Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Graveyard in the Snow

While this year's "White Christmas" was lingering, Sandy and I took a day to go graveyard exploring. Yes, I must be getting old ... I mean, in a "new place in my spiritual development" ... because searching for ancestors and learning their stories gives me a deep sense of context.

What is it about standing on this holy ground that I find so inspiring? It is not about dirt, stone, or bone. It is about story. It's not just their story, but my own story.

We went to Williams Cove near Winchester, Tennessee. Williams Cove is 900 acres that was deeded to my three-great grandfather, Col. Sherrod Williams, by Andrew Jackson for his service in the War of 1812. His grave, along with that of his wife Mary "Poly" Looney Williams, is near the end of Williams Cove Road. It is on the far left of property behind an old white house on the left of the road, just before the last big curve before the road ends at the side of a mountain. I am a descendant of one of their sons, Absolom, whose granddaughter, Louie Williams Hamby, was my grandmother.

I'm pictured here next to Sherrod's grave, with Poly's to my right. One of their sons' graves is leaning nearby. Sherrod was a Welshman and widower who married Poly Looney, the daughter of Michael Looney, a Revolutionary War soldier, and had 18 kids.

On that same road, Goshen Cumberland Presbyterian Church has a graveyard full of Williams and Looneys. Tromping through the snow at the final resting place of many cousins gave me a deep sense of my place on the earth. None of us exist alone. We may not know their names or faces or even their stories, but those who have gone before us are part of the fiber of who we are.

Sherrod's grave is topped with a lengthy eulogy, along with the complete text of the scripture that begins "blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." Poly's grave has a finger pointing up. One expensive and the other simple, these are signs tell me of their faith. They tell me something about mine.

We ended the day swinging by Bridgeport, Alabama, to see the Mount Carmel cemetery where some of the Williams' and Arendale's in the generations between us were buried. The snow got cold and the cemetery is large, so I need to go back and find a couple more direct ancestors we didn't have time for. As dusk came, we dropped by the schoolhouse my grandmother taught in, just across from the entrance to Russell Cave. It was about dark when we got to the house just 1/2 mile past the cave entrance where another family graveyard is back in the woods. Another day. Another time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas "Blessing of the Toys"

This liturgy was published in "The Interpreter" magazine in Advent of 2011. What a serendipity that they found it online, called me, and asked if they could highlight it in their magazine. I'm honored.

Below is my original blog post and brief liturgy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nothing Can Take the Joy of Christmas Away

This is my devotional that will be published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of the Upper Room.

Suggested Bible Reading: Luke 1:46-55

Key Verse: “And Mary said, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden’.” (Luke 1:46-48a, RSV)

A couple of weeks before my mother's last Christmas, she attended a worship service I was leading. When I opened the floor for prayer concerns, she boldly announced "Even though I have been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and the prognosis is not very good, I want everybody to know that nothing can take the joy of my Christmas away!"

Her carefully chosen words are etched in my memory. I was to sing a solo after that, and I barely managed to sing through my tears. Mom had left me with a powerful gift.

Reading Mary's Magnificat each year reminds me that no matter what troubles come, there is a bigger picture to behold. Mary had plenty to pout about, having gotten pregnant as an unwed teenager only to have others assume the worst. She would soon take a long, uncomfortable trek on a donkey's back to find that poverty and lack of connections would lead to giving birth in a messy old barn. Yet for Mary, there was a song to sing because she knew God was doing something. God’s blessing in the midst of her lowly situation reflected a larger movement of mercy from generation to generation.

Claiming Mary's and Mom's magnificent spiritualities would mean that no matter what happens to us, we can’t help but sing. Nothing can steal the joy of Christmas away.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, even when we are aware of life’s struggles during the holidays, may we find that they are indeed holy days. Let nothing distract us from the joy that the incarnation brings. In Jesus name, Amen.

Thought for the Day: Trials put us in touch with the bigger picture of God’s grace.

Prayer Focus: Those who struggle with cancer

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Keeping X in Xmas

Surprised at my title, "Keeping X in Xmas"?

Many statements come out this time of year by evangelical Christians decrying the use of the abbreviation "Xmas". They proclaim our need to "keep Christ in Christmas" and not "X him out". I do understand the desire to keep Christmas faithful to the true reason for the season, of course.

But it's a fairly common abbreviation that you can find on the storage boxes in my attic. Is it unfaithful? Should it be on the forefront of culture wars to keep Christ out of the celebration?

Actually, no. There's a huge misunderstanding about the etymology of this abbreviation that could help us learn about our faith heritage. The use of "Xmas" a remnant of a beautiful tradition in the ancient art of Christianity which is dear to our faith.

Beginning with the ancient church, including times of persecution when Christians met in the catacombs and other secret places, the use of the Greek letter X (pronounced chi in the original Greek) was used to represent Christ because it was the first letter in the Greek word Christos, or Christ. It became a sort of secret symbol, not unlike the use of the fish, the ichthus, in the ancient church to represent the Christian faith. Writing "Xmas" on a box is no more unfaithful than putting the symbol of the fish on the bumper of your car.

You can find remnants of this tradition in almost any sanctuary today. Christmon trees, paraments, and the like will employ the X as a decorative remnant of this tradition in ancient Christian art. Consider the XP (chi rho) on the paraments of many pulpits.

Use of the X in the abbreviation Xmas is not "x-ing out Christ." On the contrary, one could look at it as a statement of faith. Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. As I tell my confirmands every year, Christ is not Jesus' last name. It's his divine title. It means that he is not only the human Jesus who walked the earth. He is the anointed one, the Messiah.

For additional explanation about this, see a good article on the use of Xmas on wikipedia. Here is a gospel cover from approximately 700 A.D. reflecting the ancient use of this symbol of faith.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hymn "My Hope is In the Everlasting God"

Yesterday was the beginning of Advent, and we lit a candle and focused on the theme of HOPE. It reminded me that I have never shared the words of my hymn, "My Hope is In the Everlasting God" on my blog.

So here it is.

To see the words published and set to music, see the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website. Here is the text, which emphasizes the dual nature of gentleness and strength in God's love:

My hope is in the everlasting God.
The ages tell the story
Of sheltering wing, of strong and might rod,
Of gentle grace and glory.

In whispering breeze, in bravely sounding storm,
Your voice awakes creation.
In Christ divine, you serve in human form
For every generation.

“My Hope is In the Everlasting God” by Stephen P. West, copyright Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Prayers that Bug Me

Did the title of my blog post grab your attention?

I have heard many Thanksgiving blessings over the years at public gatherings, interfaith worship services, and meetings. Some are beautiful reflections of deep and humble gratitude for faith, family, and friendship.

But the prayers that bug me go something like this, "Lord, we're so proud to live in America, where we have all this great food to eat. In fact, we have way more than we need. I'm planning to gain a pound today and that's just awesome. Also, thank you for all of our riches ... um, I mean 'blessings' ... because it's so great to be part of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. We're so glad we're not poor like people in other countries, thanks to you."

I'm exaggerating, of course. Please forgive me. But I wonder about prayers that simply thank God for our bounty, our food, and all the great things we enjoy. Isn't there a hint of the Pharisee who was thankful that he wasn't "like that tax collector over there"? It's the nature of true gratitude to go deeper than that. It's the nature of the American holiday itself to go deeper than that.

When the pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, it was a harvest feast held with the Wampanoaga Native Americans after a long saga of strife. They were religious separatists who longed for freedom to practice their faith. Their two month trip on the Mayflower to the new world was not only uncomfortable, it was treacherous. The first winter was brutal and many of them stayed on the ship, where they suffered from exposure and disease. Half of the original pilgrims died before they saw their first spring. Yes, half. The ones that lived barely managed to eat until this first harvest. But by the grace of God, they made it.

So when they celebrated the first Thanksgiving, it wasn't out of thanks for their bounty, riches, plenty, and comfort. It was out of deep gratitude that they were still breathing, and out of sheer joy that finally a harvest had come. It was out of the realization that every moment is a gift, every opportunity a grace. It was out of the belief that it was worth the hardship to live the great adventure and find religious freedom. And most of all, it was out of the firm conviction that God had blessed them through the struggle. God was the source of their truth, their beauty, and their sustenance.

I find it intriguing that it wasn't until the middle of the Civil War that Lincoln proclaimed this tradition to be a national holiday held each November. Even in our hardest times, we proclaim God's goodness. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, not about prosperity.

So this year, let your prayers go deeper. Thank God for the ways you have "made it" by grace. Acknowledge that your livelihood and well-being are in God's hands. Don't just pray about the food, recall the tough times you had this year. Remember that God is the source of all goodness, and be thankful that we are all in this together and that God sees us through. Reflect upon Jesus, who taught in the beatitudes that blessings come disguised as hardship. Let your heart be filled with gratitude, no matter what.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Spirit's Flow Around Rocks and Logs

The Spirit has led me this week to meditating with a new lifegiving metaphor. I imagine myself as a great river, or rather as part of a great river, moving and flowing quickly with an almost musical rush and rhythm. I imagine a couple of stones and logs in the path of the white water rapids.

I think of these stones and logs. Are they interruptions to the water's flow or are they part of the beauty of the river? Are they obstacles to the flow or does the river simply flow around them? And if the flow is redirected, is that not a good thing? It is as if the river works with the rocks and logs in an almost mutually beneficial way. They give the river beauty and interest and direction. The river, in time, smooths out the rough edges of that which is in its path.

One of my deepest spiritual struggles, part of my spiritual personality, is that too often I tend to see problems and even difficult people as obstacles. Are they interruptions to my life or are they part of the beauty of my life's flow? And if I flow around them, is that not a good thing? Does it not give my life beauty and interest and direction? And does my flowing not smooth out the rough edges of others I choose to love, if flowing in a way that surrounds and accepts?

Lord, I'm not sure why I fret and stress over the things in my path. Yes, I function well and work with others just fine. But in my heart of hearts, I know that anxiety about this is my greatest spiritual struggle. I lose sleep and expend emotional energy over the things and even people in my path.

Help me to flow with the flow of the Spirit and trust that there is beauty in the flowing. Help me to flow around them in a way that loves the beautiful dance between water, rock, and log.

Friday, November 12, 2010

In Christ's Church, Raccoons Are Welcome

Here is my column that appeared in the Faith and Values section of "The Huntsville Times" on Friday, November 12, 2010.

Pictured is animal rehabilitationist Lori Banton holding a wriggling 4-month-old raccoon.

You can also see it published online at the Huntsville Times Online.

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

One spring, my family went camping at a national wildlife preserve. Our campsite was equipped with two poles and instructions. The first held a lockable food cage to protect our stores from raccoons scavenging at night. The second was to hang trash out of their reach.

One evening, I neglected to tie up my trash. The night was filled with noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. Indeed the raccoons had come.

Standing in the midst of a mess the next morning, I realized three things. The first was “this is what raccoons do.” There’s no reason to be angry. Secondly, “they really didn’t hurt us.” Aside from the hassle of picking up the trash, there was no pain. Finally, and most importantly, I thought “next time, I’ll tie my trash up higher.”

But those midnight marauders made me think of other pests - the raccoons in my life, people who had sorted through my trash looking for something to criticize or consume.

In light of my three revelations, I prayed over them: This is what raccoons do. They didn’t hurt me, not really. And maybe it’s time for me to erect a few boundaries, keeping my “trash” tied up higher.

In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul writes 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 ... 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.”

What acceptance Paul had about life’s raccoons!

The following Sunday, my sermon title was “Raccoons are Welcome.” I encouraged my congregation 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 from the Spirit: “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 behind the church. I went through the stack one by one, praying as I burned the letter. It was a time of release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain.

Once all were burned, 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 laughed at God's sense of humor - and headed inside to fetch the last letter to burn.

Friday, November 5, 2010

People Shining Like the Sun

I have been to Gethsemane in Kentucky a couple of times for retreat. This is the place where Thomas Merton lived and worked. I remember going to dinner with my covenant group in Louisville and seeing a plaque on the street where Merton had a well-known spiritual experience. I am thinking of it today as I consider how those around me, even those who most challenge me or rub me the wrong way, shine like the sun. What depth of wisdom he discovered! Here is what he wrote:

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

Thomas Merton

Saturday, October 30, 2010

This is the Table of Welcome

On this All Saint's Weekend, I am reflecting on the communion table that binds all God's saints together across time and space. I would like to share the words to a song I wrote called "This is the Table of Welcome."

The solo anthem was published by Abingdon Press in “Church Music Workshop” to an original tune I created, with a musical arrangement by my friend and co-worker Nylea Butler-Moore.

The music can be purchased for download at the Cokesbury Website.

Here are the words. May it bless you for this day.

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!


“This is the Table of Welcome” by Stephen P. West, copyright 2006 by Abingdon Press

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Easter Is the Morning of Freedom

I recently wrote a new hymn text for a contest I heard about through the Hymn Society. They were searching for new Easter texts that are free of the typical triumphal or victorious language and full of new images for how Easter pours the energy of God's love into the world.

I wrote a text that I hope brings the various Easter sightings to life and helps us find our place in the story. It is set to one of my favorite new tunes.

I share it with you now in hopes that it blesses your spirit. I know it's not the Easter season but discovering the rhythms of new life is a journey for the whole year!


"Easter Is the Morning of Freedom"
Tune: YOU ARE MINE (David Haas)

In the darkness of the night we are grieving,
Tracing shadows of the soul.
At the dawning of the day, a stone is rolled away.
The cleansing of light makes us whole.

Easter is the morning of freedom,
Dayspring of new life in Christ.
Let all voices sing, let Alleluias ring!
The day is coming, we will rise!

In the garden of the tomb we are searching,
Sensing that we’ve lost our way.
By the voice of one who came and calls us by our name,
We find that our tears roll away.


On the long and dusty road we are groping,
Longing for an opened mind.
Yet our hearts will burn instead. In breaking of the bread,
We see we are no longer blind.


In a locked and private room, we are restless,
Finding that our doubts bring strife.
When his presence is made known, his side and hands are shown.
He breathes on us peace and new life.


In the waters of the world we go working,
Fishing ‘til the break of day.
Jesus comes to have a seat, invites us all to eat,
And shows us that love is the way.


“Easter is the Morning of Freedom” by Stephen P. West, copyright 2010 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reflection on the Conversation of Art and Nature

My family recently took a Fall Break trip to Nashville to Cheekwood Gardens, one of my favorite places to enjoy a fascinating interplay of art and nature. It's a mansion built by a family who began the Maxwell House coffee company. It has been converted to a museum and botanical gardens.

I love the nature and art trails and the way this place brings them together in sort of a holy conversation. God has created such a beautiful world. Art is meant not to detract from the world's beauty but to enhance it, to express the beauty that already is, to call attention to it, to capture its rhythms in a moment of time.

Last week, there was a Chihuly exhibit. He is an internationally known glass artist. What astounded me is the way he blended his art into the natural surroundings. I have never seen such a careful and creative interplay. It was of course fascinating to learn how he and his team made these incredible displays of colored glass. But I was sent into some thoughtful meditation by the displays themselves on the grounds. This blog post contains a few photographs I took. I especially loved the way he incorporated art into greenery and fountain.

I am not personally gifted as a visual artist, but I am an auditory artist. I love music and enjoy giving a large portion of my creative energy to making the world more beautiful.

But this incredible display left me wondering. How do I share my gift of art in a way that dances with nature? With the rhythms of the soul and human life? How can the art of the church bring our soul's natural desire for expression to life?

I recently wrote a hymn for Easter for a hymn writer's contest. It was a joy to bring the song into being in a way that hopefully brings the story, the holy narrative, to life. I was touched that the Easter sightings in the scriptures bring holiness to the regular, mystery to the messiness of life. Writing it reminded me that finding new life in the ways and patterns of real living is what Easter is all about, and for me, this is the power of the story. I look forward to sharing the hymn in my next blog post.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Seed in the Ear is Worth Two in the Bush

When my wife and I got married, it was a church wedding of church weddings. We were in seminary and both on the part-time staff at the church where we were wed. Naturally, a large group from the church came. The experience was complete with choir and hand bells, a car decorated by the youth group, and lots of bird seed tossed.

The wedding was on Saturday, and we happily went on our honeymoon to Gulf Shores. But by Tuesday, I was feeling a strange, niggling, little itch in my left ear. I started complaining to Sandy about it. It got worse and worse every day.

By Thursday, in desperate need of relief, I was scratching inside my ear. Lo and behold, my fingernail caught on something. I pulled it out. There it was, a piece of bird seed that had lodged in my ear ... and it had sprouted! It had become a tiny little plant, and not only that, it was growing inwardly. No wonder it had been driving me absolutely crazy.

One year, I preached on the parable of the sower and proudly told the story of the seed sprouting in my ear. Though some seed falls in places where it won't grow, I made the conclusion that "seeds take root in fertile ground," referring of course to my head. The church found that a bit humorous. Yet I never will forget the man who came up to me after the service and said, "you know what fertilizer is made of don't you? Manure!" Then he just walked off. I deserved that.

At my going away party upon leaving that church, he gave me a dentist's mold of an ear with a little plant growing out of it. He wrote on the side, "Hear the Word, Plant the Word, Do the Word." What a gift. I keep it in my office to remind me that God can do great things with one little seed, no matter how unlikely the place is that it is planted.

Jesus said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. An entire forest begins with one seed. No matter how small it is, each act of kindness, each word of grace, and each demonstration of Christ's love is a seed. Do we trust in this mystery? God provides the growth.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who Am I?

Bonhoeffer was a real, honest to goodness, persecuted saint. He stood for his Christian faith, which landed him in prison in Nazi Germany. I have been reflecting on one of his poetic writings entitled "Who Am I?"

He contrasts the calm exterior others in the concentration camp saw in him with what he really felt deep on the inside. Something about it reaches out and touches my spirit as I meditate and journey through mid-life.

Here is an English translation:

Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell's confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Meditation in Time of Grief

Recently, someone at church asked me for some scriptures to meditate on in their time of grief. It caused me to reflect on what helped me through the storm of losing my mom years ago. Meditation on scripture and song through lectio divina was a real gift. I share with you some of what I shared with him.

I know grief is a long journey.

Here are some ideas for your meditation. They really helped me when my mom died. Psalm 23 which you mentioned certainly did, too. That psalm came to life for me as a reminder that Christ will walk with me through the dark valley. I meditated on the way each season of my life was in the psalm ... sometimes it's green pastures, sometimes it's clear waters, sometimes it's the dark valley of the shadow of death, sometimes it's

I loved parts of Isaiah 43. This is a wonderful passage about how God will see us through anything … “when you walk through the fire I’ll be with you.” Related to that, I meditated a lot on a traditional hymn that reflects the images of Isaiah 43. Here are the words:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Something else that helped me was to mediate on various scriptures such as these:

Psalm 91 - God protects us

Psalm 139 - God knows us so deeply and personally

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 - Our consolations are as abundant as our sufferings

2 Corinthains 12:5-10 - When I am weak, God is strong

1 Kings 19:11-12 - Hearing the still small voice

2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 16-18 - Though bodies waste away, inner nature is renewed every day

Jeremiah 29:4-7 - When you are in exile, choose to live. I wrote an article once that was published based on meditation on this scripture. I have attached it for you. (NOTE: It may be found at The Exile of Grief.)

Blessings during your time of grief. There are consolations and holy moments along the way.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Blessing the Dark Places

Lord, you bless the dark places.

For years now, I have from time to time been led to a visual prayer experience, when Christ meets me in the ancient hallways of my soul with candle in hand. I invite him, in the end, to descend beyond the hidden doorway I am blocking from both him and my own perception. He gently nods and descends the staircase into my hidden darkness.

For years, I allowed him to go to that place and share the light of healing with no need to go there myself. I simply trusted Christ to heal and bring the light. Then for a while, I went along to that dark place behind him and saw there a pier with shimmering waters in the darkness surrounding his light.

Now I wonder, Lord. Lately I've realized this dark place may be a place you call me to explore with Christ as my holy light.

It's not an evil or bad place. It's just a hidden place. There are good things that come from this dark place - the desire to succeed, the yearning to make a difference, the longing for justice. It is a place of passion. Yet there is a dark side to this deep place of primordial urges to protect and defend - the desire to make a name for myself, the weariness of the same old roadblocks I experience in the personalities of others, the resentment that builds over time.

In short, it's the crusader in me who lives in this vast place. Sometimes he expresses himself in hidden ways, sometimes in ways openly related to a project or an agenda I'm working on.

Lord, why I have I spent years afraid to explore this place? Perhaps you are calling me to journey into Holy Darkness, to a courageous and loving confrontation of the shadow side of my humanity. Perhaps you are beckoning me to celebrate the beauty and the alchemy of vitality that arises from my awareness of this mysterious shadow land. Perhaps then I can truly know the healing and cleansing power of Christ's light, which I have invited to that place.

It is a mid-life spirituality, Lord.


Holy darkness, Blessed night,
Heaven’s answer hidden from our sight.
As we await you, O God of silence,
We embrace your holy night.

- Daniel Schutte

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Distant Uncle's Beautiful Gravestone

A few weeks ago, I described my ancestor's grave at Taylor Memorial UMC near Trussville, Alabama. He was one of a trio of brothers who were Methodist circuit riders, coming out of a Methodist Society in central Alabama starting in the 1820's, long before it was Alabama (it was the Mississippi Conference).

It wrote about how inspiring it is for me to consider that I am walking and driving on hallowed ground where they walked and rode on horseback to spread the gospel.

I included in the blog post my Great, Great, Great Grandfather's grave marker. But my Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle's marker is even more stunning in its eloquent remembrance of his ministry. A picture is attached and the words are below. I hope it blesses you as it blesses me.

Rev. William Taylor
Born August 3, 1799
Embraced religion at 21 years of age
Soon thereof, he commenced to prea
ch the immeasurable riches of Christ and continued to do so until his decease, which took place December 14, 1867

Next to him is buried my great, great, great, great aunt. This is how her marker reads:

Martha, wife of Rev. William Taylor
Born August 7, 1812
Died September 28, 1884
Sleep on loving mother sleep,
This marble shall thy memory keep.
But deeper in my heart is given
The hope that we shall meet in heaven.

Here are all three graves together. Martha Taylor's body is on the left, William Taylor's is in the center, and my direct ancestor Isaac Taylor's is on the right.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Hymnal for Atheists?

I saw this YouTube video on Facebook recently and I couldn't resist sharing it on my blog. A nice comic bit from good old Steve Martin for all you lovers of music and liturgy out there!

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Church Burning the Koran on 9/11 ?

This weekend is the ninth anniversary of 9/11. It is a time to remember those that lost their lives in a terrible attack in New York nine years ago by terrorists. This is also a time to be very grateful for those who give of their lives so that violations like this will not happen in the future.

Yet I was deeply disappointed to hear that there is a non-denominational church in Gainsville, Florida that will be burning the Koran in a public ceremony on 9/11. Their logic is that it is because Islam is of the devil, and Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, then Christians should burn the Koran. On a YouTube video, the pastor asks "why wait" and burns a Koran on film. He squirts lighter fluid on it as it goes up in flames. How offensive.

This is not only a highly inflammatory way of dealing with pain, it is Christianity reshaped into some other image. I'm afraid their logic is not only flawed but dangerous, because it is simply issuing hate repackaged with a Christian label.

There is nothing Christian about hate. Christ came to show us that self-giving love is stronger than hatred, that his very presence (and his presence in the love of Christian community) is enough to change the world. Christ taught to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us (not that Islam caused 9/11, extremist terrorists did). He proclaimed that others will know we are Christians by our love, and that the new command he would give us is that we must love one another as he has loved us. In short, Christianity's answer to hate is radical love, not more hate. The church is called to give witness to the love of God in this world.

I do believe it's important to stand for what you believe. But this church in Florida is living out of brokenness instead of out of the Spirit. I preached about this as well as the more general tendency we have to reshape religion into our own image, rather than being willing to be continually shaped by it. I addressed it in a sermon entitled "Life in the Potter's House" on the subject of spiritual formation.

My sermon may be accessed by clicking Life in the Potter’s House if you would like to have a listen.

I realize these are very deep and painful issues and there are complex things to work out in the world. But if we throw away the very essence of our own faith, all in the name of defending it, have we not truly become lost?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Love Being a Father

I was looking through one of my books in my personal library the other day and found this note from my daughter. I wonder what year it was that she gave it to me as a gift. Now she is 20 years old and quickly becoming a young professional.

Sometimes little things like this reach out and touch me with deep joy! I love being a father.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Isaac Taylor Grave

I recently had another opportunity to visit the grave of my great, great, great grandfather, the Rev. Isaac Taylor. He was a Methodist circuit rider and preacher during the 1820's during the early waves of Methodism in Alabama and Mississippi (it was one conference at that time). His body is buried in the graveyard of Taylor Memorial UMC near Trussville, Alabama. The church is named after his brother, Rev. William Taylor, the pastor who founded the church.

It is always a holy moment to stand at his grave, and I do so from time to time. Years ago, I had been praying about some of the difficulties we face in the United Methodist Church, wondering if we would face structural division in my lifetime. I stood at his grave weeping and a wave of peace came over me. It is as if the Spirit spoke, saying "Steve, you were ordained in the United Methodist Church. Your father was ordained in the Methodist Church. Your grandfathers were ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Taylor was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. It doesn't matter what you call it. It will never matter how you organize it, for the fire of Wesleyan faith will keep burning." I recalled that during his ministry, the church divided over issues of slavery.

I began a long process of letting go and trusting God for the future. My ministry has been a journey of realizing that I am stepping into a larger picture of the Spirit's movement across many generations. This brings me great peace and a sense of context. It is not up to me to fix the larger issues. It is my calling to serve the gospel faithfully and trust God for the rest. The future belongs to God.

His grave stone reads:

In memory of
was born January 27th, 1802
died May 5th, 1871
He was a minister of the gospel 50 years
and died in the hope
& Consolation of the same.
"Blessed are the dead
who die in the Lord."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Learning Laboratories of Love

I have been reflecting on this quote from Ken Wilson's book, "Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back." I hope the book blesses others as much as it has blessed me.

Jesus brand spirituality is a path that leads beyond individualism toward community. Community is where we practice the skills of cooperation - of love, mutual respect, forbearance, conflict resolution, forgiveness, the balance between stating our own needs and taking concern for the needs of others.

Jesus is in the business of forming such communities. He came to form a movement, a social network, a corporate enterprise organized around his teaching and empowered by his presence. The Greek word for such communities is ecclesia (translated "church"), meaning "called out" or "gathered ones" ...

Jesus prepared hsi first disciples to participate in these communities by giving them a new commandment: "you must love one another" (John 13:34). The New Testament writings have about forty such sayings, including "love one another," "forgive one another," "correct one another," and "bear with one another." Communities that formed around a shared commitment to Jesus become laboratories where these sayings are practiced.

It's not a picnic. Or if it is, there's plenty of potato salad sitting out in the sun too long. These communities are not the perfect family you always dreamed of. From the earliest times, these communities achieved mixed results. At times, they almost seemed to be little conclaves of heaven on earth; at other times, judging from the earliest records, they were racked with dissension and conflict.

The Jesus communities were never conceived of as utopias. They are learning laboratories of forgiving love. They are messy places where we make mistakes in relating to others and practice the repair mechanism that Jesus stressed so heavily in his teaching ... The primary repair mechanism is forgiveness.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Hymn Text - "Great Incarnation"

A few weeks ago while on vacation, I had opportunity to visit a little church near my brother's lakehouse in Renfroe, Alabama. Shiloh UMC was of particular interest since my grandfather served it 70 or 80 years ago. They had recently remodeled the church and it was so beautiful and hospitable.

As Pastor Ricky preached, the new stained glass windows lit up in the sunlight. The three windows depicted the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Over the years I have often reflected on these three events as the three great mysteries of our redemption. I wrote this hymn as a reflection of my visit and we sang it at Grace UMC a couple of weeks later.

“Great Incarnation”
Suggested tunes: CANONBURY or TALLIS’ CANON

Great incarnation, bring to sight
the presence of your holy light.
Transform the earth, and let it see
God’s love divine enfleshed in me.

Great crucifixion, opening of
the fountain of self-giving love,
reveal the pathway to forgive.
Christ’s new commandment let us live.

Great resurrection, set us free,
complete salvation’s history.
New life upon your people rain.
To live is Christ, to die is gain.

Oh holy God, great One in Three,
who wrote this sacred trilogy,
show to all those who seek your face
the rhythms of redeeming grace.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Spirituality of Hovering

A hummingbird came to visit me this morning, Lord. Just for a few seconds, a long time for one who flits and buzzes so, she hovered. I just knew she was pausing to have a good look at me. She was just four feet away.

Was she asking of me or seeking to share her wisdom? Was she curious or was she poised to teach? She has much to teach.

She is who she is, nothing more and nothing less. And she is beautiful in what she does. She changes the world, one flower at a time. Her mission is to be a very important part of an intricate ecosystem. Her purpose is to be, and to be who she was made to be.

What of me, Lord? Why do I grow anxious about my place in the universe? Perhaps it would be best to hover a while.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Prayer of St. Catherine of Sienna

I used this for our pastoral prayer on Sunday. We were reading the book of Hosea and fathoming the incredible, never-ending grace and love of God that pursues those who stray. It is from St. Catherine of Sienna, a 14th century Dominican theologian.

I share this beautiful and passionate prayer with you in hopes that it blesses your day to know the longing God has for us.

“O eternal Father! … O eternal, infinite God! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

Honored by the Bishop's Words

I was very honored by Bishop Willimon's words in the article below, which was published on the e-
Voice of the North Alabama Conference. It was a joy to collaborate on this hymn. More information about the new hymnal can be found at the Celebrating Grace Hymnal Site.

“Lord, You Call Us to Your Service” Published in New Hymnal

Six years ago the Reverend Steve West, pastor of Grace United Methodist in Huntsville, and Bishop Will Willimon collaborated on a new hymn, “Lord, You Call Us to Your Service.” Since then their hymn has been used in every Service of Ordination at the North Alabama Annual Conference. Now the hymn has been published in a new hymnal, Celebrating Grace Hymnal.

While the hymnal is designed for use in Baptist churches, it is expected to have wide ecumenical appeal.

“Steve, as we know, is the talented musician,” said Bishop Willimon. “He has been instrumental in the planning of our worship at Annual Conference. I tried to contribute a hymn text that would be Trinitarian in form and would speak of the high calling that we have as those who are called to Christ’s ministry. Steve is a multi-talented pastor who has much experience in hymnody and the arts.”

Sunday, July 25, 2010

"God Before Us" Published on GBOD Worship Site

I wrote the text and tune of "God Before Us" as one of my very first hymns many years ago. I had been chaplain that week at Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga and I believe I had been reflecting on the prayer of St. Patrick's Breastplate.

I am honored that "God Before Us" was published on the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website recently. You can find the musical arrangement on the General Board of Discipleship Website. Here is the text:

God, before us as we seek,
yours the path, our guiding.
Word our lamp and light of day,
show your will abiding.

God, behind us as we walk,
make our way unswerving.
Hands and lips in concert sing,
into freedom serving.

God, below us as we fall,
weakened knee our binding.
Race ahead, we take our cross,
strength in weakness finding.

God, above us as we reach,
yours the earth, our grounding.
With creation lift our praise,
guide our understanding.

Copyright 1994 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

Pictured: Bluff at Monte Sano Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Courage of the Hummingbird

We have a hummingbird feeder outside our kitchen window. This week, we filled it with sugar water again and, lo and behold, we have had visitors. What fascinating little creatures, so awkward yet so beautiful. It is as if they don't really fly, they hover from place to place. They bless my day.

In a recent issue of Alive Now I saw this poem entitled "Courage" by Debbie Parvin. I think I'll post it in our kitchen.

With Goliath's might, you slice the air with needle sword,
race with monstrous wrath, defend your claim
to ruby water hanging
like a vial of blood in summer's sweetened air.

Yet you are more like David,
dwarf among the feathered flock -
a thimble bug
so slight that, when you light upon the willow's leaf,
it does not move.

Still, God has chosen you, the most unlikely -
fitted you with sequined garb
and fashioned beater wings to bear you
eighteen hundred miles each year to prove

though life may tower giant-like around us
we, the miniscule,
can rise
and hum.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Taken and Blessed" Published on GBOD Website

I wrote the text and tune of "Taken and Blessed" at an Academy for Spiritual Formation during the silence. I was reflecting on Henri Nouwen's teachings in "Life of the Beloved" after a presentation by Robert Benson. Nouwen saw a Eucharistic pattern Christian lives, modeled after the four actions Jesus took at the table. As children of God, we are chosen, blessed, broken, and shared as bread for the world.

I am honored that "Taken and Blessed" was published on the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website recently. You can find the musical arrangement by my good friend Nylea Butler-Moore on the General Board of Discipleship Website. Here is the text:

Taken and blessed, broken and shared,
We come back to the table the Lord has prepared.
Washed by the water, born by the wind,
We come back to the fountain all over again.

This is our story, this is our choice
To discover again your compelling, still voice.
Life is a circle of joy and pain,
So refresh us, oh God, with your soft gentle rain.

Take us, your children, bless us with grace.
In your hands, gently break us, who dodge your embrace.
Share us with others, bread for the world.
We're the body of Christ, now redeemed by his blood.

Copyright 2004 by Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Pistol Swinging Preacher

This is my LifePoints column which appeared on the front page of the Faith & Values section of The Huntsville Times on July 9, 2010. It was accompanied by this picture in front of present-day Genesis UMC. The eye-catching title read "Pistol Packing Preacher Tames Town Bootleggers."

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled a Chicago ban on handguns as unconstitutional.

While I do not expect this to affect most gun control laws regulating availability, I imagine it will lead to some interesting debates.

I am generally in favor of gun control, and shots ringing close to home this past year have confirmed my beliefs. Yet I can not forget a story from my family history in Madison County that inspires me when I need some courage.

My grandfather was the Rev. C.P. Hamby, a fiery preacher who spread the gospel under the banner of Methodism. In the 1920’s, he was appointed as "conference evangelist” in North Alabama. His assignment was to lead revivals and start churches.

One year, he was sent to the community of State Line, on the border between Alabama and Tennessee north of Huntsville. In those days, State Line was a bootlegging town. There was an old, white clapboard church building there that had been vacant for years, and he was sent to start it back up.

After visiting in the community for a week, he held the opening revival service. With windows open in the heat of summer, a small congregation gathered. But as soon as the service began, the town bootleggers drove their cars up to the windows, revved up their engines, and laid on their horns.

The service could not continue with this disruption, so Grandpa drew things to a close and asked everyone to come back the following night. But in the morning, he went to Huntsville to be deputized. When you were deputized in the 1920’s, you were given a badge and two pistols.

On his way back to State Line, the bootleggers had set up a roadblock to keep religion out of their town. But after Grandpa Hamby swung his pistols around, they moved out of his way.

By the time of the revival that night, half the county had heard about the pistol-swinging preacher! The little place was packed.

A man of small stature, Grandpa walked slowly into the church as a hush fell on the congregation. One woman by the middle aisle said in an audible whisper, "no short preacher’s going to change this town!" He ignored it.

As our family tells it, Grandpa got up to the front, reached into his leather satchel to pull out his Bible, and thumped it down on the pulpit. After a dramatic pause, he got one of his pistols and thumped it down on the right side of the pulpit. Then he reached down for the other pistol, thumping it down on the left. You could hear a pin drop.

He began, "My name is C.P. Hamby and I’ve been sent by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to lead a revival and start a new church. And I heard what you said lady!"

He pointed to the woman by the aisle.

"This short preacher can’t change this town, but God certainly can. And if you don’t believe me, I have two boys up here, and each of them speaks six times. I’d be glad to have a conversation with you!"

Later that week, thirty bootleggers professed faith in Christ, and the church has been going ever since. It is now called Genesis United Methodist Church.

Times have changed since the 1920’s. I certainly would never mix guns and religion. But when I get discouraged, I remember Grandpa Hamby. He risked his life for a gospel worth dying for. The fire in his soul was

stronger than the fear in his heart.

Present-day Genesis UMC. To see the article electronically published by The Huntsville Times, click this link.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."

Inspired by a recent trip to Atlanta with my family to the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, I read his Letter from the Birmingham Jail this week. The title of this post is his grammatically imperfect but spiritually powerful quote from an elderly woman working hard in his movement. It reflects the power of the untiring movement for social change and the passion of the people that were so committed to the social implications of the gospel.

I have spent most of my life in Alabama, and a large part of that in the Birmingham area. But I was born in 1965. I am of that strange generation that was alive when King was assassinated, but do not remember it. What I do remember is schoolhouse culture during the years just after his death, when prejudice and stereotyping was embedded in playground humor. It was considered acceptable when I was in grade school but I didn't like it at all. And I find it offensive now.

I think about the sad fact that my first close friend who was African American appeared in my life when I was in college. Yet friends of all races now bless my life and some are people I look up to as mentors the most. I am of that generation that grew into this idea that the dream he lived and died for could really happen. We're definitely not "there" yet, and there is much work to do. But I've seen the generation when the door cracked and light started to come in.

King is one of my heroes not only because of what he did and what he said, but because of the integrity of his heart and faith. I reflected as I read on his amazing clarity and the love of Christ he had as he stated so clearly his reasoning for this movement of non-violent resistance. I wonder if in a different generation I would have been one of the "white moderate" preachers he became so frustrated with, sympathetic to his cause but crying "wait" and "not yet" and "too extreme." I hope that I would not have been, but I look deep in my soul and wonder.

He said in the letter that at that time, Birmingham was perhaps the most segregated city in the nation. That is not a surprise, but it struck to my core to see it in print. He talked of infamous characters like Bull Connor and George Wallace, names I've heard stories about all my life.

I love Alabama. This is my home, and being one of the lightening rods for the civil rights struggle is part of our story. We need to tell the story and own it and behold what good things God has done with us in our very lifetimes. The future of the character of southern culture can never mean forgetfulness ... nobody ever finds redemption and reconciliation through forgetting, only through forgiveness. So I read the letter again, and I remember where I've been in my personal journey from racism to freedom, and I honestly reflect on how far I still have to go to live fully in the values of the kingdom of God.

Whether you live here or not, I invite you to read the letter, too, and let God's healing light shine on the dark recesses of sin that remain in every heart, even every heart that belongs to Christ. If this feels like something of the past that has nothing to do with your life, you're not looking very deeply. Remember the struggles that make us who we are. Remember and do not forget.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bill Cosby on Fatherhood

Today is Father's Day, and I've been reflecting lately on how integrated fatherhood has been in my spirituality. It is part of my vocation, my core identity. Much of my prayer life has been shaped by it. I just got back from a brief but fun family vacation and got a nice call from my older daughter while I was there. Fatherhood is feeling like a very good thing.

Today is a good day for a few light-hearted Bill Cosby quotes. I hope they bless your Father's Day:

"A new father quickly learns that his child invariably comes to the bathroom at precisely the times when he's in there, as if he needed company. The only way for this father to be certain of bathroom privacy is to shave at the gas station."

"Even though your kids will consistently do the exact opposite of what you're telling them to do, you have to keep loving them just as much."

"Fatherhood is pretending the present you love most is soap-on-a-rope."

"Having a child is surely the most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit."

"Human beings are the only creatures on earth that allow their children to come back home."

"I guess the real reason that my wife and I had children is the same reason that Napoleon had for invading Russia: it seemed like a good idea at the time."

"If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right."

"No matter how calmly you try to referee, parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I'm not talking about the kids. Their behavior is always normal."

"Raising children is an incredibly hard and risky business in which no cumulative wisdom is gained: each generation repeats the mistakes the previous one made."

"You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who've never had any."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Lord, You Call Us to Your Service" Published

I recently got hold of my first copy of the new "Celebrating Grace Hymnal". It contains one of my hymns, co-authored with Bishop Willimon. It was an odd feeling to see my name published in a real hymnal for the first time.

The "Celebrating Grace Hymnal" was published in association with Mercer University for use in various settings. Mercer is associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and this is an alternative to "The Baptist Hymnal" published last year.

The hymn, "Lord, You Call Us to Your Service," is an ordination hymn which may be sung to LAUDA ANIMA. It was co-written with Bishop Will Willimon to be used for ordination services in the North Alabama Conference. It would also be appropriate for use when a church receives a new pastor.

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

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me

I have another new hymn that has been recently published on the General Board of Discipleship Worship website. It is entitled "I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me" and it is joined by a tune and arrangement written by my old friend, and wonderful musician, Jana Euler Gimenez.

It is based on Psalm 122 and would be wonderful for opening worship or for a special occasion such as a new building or congregational anniversary. It was originally composed for the 25th anniversary of the Unity Church, which Jana was attending in Boston.

The tune and arrangement with text may be found at I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me.

The lyrics are:

I was glad when they said unto me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord,"
Where our people are gathered in thanks and praise,
Giving thanks in the name of the Lord always,
Giving thanks in the name of the Lord.

For we come, bound together as one,
Many gifts, many tribes to the throne,
For our feet are now standing within your gates,
And we offer ourselves out of thanks and praise,
And we offer our gifts out of thanks.

For the peace of the city we sing,
For Jerusalem, city of God,
For the sake of God's family everywhere,
Peace without, peace within as we serve and care,
Peace without, peace within as we serve.

As we gather on faith's holy ground,
We become a communion of saints,
For this house is a place where a home is made,
And our lives a reflection of Christ, we pray,
And our lives a reflection of Christ.

Copyright 1995 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Hope is In the Everlasting God

I have a new hymn that is now published on the General Board of Discipleship Worship website entitled "My Hope is In the Everlasting God". I share it with you in hopes that it deepens your journey. It emphasizes the dual nature of gentleness and strength in God's love.

You can find the words with music at My Hope is In the Everlasting God. The lyrics are:

My hope is in the everlasting God.
The ages tell the story
Of sheltering wing, of strong and mighty rod,
Of gentle grace and glory.

In whispering breeze, in bravely sounding storm,
Your voice awakes creation.
In Christ, divine, you serve in human form
For every generation.

Copyright 1995 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Joy of Planting Seeds

One of my ancestors is Rev. Isaac Taylor. Taylor was my great, great, great grandfather. Back when the Methodist movements of North Alabama were part of the Mississippi Conference, he was one of a trio of brothers who were circuit riders and pastors starting in the 1820's. He is buried in the graveyard at Taylor Memorial UMC near Trussville, Alabama, a church his brother founded.

I recently got information on his appointment history from an archivist who searched the General Minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She found the following:

1836-37 Admitted on trial. Appointed to Louisville in the Holly Springs District
1838 Admitted into Full Connection. Appointed to Rankin in the Brandon District
1839 Serving as a Deacon. Appointed to the Decatur Mission in the Paulding District
1840 Located

I wrote to churches in Louisville, Brandon, and Decatur, Mississippi, hoping to find some sense of any churches which might know of remaining evidence of his work. I immediately heard back from the pastor of Louisville First UMC. He said that the church was founded in 1836, but that the first pastor was not sent until 1837, a Rev. Langford. Otherwise, the records are sketchy.

Wow. It seems obvious to me that my ancestor had something to do with that church ... the dates are too coincidental for me to believe otherwise. Perhaps he actually helped organize it, or perhaps it was simply a result of his preaching missions in that area. I enjoyed looking on the church website and downloading a bulletin, finding that it is a nice sized, thriving downtown church. I wonder if my great, great, great grandfather could have imagined its future.

Probably not. The joy of planting seeds is that we really don't know where it will lead. I love the parable of sower because it is the way of the kingdom of God. We spread love freely, and some of it takes root according to the richness of the soil. We are not in charge of how well the plant grows, but simply with the task of spreading seeds freely. In today's culture fixated on production and results, we could learn from saints who passionately plant seeds and trust God for the results.

I wonder when I attend that church meeting, or post something on my blog, or say a kind word, or share some music, or spend some time with my kids, or perform some random act of kindness if I can ever imagine where it might lead?

That's the joy of planting seeds. I have no idea. There is such freedom in letting go of results.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Whatever Happened to Wisdom?

I recently saw a statement by a denominational leader I look up to. He heralded efforts to step away from a system of seniority in pastoral placement in favor of valuing innovation and youth. I do believe that we can become imprisoned in a system that protects the interests of leaders more than the mission. But I wonder to what extent this rhetoric is grasping at straws.

What has happened to wisdom? Is it no longer valued? I am favor of passion and innovation. I myself have been a part of two successful new church starts and tried many ways to creatively share the gospel in a post-modern culture. But at the same time, I wonder why we seem to be replacing biblical language of spiritual gifts and graces in determining pastoral placement, replacing biblical language of wisdom and discernment in valuing experience, and replacing biblical language of the fruit of the spirit in measuring effectiveness. To simplify the matter to the juxtaposition of seniority verses innovation seems flat to me.

The future of protestant life in our country has to do with restoring our commitment to being a movement rather than an institution. It may seem counterintuitive for me to claim that it is wisdom we need the most. But it seems to me that we need wise and understanding leaders because we do indeed need change, but change in itself is not a solution. Change on behalf of the values of the kingdom of God, however, can be lifegiving.

Pictured: Engraving of King Solomon, People's Standard Holy Bible (1872), Ziegler Publishers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Whisked Away Into the Life of God

Once in a while, I am given an experience which seems to whisk me away into the life of God for a moment. Sometimes these experiences are mystical, as the Holy Spirit communicates with me through prayer or scripture or a sense of divine presence. Sometimes these experiences are very human, for God uses people to speak to me. I think of these as consolations, little gifts from God that give me comfort in the midst of life.

I recently had the privilege of helping with the funeral of a dear friend from a former church. Afterwards, an old friend pulled me aside along with the present pastor, saying she felt it was a bit “selfish” but since we were both there she wanted to have some prayer with us. Her daughter, whom I had baptized a dozen years ago after founding a new church, was about to profess her faith and become a member of that church. She led us in a prayer of thanksgiving for “the hands that baptized my daughter and the hands that will confirm her on Sunday.”

That prayer time was far from selfish. It was a gift to me. For a moment, it felt as if I was transported over space and time and all the other things that separate us from one another. Each of God’s children is on a journey home and I got to be a simple and humble instrument in one child’s life. What else matters in ministry?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Sext" as a Window into My Spirituality

Recently it has dawned on me that not only do we have seasons of the year, we also worship in seasons of the day. In traditional liturgy, this is known as the canonical hours or the divine office. I have enjoyed through my visits at the monastery and my involvement in the Academy for Spiritual Formation becoming immersed in this ancient way. It is so freeing.

I call them "seasons of the day" because they each have their special significance and they are windows into larger aspects of the spiritual journey. Vigils emerges in the darkness and reminds me of the language of the Dark Night of the Soul. Lauds is sung at dawn, which reflects the beginnings of light which transcends the darkness. Prime is aptly named, as the day of work is passionately before us. Terce is sung as mid-morning brings the fullness of the day into being. Sext occurs at noon in the midst of the whole, with half the day behind us and the other half before us. None is sung in the afternoon as the shadows begin to fall, and Vespers is sung at evening when night is approaching. Finally, Compline is prayed toward the close of the day.

Each of the daily offices has a rhythm and a fire. Now that I am 45 and (hopefully) right in the middle of my career and of my life, being in the responsible generation both at work and in my family, I wonder how much my spirituality is Sext spirituality. It is the "high noon" time of my life, the time of the most passion and productivity, a time to pause in the midst to see more clearly both where I've been and where I'm going, with both of these perspectives on life (the forward and the backward) being fully weighted. Sext is the way I am praying these days. I've been through the dark night and my soul has been awakened and enlighted. I have ventured into the life of ministry, hit my early snags, and found a way to smooth them out. Now I am in the midst of life's movement, and I wonder what is next.

It is interesting the Sext is mostly psalms. The deepest of traditional prayer occurs here. One of my beloved holy places is called Sumatanga, which is a Himlayan word for a "place of vision and rest." It is a flat place on a mountain where one pauses to gain perspective. You can look down and get a good view of where you have been, and you can look up and see where you are going. This is where I am in the middle of my life. So I sing the psalms and the songs of my faith, with joy. I have both a sense of calm at all that has resolved before, and a sense of anticipation at the journey ahead.

For many, noon is a time of rest and renewal. It is when we take a lunch break and refresh our bodies with food. I pray that it is just so for me, as I am in the "noon" of my life.

P.S. - I am aware that in today's world of mobile phone texting, the word "sext" has taken on a negative connotation. I hope it doesn't get completely hijacked!