Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Post-Christmas Feast




This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, December 26, 2015.

My name is Stephen. My aunts and uncles, and some of my cousins, have always called me that.

It wasn't until eighth grade, when the Six Million Dollar Man's opening sequence on TV resounded with the words "Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive", that I informed my family I was to be going to be called Steve from now on. What can I say, it was more "cool."

Now, sometimes I ponder the origins of my name. It means "prince" or "crowned", a designation I certainly don't deserve. My wife doesn't appreciate it when I remind her of that, in contrast with the fact that her name means "helper." I'll probably get in trouble for putting that in the paper.

But every year, on the day after Christmas, it's my special day to pause to think of my name. Why? Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen.

Most people around here would know who Stephen is. He was the first Christian martyr, as recorded in the book of Acts. He was stoned to death for his faith, even while gazing into the heavens with his face aglow. A young Saul, later named Paul, stood nearby. It's an important part of the early Christian story. Today, when Christians are still persecuted in some parts of the world, we need to remember Stephen.

But most of us probably think, "why do we sing about the Feast of Stephen in a Christmas carol?" There is a long tradition in many places in the world that this day is "box day," a day to care for the poor by boxing up food and gifts for those in need on the day after Christmas.

"Good King Wenceslas" is a carol based on the legend of a 10th century duke, the Duke of Bohemia. He was 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 never mentions the nativity, but it's associated with Christmas because the narrative occurs on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26. It is a call to follow in the footsteps of the saint, as did his page, in order to care for the poor.

So today, on the Feast of Stephen, let us also think of the poor and needy. As the text concludes, "ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." What a great way to head from Christmas into a new year.

Here is the complete text of the carol by John Mason Neale, first published in 1853. May it bless your day and our many days ahead.

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 stronger
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

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

It's time to have "wonder-full holy days"


This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, December 2, 2015.

It starts.

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the leftover turkey will find its way into the soup, the sandwiches, and the crevices in the floor. The company will go home, happy and well fed.

My father-in-law will treat us to a holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, like he always does. I'll take my annual opportunity to tease my wife about how cornbread dressing is so much better than oyster dressing (she's from Louisiana, she can't help it).

I will start gathering up some Fall decorations to put them away, and get around to a few chores that I was supposed to do before Thanksgiving. Okay, maybe I'll do the chores. It's time to find the tree and get the Christmas lights out.

It's the holidays! Gosh, they have already started. But just for a moment, I breathe.

There is something about that pregnant pause between Thanksgiving and when the Christmas parties and church activities start cranking up. I'm not into shopping on Black Friday, since shopping's not my thing. So maybe I'll wait until Cyber Monday. Or maybe I'll miss that, too, because I love this in-between space.

In my faith tradition, the first Sunday of Advent comes and we light the first candle. I know it's coming and my heart starts to anticipate the anticipation.

But for now, I pause. I stop. I reflect. Here come the holidays.

Every year, I recall that the word "holidays" comes from the fact that they are holy days. I don't get upset about the so-called war on Christmas, because I know that even saying "Happy Holidays" is a hidden, secret, subversive statement of faith. These times are holy, and I can feel it in my bones.

So I think this year, instead of jumping into all the things I need to do (or maybe just want to do), I'll pause to ponder what not to do.

I'll try not to eat too much. One plate at every party is fine, really (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can).

I'll try not to get too rushed. I will intentionally not attend everything I want to go to. My wife has been teaching me that it's really okay.

I'll try not to neglect my quiet time every day, because I crave the silence more than the sugar (okay, maybe not more than the sugar ... but I need it, and I know it).

I'll decide that one Christmas tree in my home is plenty (two last year was a bit much). Planning with our church's worship arts directors for a special service, celebrating the ornaments that represent Christ on our tree, reminds me that the simple act of placing one ornament on a branch is a life-giving expression of faith.

So I should savor the moment, not rush through it. This is the time, this in-between space, when I can decide to make the holidays holy.

Making them holy doesn't mean deciding they are boring or chant-like. It simply means that I am going to keep my antennas up so I can detect when God is present, ever-so vibrantly present, in the midst of them. And when I find God is present, I'll pause to pay attention.

It seems like very year, some little gesture, some humorous experience, or some serendipity will remind me of how human, how simple, and how profound these coming days are. Last year, it was when the donkey relieved himself on sweet Mary's dress at our Live Nativity. I laughed and I laughed.

This year? Who knows, but the holidays have a way of giving me a moment or two of reminders that it's all about the regular, the common, and the ordinary things made holy. It's about a manger, a smelly bunch of hay, a family really put out (literally) because of taxes, and a miracle in diapers that completely transformed the direction of the universe.

We call it the incarnation. That's a fancy word for the crazy way God showed up and moved into our neighborhood. What a strange way to save the world.

So have some wonderful holidays. They are meant to be exactly what the words say they are, "wonder-full holy days" indeed.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Embracing Mystery in a Culture of Certainty

This article was published in Alive Now, a periodical publication of The Upper Room, in the November/December 2015 issue. The theme for the issue is "mystery."

A version of this article also appeared previously in the "Faith and Values" section of the Huntsville Times.

I remember the moment I met Jeff, who led the praise band for the church I had come to serve in Huntsville, Alabama. “I heard you are a rocket scientist,” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “but I don’t do that here!” He smiled with a width I’ve grown to love and went back to playing his guitar.

The church I served at the time was fruitful in the context of a highly technical culture. We worshiped ten minutes away from the NASA space flight center where Space Shuttles were designed and built. Nearby was the arsenal where missile command for the United States was controlled.

One parishioner's full time job was to write the computer programs that test the computer programs that operate the Shuttle. I once found myself at a church social event with someone who flew helicopters, someone else who tested helicopters, and yet another person who did the computer support for helicopters. It was a culture of engineering, mastering information, and exacting personalities.

Yet I discovered that the people had a corresponding hunger for mystery. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes his call to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” and “make plain the mystery.” Do we dare claim a faith that is about something bigger than what we can identify, control, or explain?

I come from a long line of pastors that go back to the days of riding horseback. At my great, great, great uncle’s gravestone these words are chiseled: “For 50 years preached the unsearchable riches of Christ until his decease.” Those words echo Paul’s words and continue to touch me deeply.

Years prior to arriving in Huntsville, young in ministry and dealing with my first frustrations and disappointments, I went to that uncle’s grave and knelt. I considered the hardships of the early circuit riders. My heart melted in realization that my struggles were not just about me. The difficulties I was going through placed me in the company of generation after generation of people who had experienced the unfathomable richness of Christ’s love. Seeing my life in context of a bigger mystery gave me a great deal of hope.

While serving in Huntsville, I felt led to write my own mission statement. I kept it by my desk the whole time I was there. It read: “I have been placed here in the Huntsville culture to help people who are conditioned to think they can fix any problem, explore any place in the galaxy, or settle any conflict by force to live a life that encounters mystery and embraces uncertainty.”

I tried to live by it, but God had a great surprise in store for me. The people taught me much more about how to do that than any insight I could have brought them. They already longed for mystery; that’s why they were there. They implicitly knew this, and lived faithfully in that creative incongruity. I suppose all of us do.

Each year during the season of Epiphany, we remember the wise men who saw a bigger picture and followed a star. The King had been born right under the noses of the people of bustling Bethlehem, and it took some stargazing Persian astrologers to see it.

Sometimes we are so concerned with what’s right under our noses that we miss the mystery. We water down the gospel to acquiesce to a culture of work and rewards. We reduce the message to a few principles to follow in order to make our lives a little better. The problem with all that is that we’re still in control. Face it, we’re control freaks.

But the good news of the gospel is that certainty is an illusion. It’s mystery that’s real. Christ makes plain the unrevealable and reveals the unsearchable. Christ makes God touchable, lovable, knowable, even feelable. This mystery can’t be encapsulated in a few bullets on a power point slide. It can only be absorbed throughout a lifetime of beholding its light.

Stephen P. West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC in Arab, Alabama. His blog "Musings of a Musical Preacher" may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Singing My Heart Songs in Singapore

This is my column published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, November 7, 2015.

As I walked out the door of my Arab home to get to the airport early in the morning, I stopped for a moment to ask Siri, "how far is it to Singapore?" My phone offered her reply with characteristic wit. "9,981 miles as the crow flies."

I got on the plane for the 30 hour sedentary journey, but my mind started racing. Though my wife's family were moving her parents to an independent living apartment, and I was quite literally going to be "as far away as possible," I couldn't pass on this opportunity.

I was recruited by the director of an ecumenical ministry dear to my heart. He invited me to join him on this mission of the Upper Room, the spirituality center of Methodism in Nashville. We were launching the first Academy for Spiritual Formation held in Southeast Asia.

Since I was going this far, I went two days early to explore the country before duties began. I went to taste and see. Boy, did I. It was simply amazing.

Singapore hosts the busiest port in world, and is a first class city and financial center. It has developed dramatically in the 50 years since recovering from Japanese occupation during WW2 and declaring independence 20 years later.

It is clean and bright, and hosts some of the most beautiful gardens and cultural highlights in the world. The people are free and happy, and doing well financially. The locals say the state bird is the "crane", because you can see the steel contraptions busy with construction all over the place.

There is not even one package of chewing gum for sale. If you wonder how that can be, ask a local who says "it's a FINE city," referring to the fees the government imposes for spitting out gum (or spitting at all for that matter), for littering, and the like. So while at first it seems curiously western, it's not so western when you look a little deeper.

There is no drug problem because there is a death penalty for distributing, and there is no litter because of the $200 fine. The city is lined with Disney quality manicured shrubs and coordinated lights. Few have cars because of the $45,000 license required for permission to drive for ten years, and 80% of the people live in government "flats."

The animals are even different. I saw my first bearded pig and heard my first barking deer at the zoo. I absolutely loved the food and hospitality, though I admit I could not bring myself to try their famous "fish head curry" since I make it a habit not to eat things that look back at me. But of all I tried, the only thing that just didn't work for the western tongue was a dessert with shaved ice with gelatin and fruit jam, along with kidney beans. That was interesting.

One of the most delightful clues about the differences in our cultures came to me after a long day of walking in the tropical humidity. My host dropped me off at a Hawker Centre, which is kind of an Asian food court. I ordered iced milo (a chocolate drink which is sort of like Yahoo). The attendant asked, "are you having here?" I said, "no, I'm having iced milo." "Are you having here?" he repeated. "No, iced milo." I had no idea he was asking me if I was "eating in". This was my first lesson in "Singlish", a unique mix of English with Mandarin syntax and other dialects.

I reminded my new friends that here in Arab, Alabama, we talk funny too. We say "hey ya'll," and we fix things that are not broken ... like fixing dinner and fixing to go to the store.

One of the days I was touring, I took a bicycle tour with a local guide, one on one. We saw Chinatown, the business district, and the marina area. Since we toured two temples, we talked about religion and I got to share some of my faith. He knew everything there is to know about Buddhism and Hinduism but very little about the church. He didn't know the word Protestant, or who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. Imagine that.

Yet with all these incredible differences, when I arrived at the Academy what struck me the most was what we held in common. When we gathered for worship services I was responsible for coordinating, with Christians from Singapore, East Malaysia, West Malaysia, Australia, and Hong Kong, my heart began to melt.

The worship had a beautifully Asian flair with gongs and percussion instruments and Asian musicians. Who in my neck of the woods would have thought to use a room-sized palm branch on the floor under the altar to decorate? We sang some beautiful Asian hymns I'd never heard, yes, but by and large they knew my songs. Or perhaps I should say I knew theirs.

From the first praise song in worship, "Open the Eyes of My Heart," to their request that I lead the rousing camp song "Rejoice in the Lord Always" in the conference room, the sounds of music connected the hearts and souls of people from all over the world. Though I'd never donned a clerical collar before (this is a tradition of Methodists there, but not here), I felt comfortable in my skin.

The more we shared our faith, the more it dawned on me that the communion table we gathered around was the longest table in the world. I happen to know it was at least 9,981 miles long, as the crow flies.

No geographical distance, cultural diversity, or political complexity can take away our common story. We may have a different history, but His story is the same.

My new Christian friends laughed heartily when I told them the name of my town was pronounced "Ay-rabb", and there were no Muslims in town I was aware of. But my heart was strangely warmed by what we have in common, not what makes us different.

Perhaps that's because it is precisely the things that warm the heart that are what we hold in common. We're different, but not so different after all. I left having experienced one of the most amazing journeys of my life.

Hopefully, I helped plant seeds for a cross-continental retreat to bless lives for generations to come. But most of all, I left knowing I have found new brothers and sisters who sing the songs of my heart. 

Steve West was in Singapore Oct. 7-17. He is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog "Musings of a Musical Preacher" may be found at www. stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Pictured are two photographs of Niam Kai Huey, one of the pastors I worked closely with in the Singapore mission, and myself.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pointers for Scripture that Doesn't Make Sense


This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.

Jesus said some strange things.

It's part of his whole strategy I think. Jesus responded to people and circumstances in ways that completely surprise us. He didn't just do the usual or act like normal - that never figured in to his methods.

Here are some of the many things Jesus said that seem crazy, but he didn't say them to make us crazy. He said them to take us to a deeper, crazy kind of wisdom. They are signals into a richer reality. On the surface, they just don't make much sense:

  • "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
  • "Let the dead bury their own dead."
  • "Be perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect."
  • "I come not to bring peace but a sword."
  • "It is not good to take food from the children's table and throw it to the dogs."
  • "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off."

That last one is a stark reminder that the scriptures are not always meant to be taken literally. It's a good thing, too, because I still have all my fingers and toes.

There's more where those scriptures came from. How do you deal with difficult sayings of Jesus? For that matter, how do deal with difficult passages in the Bible?

Scripture is meant to open us up to the mystery of grace and the revelation of truth, and not always to be taken literally. There is a deeper spiritual meaning under the surface. It's a matter of discovering the Word that is sometimes hidden underneath the words. It is there for us, when we are ready to find it. Scripture is like a treasure hidden in a field. (Matt. 13:44)

Here are my pointers for reading scripture that doesn't seem to make sense.

1) Read around it. Examine the context around difficult passages to see how the saying functions in the setting. Look for literary devices like hyperbole and exaggeration that help get across a point. Allow other scripture to help you interpet scripture.

2) Pray through it. Invite the Holy Spirit to pour over it, as you pore over it. The Spirit is our advocate, and as Jesus promised, the Spirit will teach us everything Christ has given us. The Spirit opens the heart and unravels truth.

3) Begin to see it through lenses of God's grace and Christ's love. These are the "interpretive lenses" that guide us to see underneath the surface. They bring light on the subject. They help us to see more deeply.

4) Expect to come to a new conclusion. Look for a deeper spiritual meaning underneath the text. The scriptures are the gift of God for the revelation of truth, but by the grace of God who wants us to wrestle and struggle with that truth there are stumbling blocks.

There is grace in all the wrestling. There are endless layers of mystery underneath the stories, the unfolding of grace. It is for our growth in the journey that the scriptures say these things.

So yes, Jesus said some strange things indeed.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer that pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher", may be found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Great Fishing Boat Caper

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 2, 2015.

I enjoyed writing this story down for the first time!

When I was growing up in the years around kindergarten and first grade, my family lived in Sheffield, Alabama. I had older brothers, but I was the one folks remember as the toe-headed kid running around the church my father served.

We lived in the church-owned home on a cul-de-sac on Rivermont Drive. Behind our houses, back in the woods and down the slope, was a large creek.

Amy and Becky were my friends. They were the two little girls that lived across the street, and we always found something to do.

Playing down in the woods by the creek one day, we came upon a little fishing boat tied to a stump. And that was the beginning of the great fishing boat caper.

Every day, we would go down to the boat and untie it. One of us would hold the rope while the other two climbed in the boat. Then we would trade places. I have no idea how many times we did this, but boy, it was fun ... until the day one of the girls dropped the rope.

I can still visualize her scrambling to take hold of it before the boat drifted to the other side of the creek, with Becky and me in it. It lodged into a grassy area on the other side, but it was nowhere near the other shore. I did not know how to swim yet, and there was no paddle in sight. Oh dear.

My parents were going to find out, and all I could feel was the shame. Amy ran to get help, and help did come. My memory is fuzzy on how many people came to the shore and how long it took them to come up with a plan.

But what I vividly remember is the little motorboat coming up the creek to save us. Here we were, lost in our fears, and a young man appeared in the distance with the buzz of the motor behind him.

I've never been so glad to see a motorboat, before or since. It was as if Jesus himself was parting the waters, with a divine glow about him and heavenly music playing in the background. With no hint of judgement, and a smile on his face, this man came and took us to a place of safety.

In the years since, I've laughed that as a kid I was smart enough to know it's easier to get forgiveness than permission, but was just not wise enough to leave the boat tied up to the stump.

But I've never forgotten the joy of that moment when I saw the motorboat coming.

All these years, I've pondered what a Christ figure he was for me. Here I was, wallowing in my shame and fear, but he offered no condemnation and no harsh words. He just smiled and invited me to get in the boat.

Jesus is the one who comes.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer that pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Taken and Blessed

I have revised one of my original hymn texts after spending part of my summer in a class, "Liturgy and Moral Imagination." The class was a wonderful experience with my old friend and esteemed professor Don Saliers.

I share it with you today in hopes that it enriches our common prayer. May we be continually shaped and transformed in patterns of grace by God's gift of the sacraments.

I have a simple setting of it with an original tune, if anyone would like to use it. I'll be glad to email it to you and grant permission freely.

Steve West

---

"Taken and Blessed"

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

Here you are present in holy space,
And you shape us and form us in patterns of grace.
Life is a circle of joy and pain,
So refresh us, oh God, with your baptismal rain.

Always becoming what we receive,
May our breath take on life beyond all we achieve.
Transform our purpose to love outpoured,
So our living is sharing the cup of our Lord.

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

"Taken and Blessed" by Stephen P. West,  copyright Stephen P. West 2004, revised 2015.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Forgiving the Raccoons

This is the full version of my raccoon story, published in The Arab Tribune on July 29, 2015. Abbreviated versions have been published in The Huntsville Times, The Upper Room, and Alive Now.

The early years of ministry left me with some bruises and a few scars. I was young, and I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from those occasional conflicts that come our way.

One spring, my family went camping at Cumberland Island, a wildlife preserve off the coast of Georgia. Our campsite, nestled in the palmetto, came with two poles. One held a lockable cage to protect food from the raccoons. The other had a single hook to hang the trash out of their reach.

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

In my typical fashion, I rolled over and went back to sleep until morning. But remembering the raccoons, I rose early to have a look.

The campsite was a mess, with trash and other items strewn everywhere. Somehow, they had even managed to open our cooler with the child-proof lock. Sitting at the picnic table in the midst of the mess, I was suddenly swept into one of the most wonderful meditation experiences I'd ever had. I pondered three amazing things as I looked around the site.

First, I thought, "This is what raccoons do. There's no reason to be angry." Second, "They really didn't hurt me." It's aggravating, yes, but I am no less for it. Finally, and most importantly, "Next time, I'll tie my trash up higher."

I grabbed my journal. I felt led to list all the "raccoons" of my life, the people who had sorted through my trash for something to criticize or consume. Then I prayed over each of them in light of my revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn't hurt me, not really. And yes, maybe it's time for me to establish a few boundaries, keeping my "trash" tied up higher. It was a wonderful time of letting go.

Then I had one of those moments when I was led to just the right scripture. I turned to Philippians 1:15-18. Paul was in prison and wrote of some of the "raccoons" 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."

Wow. What acceptance he had! I was inspired.

The next Sunday, my sermon was entitled "Raccoons Are Welcome." It was a communion Sunday, and I told the whole story. 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 not only other Christians, they were other preachers.

On Monday morning, I felt a nudge from the Spirit, as if to say, "Steve, do you believe what you preached yesterday?" I pulled out a file of old letters and emails from those 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 read each letter to remember. I burned each one as I prayed for forgiveness. I found such release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of my past pain.

After while, the Spirit nudged again. What about the letter still in my desk? No, I might need it. But why not let it go? I sat for a long time in the quiet, internally debating over the one that was left.

Suddenly, I heard a rustle. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He looked at me quizzically. After a few moments, 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.

For years, I have told this story in one form or another to encourage people to find forgiveness. I have discovered that people that drive us crazy are a gift, for they keep us humble and teach us to let go.

Several years ago, I wrote a devotional about the raccoons for a periodical called The Upper Room. Months after I was notified of its acceptance, the morning of its appearance in the magazine arrived without notice.

I got a call in my office. "Is this Steve West?" "Yes, it is," I said. "Is this THE Steve West? The one who wrote about the raccoons?" I suddenly remembered that today was the day. "Why yes, it is."

The woman sighed with relief, "I have been calling everywhere to find your number." She was from several states away. "I had to tell you what happened to me this morning. My daughter is going through a nasty divorce. Her husband has been terrible to her, and it has driven both of us crazy that he acts this way and yet says he's a Christian.

"This morning, when I read your devotional, I just couldn't believe it. I immediately went over to my daughters house, and we laid in the floor while I read the devotional to her. We cried and we cried, and we forgave him for all he had done." "Wow," I said, "I'm so honored that you are telling me this."

"Oh, you don't understand, that's not all," she said. "Here's what's so strange. Her ex-husband's last name is COON!"

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nope, Hate Did Not Win


This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, June 27, 2015.


I think of my monthly column as musings on things that are light, perhaps even humorous. Love shines through the simple moments of humanity, when we are willing to gaze into them with an eye for the divine.

But this month, I don't feel like telling a story or pondering an experience. I've got nothing. That's because my heart hurts.

Last Wednesday night, a young man visited a prayer meeting in Charleston, at a sister congregation in the Methodist family I am a part of. They welcomed him into their midst, and he sat with them for an hour. Then he pulled out a gun and opened fire, killing nine of them including the pastor. This is more than tragic. This is horror.

My heart aches that we live in a world of such brokenness. There is so much hate. There's even hate in the church. It's not limited to the "us and them" distinctions we create, for Muslims are killing Muslims, Christians are killing Christians, and believers are killing believers. Violence of every kind and description goes on and on.

We may feel Arab is a "city on a hill", insulated from this kind of thing. But we're not. We are one human family. It breaks my heart, and I know it breaks the heart of God.

It is sad that we have to peer into the darkness of an event like this to see that there are deep racial wounds that just don't want to heal. But we pretend they don't exist. I don't want to get into political arguments, I'm just feeling the rawness of the truth.

These nine people were shot in a church, when attending a prayer meeting. This is not a "tragedy," like a flood or a tornado. This is hate. We may be tempted to dismiss it as one more guy who lost his mind. But in this case, there is no way not to see this as violence motivated by racial hostility. His own manifesto is the proof.

Please don't just politicize this. Don't dismiss it as if there is no hate or racism in our country. It's like the Nazi Party that's still active underground in Germany. There is a residual strain of hate, hidden beneath the surface. It's real and it's time to stop pretending it's not there.

I am as Southern as you can get. I love grits. I have never lived north of the Alabama state line, and neither did my parents or grandparents (okay, one of them grew up in south Tennessee). I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers as well as Revolutionary patriots, and I know what it means to honor our heritage. But this kind of violence degrades it.

I don't pretend to have a simple solution, but I do believe that the gospel transforms this world. That's why I believe in a life of worship, because vague familiarity with a few superficial niceties and tidy doctrines doesn't make sense of why these things keep happening.

We live in a world that builds layers of hostility. But when we live the life of the church and live it well, Christ comes to peel the layers away, redeeming us and showing us the face of God, even in the face of evil. For those of us who carry the banner of Christian, the good book says the one who prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" was lifted up from the earth so that the world might be drawn to him. Well, we're not there yet.

But here's the hope. Love always wins. Christians are called that because we are called to be "little Christs." That means we love, and we forgive, and we bring peace in places of hate, and we bring calm in every storm, and we tear down what Paul calls the dividing walls of hostility. We don't do this because we think it "works," or because we think it "wins." It's not a strategy. It's because this is who we are. And love is what God is.

The people of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church know this. Did you read about the relatives of the people slain who spoke to the alleged shooter at the bond hearing? They did not speak words of anger or hostility. One by one, they offered forgiveness and prayers for his soul even as they plunged into the depths of their pain.

"I forgive you," one daughter said. "You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul."

A grandson said, "I forgive you. My family forgives you ... We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most: Christ. So that he can change it."

One mother said, "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms," her voice trembling. "Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you."

Wow. These are not words of people who are suddenly trying to come up with some semblance of hope in a vacuum. These are the words of people who pray and study together every week. They have embraced the love that first embraced them.

After the hearing, folks gathered outside the courtroom to sing favorite gospel hymns.

Nope, hate did not win.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Voice of Your Baptism



This is a short teaching on baptism I wrote as part of my studies this summer. It is intended for use in my local church setting.

When I was young, I went through confirmation classes where my father was pastor. It came time for a decision to join the church. I asked my dad if I could be baptized again, since I didn't remember the first time. Dad paused, and with a twinkle in his eye, said "it's not important whether you remember being baptized. The important thing is remembering that you were baptized."

In his gentle and pastoral way, my father pointed to the greatest truth of baptism. Something happens at a place in time, as the church claims us as one of God's own. But it also points to a hidden mystery. The journey of our lives becomes one of allowing baptism to unfold, transforming from historical fact to timeless truth.

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim?

Baptism is the very core of who we are. It is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Since the beginnings of the church, it has been the sign of our very identity in Christ.

There is a kaleidoscope of images in scripture which bring baptism to light. In the beginning, the Spirit of God blew across the face of deep waters. Emerging from chaos, water became central to existence. We drink it, we wash in it, and we can't live without it. So it is by the imaginative grace of God that one of the most fundamental signs of life, water, is made holy. It is through water, at the time of the great flood, that we were saved, and it is by crossing the waters of the Red Sea that we were set free.

Likewise, the New Testament gazes at the prism of baptism, revealing rich colors. It is a sign of our new creation in Christ. It mirrors our participation in his death and resurrection and reflects the washing away of sin. In baptism, we claim that we are born from above, receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We become light for the world, now clothed in Christ. We are set free from the bondage of evil and welcomed into the family of God.

It may seem strange to claim such vast meaning for an event we may or may not remember. But the nature of the baptism is that it is a gift given once. A second baptism would imply that God's grace wasn't good enough the first time. Regardless of where we are in life when we receive it, one baptism looks backwards and forwards to the contours and colors of Christian life. What happens at the font not only illuminates everything else, it draws us into a life beyond ourselves - the life of God.

In our tradition, baptism is a sign of the outpouring of God's grace, not our personal decision. It is at confirmation that we "make firm" the promise of baptism, saying "yes" to God who has already said "yes" to us. As far as the amount of water, I am fond of saying you could be baptized in the ocean, and it still doesn't measure up to the amount of grace it represents. Baptism takes place in the midst of God's family; it is not a private transaction. It is a blessing shared with the whole congregation, who renews their baptisms and helps us live into our baptismal identity.

Among the scriptural images of baptism, perhaps what is most central is the baptism of Jesus himself. Scriptures distinguish the baptism of John, one of repentance, with our baptism in Christ, one of fire and Spirit. At Jesus's baptism, the sky opened and a dove descended. A voice from heaven spoke, saying "this is my beloved Son."

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim? The same voice is heard at our baptism. We are God's beloved. We are not what we are culturally conditioned to think we are. We are not consumers, or collectors, or achievers. We are the beloved, in the community of God's beloved. That changes everything. It is the truth we always come back to as we practice the art of life.

After years of reflecting on my father's words, I wanted to learn about my baptism. I asked Dad where I was baptized, and he didn't remember. I asked him who baptized me, and he didn't remember that either. I thought, "I should have asked my mom while she was still alive!" Finally, after some work, the historian of the church Dad was serving found it in their book.

I was baptized on May 30, 1965, by Rev. J.P. West, Sr., my grandfather. I went back to that church to spend time by the font and remember.

Later, I found my baptismal certificate in some things my mom had left me. I laughed. I might have known. It is in community with God's beloved that we remember who we truly are.

Pictured is a baptismal icon by He Qi.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Sound of Pentecost

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on May 27, 2015. A very similar version of my story appeared in my column of the Faith and Values Section of The Huntsville Times on August 8, 2008.

- Steve West 

This past week, the Church had a birthday. I'm not just talking about my church, I'm talking about the Church with the big "C."

Pentecost is one of those lesser-known holidays that doesn't get the attention of Christmas and Easter, but it ought to be a huge day if you think about it. The Church was born. People were gathered from all over the place, assembling in Jerusalem for one of the big harvest festivals.

There was a big "whoosh", like the sound of a violent wind, and tongues of fire came down. But even with all that earth, wind, and fire, what really got everyone's attention was that language barriers melted away, and everyone could hear the God-talk in their own tongue.

Have you had a Pentecost experience? I don't mean something quite so dramatic as what happened that day. Have you had one of those moments of clarity when all things converged, and there was some kind of "whoosh" that took you to an entirely new barrier-breaking place?

Years ago, I heard music that would change my life. I was twenty years old, traveling to the People's Republic of China on a mission and study tour with Christian young people from north Alabama. One Sunday, we visited a Protestant Church in Nanjing.

I was not entirely looking forward to it. The trip had been tiring, and morning seemed to come early. We had heard that we should expect the sermon to be at least forty-five minutes long, and of course it was in Chinese.

When we arrived, they had reserved space for us near the front. It was a good thing, too, for the room was absolutely full. I remember the beautiful face of an old woman with tattered clothes who sat right in front of me. She smiled at me warmly, and we nodded at one another.

We settled into our seats as the service began, and though I was not expecting much because of the language barrier, I found myself completely taken away. From the moment I heard the first note of music, my spirit was captured by a world of connecting that was beyond words.

We began by singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese. I knew only one verse in English, but I sang it over and over just the same. I had never heard anything like the unique blend of voices in different languages singing as one. Throughout the service, I found every note strangely familiar.

The choir sang John Steiner’s “God So Loved the World,” in beautiful Chinese intonation. A shock wave moved through my spirit, for the choir of my home church had done the very same piece two weeks earlier. I knew the beloved words to John 3:16, and so did they.

During the sermon (which was indeed over forty-five minutes and in Chinese), I found myself intrigued by the songbook. Instead of the Western hymnal I was used to, it was simply Chinese words with numbers printed above them. I can remember the moment it dawned on me how the numbers represented the tune. With a number for each note in ascending scale, “Jesus Loves Me,” for example, was notated “5-3-3-2-3-5-5.”

Once I saw this, I searched from hymn to hymn to find tunes of my faith inside this book on the other side of the world. The magnitude of our connectedness filled my soul. The sermon was over and we sang again. By this time my heart was racing and my voice bellowed with whatever verse or phrase I could remember.

I will never forget the face of the old woman sitting in front of me. Toward the end of the song, she turned and looked at me with tears streaming down her face. When her eyes met mine, it was my “Pentecost moment”. It was a profound experience when I realized that though we were separated by a world of culture, we could hear each other in our own language. She and I were brother and sister, and we knew it deep in our bones.

There is strangely familiar music that binds us together, spanning the globe and moving through the centuries. It's our corporate song, for our spiritual lives do not develop in a vacuum. Our journey has context.

When I came out of that crowded church in Nanjing, I had seen a glimpse of God’s dream for humanity, a people wonderfully diverse but forever bound by the song of our hearts.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," may be found atwww.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bishops Write Pastoral Letter on Racism


When I saw this beautifully written pastoral letter from the bishops of the UMC, I immediately felt led to share it with all of you. In light of
 recent rioting on American soil, I am reminded of the historic struggles of the American soul. Let us all pray for healing for all of God's creation.

The Council of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on racism to the people of The United Methodist Church affirming the sacredness of all lives and renewing their commitment to work for an anti-racist, pro-humanity church. The action came at the end of the Council’s weeklong meeting in Berlin in May of 2015.

The letter reads:

Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!

We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, are meeting in Berlin, Germany, 70 years after the end of World War II.  As we gather, we renew our commitment to lead, as together we seek to become the beloved community of Christ.  

We are a church that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  On every continent, people called United Methodist are boldly living the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, the people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound.  Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.

Our hearts break and our spirits cry out, as we see reports of migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa, note the flight of Jews from Europe, watch the plight of Mediterranean refugees and see racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.  The evidence is overwhelming that race still matters, that racism is woven into institutional life and is problematic to communal health.  This reality impacts every area of life – in the church and in the world.

Racism is prejudice plus intent to do harm or discriminate based on a belief that one is superior or has freedom to use power over another based on race. Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.  Racism and xenophobia, like other sins, keep us from being whole persons capable of living up to our full potential. They deny the profound theological truth that we are made in the image of God with the handprint of love and equality divinely implanted in every soul.

As bishops of the Church, we cast a vision for a world community where human worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. We acknowledge that silence in the face of systemic racism and community fears serves only to make matters worse.

We commit to lead, model and engage in honest dialogue and respectful conversation and invite people of faith everywhere to join us.  Let us repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege.  May we love God more deeply and, through that love, build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, valued, heard and safe. As we proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may we lead the way in seeking justice for all, investing in and trusting God’s transforming power to create a world without hatred and racism. 

As United Methodists, we affirm that all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.  We renew our commitment to work for a Church that is anti-racist and pro-humanity, believing that beloved community cannot be achieved by ignoring cultural, racial and ethnic differences, but by celebrating diversity and valuing all people.

“This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 1 John 4:21 (CEB)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Little Birthday Banter


This is my column that appeared in "The Arab Tribune" on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.

I am turning this in to the local paper the day before my fiftieth birthday. I thought I’d give myself a present and write about it, so here it is. Happy birthday to me.

Yes, it’s true. This is the “big 5-0.”

I’m not sure the reality that I’m half a century old has set in yet, but it’s starting to. I looked up what was going on when I was born. Why not? I don’t remember it.

It was April of 1965, and Lyndon Johnson was president. “Girl Happy” featuring Elvis was a box office hit, and “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes reached #2 in the charts.

Earlier that month, the first jet-to-jet combat took place in Vietnam, and Robert Downy, Jr. was born. Two men were executed in Kansas by hanging, and “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn won eight Academy Awards. West Germany paid Israel the final $75 million in reparations, and the first commercial communications satellite took orbit.

The month I was born, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War was observed, and the Beatles released “Ticket to Ride.” The first march in Washington was organized to protest the Vietnam war, and Mickey Mantle hit his first indoor homerun. On the day before I was born, the New York World’s Fair opened for its final season.

Wow.

All I ever knew about the month I was born was from baby pictures. It was all about my dad’s horn rimmed glasses and my mom’s bouffont, not to mention some awfully interesting colors which never cease to come back.

But things have really changed. And I guess I have too.

It’s Mohammed Ali who said "A man who views the world at fifty the same as he viewed the world at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

What have I learned during this half-a-century romp in the playpen? The biggest thing I've learned is that I've forgotten more than I remember, but here are a few things that seemed to stick. My life is not so much about success, achievement, or notoriety as it is about creativity. What I don’t say is more important than what I do. I can't control other people’s behavior, but I can try my best to shape mine.

I've learned that some things I used to get upset about are just not worth it. And if I get down in the ditch with somebody who is picking a fight, we both lose. Life is really about relationships, and I don’t have to agree with someone to treat them with dignity and respect.

And I’ve learned things go better when I’m wearing the smile I feel, when I’m willing to sing a song, and when I’m able to have a little fun.

So here I am. I've been through my mid-life crisis and emptied my nest. Now that my kids are both away at school, my wife and I can afford to go back to school ourselves (yes, I’m still trying to figure that one out). Life is a new adventure, and adventure is good.

They say life begins at fifty. Or fifty’s the new forty. Or fifty looks pretty good when you’re sixty. 

Whatever they say, I’m just glad to be here. I may have streaks of gray in my hair, but I’ve earned these stripes. They are my platinum highlights.

My dad says growing old is not for sissies. He once told me he thought he was old when people started asking if he wanted the senior discount, but he knew he was old when they stopped asking.

Well, I haven't been asked yet, so I don’t think I’m old. But if I am the one to ask, I already get a 10% discount at Krispie Kreme. Who'd have thought turning half a century old would have its perks?

Agatha Christie said “I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming … suddenly you find – at the age of 50, say – that a whole new life has opened before you.”

So at fifty, I'm not sad. In fact, I’m pretty excited about the rest of my life. I have another half-a-century of things to learn. Bring it on.


Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Cup of Love Poured Out

A Good Friday Meditation
(and critique of Ransom and Substitution Theories)

I have a communion chalice that I keep on my shelf. It’s my favorite chalice, aside from the ones given to me as gifts. I found it at a local pottery shop in North Carolina and was completely captivated by it. I thought this earthy, blue chalice was the most beautiful one I had ever seen.

It occurred to me one day a few years ago that the purpose of this chalice is not to sit pretty on my shelf. It was made for so much more, yet I leave it on display most of the time. I suppose we are like that at times. We are created in the image of our gracious and loving God for more than we can possibly imagine, yet sometimes we find ourselves sitting pretty in church, as if that’s what’s important.

Reflecting with my chalice in hand that day, I began to think that the real purpose of this chalice is not to sit there; it is to be filled. We come to a place in the Christian life when we discover that we are called beyond the ministry of showing up. This longing is evident in our prayer and praise, as we sing “Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.” We yearn to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be completely saturated with the love of God.

Yet upon further reflection on the cup in my hand, I realized that this is not the ultimate purpose of the chalice either. As I tipped my wonderful blue chalice over on its side in my hands, I began to see that the purpose of this chalice is not to be filled. The ultimate purpose of this chalice is to be emptied. It is to be poured out.

This is our spirituality of Good Friday. The cross is the intentional, redemptive, self-emptying love of God poured out.

There have been many teachings throughout history on the atonement, the work of God for our redemption through the cross. These have taken shape in a few different ways over the centuries. Perhaps the most prominent theories are “ransom” theory and “substitution” theory. I am at a place in my journey where I am not a fan of either.

Ransom theory was developed fairly early in Christianity. It’s my understanding that for the first thousand years or so, the idea prevailed that the blood of Christ purchased our forgiveness from Satan. But for me, the idea that God “paid off” the devil falls gravely short of capturing the truth of the cross.

In later history, the idea was transformed to the theory that God purchased our pardon not from the devil, but from God’s very self. Similar to this later development is substitution theory, the idea that because of God’s righteousness and justice, God had to place judgment on somebody. So God substituted Jesus for us, who took the punishment for our sin. Again, this falls short because it is hard to imagine a God who needed a “cosmic punching bag” to settle his internal issues.

Here’s the thing. The ideas of ransom and substitution are definitely scriptural, as the early church began to unpack the meaning of the cross. In some ways, they are rooted in Christ’s transformation of the temple sacrificial system, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But I believe ransom and substitution are best seen as metaphors and illustrations, for they fall short of giving us a comprehensive theory on how the cross reconciles us with God. In the end, placing all our eggs in one of their baskets just doesn’t make sense.

So what is the fullest meaning of the cross? What better place to go than Jesus’ first words about it, the first Christian sermon about it, and the first Christian hymn about it.

The first thing Jesus said about the cross in the book of John was “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John notes that he was indicating the kind of death he was to die. The first time Jesus spoke of cross should carry some weight. The cross was intended to draw all people to the heart of God, “for God so loved the world (“cosmos” in the Greek) that he gave his only Son” … “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

That means there is something cosmic, something earth shattering and game changing about the cross. Whatever it is, it’s not just an “example to follow.”

If Jesus’ first words about the cross carry weight, what about first sermon and first hymn? In a recent Bible study, we were reading Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. Someone in the group remarked “this is the first Easter sermon.” I was intrigued.

Knowing this was not the first sermon in the early church, a distinction that would go to Peter, I looked back at the texts. This was indeed the first sermon that contained what I would consider theory of atonement. After reciting salvation history in Hebrew style, culminating in the cross and resurrection, Paul continued “Let it be known to you therefore … that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

This cosmic event is one that frees us from sin, yes indeed. But I noticed there there was no purchase language here, and no substitution language either. By the incredible love of the cross, all who respond are freed from the bondage of sin.

What about first Christian hymn we have record of? That would be in Philippians 2. Scholars agree that in verses 5-11, Paul is reciting the words to an ancient Christian hymn, which makes it the first one we still have record of.

It’s incredible in its expression of the atoning work of Christ, singing “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” This is why he is exalted and lifted up.

These three sources give us a pretty good understanding of the outpouring of love expressed in the cross. Who can beat Jesus’ first words, the first sermon, and the first hymn about the cross?

So my theory of the atonement is this. The cross is the ultimate, redemptive expression of God's intentional, self-emptying love. It was not something that happened when God wasn’t looking, sort of a “cosmic fumble” after which God returned the ball in the last second of the game. And it is a comprehensive mystery that can’t possibly be fully explained with a metaphor such as a financial purchase or a substitution for a sacrifice.

It was not just given to us as an example to follow. It completely changed the game. It brings forgiveness to all who would be drawn to the cross. And it calls us to a new love, with the way of the cross guiding us. As the hymn Paul shared reminds us, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

So it turns out the overturned chalice in my hand a few years ago gave me a pretty good understanding of the cross. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the meaning of what love is, and life is not about being filled up but about being emptied out.

That’s the meaning of the cross. That’s the meaning of Holy Week. And that’s the meaning of life.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

There's So Much Drama in my Church!

This column was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Usually when I hear someone talk about all the drama in their church, it’s not a good thing.

Maybe they got their feelings hurt or a decision didn’t go their way. Maybe they caught wind of the occasional gossip or internal politics. Maybe someone spread a rumor or jockeyed for a leadership position.

This kind of drama can sting, and I’ve seen it happen over the years. While this is not part of the nature of what it means to be the Church, it’s definitely part of the nature of what it means to be human. And last time I checked, everybody in the church is human.

Nobody likes drama in their church. Or do they?

This next week, we’ll see some of the best drama the Church could ever have. Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable.

It begins with Palm Sunday, a day full of children, grand processionals and palms, and acknowledging Christ as king who reigns in glory and honor. During many churches’ Palm Sunday services, our thoughts and prayers progress toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We begin to fathom the wondrous love it is that would pour itself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries crystal clear - cultural and commercial religiosity is not at the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, it’s good to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial of the week. Talk about drama! I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends. It’s the people you care about that can hurt you the most, not the people you don’t know.

It has occurred to me that out of twelve disciples Jesus spent three years closely working with, one betrayed him, one denied him, and two couldn’t see past their own noses, which were sniffing out status and position. In the end, a third of the disciples let him down.

Later in the week, Maundy Thursday rolls around, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood, instituting our precious meal.

Despite their protests, he washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world.

We pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday. Then as a community of churches, we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter.

We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope. All of our church activities lead us through all this drama. I hope you will participate in your church as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama in your church. That’s just what the world needs to see.

---

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Prayers for the Persecuted Church


Our beloved bishop in North Alabama, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, released this prayer which we used in worship yesterday at the church I serve. It is a prayer for the persecuted church.

She has invited all United Methodists in North Alabama to a week of prayer for our brothers and sisters who face persecution for their faith. Whoever and wherever you are, please join us in this prayer. In today's world, there are those in our Christian family who are losing their lives and livelihood because of their belief in Christ.

I try to pray prayers not clouded by the language of politics, but purely for the sake of the Body of Christ. It is not the first time in history that the blood of the martyrs has been part of the painful struggle of carrying the cross of Christ.

Steve

---

Prayer for the Persecuted Church

God of us all, You love us so passionately that you sent Your Son to help us experience the fullness of divine love. And while we love you, we are not often asked to risk our lives because of our faith.

This is not true for many of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Our hearts break as we see more of them suffering and dying simply because they are living as disciples of Jesus. We pray for their safety and sanctuary. We pray that you will give them grace in suffering. We are humbled by the witness of these martyred for their faith. We pray for their persecutors, and that acts of violence and persecution will cease.

Help us to grow in our commitment to live as Jesus' disciples. Remind us that we are the One Body of Christ: when one member suffers, all suffer. Stir us to pray unceasingly. And empower us to speak boldly.

We pray all of this in the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Kiss of Peace


This devotional was written by Pastor Steve for the "Night Watch" at Discovery Weekend.

John 14:27 says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I went to see “Bye Bye Birdie” last weekend at Arab High School. What an incredible show! I had seen it before, and knew a few of the songs. But I had never seen it performed so flawlessly. I’m so proud of the talent in our community.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is about a huge rock and roll star of the 60's who was drafted for the army (I assume it’s based on the true story of Elvis Presley). His assistant thinks he can make a fortuneand marry his girlfriend, if he gets Conrad on the Ed Sullivan show to kiss a high school girl goodbye. So it’s all about that kiss.

Have you ever thought about how God has given us a BIG kiss? Obviously, it’s not the kind of kiss you can get from Conrad Birdie. It’s more like the kiss my mother used to give me on the cheek to wish me goodnight. It’s the kind of kiss that makes you feel warm and safe, the kinds of kiss that makes you feel special.

This kiss is called the peace of Christ. He gave it to his disciples when he was saying goodbye. He knew he was going to die and that they would miss him, at least until he rose again. So he gave them one last kiss, the kiss of his peace.

The reason am calling it the “kiss of peace” is because in the ancient church, people actually did that. They puckered up and kissed each other during worship, and called it “the kiss of peace.

For obvious reasons we don’t do it anymore … we shake hands and give hugs! But it still means the same thing. We pass the peace of God to one another.

So let God “kiss you goodnight” tonight. His gentle presence brings you a “peace that passes all understanding.”

PRAYER: Dear God, you promised us a peace that passes all understanding. That means it’s a peace that makes no sense. Sometimes we don’t feel a whole lot of peace in our lives, but you said you do not give it to us as the world gives. Tonight, help melt away the trouble in our hearts and take away our fears. Help us feel your presence. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Religious Freedom Wasn't Free

This is my column that includes the story of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, my fourth great grandfather. It was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, February 28, 2015.


As I reflect on the last few weeks of supercharged political and religious energy in Alabama, my mind can't help but wander back to a precious memory from my family's chronicles.

My fourth great grandfather was active in the fight for religious freedom in America, a freedom we hold dear. Carrying the name Rev. Thomas Maxwell, he was in the ministry of the gospel during the formative days of our nation.

Maxwell grew up Anglican, when the Church of England was the officially sanctioned faith of his home colony of Virginia. A few years before the Revolutionary War ignited, he was "born again" into the Baptist faith.

He fought as a patriot in the war for independence. After that, he began following his calling as a Baptist preacher.

The nation was brand new, but some colonial law hadn't changed. He was jailed several times in Culpepper County for preaching without a license. It may surprise you that licenses to preach were granted by the local courthouse, and in the infant state of Virginia, a license was only granted to those who were Anglican. Period.

Family stories include the fact that he had a large, protruding nose (that's good confirmation that he is related to me). He developed a scar on his nose from rubbing it raw, preaching through the bars of the prison to anyone who would hear it. It is reported that at least one jailer and his family came to know the Lord.

Records show that early American orator and attorney Patrick Henry defended Thomas Maxwell, and Henry had Maxwell released from jail in the 1780's. Patrick Henry was taking up the cause for religious freedom in times when it was considered a value, but certainly wasn't automatic.

Thomas Jefferson, the "silent congressman" who had penned the Declaration of Independence, spent the 1780's making its words reality in Virginia. He wrote Virginia's bill, enacted into law in 1786, which guaranteed religious freedom and allowed Grandpa Maxwell and others to preach without restriction.


By 1791, this freedom was guaranteed for the posterity of the nation by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is easy to forget that the reason the constitutional amendments included in the Bill of Rights were needed was that these freedoms weren't necessarily granted in those first 25 years.

Perhaps it is ironic that years later Jefferson, now serving as our third president, was denying a request of Connecticut Baptists to have the president proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer, when he coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state", referencing the First Amendment. The freedom my ancestor, Rev. Thomas Maxwell, and so many others fought for was a differentiation of church and state that worked both ways.

In 1792, just one year after the First Amendment passed, my ancestor moved to North Georgia and founded a number of Baptist churches there. Though he was Baptist and I am a Methodist, the fire of his spirit - and a deep appreciation of the distinctive roles of religion and government - are part of the fabric of who I am.

A few years ago, I took my Dad on a trip through North Georgia to climb up the family tree. After finding directions scribbled in the back of a locally published history book at the Elbert County library, and a considerable amount of searching, we found the grave of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, this Revolutionary War veteran and early American preacher I had grown to admire.


The grave was on the side of a dirt road, embedded in a picturesque, ivy covered oasis in the middle of a dairy farm.

As Dad and I reverently approached the well-marked grave, about two dozen cows slowly and deliberately made their way from across the field in hopes of being fed.

I hated to disappoint them, for we were empty handed. But our hearts were quite full.

The complex wrangling of religion and culture is nothing new, and I guess it will continue until the cows come home.

But that's the price of religious freedom. It's part of the healthy rub of what it means to be faithful in America. I hope I never forget how much of a gift it is.

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Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.