Thursday, March 10, 2016

Adventures in Drawing Close

March is upon us, and we are drawing close to Holy Week. I pray and hope that your Lenten season has been meaningful and powerful.

I think of Lent as an adventure in drawing close. It's an adventure because it's rugged wilderness time for us, when our faith becomes so easily sterile and fragile. After all, Lent is not just about giving up chocolate or getting ready for Easter. It's a time that mirrors the time of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days. It's a time of getting away and out in God's great wilderness of nature, of facing the demons without and within, and allowing the Word of God well up inside of you to give you strength, perspective, and peace. When Jesus emerged from the wilderness, he was passionate and ready for ministry. I pray we will be too.

We go through lots of wilderness times in life, it's part of our rhythm. It's a good thing we can't remember being born, because I imagine it's cold and bright and scary. We grow up and we go through the teenage years, which are tough times of emotional swings and trying our best to fit in and find our way. We pursue college and career, which can be very stressful and lacking in clarity and direction. We get married, and the early years of marriage are a wilderness of intrigue, full of difficulties as well as triumphs we were not expecting. We go through the wilderness of becoming parents, and every child is so different that each one would have to have their own instruction book, even if there were such a thing. We go through the wilderness of our 30's when we are trying so hard to build our lives, and through our 40's when we are having our mid-life crises because our lives are not working out quite like we'd hoped. I can't tell you much about the 50's and beyond (I'll let you know) but I know they will have their own unique wilderness experiences.

While some of the wilderness times are part of the rhythm and seasons of life, sometimes they are because of experiences that come our way. My family and I are, once again, going through the wilderness of grief over losing Sandy's dear mother. This is something we all must face, and yet in all the difficulties blessings abound and peace comes, even tears of joy and gratitude.

So Lent is not just an annual season of giving up something and reading scripture and devotionals. It's a liturgical rhythm that gives language and perspective to the wilderness times we all go through. There is something in the Lenten experience that gives life a sense of holiness, knowing that Jesus can be our model for what it means to go through wilderness and emerge stronger than you were before.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Christ Draws the World to Himself

I love this stained glass window of Jesus drawing the world to himself at St. Paul UMC in the Civil Rights District in Birmingham. This historic church was very involved in social change, and some say the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church may have been intended for this church (it's next door) since they were so involved in the creation of the NAACP. Joseph Lowery was the pastor at the time. Standing before this window, I recall God's dream for all humanity to come together in Christ's arms.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Church piano restored to former glory

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 2, 2016.

There are a few perks to being a pastor besides the obvious ones (hospitality in homes and coffee shops, leftovers after church dinners, a nicely furnished home, and plenty of interesting personalities to enjoy). One of them is those quiet moments after hours, when no one is around and you have the sanctuary all to yourself.

I sat down to play it, and soon I became lost in the moment. Our church piano has been restored to its former glory. Wow. The notes resonate warmly and the touch is exquisite.

This instrument has a story and it begs to tell it. It's a beautiful 7 foot Steinway grand that has been in the sanctuary of Arab First UMC, and her former church sanctuary, for 60 years. No wonder it needed restoration.

I ponder the weight of over 3,000 Sundays of lifting hearts to sing God's praise. And here it is, fresh and new again.

In 1956, it was given to the church by Elmer Skidmore, who bought it at Forbes Piano Company to replace the old upright that would not stay in tune. He and his wife were in the choir.

As the story goes, no announcement was made about who donated it. But everyone knew Elmer must have bought it since he is the one who got people to donate stained the glass windows. He had come home from his store every day to get on the phone with church members until he had enough agreeing to pay $100 of the cost. Elmer also arranged for the purchase of the church's first Hammond organ.

The Skidmore's daughter, Jo Fox, recollects when the new organ was brought to the church. "It was delivered on November 21st, his birthday. Bess Hinds was the pianist and when it was delivered, the first thing she played on it was 'Happy Birthday' to him." Bess could also play the organ. "Music was a large part of his life and he had a strong voice. He led Sunday night songs and Linn Hinds led the morning service. I'm very proud of my parents. they worked tirelessly in our church and we never missed a service."

Apparently, after Elmer had pushed for folks to pay for the windows and the organ, he thought the old upright piano just ruined the sound when you played them together. He didn't want to go back for round three of fundraising, so he paid for the piano himself.

So here resounds a 60 year story of dedication, faith, and congregational song at my fingertips.

And it's not just any piano. It's a Steinway. Their 7 foot model is often dubbed "the perfect grand piano" today, and a new one would cost about $80 grand. It is the choice of top recording studios and has impeccable balance, beauty, and strength.

The Steinway has been completely refurbished and made like new. Anthony Wilson, our church pianist, says "the feel of the keys and the overall sound is like playing on a brand new piano. And with the physical transformation it also looks as if it is brand new. It is an amazing instrument and I am honored to have the privilege to play it each week."

Brian Quillin, our music director, adds “our church is extremely blessed to have such an incredible instrument and I am excited to see and hear it now that the restoration is complete."

For the restoration, we used Mike Reese of Reese Piano Service in Birmingham, Alabama. The project was much more involved than replacing the strings. It entailed rebuilding all the internal mechanics for a complete refurbishing, reconditioning, and refinishing. The project cost $13,000 and was paid for by an anonymous donation. And this month, it began its next next chapter in the unfolding faith story of the people of Arab First UMC.

Music has a way of carrying me to another place whether I'm playing my favorite Chopin "Raindrop" Prelude, breaking into a contemporary praise song, singing a rousing old hymn, or just jazzing something up.

I feel like the luckiest man alive to have a wonderful family, a healthy church with a vibrant story, and some renewed time as an empty nester to make music on the side.

There something about music that soothes the soul as I sit in the dark sanctuary and play some more. This is an instrument of praise, and it lifts hearts in worship. That's what it does, and that's what it's going to do for the next 60 years.

Even Jesus sang hymns with his disciples and quoted psalms they all sang regularly at the temple. Psalm 150, the pinnacle of praise in the Bible's book of songs, is a reminder that hymns of praise are enhanced with all sorts of instruments.

In one of those hymns, we sing "Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise."

I wonder as I sit and play, what does it mean for me to become an instrument, too? If I'm going to be the kind of person that gets my heart tuned, the kind of person that lives as an instrument of God's praise, every once in a while I need a complete restoration, too.

I need renovation of the heart. I need renewal and care, and thank God for the transformative grace that refreshes me so I can keep doing this for him.

Saint Augustine is famous for saying "he who sings prays twice." I wonder if the one who plays for worship prays three times. Sometimes it feels that way. It certainly does today.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First UMC. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at