Monday, December 30, 2013

The Word Made Flesh Makes Us Divine


I saw this post on the Twitter feed of musician and priest John Michael Talbot. I felt it was worth reporting during this holy season of Christmas. There is nothing more precious and central to Christianity than our spirituality of the incarnation. He became what we are so that we can become more like he is.


This is from a treatise "On the Refutation of All Heresies", by Saint Hippolytus, priest and martyr.

The Word made flesh makes us divine

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the power of God, spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win men back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce him to slavery but by addressing to his free will a call to liberty.

The Word spoke first of all through the prophets, but because the message was couched in such obscure language that it could be only dimly apprehended, in the last days the Father sent the Word in person, commanding him to show himself openly so that the world could see him and be saved.

We know that by taking a body from the Virgin he re-fashioned our fallen nature. We know that his manhood was of the same clay as our own; if this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. If he were of a different substance from me, he would surely not have ordered me to do as he did, when by my very nature I am so weak. Such a demand could not be reconciled with his goodness and justice.

No. He wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves, and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept. Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own manhood as the first fruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity.

When we have come to know the true God, both our bodies and our souls will be immortal and incorruptible. We shall enter the kingdom of heaven, because while we lived on earth we acknowledged heaven’s King. Friends of God and co-heirs with Christ, we shall be subject to no evil desires or inclinations, or to any affliction of body or soul, for we shall have become divine.

Whatever evil you may have suffered, being man, it is God that sent it to you, precisely because you are man; but equally, when you have been deified, God has promised you a share in every one of his own attributes. The saying “Know yourself” means therefore that we should recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognized and acknowledged by our Maker.

So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has re-fashioned our fallen nature. In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.


Pictured is my daughter's "Christmas pizza" depicting the nativity. It's is an incarnational expression of her faith!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Day After Christmas and Blessing the Poor

"Good King Wenceslas" is a Carol based on the legend of a 10th century Duke of Bohemia, a saintly monarch who personally cared for the poor and widowed. He was martyred for his faith, and followers kept the stories of his compassion alive.

The Carol does not mention the nativity, but is associated with Christmas because the narrative occurs on the feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26. It is a call to follow in the footsteps of the saint, as did his page, in order to care for the poor.

Today is the feast of St. Stephen, so let us think of the poor and needy. As the text concludes, "ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing."

Here is the complete text of the Carol.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows strong
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Text by John Mason Neale published in 1853
Art by Carelde Winter

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Every Valley

"Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain." (Isaiah 40:4, Handel's "Messiah", and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech).

May the words of the prophet resonate in our hearts and minds as we approach Christmas, the great feast of the incarnation.



Pictured is Glacier National Park in Montana.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Look for the Manger

This week, we are moving into the rhythm that we go through during the last full week before Christmas. Not only is my church preparing for next Sunday’s special services with Handel's Messiah in the morning and Sunday night’s “Live Nativity” presented for our community, and not only do we look forward to Christmas Eve services shortly after that, our hearts and hands are preparing at home. We are shopping and cooking, mailing packages and sending invitations, and attending parties.

It seems like this time of year, we are always looking for something. We look for things like the tape and the new roll of wrapping paper, the addresses we misplaced, and the cinnamon that we were sure we left on the counter.

But I invite you to take time each and every day to look for something else – something more precious and mysterious and wonderful. I invite you to look for the manger.

You may ask, “Is it lost? Why do we need to look for the manger? Did someone misplace it after the Kindergarten program on Friday?”

What I mean is this. The great miracle of the incarnation was placed in the simplest of settings. The majesty and glory of God was laid in an animal trough. The King of Kings was laid in a blanket of prickly hay.

In that spirit, I invite you to look for the simple things that hold the greatest mysteries this season. The deepest meaning of Christmas does not come in the form of the most fantastic and festive. It comes to us in the warmth of night that can only be found in the coldness of a barn, the willingness to do what you must with what you have, and the simplest of arrangements.

Look for the manger, and you will find something special this year.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela Quote

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

This quote from Nelson Mandela inspires me in my walk with God these days. In my journey of mid-life, I am looking back at all my successes and failures over the years and realizing how much both of them make me who I am, and who I choose to be. 

The quote also reminds me of what a great man he was, and I honor his memory the day after his death.

I remember when he was set free and trying to imagine what it was like for him to be in prison for 27 years, an amount of time longer than I had been alive. And yet as he was released, he was an international hero, an icon of resistance to apartheid.

Over the years, I began admiring his essential choice to seek reconciliation rather than revenge, realizing he had gone through changes in life in his approach to what it means to offer resistance to evil. He became a champion in what it means to reconcile, an intentional effort that goes far beyond forgiveness. He was able to do what few leaders in the world have been able to do.

What a great man he was. Nelson, you continue to inspire me. May you rest in peace, as one who brought to the world a legacy of real peace. I wish we could learn more fully from you. Perhaps we will.



Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Second Gaze

This is a wonderful meditation from Richard Rohr for Thanksgiving Day. May your spiritual eyes be opened to the "second gaze," the perspective of deep gratitude, compassion, and peace that is rooted in God's gaze upon you.

Happy Thanksgiving. To reach the goal of compassion we must not stop with the first gaze. It is the second gaze that we struggle and wait for most of our lives. In the first half of life, we have a critical mind and a demanding heart and a lot of impatience. These characteristics are both gifts and curses, as you might expect. We cannot risk losing touch with either our angels or our demons. They are both good teachers. The trials of life invariably lead us to a second gaze. This is the gaze of compassion and patience. Now we look out at life from a place of Divine Intimacy where we are finally safe and at home. Only the second gaze sees fully and truthfully. The final surprise is that one’s supposed second gaze is actually God’s Eternal Gaze at you, which you have finally received like a long-awaited radio signal, and once you receive it, it just automatically bounces back to the Sender. Adapted from Contemplation in Action, pp. 19-20

Friday, October 25, 2013

Anger Leads to Resentment, Which Leads to Bitterness

I enjoyed my 24-hour retreat in Lessburg, Florida with the leadership team for the Five-Day Academy to be held in March. My favorite quote from our discussion was "Anger leads to resentment, which leads to bitterness. So resolve your anger."

Time and again, I see how anger can be so destructive in relationships in family, workplaces, and even churches.

I reflected for a while that the way of Christ is not the way of anger, resentment, and opposition.

It is the way of companionship with those you are willing to bear the cross for.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Divine Presence

"Lord Jesus, our Savior,
let us now come to You.
Our hearts are cold;
Lord, warm them with Your selfless Love.
Our hearts are sinful;
Lord, cleanse them with Your precious Blood.
Our hearts are weak;
Lord, strengthen them with Your joyous Spirit.
Our hearts are empty;
Lord, fill them with your Divine Presence.
Lord Jesus, our hearts are Yours;
possess them always and only for Yourself.
Amen."


St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, North Africa (354-430)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blessed When Times are Tough

Sometimes ministry is not easy. But it's not supposed to be.

I heard a version of a scripture from the Sermon on the Mount that was read at a public service. It caught my ear. It seemed fitting to share with my pastor friends, who get discouraged from time to time by the resistance they encounter.

Actually, it applies to anyone who is on the journey of Christian life. I hope it encourages all of you.

“Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this."

(Matthew 5:22-23, The Message)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Taize

Saint Mark UMC holding its first Taize Service in September of 2013. A Taize service is a Christian service of prayer, with improvisational instrumental music supporting the continual singing of scriptures and simple prayers. It is styled after the prayer of the Taize community near Burgundy, France, an ecumenical home of Protestant and Catholic spiritualists. 



Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Incurable Wound at the Heart of Everything

Richard Rohr is a great spiritualist and writer that my late friend and dear companion Michael Stewart introduced me to several years ago.

As I am exploring middle age, the empty nest, and the second half of life I'm discovering a new joy and a new wisdom. Richard's daily meditations are available by email, and this one particularly spoke to me today.

I do not find the sentiment depressing ... far from it. I find it liberating to know that there are wounds that only God can heal. I can't fix them. I share it with you in hopes that it blesses your day.

In order to arrive at the second half of life, one has to realize there is an incurable wound at the heart of everything. Much of the conflict from the age of twenty-five to sixty-five is just trying to figure this out and then to truly accept it. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) said toward the end of his life: “All great thought springs from a conflict between two eventual insights: (1) The wound which we find at the heart of everything is finally incurable, (2) Yet we are necessarily and still driven to try!” (Think about that for an hour or so!)

Our largely unsuccessful efforts of the first half of life are themselves the training ground for all virtue and growth in holiness. This wound at the heart of life shows itself in many ways, but your holding and “suffering” of this tragic wound, your persistent but failed attempts to heal it, and your final surrender to it, will ironically make you into a wise and holy person. It will make you patient, loving, hopeful, expansive, faithful, and compassionate—which is precisely second-half-of-life wisdom.

Adapted from Loving the Two Halves of Life: The Further Journey

If you would like to sign up for Richard's daily meditations, see this link.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

So You Had a Special Needs Infant ...

A former parishioner published an article and sent it to me in gratitude for pastoral care I was able to offer when she and her husband began the journey of having a special needs infant. With her permission, I share it with you.

It is a powerful witness for those who are finding hope at the early stages of such a pathway, and for anyone who knows the way of grief or depression. God is good and can see us through things in a way that helps us to see things with new eyes ... with the eyes of God.

The author is Penni Grant.

My daughter has special needs. One more time. My daughter has special needs. It took me a long time to be able to say that without crying. When Sarah was born she was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at 3 days old and stayed there for almost four weeks. She had low muscle tone and a feeding tube because she wouldn't eat. At two weeks old her test results confirmed that she had Prader-Willi Syndrome. It's a fairly rare chromosome disorder with the main symptom being extreme overeating later in life. There are no physical characteristics of Prader-Willi that could be detected in the womb so when we heard all of this we were in shock. I should say extremely shocked.

When you have a special needs infant, you will go through so many emotions you won’t know how to feel from one minute to the next. You will have sorrow, happiness and guilt in a matter of seconds. You are grieving. No matter how strong you think you are, you will grieve and will go through the grieving process in some form or fashion. You will wonder how this happened to you. You will wonder how you became one of “those” families? The families you felt sorry for and were secretly so happy it wasn’t you. The life you had envisioned for your baby is gone and you will be devastated. But, your baby is perfect…you will see that later.

Everyone handles tragedies in different ways, but the basic stages of grief that the majority of the population experience are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Whether you will go through this yourself, have been through it or know someone who will go through it, please help them through it! If you notice that they get stuck at a stage then encourage them to get counseling. My pastor counseled me and after I talked to him and realized what I was going through, it helped immensely.

Denial

I went through this stage in the very beginning. We (my husband and I) had genetic testing done because of my age so how could anything be wrong? We had a DNA test that told us everything was perfectly normal! The neonatologist and two nurses told us they thought it was PWS but my husband and I wouldn't believe them until we actually got the test results back. We wanted to believe that Sarah would miraculously recover. We’d walk into the NICU one day and she would be drinking and moving just a normal infant. We got the test results back in 12 days so this stage lasted about that long.

A friend went through this stage in a different way: she didn't want to dream about the future with her new little girl if she wasn't going to get it. But the day she got the diagnosis she hit the ground running with everything she could do for her daughter!

Anger & Guilt

I believe I went through this stage while I was in Denial and Depression. I was angry at other women with normal healthy babies and angry at God. I watched other women leave the hospital with their newborns and couldn’t even look at them. I didn't want to visit my daughter in the NICU because I felt no bond with her at all. Then when I actually did see her I felt guilty for not wanting to see her. I could only hold her certain times of the day and I couldn't stand holding her limp body while she "ate" as breast milk went down her tube. It was not the bonding I had dreamed of for nine months! And because I didn’t want to see her in the NICU I felt guilty and depressed.

Bargaining

I went through this stage through the whole experience. I am a Christian and deep down I knew that the God I believe in doesn’t bargain. But I did keep wishing that life was different. I looked at pictures when I was pregnant and kept thinking, “This is when we were happy. When we thought nothing was wrong and she was going to be normal.” Then I would get sad and depressed, which leads me to the next stage.

Depression

This is the stage that I lingered in a little too long. I couldn’t see the good in any of this. I could only think about what Sarah wouldn’t become, about things that she would never be able to do. I was devastated and saw other friends with their normal, healthy babies and was angry again. I cried all the time and found no joy in anything.

Not all the friends I talked to on our social networking site needed medication or counseling, but all went through this phase of the grieving process.

I have 2 friends and myself included that admitted to thoughts of killing or harming the baby. We all agreed that a baby hooked up to tubes and wires that is in an incubator is very hard to bond with. I actually thought about how easy it would be to put a pillow over her face in the NICU. The scary part is that I started to justify how it would be better if Sarah did die. I knew that what I was feeling made me feel guilty which spiraled me into a sadness I didn’t recognize. How could a mother feel like that about her child? It wasn’t until I talked to the social worker and one of Sarah’s NICU nurses that I realized I might have a problem. They obviously saw something I didn’t and suggested I talk to my OB/Gyn. The next day I saw her and filled a prescription for an antidepressant. In a couple of weeks with a couple of visits to my pastor the fog slowly started to lift.

Acceptance

For me, acceptance happened gradually but for others it may happen in an instant. I started to slowly work my way out of it when Sarah came home from the NICU. There was one thing my husband said to me that also made me realize that things weren’t so bad. He told me, “You are concentrating on what she can’t do, she will be able to do a lot of things. Don’t condemn her whole life when she’s only 1 month old.” One friend said she realized through friends, her pastor and family that special needs children have their place and purpose in this world also. Another said that it happened gradually for her when her daughter started to interact more with her. She also said that working out a schedule with her husband and family so she could get more sleep was very important. She believed that sleep deprivation was contributing to her depression and sadness.

One thing that most of the women on our social network group said that helped was having a wonderful partner. Spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever your definition, is so important. Communicate frequently and be open about what you’re feeling. It’s important that you and your partner can talk to each other without fear of judgment. My husband was a rock and we always listened to and leaned on each other. Confiding in our pastor, I told him that I was not handling the situation very well and my husband was handling it so much better. He was upset of course, but never wavered and was always there for our daughter whereas I felt like a big pile of mush. But our pastor wisely stated, “He’s not handling it better, just different.”

Sarah is now 15 months old but it took me 4-5 months to come out of that darkness. I have accepted our new normal and realize now that she is perfect. Of course I still wish that she didn’t have PWS, but I look at her now as a little girl and not just a diagnosis. She is absolutely beautiful and brings out the best in everyone!

Axelrod, J. (2011). The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 13, 2012, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Speech That Would Change a Nation

Tomorrow, August 28, is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. It would be a speech that would change a nation. What a great man and a potent dream that brings us a step closer to the kingdom of God. I plan to watch the speech a couple of times. I invite you to as well.



Thursday, August 22, 2013

For Work

Sometimes work is difficult for people of any occupation or place in life.

It is true in ministry as well as in any other vocation.

Yet there is great blessing in the gift of work. There is toil yet there is immense potential for creativity and joy.

This is from John O'Donohue's "To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings."

"For Work"

May the light of your soul bless your work with love and warmth of heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.

May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal to those who work with you and those who see and receive your work.

May your work never exhaust you.

May it release wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration, and excitement.

May you never become lost in bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find hope in your heart, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected. May your soul calm, console, and renew you.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Acts of Kindness

I just did an act of kindness for one of my neighbors. I took them some fresh vegetables and included the Acts of Kindness promotional card my church provided for our summer Acts of Kindness campaign.

It meant a lot to me because it stretched me. I realized that as often as I have cordially talked to these kind neighbors, I had never brought them a gift and had never been in their home. They happened to have warm cookies that had just finished baking, and the one they gave me tasted so good.

Serendipitous acts of kindness are one of the most creative ways a church can share the love of Christ openly in a community. It is evangelism in the best sense of the word because we are sharing the name of Christ practically, and more importantly, purely for Christ's sake.

The Acts of Kindness card is a tool to let people know we love them and care about them in the name of Christ and on behalf of the church, but to express that it is not because we want anything from them. It is doing for others just for the sake of doing so. So often, people assume churches are only self-interested and this can come as a welcome surprise. It might just warm someone's heart to give church a try.

In today's culture, many people have been turned off from church because of TV evangelism, faith mixed with politics, or negative experiences with intolerant Christians. These influences are not the essence of the church and they are not who we are. Rather, self-giving love is the essence of our faith.

We are hoping to create an atmosphere in our community that opens people to the love of God because others have loved them with no strings attached.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Helping Someone Sing Their Song

On Sunday morning, I told of a highlight at Music and Arts Week this past week at Sumatanga. Music and Arts Week is always amazing for our children, youth, and adults who attend. This year, the moment that touched my heart most was not the closing concert but a serendipity at the Thursday night talent show.

A young woman got up to sing a beautiful song a cappella. She had a pretty voice. She started out wonderfully, but soon began fumbling over the words time and again. You could tell she was nervous. You could see the pain on her face. But then I saw the magic happen. Somebody spoke up. “My friend knows how to play it on her guitar, can she help you?” She went to the front to support her with accompaniment.

The singer gained confidence but was still a little shaky, so the guitarist began to sing along quietly in the background to support her. Soon everybody else was singing along quietly to help her. She gained confidence and beauty. The song ended with a round of applause. And I realized I had watched the gospel happen.

This is what it means to be a church. We’ve got each other’s back. We lift each other up. We do not cut each other down. We don’t criticize and judge, or gossip and express negativity behind other people’s backs.

Instead, if someone is struggling or having trouble, we choose to help them sing their song.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Jesus In a Coke Float

This is my column which was published in The Vestavia Voice on June 26, 2013. It was originally published in the "Faith & Values" Section of The Huntsville Times on May 9, 2008 - Steve West

When I was a child, my father served as pastor of a church in Fayette, Alabama. The church was right next door to our home. On the opposite side of us lived a woman I knew only as “Mrs. Eileen”.

I don’t remember a lot about life in Fayette because we moved away when I was four. But I do remember a few images: the large steps in front of the church, the playground, the kitchen and den of our home, and of course Mrs. Eileen. What I remember about her most is that she was always ready to invite me in for a Coke float. And I loved Coke floats. I have always had a lingering image in my mind of her gracious hospitality, with glass and spoon in hand.

Years later, I had the opportunity to go back to Fayette to preach as a guest in that church. I was curious about Mrs. Eileen and asked one of the church leaders what had become of her. He said she was still alive and lived in the nursing home. “Would you like to go see her?” I was delighted.

I’ll never forget this visit. He brought me to her room and told her there was somebody that wanted to see her. Her eyes turned to me with anticipation. I reached out my hand and said, “I’m sure you have no idea who I am, but my name is Stephen West.” She immediately threw her head back and exclaimed, “OH! I remember you! I used to hear you all the time, standing out in the carport crying at the top of your lungs.” She mimicked the sound of my wailing. “One day I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so I opened up my fridge and asked myself, ‘what can I give that boy to keep him quiet?’ And all I could find was some ice cream and a bottle of Coke!”

Until that moment I had no idea why she had been such a person of warm hospitality. She had shown me Jesus in a Coke float. There is something incarnational, something wonderfully mysterious about self-giving love in the name of Christ.

Most of us roam around in life, crying out in pain. The child in us is screaming, sometimes loudly, sometimes silently. We expect somebody to take the pain away but no person can, not really. But what we can do for others is share the love of Christ, who is “made known to us in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35b).

When we share the love of Jesus in a Coke float, a smile, or a gesture of care with somebody who is hurting, it makes all the difference.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Journey of One's Life

This weekend was quite a journey, bringing a taste of so many aspects of one’s life. Friday began with preparing for and attending to the funeral of the elderly mother of a dear member of our congregation. As I joined her daughters who grieved beautifully while celebrating a life well lived, I thought about how my life has been shaped and formed by grace and imagined how life might be when it draws to earthly completion.

I then got in the car to pick up a buddy from high school. We headed to our 30th high school reunion and reconnected with old friends. I took one last tour of my high school, knowing that it was about to be rebuilt and the building I know so well will become a municipal center.

On Saturday, I was back at work attending a Staff Parish Committee workshop on fostering healthy communication and conflict resolution, such an important ministry in any church’s life. I enjoyed the hospitality of those who provided lunch and the thoughtfulness of all the material.

Afterward, I did some yard work to get ready for Father’s Day. Then it was time to pick up my son, for Godspeed had arrived after a wonderful week in Missouri on their choir tour and mission trip.

On Sunday, two families told me they are planning to become members of the church. I had both the blessing of serving through worship leadership at 8:30 in sermon and song, and the blessing of being ministered to by our youth choir at the joint 10:45 service. We surprised our music director with a recognition on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Godspeed.

After services, we headed to a delightful Father’s Day lunch with my Dad and my children. After some Sunday afternoon rest, it was time to take my family out for pizza to spend time with two old high school buddies again. We talked and talked of memories, of children, and of transitions in our lives.

I reflect on all this to say that so rarely, in one weekend, do we experience so many aspects of life. I found myself pausing to consider where God has been at work in it all … from death and grief, to memories of days gone by, to important vocational work of the present, to vital worship, to support for children, to love for families of origin, to wrapping the experiences up with a late night visit with old friends.

Do you ever have times when it all seems to come together? Life is a journey with many rhythms. I am reading Joan Chittister’s The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life in which she says “We are all seekers of the God who is here but invisible to the blind eye; who calls to us but is unheard by those who do not listen; who touches our lives wherever we are, but is unfelt by those whose ears are closed to the presence of God – who is everywhere, in everyone, at all times.”

Throughout all the rhythms of life, I hope we always remain seekers of God together.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

God Never Wastes a Hurt

Recently, on Memorial Day, I posted a picture of my Uncle Marvin Hamby on Facebook and honored his sacrifice for our country. Unfortunately, I never met him. My mother's brother was lost in World War II in October of 1942. He was serving in the navy on a tanker in the North Atlantic, supplying oil to the British. A German torpedo struck the tanker, and since there is a likelihood of explosion, my uncle and most of his crewmates jumped ship into the freezing water. Ironically, the ship did not explode but very few survived to tell the story.

My cousin Warren, who in his younger days resembled Uncle Marvin greatly, shared with me an inspirational family story that I had never heard. I share it with you in hopes that it helps us all see God at work in all things, even terrible things, if we keep our spiritual antennas up.

When my grandfather, Rev. C.P. Hamby, was a country preacher on Sand Mountain, he got a telegram saying Marvin was declared dead. It confirmed the family's greatest fears after having previously heard he was missing. It happened to be a Sunday morning when he got word, and Grandpa Hamby went on to the church he served. Before preaching, he shared with the congregation the terrible news he had just heard. He led the church in prayer, in which he asked God to forgive the enemies responsible for sinking Marvin's ship. He prayed that God would protect them so that their parents in Germany would not have to go through the great pain he was going through.

In the congregation was a young man named Jim Goodwin. He was inspired by the spirit of forgiveness Grandpa Hamby had, and this inspiration led to his decision to become a missionary. He told this story in worship one Sunday, knowing that my cousin Warren was in the congregation.

I have known Jim Goodwin and his brothers in ministry most of my life and his brother Bert did my mother's funeral. Jim became a missionary in Brazil and retired there to stay among the hundreds of people in that country that he led to Christ.

God can even use something as terrible as war, death, and tragedy for his purposes.

I do not believe that war is God's plan for humanity. However, I am also fond of saying "God never wastes a hurt." What is going on in your life that God might be using for good?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Man in the Glass

In my journey through mid-life transition, much of my spirituality has been to focus on integrity. I desperately yearn for my inner values and core spirit to be more fully integrated with what I present to others in the world. In this place of crossroads, the question becomes one of what I value for the second half of my life.

Finding joy in simply being who I am and singing the song of my heart, not in more achieving and accomplishing and getting somewhere, is what life is all about. What a fascinating movement of the soul.

I recently went to a luncheon and heard the following poem read, and it touched me in a deep place. It's from some 80 years ago but it is about being the man I'm called to be. I share it with you today.

It is called "The Man in the Glass" by Peter Dale Wimbrow, Jr.

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.

For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Prayer for Unity in the Body of Christ

Yesterday in worship, I shared with a heavy heart about the upcoming protest that has been announced for this Saturday by the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas on the campus of the University of Alabama. Today, I ask for your fervent prayers for unity in the body of Christ.

Please take some time, perhaps on Saturday in particular, for prayer. In the spirit of Christian love, we need to pray for those who bring discord to the Church, rather than participating in a spirit of disunity by being spiteful in return.

On Saturday, Tuscaloosa will witness a great expression of disunity, of spiritual arrogance and fractured Christianity, of hatred disguised as Christian love. The protest will be right there on campus. Most have heard of this church’s activities. They are known for inflammatory protests, for picketing funerals, military events, and places of tragedy with signs as offensive as “God hates fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers”. They have said that they plan to do this in Tuscaloosa to "remind them of the wrath of God that visited them two years ago," when six Alabama students and 47 other people were killed. The church claims God is punishing America for our sin.

I appreciate the response of the mayor of Tuscaloosa, acknowledging their right to protest peacefully, but adding that "Personally, I have a different take. The God I saw after April 27 was a God of love, compassion and generosity." That is my point of view as well.

Events like this remind me there is so much brokenness in body of Christ. Sometimes we are NOT one as Jesus prayed for us to be one. If you need it as you pray, information is available on their website which is, sadly, named "www.godhatesfags.com." There they espouse their beliefs, which include this statement openly directed at those of us in Methodist tradition:

Even though the Arminian lies that "God loves everyone" and "Jesus died for everyone" are being taught from nearly every pulpit in this generation, this hasn't always been the case. If you are in a church that supposedly believes the Bible, and you are hearing these lies, then your church doesn't teach what the Bible teaches.

When I consider groups in Church history that have been divisive, my heart leads me back to Jesus' prayer in John chapter 17. His prayer for all of who would follow him is that we are one, just as he and the Father were one. For Jesus, this is not a criticism of those who have disagreement. Rather, it is an invitation for all his followers to participate in the life of the Trinity and the communion of love.

Unity is not just a local yearning for churches, who in the spirit of Christ need to find ways to value each other and hear each other's voices in openness of communication and respect. Unity is a macro-church need.

Let us begin by praying for, not just criticizing, the people who will be picketing on Saturday. We may never really know what pain and hurt has led them to this place of condemnation. This Sunday, on the day of Pentecost, let us get in touch with the fire of the Holy Spirit that brought miraculous unity in the beginnings of the church. Let us pray for that fire to burn brightly in our hearts.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Stained Glass Spirituality

Since the very beginnings of the Christian church, artistry has evolved to tell the story and celebrate the faith. Second only to the preached word (but more prominently in history than reading text), it has been one of the central ways the faith has been transmuted from one generation to the next.

This past Sunday night, I thoroughly enjoyed my congregation's "Celebration of the Stained Glass Windows." In the book that we have recently published, there are meditations and scriptures on the various stained glass windows and symbols that bless our worship space.

It has occurred to me that many of the symbols in the rose windows appeared very early in Christian history. For the first 300 years of Christian practice, there was no opportunity for large public worship gatherings because of rampant persecution. In the days of the catacombs, ancient burial grounds where Christians gathered in secret to worship, many of these secret symbols began to appear. The fish (ichthus in Greek) is the most well known of these ancient secret symbols. So Christian artistry thus began.

And we have continued that tradition in many of our sanctuaries. Most Christians in history could not read the Bible (because it was either inaccessible to them, or it was not translated into their spoken language, or because they were not educated at all). Yet all Christians in history have seen the symbols that are most dear to our faith. They tie us together as the body of Christ in ways that cross over cultures and generations.

Reclaiming art as part of central mission of the church will be a key to the future, because people are becoming less text oriented and more image based. We process information through hypertext and video clip and fast images in advertising. As an "auditory artist" (musician), it blesses me to think about how reclaiming the arts will energize and reinvigorate God's church in the future.

Wherever you live and worship, I invite you to spend some quiet time in your worship space. No matter what style of worship your church practices, most likely there are important symbols there, even the furniture itself, that speaks a theology and spirituality.

At Saint Mark, the rose windows reflect the great mystery of Trinity with the most ancient symbols of faith. The nativity window, second in prominence only to the rose windows, reflects the other great mystery of faith, the incarnation and the mingling of the divine and human in the person of Christ. The Old Testament characters in the windows - David, Moses, Isaiah, and Abraham - prefigure Christ and give us a sound theology of his person. The stories of Jesus that surround us root us in the teachings, miracles, and radical hospitality of our Savior. The unique guardian angel watching over precious children as they walk over the bridge reminds us how important it is at Saint Mark to pass the joy of the gospel from one generation to the next.

This is our spirituality. This is our life.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Prayer for a Week of Tragedy and Terror

My friend Lonna Lynn Higgs is a pastor and chaplain for the United Methodist Children's Home in Alabama. She shared this beautiful prayer in her email "Lines from Lonna Lynn," and I share it with you with her permission.

Great and Loving God,

All around are beautiful signs of life in the warmth of the sun and the flowers of springtime. With the greening of the trees, the world is awash in new beginnings. But computer screens and cell phones portray a very different world, an ugly world where beautiful lives meet horrible untimely ends. In moments of tragedy and terror, you, Lord, are the first of the first responders. It is your divine strength and energy that emboldens the brave souls that risk their lives to stop the pain and save the suffering. It is your power that sends forth waves of selfless compassion in answer to senseless, selfish violence. May those waves of compassion wash over fatalities and families, injured victims and damaged communities. This day we remember everyone affected by the bombings in Boston, the factory explosion in Texas and other tragedies that have not made the news.

Forgive us when faith fails us in the face of evil. Forgive us when we get lost in desires for revenge and focus on fear. You are a God of love—the one who gave your only Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it; not to tear down and destroy but to build up and to bless. Help us, Lord, to love and not to judge, to come forward with compassion and not to hide away in corners.

Set us anew to the task of living as our Lord Jesus lived. Especially help us love persons who are disconnected, alienated or outcast. Inspire us to offer ourselves as caring companions with whom they can share their loneliness. Perhaps they will let go of smoldering frustration before it sparks into violence. Perhaps they will hear your still, small voice and accept the truth that sets them free. Perhaps they will find a life of joy and peace.

It is peace that the world needs, O God of Life. Send it, we pray. Send the peace that passes all understanding. Let it rain down, fill up and pour forth from the hearts of your people. Let peace overflow into a mighty healing river that flows into Boston; into West, Texas; and into every wounded spirit. Let it flow on and on until all people love you and suffering and sorrow end. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ who is the Prince of Peace.

Amen.

The attached picture of a candle comes from an advertisement for an interfaith prayer service for the Boston Marathon.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another Powerful Resurrection Hymn by Charles Wesley

Here is another hymn of Charles Wesley from his collection "Hymns for Our Lord's Resurrection." I find that so many of his hymns (particularly those that are not in modern hymnals) are strikingly Ignatian. I am using that word to describe the spirituality of letting yourself step into a Biblical narrative and "finding our place" in the story, something Ignatius taught well.

In this case, the singer is stepping into the role of Mary Magdalene and reflecting and experiencing the resurrection through her. Though critics say the last half of the second verse is scripturally inaccurate, it is a blessing to pray this hymn. I hope it blesses your continued Easter journey.


Happy Magdalene, to whom
Christ the Lord vouchsafed t’appear!
Newly risen from the tomb,
Would He first be seen by her?
Her by seven devils possessed,
Till His Word the fiends expelled;
Quenched the hell within her breast,
All her sins and sickness healed.
Yes, to her the Master came,
First His welcome voice she hears:
Jesus calls her by her name,
He the weeping sinner cheers,
Lets her the dear task repeat,
While her eyes again run o’er;
Lets her wash His bleeding feet,
Kiss them, and with joy adore.
Highly favored soul! To her
Farther still His grace extends,
Raises the glad messenger,
Sends her to His drooping friends;
Tidings of their living Lord
First in her report they find:
She must spread the Gospel word,
Teach the teachers of mankind.
Who can now presume to fear?
Who despair his Lord to see?
Jesus, wilt Thou not appear,
Show Thyself alive to me?
Yea, my God, I dare not doubt,
Thou shalt all my sins remove;
Thou hast cast a legion out,
Thou wilt perfect me in love.
Surely Thou hast called me now!
Now I hear the voice divine,
At Thy wounded feet I bow,
Wounded for whose sins but mine!
I have nailed Him to the tree,
I have sent Him to the grave:
But the Lord is ris’n for me,
Hold of Him by faith I have.
Here for ever I would lie,
Didst Thou not Thy servant raise,
Send me forth to testify
All the wonders of Thy grace.
Lo! I at Thy bidding go,
Gladly to Thy followers tell
They their rising God may know,
They the life of Christ may feel.
Hear, ye brethren of the Lord,
(Such as He vouchsafes to call)
O believe the Gospel word,
Christ hath died, and rose for all:
Turn ye from your sins to God,
Haste to Galilee, and see
Him, who bought Thee with His blood,
Him, who rose to live in Thee.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hymn for Our Lord's Resurrection

In my Methodist hymnal collection, I have a facsimile reprint of "Hymns for Our Lord's Resurrection," one of a number of thematic hymn books of published by Charles Wesley in his lifetime. During Eastertide, I am praying through the texts. I thought I would share the first one in the collection in hopes that it blesses your continued experience of Easter joy.

It was written in 1746, and if you are inclined to sing it, it can be sung to TALLIS' CANON. I love the way it walks through the resurrection appearance narrative and invites us to experience the details afresh. It puts the singer in the story.

All ye that seek the Lord Who died,
Your God for sinners crucified,
Prevent the earliest dawn, and come
To worship at His sacred tomb.

Bring the sweet spices of your sighs,
Your contrite hearts, and streaming eyes,
Your sad complaints, and humble fears;
Come, and embalm Him with your tears.

While thus ye love your souls t’employ,
Your sorrow shall be turned to joy:
Now, let all your grief be o’er!
Believe, and ye shall weep no more.

An earthquake hath the cavern shook,
And burst the door, and rent the rock;
The Lord hath sent His angel down,
And he hath rolled away the stone.

As snow behold his garment white,
His countenance as lightning bright:
He sits, and waves a flaming sword,
And waits upon his rising Lord.

The third auspicious morn is come,
And calls your Savior from the tomb,
The bands of death are torn away,
The yawning tomb gives back its prey.

Could neither seal nor stone secure,
Nor men, nor devils make it sure?
The seal is broke, the stone cast by,
And all the powers of darkness fly.

The body breathes, and lifts His head,
The keepers sink, and fall as dead;
The dead restored to life appear,
The living quake, and die for fear.

No power a band of soldiers have
To keep one body in its grave:
Surely it no dead body was
That could the Roman eagles chase.

The Lord of Life is risen indeed,
To death delivered in your stead;
His rise proclaims your sins forgiv’n,
And show the living way to Heav’n.

Haste then, ye souls that first believe,
Who dare the Gospel-Word receive,
Your faith with joyful hearts confess,
Be bold, be Jesus’ witnesses.

Go tell the followers of your Lord
Their Jesus is to life restored;
He lives, that they His life may find;
He lives, to quicken all mankind.

Friday, March 29, 2013

It was Friday, But Sunday Was a Comin'

A friend and church member wrote this poem after hearing a famous sermon on the subject years ago. I asked if I could share it on my blog. Here it is, with his permission, on this Good Friday. My it bless your day as we enter this holy weekend!

Steve


IT WAS FRIDAY, BUT SUNDAY WAS A COMIN’

It was upon a Friday when he began to bleed,
As he suffered many lashes to pay for you and me.
And as the pain and wounds grew worse, the blood began a runnin’,
He knew just what his purpose was and that Sunday was a comin’.

They lead him through the crowded streets, a cross upon his back;
The physical strength that once was there, He now did surely lack.
The crowds, they sneered and mocked at him and made it all for funin’;
But the Spirit helped Him through it all, ‘cause Sunday was a comin’.

They drove great spikes through hands and feet that had only come to give,
But as He hung there on that tree, he continued to forgive.
Some followers watched Him from a far, while most in fear were runnin’;
They did not know what all this meant, nor that Sunday was a comin’.

As the day of Friday came to close, they laid him in a tomb:
His followers, all completely crushed, their hearts were filled with gloom.
What shall we do? Where shall we hide? Their thoughts were just a runnin’.
Filled with tears and fears they did not know that Sunday was a comin’.

But in that Great White City where God and angels dwell,
There was joy and celebration, Christ had conquered death and hell.
Ole Satan thought he had won the fight with all his wit and cunnin’,
But the angels knew that Friday meant that Sunday was a comin’.

Then at last, the time had come and Sunday did arrive,
And all of Heaven did shout with joy, “The Savior is Alive”.
So now we know when darkness comes with troubles over-runnin’,
We can praise our God when Friday‘s here, cause Sunday is a comin’.

Ron Carroway

Monday, March 25, 2013

Not a "Cosmic Fumble Recovery"

We enter the holiest week of the year with great anticipation. The cross and resurrection are not just object lessons leading us to a correct doctrinal explanation of how we are saved. They are milestones in the holy drama of God’s graceful interaction with us, and they define and form the very essence of Christian spirituality.

This week, I invite you to explore the intentionality of Jesus’ love. Holy week is not about what I called “cosmic fumble recovery” in my sermon. The cross didn't just get thrown at him. His persecution and crucifixion were not unexpected, a sudden ball flung from way out in left field. This was not a weak moment when God wasn't looking and the devil snuck in, forcing God to make a recovery once he woke up to say, “gee what am I gonna do?” This kind of dualistic thinking reflects the mythic saga of Superman and kryptonite, but it is not the story of Jesus and the cross.

Jesus’ face was set on Jerusalem. The prophets saw it in advance, and he tried to explain it to his disciples. His walk through the week was intentional drama designed to do much more than teach a lesson so we mentally conceptualize how we are saved. It was to form the very unique Christian spirituality of what love is and what it means to overcome.

So don’t hop like a skipping stone avoiding the penetration of the water. Don’t move from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the alleluias of Easter without the fullness of the great drama. This is about what love is.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A New and Mysterious World

I ran across a quote from spiritualist Thomas Green as I was preparing for my Companions in Christ class. It resonates with my soul.

It happens that I am in the midst of preaching a Lenten series "The Voyage: Faith is a Journey Not a Destination." Thomas's words sum up what I am trying to say as I invite people to fall in love with the spiritual disciplines. I share it with you.

For those blessed souls that are able to let go, to float free, a new and mysterious world is revealed. It is a world more mysterious, more exotic and, initially, more threatening than the new world Columbus and Magellan stumbled upon. Those who "stay home" will only know of it by hearsay, and will scarcely believe what they hear. The few whom grace and their own generosity launch on the uncharted sea - they alone will ever really know whether the explorer's tales are true.

Thomas H. Green, When the Well Runs Dry

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Walking in Grace

I recently enjoyed our church's annual retreat to Sumatanga. It's holy ground in North Alabama, one of those places Celtic Christians might call "thin places." Sometimes it's a spiritual experience just to walk on the ground.

I wrote this devotion for the community to share one morning. I share it with you with permission from my friend Robert Morris.

The words of my friend Robert Corin Morris come to mind as I think about what retreats at Sumatanga have always meant to me. He writes:

May I walk this day
in the realms of grace,
walking with You
my feet firmly on your earth-path,
my heart loving all as kindred,
my words and deeds alive with justice.

May I walk as blessing,
meeting blessing at every turn
in every challenge, blessing,
in all opposition, blessing,
in harm’s way, blessing.

May I walk each step
in this moment of grace,
alert to hear You
and awake enough to say
a simple Yes.

A few years ago, I was on a church retreat at Sumatanga and had some free time. While I have hiked the mountain a number of times over the years, this time I did it alone. I don’t really know why. But I can remember vividly the path seeming to become alive. It’s almost as if I felt the footprints of all the people that had walked the path before, including my mother who attended summer youth camp the year it opened in 1951. I was walking on God’s earth-path

“Sumatanga” is a Himalayan word meaning “place of vision and rest.” It’s a place on the side of a mountain range where you can pause, look down at where you have been, and look up to where you are going. Whenever I come back to this place, it connects me to who I am and to all that have gone before me in this journey. It energizes my steps so I can try to walk as a blessing when I return to normal life. For my deepest desire is to meet blessing at every turn, in every challenge, in all opposition, even in harm’s way. Something about walking these steps helps me slowly learn to walk in grace.

Sumatanga is not the only place like that for people. Maybe you have a different experience of what feels like holy ground. But in God’s time, all of us get to a place when we begin to feel there is something deeper about the dirt right in front of our shoes.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you shall find rest for your souls’.” - Jeremiah 6:16a

The joy of a church retreat is two-fold. First, it connects us as a church family. Getting to know each other, getting away together, and relaxing and having fun together are ways to build memories and connections with each other and with God.

But retreating is also a way of deepening our vision about where we’ve been and where we’re going. We focus on learning together, but we also experience the act of retreating itself as a spiritual practice that gives us vision and rest.

There are a few questions to ponder during the silence:
• Where have you been and where are you going?
• How does this time away plant your feet on the earth-path you are called to?
• What are the turns, challenges, oppositions, and harm’s ways you encounter?
• How can your life become blessing, all blessing?
• What is the next step God is calling you to take?

Blessings for the journey,

Pastor Steve

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Color Purple

Now that we have entered the season of Lent, this is a good time to reflect on the meaning of “the color purple,” as well as other colors that greet us when we worship.

The colors of paraments (worship cloths) connect us in a deep way with the Body of Christ as well as the seasons of the Christian year. For Methodists, with other mainline churches that trace worship traditions to the ancient faith, worship is not seen as a singular event but as a life, a rhythm, and a means of grace.

Every service is rooted within a season, and the seasons of the Christian year trace the entire Biblical story annually. The traditional colors for worship are always used instead of cultural colors (like red and green for Christmas or red, white, and blue for Fourth of July).

I tell confirmands that purple is the “getting ready color.” During Lent and Advent, this color that ancient Christians associated with royalty looks forward to the coming king and the two holiest days of the year. Blue (as a derivative of purple) is sometimes used for Advent. Here is a brief outline:

Advent - purple (or blue): The beginning of the Christian year when Old Testament prophets are read and we get in touch with their longing for a Messiah. It is always the four Sundays before Christmas Day.

Christmas – white: A twelve day season from Christmas Eve until the day of Epiphany, January 6. White represents purity, glory, and holiness of the two highest and holiest seasons of the Christian year.

Epiphany – green: Epiphany is a season of growing awareness, of “aha’s”, focusing on the wisdom of the three magi and the many ways we realize who Christ is. Green is used because it is the color of growth.

Lent – purple: 40 days of spiritual preparation for Easter. Since Easter moves due to its connection with Passover (determined by the Jewish lunar calendar), the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, moves around and the prior season of Epiphany varies in length.

Easter – white: Easter is not just one day but a season of 50 days, in which white is used for the same reasons as Christmas.

Pentecost – red: The birthday of the church is the one day that celebrates the fire of the Holy Spirit and Acts chapter 2 with the color red.

Ordinary Time – green: The remainder of the Christian year is a time of growth of the church until Advent begins again. Green is always used.

There are special days within seasons when white is used. Examples include the Baptism of our Lord at the beginning of Epiphany and the Transfiguration of Jesus on the last day of the same. Another example is All Saints Sunday late in Ordinary Time. Watch for when white appears … it means it’s a special day on the liturgical calendar!

White is used on high occasions (other than Sundays) such as weddings or funerals. Some churches have been known to use white for communion and baptism, but I suggest that this practice emerges from pockets of history when sacraments were rare occasions when the presiding elder (now called District Superintendent) could come and lead it for the licensed local pastor he supervised. This is not suggested in any United Methodist literature on worship because the tradition of the church is to celebrate sacraments within the appropriate season.

As you worship, enter the season of the year in a way that brings to life the seasons of our lives.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Raccoons Are Welcome

I've gotten a lot of mileage from my raccoon story, the folksy mystical experience that revealed to me the joy of forgiveness. I've shared it on my blog before.

The version below is published in the upcoming March/April edition of Alive Now. I am honored, and I hope others who are discovering the freedom of accepting the raccoons in their life might find it helpful.

The early years of ministry left me with scars. I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from occasional conflicts.

One spring, my family went camping at a wildlife preserve. Our site came with two poles. One held a lockable cage to protect food from raccoons. The other hung the trash out of their reach.

One evening, I neglected to tie up my trash. I woke to the noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. The raccoons had come.

Standing in the midst of a mess, I pondered three things. First, "This is what raccoons do. There's no reason to be angry." Second, "They really didn't hurt me." Finally, and most importantly, "Next time, I'll tie my trash up higher."

I listed the raccoons of my life, people who had sorted through my trash for something to criticize or consume. I prayed over them in light of my revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn't hurt me, not really. And maybe it's time for me to establish a few boundaries, keeping my "trash" tied up higher.

I was led to Philippians 1:15-18. Paul writes of raccoons - not unbelievers, but other preachers who had been sorting through his trash.

"Some proclaim Christ out of 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!

On Sunday, my sermon was "Raccoons Are Welcome." I encouraged my congregation to let go of what others have done to us. In God's house, raccoons are welcome at the table! If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul's raccoons were other preachers.

On Monday, I felt a nudge. "Steve, do you believe what you preached?" I pulled out a file of old letters from occasional conflicts. 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 file and headed outdoors. One by one, I burned each letter as I prayed for forgiveness. I found release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain.

The Spirit nudged again. What about the letter still in my desk?

Suddenly, I heard a rustle. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He looked at my quizzically. After a moment, he turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I thought, "God, you have a sense of humor."

Needless to say I burned that last letter.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, Alabama. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, January 28, 2013

How Do You Interpret the Adam and Eve story?

There is more than one way to interpret the importance of the Adam and Eve story in understanding our human condition and our need for God's grace.

After years of pastoral experience among sisters and brothers in the faith searching the heart of God, I am learning that part of our holy struggle is to overcome cultural conditioning. We are wired to be people of success, achievement, accumulation, security, and people-pleasing, and this has disconnected us from ourselves and from our roots. We are also the most mobile generation in the history of the planet, exacerbating our sense of being far away from home. Our world of consumerism and functionalism and has imposed itself on us, when the essence of our identity is that we are beloved children of God. I've been taking a new look at our most ancient story in light of this human dilemma.

The creation saga is of course primordial and foundational for our faith. It may be an oversimplification, but my understanding of the Western interpretation is that this story is about the sin of disobedience. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden, and yet they disobeyed God's command. Their decision to eat of the forbidden fruit set forth our human condition as fundamentally one of being sinners in need of grace. This is resolved by repentance and forgiveness, and Christ came to pay the price for our sin and offer the forgiveness we need.

In contrast, the Eastern interpretation, as I understand it, is that we are created in the image of God, yet this image became stained and tarnished. The emphasis is not so much on hereditary guilt but on our fallenness, for we lost the luster of our original glory but are not in a state of total depravity. So the essence of the Christian journey is one of "deification", or glorification, finding that original glory restored from one degree to another through a lifelong pilgrimage. So Christianity is less about making a decision and more about God's ongoing beckon to draw closer to our original relationship. It is more about original blessing than original sin.

There is of course nothing wrong with either of these classic interpretations. But I offer my own twist in light of my life's spirituality and the struggles of Christians I have served for years. I believe humanity was designed to be rooted in the garden of God's love. Yet we have a tendency to take matters into our own hands, to depend less on the garden God gives us to live, work, and play in and depend more on aspiring to know more, have more, or control more of our life. So we find ourselves uprooted and cast from the garden. The essence of the human condition is that we have become rootless. The Christian journey, then, is one of finding our roots again, coming home to the garden like the Prodigal's son, welcomed by the embracing love of the Father. When our spirits are awakened, and we immerse ourselves in the centuries of spiritual flow that came before us in the body of Christ, it is like becoming firmly rooted again in the fertile soil. We come back to our original presence.

It is no accident that the first psalm in scripture is one that longs to be like a tree, planted by streams of water, which yields fruit in its season.

How do you interpret the Adam and Eve story?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Trust in an Age of Distrust


Peter was born as Simon. When Jesus affirmed Simon and renamed him Peter, a name resembling PETROS, the Greek word for rock, he said “on this rock I will build my church.” It is as if Jesus named him “Rocky”! Peter would still be human, and quite human at that. No man or woman is infallible even when led by the Holy Spirit. But it is the rock of his faith in Christ, boldly stated in answer to Jesus's question, “Who do you say that I am,” which the church is built on.

Our trust in church leadership is not built on how perfect our leaders are, because we’re far from perfect. It’s grounded in our faith in the church itself and its centering on Christ. The recent horror experienced in the family of the pastor at a church in Birmingham is a reminder of how broken and human church leaders, including pastors, really are.

We don’t trust in the system because people will be perfect. We trust in the system because people will not.

There are many churches that struggle mightily with the issue of trust. They have trouble trusting that their pastor’s intentions or good or that the decisions of a committee are for the best. The main reason for this distrust is because we live in an age of rampant distrust, and this has unfortunately rubbed off on the church. I invite us to do better, trusting in the presence of God in the body of Christ.

If you are a part of a church who elects leaders and have begun a journey with them this year, I invite you to join me in supporting them, praying for them, encouraging them, offering feedback to them, and perhaps most of all trusting them.

We are the Body of Christ together. The church is best seen as the scriptures see us, as an organism, not just an organization. We are called to work together smoothly, with unity of spirit even when we have diversity of thought. This is where the importance of trust comes in, for we trust the process to guide us because we are practicing the presence of God.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

From the Hand that Held the Hand that Held the Light


A few years ago, I wrote a meditation on Ruby Falls after visiting the site near Chattanooga. I explored the way Christ's light illuminates the inner caverns of the soul, making dark places a thing of beauty. And I noted how, like the man who discovered Ruby Falls, sometimes you stumble into this dark place that God wants to bless.

I deeply value two letters from the folks of Ruby Falls that I received after I found out it was going to be published and sent them a copy. The first was from one of the managers, who included a quote from Leo Lambert:

"Thank you for sending your blog entry concerning our cave. It was great to read how you felt as you toured our cave. We commonly receive questions about the origin of the cave and field questions concerning the creation of the formations and falls. I as a Christian just enjoy the beauty of the falls and the incredible creation of the cave. Below I have copied the quote by Leo Lambert written after he discovered Ruby Falls. We plan on posting this at our entrance at a ceremony December 30th which will be the 80th anniversary of him finding the cave. Thank you for the inspiring message and hope to see you return some day.

"Discovering Ruby Falls was like discovering God. At first it is very dark, scary and uncertain. You don't know what lies ahead. You bump into things you didn't even realize were there and you suffer injuries bumps and bruises. You fall down into sticky, sticky mud and mire and feel like you cannot go on. But you get up with a feeling that somewhere ahead lies something more wonderful than you could ever imagine. As you add light to what you discovered you find that the things that caused you suffering and injury were wonderful God made things, put there for you to witness and give you joy. It is all and more than you ever imagined you could witness. It is God, and Ruby Falls & the Lookout Mountain Cave are God's creations, made for man to enjoy. I am just a little proud that he used me."

Shortly after that, I got a personal letter from Lambert's granddaughter. I presume the journal entry she refers to is the above quote. I simply love the way she signed it at the end:

“Steve, I just received your Meditation on Ruby Falls. I am Leo Lambert's granddaughter. Last spring I found my grandfather's journal entry on discovering Ruby Falls. It probably wasn't meant to be published. How incredible that your piece was so similar to what he felt discovering Ruby Falls. Banks foreclosed on ‘His Jewel’ during the Great Depression time. Never was he bitter, because God had chosen him to discover a piece HIS Handiwork! He had something that could never be taken from him. He would always tell me ‘Just look at the cave and waterfall God gave to us’ …

“Thank you for expressing again what joys God gives us on our journey! Yesterday, Dec 30, 2008 was the dedication of Grandpa Leo's inscription along with his likeness. He and my grandmother would have been rejoicing, there were grandchildren, great grand children and great great grand children who carry within their hearts love for a man and woman who loved God and lived it!

From the hand that held the hand that held the light that discovered Ruby Falls,

(her name)

To see my original meditation, see Meditation on Ruby Falls.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Last Holdout in My Neighborhood

I must be the last holdout in my neighborhood. As usual, we are the only ones with a lit Christmas tree left standing.

Today is January 3, and this morning I enjoyed some morning quiet time in the dark, gazing into the Christmas tree with my coffee cup in hand. I remembered the fun things we did with my family, the holiness of the services we held at church, the cheer and food we shared with friends, the thoughtfulness of the book I read, and the needed rest that came as a result of having a cold. I remembered my mom who loved Christmas and the fact that I have entered the year of the 100th anniversary of the family piano, an heirloom she passed on to me. I remembered all sort of random memories related to the ornaments I was gazing at. I chuckled at my new "investment," as I called it with my family, the Romulan Warbird ornament with the green glow of its warp engines. Perhaps it is a poor theological statement for a Christmas tree, but it is most definitely a reflection of the fun we have as a family.

As I remembered all these things, I was gazing into the light.

Christmas is not a birthday party for Jesus that's over on December 26. For one thing, no one knows the date of his birth. In the eastern church, many Christians won't celebrate Christmas until this coming Tuesday, because they use a different calendar than we do. That's yet another reason to remember that Christmas is not a birthday party.

From ancient times, it is a twelve day feast of the incarnation. We are still in the Christmas season, which is not over until this coming Sunday. At my house, we are still opening a few presents and enjoying some quiet together, all with a joyful and humorous refusal to turn off the lights. Not yet.

This weekend, I invite you to behold the light. Spend some time with a candle or a tree. The scriptures call the Messiah, our Lord Jesus, a light that has come into the world so that the darkness shall never overcome it. He is the light of the world that compels us to see and be radiant.

What joys could enlightenment bring you this year?