be disregarded. The list is already incomplete and would inevitably need to be expanded. For example, “gender” is not on the list. At times, additions to the list might become controversial.

Much of the rhetoric I have heard and read against this amendment represents fear that it could be used to force pastors to receive members who might be unwilling to take seriously the vows of membership or promise to lead a Christian life. This amendment clearly does not mean that anyone can join our church regardless of whether they are willing to commit to the vows of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

I believe an important balance is created by ratifying this amendment, since General Conference legislation was also passed clarifying that it is the pastor’s responsibility to discern readiness for membership. This article as amended does not say that everyone has the right to be a member, regardless of how committed they are to Christ or the Church. What this does do is affirm that all people are eligible for membership.

Position Paper Concerning Amendment II

This amendment would create a new requirement that all official organizations, groups, committees, councils, boards, and agencies of The United Methodist Church shall adopt ethics and conflict of interest policies.

I am not in favor of ratifying this amendment for practical reasons, though I would be in favor of a reworded requirement in the future. I am very much in favor of ethical accountability as well as written policies and healthy boundaries. I simply do not believe in creating constitutional requirements that are unrealistic or impossible to carry out.

I believe that it would be helpful for every local church as a whole, and every organization beyond the local church, to have such policies. What concerns me about this amendment is that this requirement applies to the various groups within the local church (this was clarified in discussion on the floor of the General Conference). It would be much better to allow the local church’s leadership council to establish blanket policies that apply to every group within the church.

If this amendment is ratified, every “group” in local churches would be required to establish such policies. This means that every Sunday School class, Youth Group, Quilter’s Club, Literary Club, Prayer Shawl Ministry, Outdoor Adventure Fellowship, Ministry Team, Missions Group, and Men’s Breakfast would be required to go through a process of writing and establishing ethics and conflict of interest policies. This is both unrealistic and unenforceable and is a task best suited for the leadership council of the local church.

Position Paper Concerning Amendments III, IV, V, VII, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XVI, XVIII, XX, XXI, XXIII, XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, and XXXII.

These amendments effect the world-wide structure of the church and the rationale is identical. They replace the language of “Central Conferences” with that of “Regional Conferences.” A few of the amendments also allow for the future creation of a Regional Conference for the U.S. which would create similar structures for all of our world-wide church. Each Annual Conference would belong to a Regional Conference (which would be able to organize sub-units called Jurisdictional Conferences).

I am not in favor of ratifying these amendments. However, before offering my rationale I want to note that there are some advantages to them. I would be in favor of replacing the archaic language of “Central Conferences” with language that makes us less U.S. dominated and acknowledges the increasingly global nature of our membership. In addition, if I were clear about what a new Regional Conference entailed and was in favor of it, I would say the advantage of these amendments is they would speed up the process of change. If ratified, the creation of a Regional Conference for the U.S. church could be done swiftly with a 51% vote at General Conference. Otherwise, implementing such a change would require a similar amendment process afterwards and an additional number of years.

I am not necessarily against the idea of a new Regional Conference for the U.S. Much of the rhetoric against these amendments is essentially against the very idea, condemning it as more bureaucracy, a layer of separation between the U.S. and worldwide church, or something resembling an Anglican Communion. Some of this rhetoric is rooted in the fear that if Regional Conferences attempt to interpret our Social Principles for their geographical area it could lead to division. Personally, I find this rhetoric more inflammatory than helpful, because we have no specific proposal before us. I am unable to judge whether it would be good or bad. The only thing we do know is that we don’t know what a new U.S. Regional Conference would be like.

This leads me to offer my rationale. I am not in favor of ratifying these amendments, simply because we have no clarity. In short, it is “putting the cart before the horse.” We are being asked to prepare a way to more easily and swiftly make changes when we don’t know what will be proposed. It would make more sense to agree on a well-thought-out plan and implement the necessary Constitutional changes afterward, rather than rewriting our constitution to pave the way “just in case” we agree on something later.

The Cross and Flame is a registered trademark and the use is supervised by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church. Permission to use the Cross and Flame is obtained from the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Twenty-Five Random Things About Me

Facebook is quite a craze and I'm afraid I'm hooked. I recently posted "Twenty-Five Random Things About Me" so here they are for you!

1) In 7th grade, I won 1st place in the Jefferson County Math Tournament. My weakest subject was English. What do I do all day now, math or English? Go figure.
2) I was a terrible little league baseball player. One year I got “Most Improved Player” award … with a zero batting average.
3) I was named “Patient of the Quarter” for ReLife after doing well in therapy from knee surgery in 1993. They wrote a feature article about me. Does that make up for #2?
4) I have met two presidents, Carter and Ford. I met Dukakis too but he didn’t make it to president.
5) My father, both grandfathers, 3 cousins, and 2 uncles were Methodist preachers. My great, great, great grandfather and his 2 brothers were a trio of circuit riders named Taylor in the 1820’s. As if that were not enough, I married a Methodist preacher, and she has more than that in her own ancestry. With those genetics, my kids are in trouble.
6) My grandfather Hamby was deputized and carried pistols to the pulpit when leading a revival in the bootlegging town of State Line in the 1920’s.
7) When I first met my wife, she didn’t believe me when I told her my name. I was sitting with three other guys she already knew (all named Steve).
8) My wife is a direct descendant of Rev. Samuel Swayze, the first protestant minister in the Mississippi territory. One of his other descendants, Patrick Swayze, is Sandy’s most famous distant cousin.
9) I was called out of an audience of 5,000 to be an audience participant in the “Indiana Jones’ Stunt Spectacular” at Disney World. My shining moment in show business.
10) I am an avid Star Trek fan. What more can I say? Resistance is futile.
11) I am the proud owner of 2 four wheelers and a trailer … and know how to use them.
12) I have had 14 devotional articles or hymns published in “Alive Now,” “The Huntsville Times,” or by Abingdon Press or the General Board of Discipleship.
13) I replaced professional trombone player Harry Waters as first chair trombone at Grissom High School. Never mind that I replaced him because he graduated.
14) While we’re talking trombone, I made 2nd chair Red Band in All State.
15) There is a building at Young Harris College named after my Great Aunt and Uncle, Edna and Alva Maxwell.
16) My wife has Wests in her ancestry. Trust me, we looked into it to make sure we’re weren’t close cousins.
17) Sandy and I had our first fight the day after we had our first date. Might as well get it over with. My roommate had invited her to a party I was at, and I got insanely jealous.
18) I started a fire in my school band room in 8th grade. I didn’t mean to … I was innocently throwing a smoke bomb into a locker. It went down behind the lockers and lit the paper and valve oil. The wall went up in flames and I started yelling “fire” and ran to get the band director. They thought I was the hero and I didn’t get caught … the Fire department investigation “revealed” the reason for the fire was spontaneous combustion.
19) I stole money from the church in 8th grade. Lifted an envelope from an offering bag left in the church office. My mother had a weird feeling about it, and made me force open my locked cedar chest which had the money in it. Caught red handed.
20) That same year (punishment for #18 and #19?) my Boy Scout Troop abandoned me and my tentmate during a tornado at Stone Mountain. Each vanload thought we were in the other. Our tent blew down, and we woke to find an abandoned camp with a black swirl passing over in the sky above our heads. Pretty exciting.
21) In 8th grade, I had a major bicycle wreck (what is it about that year?). My brakes went out on a downhill slope. Avoiding a truck, I ran off the road and hit a bush. I flipped over and landed on my face in the gravel. That’s why I look this way.
22) I have Vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disorder (google it). White patches all over one knee and my rear end (TMI?). Glad it wasn’t my face or arms.
23) My first kiss was at Camp Sumatanga in 7th grade. Quite memorable … but not because it was good.
24) Actually, that wasn’t my first kiss because I kissed my cousin Linda when I was in 3rd grade. It’s not my fault, she dared me. We still call each other “kissing cousins.”
25) I became a follower of Christ at age 10, with my dad on a youth retreat at Camp Lee. I asked him if I could say something at closing worship. I shared that I had been to Sunday School and Bible School all my life, but that weekend I realized Jesus wasn’t just a storybook character, he was REAL. And that I wanted to serve him with my whole life.