Monday, December 26, 2011

Jesus Got an iPhone for Christmas

Every year, something whimsical delights my soul during Christmas. It is as if something random and not-so-sacred becomes a window showing me the true light of the season.

This year, it happened at the Living Nativity at the church I serve. This was my maiden voyage with a Living Nativity. I was learning how to be the backstage manager, running lights and directing the cast into their places. A recording of the Christmas story played over the radio as the people came in drive-in theater style.

The youth and the children did a great job. It was one of the adults that gave me trouble! One was recruited to help out as a wise man. He got to the entrance door behind the manger, and suddenly looked at me in surprise. "I don't have a gift!" He asked if I had it. We joked that he came to the party empty handed. I explained that the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were back in the dressing room in the church building. "I'll go get it", he said.

"Um, I'm afraid you go in about 20 seconds from now, so there's no time." He puzzled for a moment and then his face lit up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an iPhone. That would have to do. I said "hold it up like this," lifting my hands as if holding something quite precious.

So he went into the manger holding up his iPhone in reverence, knowing that its weight in gold would have been a valuable gift. When it came time to lay the gifts before the baby Jesus, he laid it down beautifully.

That's how Jesus got an iPhone for Christmas.

Christmas isn't about giving the "right" gift. It's not about "getting it right" at all. It's about doing what we can, as human as we are, and giving what we have anyway. It's about the little drummer boy.

We'll never "get it right." Thank God that Christmas is not about giving the right gift at all ... it's about God's GIFT of salvation.

If it were up to us, we could never fix the broken world. We tried to save ourselves for generations and it never worked. All of our great ideas to fix things just end up making a bigger mess. So a great miracle happened.

God didn't just "come up with a good idea". God CAME. He dwelt among us and the simplest things became sacred. The incarnation makes all the difference.

It's funny how an iPhone in the manger scene reminded me of the power of the incarnation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nothing Can Take the Joy of Christmas Away

This is my devotional which appeared in the Upper Room Devotional Book today. May you and your family have a hopeful and expectant Advent.

To read it in the Upper Room, see the Upper Room Devotional Website.

Third Sunday of Advent
Read: Luke 1:46-55

A couple of weeks before her last Christmas, my mother announced during prayer time in worship, "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 away the joy of my Christmas!" Her courageous words are etched in my memory.

Reading Mary's Magnificat each year reminds me that no matter what happens, our lives are part of a bigger picture. Pregnant and unmarried, Mary would have to make a long, uncomfortable trek to Bethlehem on a donkey's back and finally give birth to her son in a barn. Yet after the angel's words, Mary sang--because she knew God was doing something. In spite of her situation, she realized that she was privileged to be part of a larger movement of God's mercy from generation to generation.

Claiming Mary's spirituality as well as my mom's would mean that no matter what happens to us, we can sing. When we keep our eyes on God, nothing can steal the joy of Christmas.

Stephen P. West (Alabama, USA)


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.

Prayer focus: Those living with cancer

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Candle Lit Altar

Altar at "Candlelight" at a recent Walk to Emmaus at Sumatanga. The candlelight tradition of welcoming pilgrims by the communion of saints always feels like a glimpse of heaven to me. May the light of Christ touch each of you during this holy season. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Spirituality of Longing

Longing and waiting are difficult concepts for us in our culture. We are used to fast food, fast cars, and fast answers. We are accustomed to having a world of information at our fingertips with laptops and smart phones. We expect pills that will immediately take the pain away. Simply put, we don’t like to wait.

I love Advent for all sorts of reasons, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my first Advent at my new church. I love the music, I love the missions, and I love the families that work and play together as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ!

But one of the main reasons I love Advent is that it puts us in touch with a deep spiritual reality that we too often neglect. The things of the Holy Spirit take time. Feasting on the Word is not a fast food meal but an experience to be savored. Prayer is not a quick fix but an invitation to be changed from within over time. Forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight but can be quite a journey. Feeling at home in a local church takes “making a home” there, building relationships that last. A deeper relationship with God is not something we can download instantaneously.

During Advent, we become people who get in touch with that part of ourselves that is empty for God. In a way, Advent is counter-cultural in a time when we expect instant results. I pray that this year, we prepare a manger of the heart for Christ to be born anew.

That’s the spirituality of longing. It can change your life.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Isaiah's Dump Truck Christmas Ornament

I wonder what the prophet Isaiah would put on his Christmas tree. I am thinking he'd have a dump truck Christmas ornament.

When I read Isaiah 40, I hear "Every Valley" from Handel's Messiah resonate in my mind. How incredible that the prophet spoke words of longing for a Messiah using road construction images. He speaks of making a highway in the wilderness, making the path straight in the desert so that every valley is lifted up and every mountain is made low, the rough places made smooth. He beckons us to get out the tractor and the shovel and make a way for the coming of Christ.

In my tradition during Advent, we have a Chrismon tree with symbols of Christ on it in the sanctuary. Maybe we should have an Isaiah tree, too. It could have hardhats and shovels and bobcat ornaments. We could hang dump trucks and cement trucks from the branches, and let's not forget the little leveling tools with the green bubbles in them. Those would be cute!

Advent is a time of clearing the way for Christ, the true WAY, to come. He yearns for a place in each of our hearts. He longs to bring love and justice to a broken world. We don't have to go find Jesus or get our hearts right before him ... these teachings are a remnant of many painful versions of ancient moralistic heresies. We don't go get Christ, Christ comes to us in pure grace. That's what the incarnation is all about. That's what Christmas is all about.

Maybe road construction is what Advent is all about. We don't drive to Jesus, but our part is to make space for him to come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

What I'm Learning About Life from Mountain Biking

As I've been enjoying my new hobby, I've been thinking about what it has to teach me about LIFE. Here's my list so far.

1) The trail is not hard. It's the rocks, roots, limbs, logs, sand, and trees that are hard.
2) You never know what's under those leaves, but you're gonna find out.
3) This is not my trail. Others have worn the path. I am joining in an ongoing adventure.
4) I will fall. This is not an option, so I might as well be ready. That's how I learn my limits.
5) There is no such thing as a comfortable seat. It hurts the first few times, but later you don't even notice.
6) Gear is important, especially the helmet. But gloves and padded shorts sure feel like a close second.
7) There's no shame in stopping or walking. I need wind and water. Rest is part of the adventure.
8) When you meet other travelers on the trail, greet them and make room.
9) Keep your eyes on the trail ahead of you, not on the obstacle right in front of your wheel.
10) Take the bridge. It might look scary but it's better than the alternative. There's a reason somebody built it for you.
11) Either roll over the log without fear, or find a way around it. Those are the only two options.
12) Sometimes I lose myself in the experience and become one with the trail. This is the best part.

This is what I'm learning about life ...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Blessing of the Toys Liturgy Published in Interpreter Magazine

This is an article published in the Interpreter Magazine about my "Blessing of the Toys" liturgy. I created it last year since Sunday was the day after Christmas, and plan to use it this year since Sunday lands on Christmas Day.

What a serendipity that they found this online, called me, and wanted to highlight this in their magazine. I'm honored and hope others find it helpful. You can read the article by clicking Children Enjoy Blessing of the Toys .

You can also download the liturgy for use in your congregation by clicking the Blessing of the Toys Liturgy .

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moses by Steve West

What do you hold in your hands? Two Sundays ago, I shared a dramatic musical rendition of "Moses" by Ken Medema in worship. Click the link below to see it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Invitation to Participants for the Academy for Spiritual Formation

I am honored to be serving as worship coordinator and musician for an upcoming two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation. Academy #33 will be at the Lindenwood Retreat Center near Anderson, Indiana starting in February. Participants, faculty, and leadership team will meet once a quarter for a five day retreat during the two year program.

The Academy experience is a program of the Upper Room for the renewal of the church. For laity and clergy alike, it is a holistic journey of deep spiritual growth that involves a daily rhythm of worship that frames the day, academic presentations exploring the depths of Christian spirituality, assigned times of silent reflection and prayer, the celebration of Eucharist, and evening covenant group. For me, attending my Academy was a life changing experience of immersing myself in the spiritual flow of many centuries of Christian faith. I am glad to give back to others in the hope that they, too, will nourish deep roots in God.

For more information and what the Academy can mean for your journey with God, check out the Academy for Spiritual Formation website. It has a nice video, information on upcoming Academies, registration information, and articles on topics such as what a typical day at the Academy is like.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New Hymn on GBOD Website

The new hymn text I created for the fiftieth anniversary of Saint Mark UMC, "When Our Founders Built a Legacy," has been published by the General Board of Discipleship for use of churches who have anniversaries or building dedications.


You can find When Our Founders Built a Legacy published on the GBOD website.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

One Stroke of the Paintbrush

Lord Jesus, you do not call me to achieve or succeed. But neither to you call me to mediocrity.

What you call me toward is creativity. To be creative is to express the beauty and glory of God using the gifts I've been given ...



- to create blessing where there is cursing
- to create beauty where there is ugliness
- to create healthy atmosphere where there are unhealthy dynamics
- to create conversation where there is jockeying and positioning
- to create music where there is silence
- to create silence where there is noise
- to create appreciation where there is assumption
- to create reconciliation where there is resentment
- to create acceptance where there is no opportunity for reconciliation

Lord, I can't do it all, please everyone, or fix everything. But I can try to make the world a more beautiful place. I can't do everything, but I can do something. Forgive me for the sin of thinking I'm responsible for everything. That's your job. Forgive me for withdrawing and doing nothing, when you have given me a small candle to carry in the darkness with joy.

May I be overwhelmed with the joy of offering something, if only one stroke of the paintbrush on the massive canvas of what you are creating.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Celebrating 50 Years at Saint Mark

This is the article by William Singleton that appeared in the Birmingham News on Wednesday announcing our 50th anniversary at Saint Mark.



VESTAVIA HILLS, Alabama -- Since its formation in 1961, Saint Mark United Methodist Church has grown from 103 members to nearly 1,200, has moved from a school to a church, has undertaken three expansions and has seen 13 ministers lead its congregation.
But what has remained constant is its commitment to missions and Christian service, both locally and globally, church staff and members say.
That's the theme the Vestavia Hills church at 2901 Columbiana Road plans to highlight as it marks its 50th anniversary celebration Sunday.
"I always think of this church as a church with deep roots as well as strong wings," said Rev. Steve West, pastor since June. "It's old, in terms of history, but it's not that old. There's young and old. There's history as well as possibility. It's real exciting to be here at a pivotal point in our history."
The church generally sponsors three Sunday services: one 8:30 a.m. and two 10:45 a.m. services for traditional and contemporary worship styles.
Saint Mark United Methodist will hold one 10:45 a.m. service Sunday, which will feature elements of both worship styles as well as the adult, children's and youth choirs.
The church has invited former members and pastors to the service and for a luncheon and group picture afterward.
Saint Mark United Methodist draws from the Vestavia Hills, Hoover and Homewood communities.
"We've always been able to retain a strong basis of membership that has been there since the church began," said Jeff Rodgers, president of Saint Mark's Church Council. "But we also seem to bring in a continual cycle of new members who have relocated to the Hoover-Vestavia and Homewood communities."
Though the years, Saint Mark has focused on missions, sending teams to Russia, Mexico and Africa to visit orphanages and build homes for underprivileged people.
It also maintains a Christian witness nationally by organizing vacation Bible school trips throughout the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast, and locally through a vacation Bible school it offers in the summer, Rodgers said.
"Missions and service have always been a big part of our church so we're really highlighting a lot of that work that has been done the last 50 years," he said.
Saint Mark United Methodist's first service was June 18, 1961, at the former Berry High School, said Jane Landers, 75, a charter member.
The church adopted its charter Sept. 24, 1961, and then moved into its present building Sept. 8, 1962, Landers said.
Landers and her husband, Ed, have raised three boys at Saint Mark and "our middle son was baptized in the lunchroom at Berry before the church was ever built."
Beyond its missions work, Saint Mark has thrived as a congregation because church members feel like family members, Landers said. "We do a lot of missions outside the church and look out for each other inside the church too," she said.
"This is the fourth reunion we've had and every reunion we've had, we've had a lot of former members to come back," Landers said. "I think they've really formed an attachment to this church."

Monday, September 19, 2011

New Hymn Text


This Sunday, the church I serve is celebrating our 50th anniversary. What a great occasion it will be! I feel so fortunate to be a part of Saint Mark at such a pivotal time in our history!

In celebration of the occasion, I composed a hymn text which we will sing in worship to the familiar tune BEACH SPRING. I thought it might be worth sharing with others.


“When Our Founders Built a Legacy”
Written by Stephen P. West
In Honor of the 50th Anniversary of Saint Mark UMC

When our founders built a legacy, they were building, not in vain,
For the witness of God's majesty, grace amidst a world of pain.
We who gather at this table ask for opened eyes to see
How the Spirit leads your people to embrace new mystery.

We are thankful for the witnesses that have gone before us here,
Who surround us and encourage us still to hope and persevere.
May we lay aside our burdens, all the sin that weighs us down,
So to run the race before us and receive a glorious crown.

On the rock of faith we gather, Jesus Christ our cornerstone.
May the risen Christ be with us, knowing we are not alone.
Our foundation is to fathom how to open doors of grace,
Still to live in hospitality, offering welcome in this place.

At the book, the font, the table, still we gather in God's peace
To find healing for God's people, seeking joy and full release.
As our journey now continues, be our guide on trails we blaze.
Holy Spirit, wind and water, pour out flames of prayer and praise!

Copyright 2011 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Incarnational Spirituality


I have shared in previous posts this summer some musings about my spirituality. This has been a wonderful discipline for my personal enrichment, even as I write in order to get to know my new congregation. This week, I pick up where I left off a few weeks ago.

After sharing some of my faith story, I reflected on the dynamic tension between my spirituality of “retreat” and “creativity,” and then between my spirituality of “risk” and “roots.”

Today I’d like to share about one of the two deep mysteries of Christian faith, one which I have embraced as a central part of my walk with God. It’s the incarnation. This is the great mystery that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that God crossed over the great divide and the divine became human in Christ. I like to call our journey of living into this mystery our “incarnational spirituality.”

What that means for me is that whenever we gather in Christ’s name, Jesus is here. And he’s real. This is a promise he made that is not just about worship, and we sell ourselves short when we assume that it is. It’s true when we are feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, counseling the hurting, loving the poor, or teaching God’s children. It’s also true when we hold meetings, tend to the business of the church, or sort out our differences with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ is pervasively present and I’m passionate about that.

For me, Christianity is about practicing the presence of God. It’s true in all things, not just some things. There is no divorcing the divine from the human. If we pay attention, we will notice the ways and places God is at work beneath the surface. When I live into that vision, it transforms everything!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bill Hybels on Church Conflict


I preached today on the lectionary reading from Matthew. Jesus' promise that where two or three are gathered in his name "there will I be" is not just warm and fuzzy words about his presence in worship. These words are in a section of instructions about how to deal with inevitable church conflict in a healthy manner. They were actually about his presence when we gather ... in disagreement.

I quoted an interesting interview in Christianity Today with Bill Hybels, senior pastor of the famous Willow Creek Church on church conflict.

Here is a copy of the entire interview.

-----------------

"Conflict above Ground"
Building community out of controversy.


1 John 3:14-15; 1 Corinthians 13

In this interview, Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, discusses biblical ways to handle church conflict.


Given the assortment of people and ministries at Willow Creek, how does the church stay united?

Bill Hybels: Unity isn't the word we use to describe relationships at Willow Creek. The popular concept of unity is a fantasyland where disagreements never surface and contrary opinions are never stated with force. We expect disagreement, forceful disagreement. So instead of unity, we use the word community.

The mark of community—true biblical unity—is not the absence of conflict. It's the presence of a reconciling spirit.

How do you teach people to fight fair?

First, we acknowledge that conflict is inevitable. Then we go the next step and say, "When your nose does get bent out of joint—not if but when—you have a biblical responsibility to take the high road of conflict resolution."

That means going directly to the person with whom you're having this conflict rather than building a guerrilla team to ambush this person later.

We also reach a kind of reverse accountability. In staff meetings or in front of the congregation, we say, "If someone whose nose is bent out of joint comes to you for a 'Won't you join my cause?' conversation, you have a biblical responsibility to interrupt mid-sentence and say, 'I think you're talking to the wrong person. Please go to the individual with whom you're having this conflict and seek to resolve it in a God-glorifying way.'"

By expecting people to fight, and teaching them how, have you created more conflict in the church?

Yes. But most of it stays above ground. Conflict that goes underground poisons the soil and hurts everyone eventually. We would rather have conflict within community than a mask of unity.

What are the issues for which the leadership of Willow Creek will go to the wall?

First, we will not tolerate biblical infidelity, a discounting of the clear teachings of Christ.

Second, we insist on the enforcement of Scripture, the "living out" of the teachings of Christ. We'll not only defend the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, but also the indisputable importance of applying biblical teaching to our daily lives in practical ways.

Third, we expect lay and staff leaders at our church to be on board with the basic vision of Willow Creek.

The last nonnegotiable is verbal discipline. In confrontation too often our verbal discipline goes out the window. People make always and never statements. They exaggerate the truth or get careless with facts. Volume levels increase. And then we wonder why we're unsuccessful in finding resolution.

Are certain types of people more prone to create conflict?

People who are unhealthy emotionally. In contrast, healthy people are less likely to internalize difference of opinion and less likely to assume the worst. For that reason, we are committed to placing healthy people into key leadership roles, both on staff and lay level.

How can you be sure you're looking at a healthy person?

You can't be 100 percent sure. But a person who has never wrestled with how his upbringing impacts his adult relationship is a sure bet for a barrel of conflict.

In our interviewing process, we often ask, "Were you raised in a perfect family?" Most often, of course, the answer is no. Then we probe deeper: "How did your parents let you down? Have you worked through that?"

People on the journey toward health generally can answer yes to two important questions: (1) Will you admit that you have baggage from your past? And (2) Will you do honest work on it so it doesn't distort your relationships and work around here?

How does an unhealthy person create unnecessary conflict?

Often, an unhealthy person will say yes when he should say no. For example, we look for people who, when asked to do additional work, have the emotional health to say, "I'm swamped right now. I won't be able to get that assignment done by the due date. Can we discuss how the assignment can get done another way?"

Another tip-off is when a person cannot subject himself or herself to loving, constructive evaluation. If people are terrified of the evaluation process or hostile to it, there's usually an underlying issue that needs to be explored and understood.

What are some standard precautions to head off unnecessary conflict?

Around Willow Creek we talk about having "check-ins." If we sense tension with someone, we sit down and say, "I just need to check in with you. Is everything okay between us?"

Once a month, we also have a question-and-answer time with the staff, and in addition, we have regular talk-back sessions with those who work in the sub-ministries.

The more interactive we are, the more we preempt serious conflict, because we get people talking before conflict goes underground.

Monday, August 29, 2011

About the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11


As I write, I watch a documentary on the construction progress of Tower One in New York. To be completed in 2013, it is emerging from Ground Zero as a testament of healing. The 105 floors will open adjacent to the gaping footprints of the Twin Towers, left permanently indented in the earth to remember the pain as well as the courage. Tower One will be as tall as the Twin Towers once were, with an additional spire that carries it over 400 feet higher, marking a path forward from tragedy into the skyline.

My thoughts turn to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 which happens to land on a Sunday. What an important day of worship it will be!

I have given some thought to worship on this day and what the human spirit is about when anniversaries like this come along. I felt God was leading us to hold services of prayer and healing. What I have in mind is not patriotic in the usual sense, but a day of remembrance and asking for God's healing for the wounds of the world. Our messages at all three services are entitled "When Forgiveness is Hard." We will open the prayer rails for prayer and offer optional anointing with oil.

Anointing may be an tradition you have not experienced, and prayers for healing might be something you associate only with physical ailment. The United Methodist Book of Worship has a section on anointing and healing prayer that helps clarify that in Christian faith, healing is not necessarily the same as curing. There are all sorts of healing God makes available to us ... spiritual, emotional, financial, relational, even political healing. The Bible affirms the call to pray for healing grace: "Are any among you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray for them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord." (James 5:14)

Whether we face tragedy on a small or large scale, God can make us whole again. The ministry of healing prayer opens us to the grace of God. It bridges alienation, breaks the power of suffering, and opens discouraged human spirits. Services of healing aren’t about magical cures. Rather they "provide an atmosphere in which healing can happen." (The United Methodist Book of Worship)


When people are hurting and there is an invitation to share our pain, it is an act of hope in God. The ritual of healing prayer in our tradition does not embarrass or expose people. United Methodist healing services use a simple sacramental approach that expresses compassion, hope, grace, and a quiet confidence in God. We can bring our insufficiencies to the all-sufficient Christ, who understands our need for wholeness for our souls, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.


I hope you will come on 9/11 or go to worship at your home church.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Spirituality of Roots

I have been sharing about my spirituality recently. Today you may notice there’s a method to my meanderings. There is a dynamic tension between my first two, the spirituality of “retreat” and of “creativity” (one is restful and reflective and the other active and productive). Last week’s spirituality of “risk” likewise contrasts what I share this week.

My spirituality is also a spirituality of “roots.” In order to take risks and step out in faith out of passion for Christ, it’s important to be deeply rooted in God.

For me, this spirituality plays out in several ways. My morning prayer and study time is a way of rooting my day, giving God the first fruits of my time as well as centering my soul. I’m also interested in genealogy which gives me a personal sense of context in the midst of history. I enjoy visiting holy spaces, whether out in the woods or at places such as the monastery in Kentucky with my covenant group last weekend. Experiences such as these, along with practicing the spiritual disciplines, make me feel rooted in centuries of Christian flow. None of the spiritual and emotional struggles I’ve had are just about me. They put me in touch with the vast expanse of Christian history, and that brings me joy.

We live in a time of great rootlessness. People are always moving, changing jobs, and making new relationships. We are uprooted time and again in ways that make us more and more disconnected from our past and from familiar surroundings. Mobility is not a bad thing, but it leaves us with a compelling desire to let the anchor down. I invite you to join me in a quest to become more deeply rooted in God!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Heritage of Methodist Fire

This is the new collage in my office from the spring heritage tour I took my dad on. We traveled through GA and SC tracing our family heritage of the Garrisons, Wills, Thompsons, Wests, Maxwells, and Smiths. We visited 26 of his ancestor's graves he had never seen and we learned stories he'd never heard.

We have deep Methodist roots and saw buildings and windows named in honor of lay leaders in our ancestry. I've had a practicing Methodist pastor in my ancestry every year since shortly after 1780 when the Garrisons helped start a Methodist society in Banks County. That's before the denomination was officially born.

Adding my mother's side to the mix, one of my relatives has been a practicing pastor in the North Alabama Conference and its predecessors every year since 1820. Quite a heritage that gives me strength for the journey.

I enjoyed introducing my Dad to his own story.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Spirituality of Risk


In the last two posts, I shared about my “spirituality of retreat” and my “spirituality of creativity”. Today I’d like to share about the “spirituality of risk.” In my sermon recently, I quoted Leonard Sweet:

I am part of the Church of the Out-of-Control. I once was a control junkie, but now am an Out-of-Control Disciple. I've given up my control to God. I trust and obey the Spirit. I've jumped off the fence. I've stepped over the line. I've pulled out all the stops. There's no turning back, looking around, slowing down, backing away, letting up, or shutting up.
Its life against the odds, outside the box, over the wall, the game of life played without goal lines other than “Thy will be done....” I am not here to please the dominant culture. I live to please my Lord and Savior …

I am finished with second-hand sensations, third-rate dreams, low-risk high-rise trades and goose-stepping, flag-waving crusades. I no longer live by and for anything but everything God-breathed, Christ-centered, and Spirit-driven. I can't be bought by any personalities or perks, positions or prizes …

My face is upward, my feet are forward, my eyes are focused, my way is cloudy, my knees are worn, my seat uncreased, my heart burdened, my spirit light, my road narrow, my mission wide. I won't be seduced by popularity, traduced by criticism, travestied by hypocrisy, or trivialized by mediocrity. I am organized religion's best friend and worst nightmare.

I won't back down, slow down, shut down, or let down until I'm preached out, teached out, healed out, or hauled out of God's mission in the world entrusted to members of the Church of the Out-of Control...to bind the confined, whether they're the downtrodden or the upscale, the overlooked or the underrepresented …

And then...it will be worth it all...to hear these words, the most precious words I can ever hear: “Well done, thou good and faithful...Out-of-Control Disciple."

Leonard says it all. My spirituality leads me to step out of the boat onto the water, even when I know I might just sink. I’ve loved hearing people's dreams at our church's Dream Gatherings because it has been setting my imagination on fire. God is leading us to step out in faith into a new reality God has in mind!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Spirituality of Creativity

This week, I would like to share about what I call the “spirituality of creativity.” I believe that God gives each of us unique and marvelous gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. When we try to serve in ways that are not in our “gift mix”, we tend to be frustrated or unhappy. But when we serve according to our God-given design, we experience joy and fulfillment even when it’s challenging. I am convinced that people who don’t serve actively in the Church probably just haven’t yet found their “sweet spot.”

Personally, I confess that I am the right-brained artist type. As a musician and writer, I have found great joy in offering gifts within and beyond the local church I serve. I love to blog, write devotionals and columns, and create hymn texts. I also love to sing and play.

I have always admired people who had entirely different creative gifts, whether it is cooking, dance, textiles, crafts, art, or worship visuals. I also admire people who had creative gifts such as woodwork, construction, project planning, and architecture. I remember the scripture in which the Spirit of God rested on craftsmen who helped create the tabernacle. Even in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was bestowing gifts.

Claiming a spirituality of creativity means living in a way that is always discovering where the needs of the world and my gifts cross. And a local church is most vibrant when we recognize that all God’s gifts are unique, wonderful, and equally important.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Spirituality of Retreat


One of the things you will learn about me is my love for spiritual formation. I believe God’s people are called to a growing, experiential relationship with Jesus that shapes us over time into the image of Christ for the sake of others. Being a Christian is more than assent to a set of beliefs and it’s more than doing good things. It’s ultimately about the heart, about being changed “from one degree of glory to another” as Paul said it. One of the most wonderful gifts God has given us for inner change is the gift of retreat.

I didn't know the terminology for it, but this longing began when I was a youth and was active at summer camp at Sumatanga. I grew up going to junior high, mid high, and senior high summer camps as well as spiritual life weekends throughout the year. I loved my church and youth group, but “getting away” became refreshing rhythm. It was one of the early ways I found my soul was continually shaped by grace. In later years, spiritual formation experiences such as Music and Arts Week, Emmaus, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation allowed me the space to continue to become.

I have found that as my life has unfolded as a huge adventure, full of joys as well as sorrows, full of great challenges and overwhelming obstacles as well as spiritual “highs,” I keep coming back to the need to get away to find peace and perspective, if only for brief periods built into my day punctuated by occasional retreats and covenant group getaways. Jesus certainly did it. I hope you will too.

It’s not a vacation. It’s a vocation.

Pictured is a trail to a small hermitage cabin I love near Gethsemane in Kentucky

Monday, July 25, 2011

My First Spiritual Awakening


This summer, I've been introducing myself to my new congregation in the weekly newsletter. Last week, I began sharing about my spiritual journey. I thought this might be helpful to share portions of these articles on my blog as well.

I grew up in a pastor’s home and sometimes being a “preacher’s kid” was difficult emotionally. The other kids teased me and I didn’t always like that. I did the things that kids do growing up, and I’m not proud of all of them. But at the same time, I had this ever-present sense that God loved me. Only later did I know that this was what I’d call the experience of prevenient grace. There was never a moment when I didn’t know God loved me. Even when I felt miserable.

I have already shared with you an experience but I would like to say more about it this week. When I was ten years old, my daddy was leading a youth retreat for our church at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama. He was the pastor, so I got to go because I was his kid (I was not old enough for youth group yet). I remember getting to sit in the laps of the teenage girls. But most of all, I remember that these youth talked about their relationship with God in their own language. It did more than impress me … it touched me.

I asked my dad toward the end of the retreat if I could say something at the closing service. Without asking what I wanted to say, he called on me during our Vespers the next day. I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, “All my life I’ve been going to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, and I’ve learned the stories of Jesus. But this weekend, I have realized that Jesus is more than just a story book character. He’s real. And I want everybody to know that I am going to serve him with my whole life.”

Little did I know at the time I would become a preacher. I’m glad God didn’t reveal that to me yet … I might have run the other way! It has been a great adventure.

Pictured is the prayer trail at my former church with one of the "stations of the cross" in the distance

Friday, July 15, 2011

Leading Song at SoulFeast


I had a wonderful experience leading worship music at SoulFeast. Lake Junaluska Assembly is such a holy and beautiful place anway, but to be with others who have a longing such as mine for a sense of the mystery, the holiness, and gracious presence of Christ is wonderful.

There is something that is difficult to describe about leading singing for those who are truly longing for God. When I sit at the piano and take the microphone, it does not feel like performance. It feels like intense prayer, which I have practiced and shared and invited others to join.

I remember what Augustine famously said, "one who sings prays twice." Sometimes I am brought to tears by the extraordinary opportunity to lead others in worship, whether in song or in Word and table. All the things that divide us melt away for a moment and we find our rootedness in God. Our hearts are inflamed with passion for the needs of the world when we remind ourselves that life is not about us but about God.


Poets and artists and musicians help us to collect and articulate our soul's deepest urgings. The most profound experiences of prayer and worship start happening when we come to a place where we discover that at the very end of our natural ability to articulate our longing for God, the Spirit intercedes for us in groans and sighs, in sounds and sights, too deep for words.

I am grateful to the Upper Room for the invitation. I am so proud of Jeremy who played the flute beautifully. And am glad to have shared the experience of being here with Sandy. I am honored to work with such incredible musicians as Jeff, John, and Ebbert. I am delighted to have spent a variety of moments and meals with soul friends.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Office "Anchored" in Worship


In a recent post, I reflected on the central symbols of the beautiful windows in my new study. Today I offer some musings about having an office that is "built into" the original sanctuary. I know that for some, this is a simple utilitarian decision about good use of space. But it means something more to me. I work and enjoy people every day in space that was, and is, holy ground.

I remember a story from our ancient spiritual heritage about a well-known "anchorite" named Julian of Norwich. Anchorites were those whose cell (or living area) was built into a sanctuary and enclosed. They were quite literally "anchored" to their sanctuaries, unlike hermits, who went into the wilderness. Pictured is the hatch remaining from an anchorite's cell through which they would receive communion as well as food and water, speak to visitors seeking counsel, and hear church services.

Anchorites were highly regarded for their wisdom and holiness. Julian never left her cell and saw the world through a simple crack in the wall so she could pray over the city.

What does it mean to me that my office is built into a sanctuary space? I love our offices because they are a hub of activity. I'm an extrovert so I love the buzz of people and faces and stories and fun. But all this joyful activity is built upon holy ground. I hope and pray I always have a sense that all that we do in our fellowship and work and play together is holy and full of God.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Diversity in the UMC over Alabama's New Immigration Law


Faithful Christians in Alabama differ in their political opinions. One of the things I love about being Methodist is that diversity is appreciated. I encourage each congregation I serve to practice their personal faith in their political life and to take responsibility to vote, but always recognize that we will have healthy disagreements. Accepting and valuing our God-given diversity is part of the essential nature of being in Christian community.

The recent immigration law in Alabama has been controversial. Our bishop and some of our pastors heavily involved in evangelism and missionary efforts drafted an open letter. The article presenting it calls this law an embarrassment to our state that does not reflect the spirit of hospitality in our churches and calls it the meanest immigration law in the nation. An interesting online debate followed that reflects our diversity, and I encourage interested readers to check out the Open Letter with Responses.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about immigration and certainly don't claim to know all the answers. But I am definitely uneasy about aspects of the law regarding "association". My understanding is that efforts to exempt the ministries of the church were unsuccessful. If it is truly considered illegal to welcome one of God's children into my home or church or give them a ride in the car, my compelling call to serve the gospel of Christ will outweigh my respect for human law. I also fear that this may inevitably lead to racial profiling, and my compassion comes in part from awareness that my own ancestors were aliens in this foreign land, coming to seek opportunity.

I do not have a proposed solution for larger issues related to immigration, but I do hope our legislature will reconsider this law and at least refine it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Stained Glass Office

In my new study is a most beautiful pair of stained glass windows. The offices are built into the former sanctuary of Saint Mark, so I start each morning with some quiet time gazing at their beautiful light.

They feature two of the most common and ancient symbols of Christian faith. One is the IHS monogram, the abbreviated name of Jesus featuring the first three Greek letters of his name. The other is the lamb of God often associated with Easter, the "Agnus Dei". It's the symbol of Christ's resurrection victory through his sacrificial love.

These two symbols anchor my day and get me in touch with ancient Christianity. One is a reminder of the human character and story of Jesus in all his humility. The other is a christological statement of faith in Christ who is exalted in victory.

My prayer today is that these symbols also anchor my ministry. Every day, I can be reminded that it's all about Jesus and it's all about Christ. This work I am privileged to be doing is not about me at all!

I am feeling very much at home.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My First Day at Saint Mark UMC

Today was my first day on site as Senior Pastor of Saint Mark UMC. For me, being at this church is a dream come true!

I got to the office at 8:30 and heard that my office was going to be painted today, so I was prepared to work with the office manager for an hour or two on the bulletin and a little basic training, and then go home to work on my sermon. Once I arrived, I never stopped meeting people, talking, and learning until about 4:00! Finally I had to leave to check my email (my computer in the office is not up and running yet).

I can tell I'm going to enjoy it here. Moving to Saint Mark has been one of those experiences of feeling the Spirit has been at work in bringing us together. I look forward to the great adventure!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Annual Conference and a Special Bible and Chalice

It seems that whenever I attend Annual Conference on a year when I'm moving, it's a particularly "moving" experience in more than one way. I suppose this is because I am experiencing all the emotions of transition, the gratitude I feel for the ministry setting I've been in and the anticipation I feel about the new one. With all the ups and downs we experience together as a Conference, I love being Methodist and serving the body of Christ.

There are always highlights for me. This year, they were remembering some special saints at the Memorial Service, an outstanding ordination service, the new president of Birmingham-Southern's speech full of healing words, a good debate about race relations and new church plants, special prayer experiences led by the Asbury leadership, sending new missionaries into ministry in Malawi, celebrating the great turnaround of our beloved Sumatanga with their new director and chaplain, getting the opportunity to coordinate the Commissioning Service, getting a packet of genealogy from a clergy colleague I've just discovered is a distant cousin, and seeing my sister-in-law elected as an alternate to the Jurisdictional delegation for the first time (I was also elected alternate).

But the most memorable moment for me was, strangely, not about present ministry activities but about two special relics. There is something about connecting with the deepest aspect of our history that brings me great passion about the future. There was a large pulpit Bible at the ordination service that was brought over by Francis Asbury from England when he came to organize the Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 1700's. There was also a silver chalice from the hand of John We
sley himself, who gave it to Asbury to bring to found the new church.

They are held at historic St. George's UMC in the Philadelphia area and are often used at ordination services around the country. But I had never heard of them. I got to touch them. Kneeling before the Asbury Bible and laying my hand on it, and taking a drink from the Wesley cup, led me to a viceral, emotional response. In all the ups and downs of ministry, in all the hardship of preaching the gospel in this present culture resistant to the church, I'm reminded of the real root of who I am and what I'm about. It's not about monuments but about movement. It gives my life texture to know I'm part of something bigger than I am and am depending on a Spirit that goes well beyond my own abilities. Thanks be to God!

One of my direct ancestors, Rev. Levi Garrison, was ordained by Francis Asbury along with his brother. For all I know, he placed his hands on this very Bible. The thought of that gives me chills.

Pictured are the chalice and Bible from the ordination service.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Restless

Someone asked me this morning where I had gotten the video of the song "Restless" by Audrey Assad which we used in worship. Here it is on YouTube.

It is a wonderful song that expresses the deep spirituality of Saint Augustine, African bishop of the 4th century church, who began his famous confessions with the words "our souls are restless until they find rest in you."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thank You From the Wests

Dear Grace UMC,

We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the farewell dinner tonight. The crowd was great and the food was excellent. The fellowship was warm and wonderful.

From start to finish, we were so touched that you went to such trouble for our "send off" and we thank you to those who organized it. All the music was outstanding and entertaining, and the skits were so very fitting (you pegged us a little too well!). The slideshow with Star Trek theme music was awesome and the cards from the Grace children were wonderful. The gifts of garden and garage tools for the new home owners and the "tools for dummies" instructions for Steve were both thoughtful and humorous. The "Amazing Grace" cross will always be an amazing reminder of our journey, and we appreciate the generous gift which we will use toward furnishings for our new home. Thank you for the stories, the fun, and the very special time together!

This has been such a grace-filled and loving church for our family. May the Lord bless each of you always.

Steve, Sandy , Debbie, and Jeremy West

Friday, May 13, 2011

Insight into Early Methodism from My Ancestor


On April 25, I posted an online memorial for Rev. Levi Garrison. He was my 4th great grandfather and early American Methodist circuit rider in South Carolina. I mentioned a letter he wrote in 1831 concerning his views on the episcopacy (organizing our bishops) that is in the archives at Wofford College.

Here is a scan of the letter and my transcription. It was difficult to make out but I did the best I could! It gives insight into early Methodism as it was taking shape while growing dramatically:

A transcription of a letter regarding the episcopacy written in 1831 by Rev. Levi Garrison of Anderson, South Carolina (1779-1855). Garrison had at one time been a circuit rider but located years prior to the letter after a Yellow Fever epidemic. It is addressed to the bishops and members of the South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The original is in the archives at Wofford College, and it is transcribed by Rev. Stephen Pierce West (1965-), his fourth great grandson. West attempted to maintain the original punctuation, grammar, and spelling unedited.

December 30. 1831. To the Members of the Southcarolina Conference to be held at Darlington the 26 of January 1832.

Dear Brethren, I have been an Old Souldier among you. I joined the Traveling Connection in 1800. I traveled seven years, located in 1807. I have watched the movements of the Methodists ever since. I am still unmoved in my faith and ettachment to our doctrines and economy, but it does appear to me that as it relates to the Episcopacy that the cause may yet be improved. So as to eliviate, both the Traveling and Local Body in some way like the following: to elect & ordain at least one Bishop for every three Conferences, and for the Bishops to change; in there districts, alternately, as do the Presiding Elders. Then in all cases of ordination, all could be attended to in the year, and also it would effectually secure the Episcopal ethority in all cases of death. The reason of my suggesting to your honorable body the above thoughts is that some of your delegates to the general Conference that is coming on may consult other preachers and make some improvement to the above plan and try to have something done in that way. There is also one other thing I will mention. Our book business has become an establishment of such worth and magnitude, that the Connection could well afford to make such a rule; that all preachers that have traveled, “we will say,” so many years, and have married in honour to the cause of Methodism, and stand firm in the old plan fully effected towards us, the old body, shall be furnished gratice, with a libery of the best theological books that we have to prepare them to maintain our ground and doctrines. I would say more, but this is enough to impress your mind with my views and to help some of you to improvement. I am your humble and loving brother in Christ, Levi Garrison

Levi Garrison
Communication
To the Bishops, and
Members of the
Southcarolina Conference

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Online Memorial for Betty Hamby West


Tomorrow is Mother's Day and I'm remembering my wonderful mother, who died on the Sunday after Easter in 2003.

I recently made this online memorial for her. I miss you, Mom! I love you!

Here's a link to the online memorial that I manage and sponsor:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pray for Us in Alabama

If you are wondering what it's like to live through a tornado, read this harrowing account by a University of Alabama student. You will get in touch with your deep feelings.

Friends abroad, please hold us in Alabama in your prayers as we help each other pick up the pieces. Though the national news focused on Birmingham and Tuscaloosa (which was hit really hard), there were tornadoes everywhere, including Harvest which is 10 minutes from where I live. Send relief teams. Help with not just "flash-in-the-pan" donations but over the long haul. This will take many months. I'm so proud to be Methodist, since we are a connectional church and our conference is quickly organizing to get work orders out. We will be in this for the long haul.

Please consider a donation to UMCOR. Send it to the North Alabama Conference of the UMC and mark it "Advance Special #3021326". If you mark it in this way, 100 % of what you give will go directly to North Alabama storm relief efforts. There is no overhead or administrative cost.

There were 100 tornadoes in the worst natural disaster in Alabama history. Yet we are so grateful for life. God is good and the stories of hope emerging are amazing.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Signs of Hope


This is the front door of the old chapel at Ford's Chapel UMC, 10 minutes from my church. The narthex stood up with 4 stained glass windows intact and a chandelier that was too stubborn to break ... a testament to hope.

Pastor Gazes Through What Was Sanctuary


This is a potent picture of Rev. Dorothy Ann standing in the narthex looking into what was the historic chapel at Ford's Chapel UMC. She is the pastor and we went up on Thursday to spend time with her as soon as we heard. They had some damage to the entire facility, but the worst part hit was their historic chapel which was leveled.

Our prayers go out to her, as well as to the newly appointed pastor Calvin Havens, as well as to the entire Ford's Chapel congregation.

The Remaining Pew at Ford's Chapel


This is the one remaining pew in the chapel of Ford's Chapel UMC, 10 minutes from my church. The building was built in 1870 (and bricked later). It laid above a foundation (notice the dark hand-hewn wood shown exposed here) from 1830's era. The congregation is the oldest congregation in the North Alabama Conference and was organized in 1808 by James Gwinn, the first circuit rider in the Tennessee Valley.

Ford's Chapel UMC Destruction


This is the steeple of Ford's Chapel UMC, a congregation just 10 minutes from Grace UMC where I serve. My friend Dorothy Ann Webster is the pastor. We went up on Thursday to spend time with her as soon as we heard that the F4 tornado tore through the Harvest, Alabama area.

They had some damage to the entire facility. The steeple was torn off and there was some water damage in the main sanctuary, and the family life center was damaged so much that you can see the sky through the roof. But the worst part hit was their historic chapel which was leveled.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Update on Grace UMC During the Storms

This has been a difficult week for folks in the South after the devastating storms hit Alabama and other states. There are over 230 deaths reported in Alabama alone. My prayers and my heart go out to so many who are hurting. It has been difficult to get news and communicate, so I'm blogging this while I'm briefly out of town in hopes that it reaches those praying for us in Huntsville and Madison.

My family is fine and our house had only minor damage. Our power will be out for possibly another week and I'm getting poor mobile phone reception so texting and talking is very spotty. So here's my chance to give everyone an update.

As far as church, Grace UMC will indeed hold worship this Sunday at 8:30 and 10:45 and pray for Ford's Chapel and many others affected by the tornadoes. We will not have nursery or Sunday School (since there are no windows for light in some rooms). Youth Sunday will be rescheduled for later. We will not have power but the water is fine and the building was undamaged. Bring flashlights for the bathroom! Simple and warm worship of prayer and singing. We need to gather. Come as you are.

Thankfully, as far as I know no one at Grace UMC was hurt and no one lost their home. Pray for the Blackwells, the Hardins, the McMullins, and the Pizitz's who I know have had significant damage to their homes. Also pray for Emily Parker, one of our students in Tuscaloosa who I've heard from. She's fine, but she lost a sorority sister and another friend and roommates to death.

My family spent part of yesterday with our friend Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster viewing Ford's Chapel UMC's destruction and visiting families in Anderson Hills neighborhood. They are only about 15 minutes from my church. Their historic chapel built in 1870 was destroyed when a tornado ripped through Harvest, Alabama. But the other buildings can be repaired. Many of the homes in that area near Sparkman High School were destroyed and there were a few deaths. Praying for their ministry there in the community during this difficult time.

The church office will reopen when power is restored. My mobile phone is not getting much reception so I can't talk, text, email, etc. If you need something please feel free to come by the church or the house. Let's all help others get through this.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Memorial for Rev. Levi Garrison of South Carolina


I am an 8th generation Methodist on one side of my family and at least a 7th generation Methodist on the other. This is part of the fiber of who I am.

One of the most fascinating characters of my direct ancestry is Rev. Levi Garrison, an early American circuit rider. He is an ancestor of my father and his West relatives. This is the text of an online memorial I have recently placed on www.findagrave.com.

Rev. Levi Garrison

Birth: Jan. 10, 1779
Alamance County, NC
Death: 1855
Anderson County, SC

Rev. Levi Garrison was the son of Jedediah Garrison and Jane Candice Williams Garrison of the Mt. Pleasant community near Homer, Georgia. His parents constituted one of two families who founded a Methodist society there before the denomination was officially organized. His father Jedediah was a local pastor.

Levi was ordained by Francis Asbury and was a circuit riding Methodist preacher from 1800-1807. Refusing to stay in an appointment because of a yellow fever epidemic, he was "located" and served for several decades as a local pastor in Anderson, SC. The vote at Annual Conference to reduce his status from elder to local pastor as a result of his refusal to itenerate was 15-14. Yet he did not stop doing what God was calling him to do. 
Historical records show that in subsequent years as a local pastor, he dedicated the buildings of three churches in the Anderson area: Smith's Chapel, Ruhama (originally Methodist but now Baptist), and Old Providence Methodist Churches.

There is a letter in the archives at Wofford College that he wrote to members of the South Carolina Conference concerning his views on the episcopacy in 1831. He refers to himself as and "old souldier among you" recounting his ministry history. The archives also hold a beautifully written obituary he wrote concerning his son Osborn.

He married Martha Patsy Meaders of the Mt. Pleasant community. Their children were Elizabeth B. Garrison, Osborn B. Garrison, Matilda A. Garrison, Margaret Garrison, Nancy N. Garrison, Foster Washington Garrison, T. Garrison, Henry W. Garrison, David Hughes Garrison, Jesse Clark Garrison, Levi B. Garrison, and Melssa Garrison. Elizabeth married Simpson Hagood of South Carolina and they moved to Alpharetta, GA (I am descended from them).

Interestingly, Levi's brother, David, was also a Methodist preacher and served in Georgia. Records show he was ordained by Francis Asbury. As strange as it may sound, they had a younger set of cousins, also brothers named Levi and David Garrison, who were Methodist preachers. This set of brothers served churches in South Alabama and are buried there in Covington County. These pastors are related to several others in the Garrison and Meaders lines who were Methodist clergy in early America. Levi and David were common names in several lines of the family. The Garrison legacy in early frontier Methodism is great.

Historical records show that Levi Garrison was buried in the Old Providence Methodist Church graveyard. However, if so his grave is unmarked. Pictured is the most prominent of the several unmarked graves. The grave of his daughter Matilda is found in the graveyard, clearly marked. Providence is still a well-kept, active United Methodist Church in a resort community (it meets during the summer months).



To see the original memorial, go to Findagrave.com

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Way of the Cross


This morning I walked the Grace UMC prayer trail and meditated on the stations of the cross. I love doing this, especially during Holy Week.

The meditation guide we publish reads "The Stations of the Cross invite us into an ancient and wonderful form of walking meditation. This is a powerful way to contemplate, and enter into, the mystery of Jesus' gift of himself to us. As we reflect on the passion, it moves the experience fr
om one of the head to one of the heart. It becomes an imaginative exercise of the senses and emotions."

It seems like it is always a new experience. I reflected on how grateful I am for 7 wonderful years at Grace and for my call to take up the cross and serve Saint Mark. I thought of all the struggles and internal wrestlings that I face as a Christian in ministry. I thought of the joy of walking through it with the help of God and many friends. As I meditated about each point along the way of Jesus, I connected the dots with my own experiences spanning different situations.

Christ walked the way of redemption for me, so he knew the depths of my struggle as well as the heights of my joy. My story makes sense in light of the larger story of redeeming love. The Christian journey is a path, a pilgrimage. When ancient Christians journeyed to Jerusalem, they established the tradition of walking the path he walked. In time, when this became impractical, replicas of the way of the cross developed in villages in Europe. Many, many people have walked this walk. And I walk it today.

God is good. Life is good. Love is good.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moving to Saint Mark UMC

It was announced this morning that I will become the senior pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in the Vestavia area of Birmingham this June. I am sorry to move from Grace UMC that we love so much, yet I'm excited to be going to such a wonderful church.

I can’t believe it has been 7 years. Grace is a marvelous church and I felt the Spirit at work when I got the opportunity to come here 7 years ago. Several years prior to my arrival, the previous pastor, Fred, asked me to be the speaker for the annual church retreat at Sumatanga … and I have been in love with Grace UMC ever since. I began to keep track of Grace and longed to perhaps serve here one day. When it actually transpired, I just couldn’t believe it. My family was so very excited about coming to such a wonderful church.

In the same way, becoming senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham is an extraordinary opportunity. Like Grace, Saint Mark is a church that I have had spiritual nudges about serving someday … though I was surprised that “someday” is today.

I’ve known people at Saint Mark for years because of my involvement in Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga. In addition, Sandy and I have spent most of our years in Birmingham. We will be living 10 minutes from my brother and 30 minutes from my dad and another brother. We will be 2 hours closer to all our relatives, including Sandy’s parents in their later years. And though we have never relished the idea of moving our son during high school, this particular church is the one church he would be excited about going to. He already knows many of the youth from camp.

We love Grace very much. At any point in history I would hate to move from such a wonderful church. But now that I am processing this I realize what a good time this is for Grace to make a transition. We built our new building and settled into a new “normal” for a year. We have an excellent staff and fine leaders equipped and organized to lead us into the future. We are not planning on a capital campaign related to the new building for another year and a half, giving a new pastor time to get acclimated. This year is better than next year, and better than last year, for a move.

I could not be more excited about the pastor and family who is coming to Grace. I have known Bryan Sisson for many years. His father, Jerry Sisson, was a prominent pastor in our conference and served in Huntsville. Bryan’s sister lives here and her kids go to Westminster. Bryan is an excellent preacher and organizer, sound in his theology and loving as a pastor. He is about the same age I was when I came to Grace (thanks for coaching me like I know you will help him!). His wife and two young girls are very much looking forward to living in the parsonage and being part of this great church.

As my family prepares for the transition of moving to Birmingham, and Grace UMC prepares for the transition of receiving the Sissons in June, we can all know that God is good.

Check out Saint Mark UMC on the web.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Discovering My Wills and Thompson Ancestors

Discovering my ancestors has been an amazing journey. Last week, I gave my dad the gift of getting in touch with his own heritage. I took him on a graveyard tour of north Georgia and showed him 26 graves of our ancestors. It was a mystical whirlwind, an adventure I am still unpacking from emotionally and spiritually.

One of the highlights was going to the Midway UMC in Cumming, GA to trace Virginia Wills West’s heritage. She was Dad's grandmother. Her parents, John and Sarah Thompson Wills, are buried there. In addition, both sets of their parents, Mastin and Susan Spruce Wills and James and Martha Garner Thompson, are buried. Both sets of Dad’s 2nd great grandparents were charter members of the church, which is indicated on their gravestones.

Midway UMC is a growing church with new buildings but they have a historic chapel pictured above. It was an awesome experience to see the Wills Memorial window. I did not realize until we got there that it was the most prominent window of the chapel, the highest in the center. The names of Maston Wills (Dad’s 2nd great grandfather) and his three sons, John (our ancestor), William, and Andrew, are in the window itself. It speaks volumes of their deep roots here in this church.

A real serendipity was going up to the main office and new sanctuary and suddenly noticing the stone memorial embedded in the brick by the door. It lists Harrison Wills first among the names the building was built in memory of. Harrison was Virginia Wills West’s brother, Dad’s Great Uncle. This spurred wonderful conversation about Dad’s memories of Uncle Harrison.

He told me about Uncle Harrison taking him a couple of times to the Indian Springs Camp Meeting, the largest camp meeting in Georgia, when Dad was a teenager. This was probably around 1945, and I enjoyed hearing about the sawdust floor and piano under the open air chapel. Dad could even remember the three points of the preacher's sermon one of those days on the text “Prepare to meet thy God” ... 1) There is a God, 2) You will meet him, 3) You'd better get ready!

Dad has another story I will share about Uncle Harrison. I share it in Dad's own words:

"As a youth I went with my father to visit his uncle, Harrison Wills. One of the stories I remember Uncle Harrison telling was that when he, in his retirement years, decided to sell of his chicken houses and much of his land, he advertised the sale in the Atlanta papers. A group of business men came to look at the property and purchase it. One of them said, 'Where did you acquire all of this? Did you inherit it?' He replied, 'Let me show you where I got my inheritance.' He drove them down to the little church in which he had been raised, took the key from his pocket, and ushered them inside. Pointing to the altar rail at the front of the church, he said, 'This is where my inheritance came from. I can remember that my father brought me here as a child, knelt at the altar with me, put his hands on my head, and prayed that I would be the person God wanted me to be.' He concluded, 'I can still feel the hands of my father on my head'."

That chapel would be the original building built earlier on that same site. I took a picture of that original chapel that was in the office of the church. That father who laid his hands on Harrison would have been John Wills, memorialized on the window.