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