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

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)