Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Gets Fired Up Might Just Fizzle Out

This is my column which appeared in the Dec. 14, 2016 issue of The Arab Tribune.

I was astounded by the bright, swirling bits of fire expanding in a quiet, seemingly random pattern. My mind desperately rushed to focus on them before they were gone. But there were too many to focus on.

Light was blazing and quickly falling. I wondered how something so random could descend with such grace, tracing patterns of light in the darkness. I had never seen such dangerous energy, such striking beauty, in the night sky.

It made an imprint on my mind and drew my imagination toward bigger things. The universe is indeed a majestic place.

No, I'm not describing the fireworks I saw on the 4th of July. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be gazing into the night sky when I saw a full meteor shower. I can count on two fingers the number of times I've send a "shooting star", but this was different.

I know a little of the science of it. Every year in November, the earth passes though debris from a comet. Pieces of that comet, which can be as small as a pea, hit the atmosphere and fall toward the surface. The air resistance causes the crumbs to ignite into burning balls of fire.

But this is the first time I had my head up and saw the show. If I hadn't been looking, I wouldn't have seen it. It was intense, but it was short and sweet. To my eyes, it appeared as if one larger meteor entered the atmosphere and promptly broke up into numerous pieces. The pieces just whirled in the air.

I have heard of these meteor showers. But I had no idea that seeing one would take my breath away. It happened fast, and it sure looked furious. And then, in a few moments, it was gone.

Most people in the world didn't see it. But they could have if they had been focused on the sky at just the right moment. I wonder how many times in my life things that have seemed big and powerful at the time have fizzled away after their momentary madness. And the rest of the world scarcely noticed.

Some of the things that bother me just blaze and burn in this expanse we call "now," but they grow cold and dark given a little time. Someone spreads a false rumor and it stings. Or I respond as gracefully as I can to a disgruntled parishioner. Or I fail to achieve a goal that I had my heart set on. I get caught up in a misunderstanding. Or I feel blue about something I see on the news. Or I make it through a most troublesome and divisive election season (sound familiar?).

Whatever it is usually seems pretty huge. The strange thing about a meteor shower is that since we have a look from a distant enough perspective, there is a quiet beauty in the burning. And yet no matter how bright it is, soon it will be gone.

Most everything that bothers me is temporary. It is the things of virtue that are lasting, and there is a strange power in the fizzling away of the fleeting.

I often say that if I have my integrity, nothing else matters. I have had lots of challenges, but in regards to my faith, the only thing that ultimately matters is love. So I try my best to live a life that lends itself to passion for my God and my neighbor.

I admit that sometimes I keep replaying difficult experiences in my mind. I've heard it said that you can't move on to the next chapter in life if you keep re-reading the last one.

But my faith tells me that in Christ, I am a new creation. I don't think Paul is saying that just happens once. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul adds that "inwardly we are renewed every day." He says this "because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal."

Perhaps something about that meteor shower changed me. Next time I gaze at the stars, admiring the expanse of the universe, I will try to take notice of the eternal things, the beautiful things, the unseen things. Not just the dazzling lights that I might chance to see. They catch my eye and monopolize my attention. But they, too, shall pass.

If it's true in the night sky, it's true in life as well.

There is a greater majesty lying deeply behind the flashes of light. So I will try not to get so caught up in what I can't really control. I will give myself to love, and love will see me through.

After all, love is the transcending mystery that binds the universe together and brings patterns of grace to all that burns.

I am tired of living for the blaze of glory. I suppose I am beginning to long for the greater perspective. How about you?

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 at

Friday, October 28, 2016

Don't Let Your Spirit Be "Politically" Sharpened

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, October 26, 2016.

Have you noticed there's an election coming up?

That's a silly question. Of course you have. It's just a couple of weeks from the national elections, and I'm getting really tired of watching the news. It's starting to all sound the same.

There are, of course, important issues at stake. There always are. Voting is both an honorable duty and a wonderful privilege. I'm so thankful I have a voice in our national life.

But I never tell my congregation who I think people should vote for, nor do I ever hash out partisan issues in the pulpit. Instead I encourage my congregants to be good citizens, to stay informed, and to vote according to their best ability.

The gift the Church has to offer is the gift of the Word, which reveals both the mercy of Christ and the mystery of God. It's more about plunging into the depths of abundant life and less about easy or obvious answers.

So I try to help people interpret the Word through our wealth of tradition, healthy reasoning, and awareness of human experience. And to vote as you feel led to vote as a result.

The founder of my particular brand of Christianity, John Wesley, remarked on elections in England, just before the American Revolution began. In his journal on October 6, 1774, he said:

"I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side."

No party or candidate has a monopoly on being right. It's not a perfect system, and there are imperfect solutions to complex problems.

Perhaps more than usual, I'm aware that there are only imperfect people running for office. But I will speak no evil against the winner. I will not let my spirit be sharpened.

No matter who is elected president, it's really going to be okay. We have a system of checks and balances to keep things from getting too badly off track, and it is a self-correcting system.

I'm not dismissing the importance of voting based on the issues that are important to you. I'm just saying it's not the end of the world if your favorite candidate doesn't win (or, in this case, perhaps I should say the one you dislike the least).

Over the years, sometimes my "fave" has made it to the top, and other times he has not. We have a democratic process and that's the way it goes. It's not perfect, but it's better than having a king or a dictator ... or a one party system for that matter.

In short, no president or party can save us. Only Jesus saves.

The rest is trying our best to make it work, and there are multiple issues to consider. You won't agree with every aspect of any candidate or party. At least I hope you don't, otherwise I wonder if you are thinking for yourself.

I just hope I never speak evil, and I hope my spirit never gets sharpened. If I do, I am the one that loses.

Here's an idea. Focus on Jesus on the day of elections.

As for me, I will be opening our church doors for "come and go" communion on the morning of November 8. Anyone in the community may drop by our sanctuary, anytime between 7:30 and 9:00 am. There will be quiet music playing. People can come, sit, and pray as long as they like, then when they are ready, come forward to receive the gift of bread and cup.

Why? To focus on Christ and receive his grace. There is no agenda, there will be no materials, and there will be no leaflets. Just Jesus. Because he is the one who can save us.

Then as you go about your day, go and vote according to your conscience. Then let's all accept the outcome.

After the election, whoever becomes our president is OUR president, so take the high road no matter what. Support and pray for that person and work with him or her.

That's the way it should be. That's the way it has to be!

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Three Ways to Pray Scripture

This is the handout I prepared for the "Intro to Spiritual Formation" workshop at Camp Lee on September 29, 2016 sponsored by the Spiritual Formation Team of the North Alabama Conference. I compiled material from a variety of sources.

In addition to praying and singing psalms and canticles as a way of joining in the ongoing praise of the saints, I suggest that there are three classic and deeply spiritual ways to pray scripture:

1) Entering the Narrative Imaginatively

Ignatius of Loyala (b. 1491) is credited with this method. He discovered how useful the imagination could be in fostering a deeper relationship with God, and imaginative prayer is one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality. He integrated imaginative prayer into the approach to the spiritual life outlined in his work the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius presents two ways of imagining. The first is demonstrated in a meditation on the Incarnation. He asks us to “enter into the vision of God.” We imagine God looking down in love on our turbulent world. We see God intervening by sending Jesus. This imagining helps us see things from God’s perspective and take on God’s qualities of compassion and understanding.

The second method is to place ourselves within a story from the Gospels. We become onlookers or participants and give full rein to our imagination. We feel the hot sun, the itchy clothes, or our stomachs rumbling. We notice the faces. Above all, we watch Jesus in the story, seeing gestures and the look in his eyes. We hear him speak, and we imagine other words he might have spoken.

The best-known example of this is contemplation on Jesus’ birth. Imagine the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, and the smell of animals. You find yourself holding the holy child and gazing into his eyes. What feelings fill your heart? Through the narrative, you have entered the prayer space of adoration. Many scenes from the Gospels are ripe for imaginative contemplation. This way of prayer helps us experience Jesus filling our senses, rather than simply thinking about Jesus.

Try it … 

• Choose a scene from the Gospels that captures your attention before you begin.
• Find a quiet place, breathe, and rest in God. Read the story.
• Set your Bible aside. Relax. Let your imagination take you deeply into the scene. What are the sights? Sounds? Smells? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. What does he do? What does he say to others? What does he say to you? How do you respond?
• After a long period of imaginative prayer, record your reflections in your journal.

2) Chewing on the Text 

Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word to be feasted on.

Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps:
    1) Lectio - reading
    2) Meditatio – meditating
    3) Oratio – praying
    4) Contemplatio – contemplation

The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, we feast on the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" the text.

The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict.

Try it … 

• First a passage of Scripture is read, slowly as if savoring a meal rather than quickly eating fast food. The plain meaning of the text is comprehended. A shorter passage is better for praying the scripture than reading large passages for study.
• Second, after a while the passage is read again. This time, notice a word or phrases that the Spirit brings forth to capture your attention. You don’t need to know why. Just let it emerge, like nuggets that appear on the surface when panning for gold. Then spend time chewing on it. Why is this speaking to you? What is the Spirit saying to you? Let it touch a deep place in you.
• Third, read the passage again and this time, respond to God in prayer. It may be helpful to journal your prayers and thoughts.
• Fourth, read the passage again and rest with it. Simply contemplate the majesty and mystery of God. Feel God’s presence as you have communed with him through scripture.

3) Gazing on the Symbol 

Symbol is, in its essence, the way we know what we cannot see. The origin of the word symbalon, means to throw. Indeed, symbols “throw” meaning into life. We use them in the way we talk, think, and process information.

There is a vast treasury of symbol and metaphor in scripture. Like narratives and parables, they are God’s unique ways of conveying truth in the Bible. To “gaze” with the heart on a scriptural symbol takes prayer to a place beyond words and concepts.

Symbol grows more meaningful as Christianity matures. It is interesting that when Paul talks about maturing in Christ, he uses metaphor of “milk” and “solid food.” As the journey progresses, truth is unveiled layer by layer, until the day when “with unveiled faces” we experience the glory of the Lord.

Try it … 

• Light a candle to focus, as this is one of the profound symbols of Christ’s presence.
• Choose a scripture that contains symbol, like an elemental symbol such as rock, fire, or water (Moses striking the rock, the day of Pentecost, the woman at the well, etc). Or choose metaphors of Jesus like light and salt. Or choose an “I am statement” Jesus makes in the book of John. Or choose a passage with the metaphor of the tree, the door, the gate, or a scriptural symbol that might be most meaningful to you. It might well be a favorite contained in a piece of art, church paraments, or stained glass you are familiar with.
• Draw, paint, view a natural version of, or gaze upon a piece of art containing this symbol. Or imagine it in your mind’s eye. Or let your body take its shape.
• Spend time with it. Experience it. What truth does God speak to you through it? What draws your attention to it? What healing does it bring? How does it shift your perspective? What prayer does it well up in you?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where's the Fire?

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, August 31, 2016.

My mother was a really organized person. She orchestrated our family reunions, she kept a list of who was getting what from whom for Christmas, and she added a little order to my life when I needed her to. Yes, I was a teenager once.

After she and Dad retired, they enjoyed several years of traveling. It seems like they went everywhere. They scoured the United States. They coordinated overseas trips and cruises.

But my mom had a funny little habit. She was so organized that whenever they arrived at a hotel, the first thing she did was go through her mental checklist. On that list was finding the fire escape. She had to know, just in case.

One time when they were on a trip, in her usual fashion she went on her quest to find it. A small door on the end of the hall looked like it might be the right one. She opened it to take a look.

There, inside the door, was a man in the bathroom. "Oh, my goodness, I'm sorry," she said. "I was just trying to find the fire escape."

She quickly closed the door. Red as a beet, she headed down the hall toward her room.

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so surprised that a few minutes later, down the hall came that man with a very fast pace, frantically pulling up his pants. "Where's the fire? Where's the FIRE?"

It's the question we still ask. Where's the fire, when we feel like our flame just fizzled out? When we are tired or a little bit depressed? When the things we once believed in so passionately don't seem to work for us anymore?

Where's the fire?

One of the simplest pleasures I have always loved is a campfire. I love to build it, I love the careful tinkering of getting it started, and I love hoping it "takes". I love the thrill of watching it finally burst into flames.

I love to feed the fire, to be warmed by the fire, to roast marshmallows on the fire, and to smell the hot dogs sizzling in the fire. I love the taste of the charred, gooey white sugar and the crunch of the toasted bun around that meaty frank.

Sometimes I go camping without one, and it's just not the same. I lay awake in the cold night air, thinking "why didn't I just go ahead and build a fire?"

That's because there is something about fire that gets you in touch with what it means to be deeply human. After all, the campfire is where social life began. It's where song, story, dance, and ritual got its beginnings.

Thousands of years later, we still gather around the fire and we call that "worship." Yes, maybe a good old fashioned campfire rages more than a candle gently placed on the altar, but either way it warms the heart.

We still gather around the fire to sing the song, to tell the story, and to join the dance of the soul. It's ritual behavior at its best. And we don't do ritual just because we are Christian, or even because we are religious.

We do it because that's what it means to be human. And that fire is the fire of the Spirit.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016


This is my devotional, shared at the North Alabama Conference Board of Ordained Ministry Meeting on August 11, 2016.

"Do this in remembrance of me."

I have no idea how many times I have uttered these words.

Anamnesis, the New Testament Greek word translated "remembrance", is one of most important words pastors say, recalling the words of Jesus according to 1 Corinthians and Luke.

Long before the New Testament was written, it was a common word in Platonic philosophy. Socrates (Plato's teacher) believed we are reincarnated souls who carry memories across generations, though the trauma of birth makes you forget. So learning, for Plato, is remembering what you already have inside you. Asking questions accesses that inner knowledge. That's Plato's doctrine of anamnesis.

I like the translation "recollection" better than "remembrance", for we are not so tempted to reduce it to cerebral exercise of recalling facts. Communion is not a memorial, nor is it a funeral for Jesus. It is not an object lesson or a teaching tool to convey a principal about sin and forgiveness.

We "re-collect." We recollect our deep memory of the table at which Jesus transformed living memory itself, reshaping the story of deliverance of Israel into one of drawing the world to his own heart. The Great Thanksgiving is a great recollection.

Anamnesis is our hope, because that's how we recollect ourselves, too. We collect ourselves from all corners of the earth, in all our brokenness, to this one place, which is timeless truth fused into one moment in which we can "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord.

Why is it important? We need anamnesis because we get amnesia.

I am a fan of Richard Rohr, because he speaks an uncomfortable truth. We are consumed by the myth of the "us and them" and are so very prone to dualistic thinking. We live in a world of divisive politics, a new level of schism in the Church, and competing phrases such as "black lives matter, all lives matter," and "blue lives matter," as if theses are somehow mutually exclusive.

Anamnesis, or holy recollection, is not just about reclaiming the past. It means that in times of forgetting who we are, unity comes from above not from below.

We will never be able to create unity amongst ourselves. It is a gift given.

Recently, you may know that I had an article published in the United Methodist Reporter. It was a story I told a couple of years ago at the Gathering of the Orders. This was my story of standing in front of my ancestor's grave, and the Spirit speaking to me, as if to say, "Steve, you were ordained in the United Methodist  Church. Your dad was ordained in the Methodist Church, a difference denomination. His father was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. This ancestor was ordained in yet a fourth denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

"Steve, I don't care what you call it. This is my church."

It gave me hope to share Christ freely, no matter what.

We live in times of great uncertainty in our denomination. Yet we are servants swimming in the greater movements of history we can't control.

So swim, and swim with joy. Let's recollect ourselves around what means to be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Going Back to the Graveside

This is my article that appeared in The United Methodist Reporter on July 25, 2016 and in The Arab Tribune on July 27, 2016.

The United Methodist Church I love so dearly is navigating rough waters. Recently, our Western Jurisdiction (comprising the churches of 12 western states) stepped out in nonconformity against denominational rules on ordination, marriage, and sexuality. Naturally, some consider this a courageous act of progress, while others consider it a major violation of covenant.

When changing tides shift the sands, I gently come back to a vivid memory that never fails to refresh my perspective. Almost 20 years ago, I visited the grave of my third great grandfather, Isaac Taylor. The moments I spent there became etched in my soul in a way that shaped my entire life and ministry.

He is buried at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church near Trussville, Alabama. He was a Methodist circuit rider in the early 1800's, one of a trio of brothers who were traveling preachers in early Alabama history. Grandpa Taylor is buried next to his brother, who started the church, preaching at a nearby water hole.

When I get a little hard on myself, I remember that he wasn't the most perfect of ministers either. Historical records (written by my wife's ancestor, ironically) show that he barely passed his ordination exams, he was so uneducated and uncouth.

Later in life, he had to step out of ministry for a while because of a scandal. His wife disappeared, and critics of the Church accused him of killing her. Only later was his name cleared by someone who saw her in Texas with another man.

Anyway, I hadn't been ordained pastor very long when I was asked to preach for the homecoming at Taylor Memorial. In between services, I headed out to his grave.

This was just after a church protest had taken place out west, an incident that made me ponder whether the Church would divide during my lifetime. I wondered, as a relatively young United Methodist pastor, what in the world I had signed up for. It was downright depressing.

Yet there I stood at his grave. I stood there, weeping as a wave of peace came over me. The Spirit spoke to me, as if to say "Steve, you were ordained in the United Methodist Church. Your father was ordained in a different denomination, for it was called the Methodist Church.

"Your grandfathers were ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, yet another denomination. This ancestor, whose grave you stand in front of, was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church, still another denomination, distinct from the rest.

"Steve, I don't care what you call it. It doesn't matter how you organize it, because this is my Church. The fire of faith will keep burning."

It struck me, as I stood there praying and looking at the years etched in the stone, that during Grandpa Taylor's life and ministry, the church divided over issues of slavery. Yet the Spirit kept moving. In fact, it was a season when the Church in America was growing like wildfire.

And so I began the long process of letting go and trusting God for the future.

My ministry has been a journey of realizing that I have stepped into a larger picture of the movement of the Holy Spirit across many generations, with all its struggles as well as its joys. My life is lived in context.

I can't fix the big issues. I am called to serve the gospel faithfully and trust my God for the rest. The future belongs to God.

His grave stone reads:

In memory of
was born January 27th, 1802
died May 5th, 1871
He was a minister of the gospel 50 years and died in the hope & Consolation of the same. --- "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord."

My denomination is having some rough times. As the most evenly spread denomination in the United States, naturally there is different consciousness in different parts of the country.

But I have no fear. God is with us.

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

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"What about Sandstone?"

This is a five-minute homily I prepared on Matthew 7:21-29 (the wise person who built his house upon a rock and the foolish one who built on sand). I prepared this complete text for chapel at Sewanee last week, and preached an extended version of it the following Sunday.

"May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our ROCK and our redeemer."

As a member of the "M&M&M" (that's the "Magnificent Methodist Minority"), I want you to know that today is the first time I have worn a clerical collar under my robe. Some say "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" but I say to you "when in Canterbury, follow suit"!

This "Methodist among us" tells you all that to begin with the words of Charles Wesley, who was never ordained an elder in the Methodist Church, he was one of YOUR most famous priests:

"See the Gospel Church secure,
And founded on a Rock!
All her promises are sure;
her bulwarks who can shock!
Count her every precious shrine:
Tell, to after-ages tell.
Fortified by power divine,
The church can never fail."

There are a number of vibrant metaphors for the church in scripture: the FAMILY we are adopted into, the BRIDE Christ is married to, the TREE we are grafted onto, the BODY we are members of, but today we might notice that Paul's CONSTRUCTION imagery for the church ... living stones in a spiritual house, with Christ as the cornerstone ... has a friend in Jesus' own words:

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like the wise man who built his house on rock."

Honestly, I have not usually been captivated by these construction images. They don't FEEL very fluid. It might be because I am developing a suspicious aversion to institutional thinking in the "second half of life". Or maybe it's because the only kind of construction I'm actually good at is demolition (hand me a sledgehammer!). Or just ask me to construct an argument ... my wife says I'm really good at that.

Rather than being repelled, I have had this voice ringing in my ears every morning for weeks now saying, "let the symbols of scripture resonate within you". So I began to play with this image in ways I never learned in Sunday School.

What if sometimes, my house is built on rock and sometimes, it's built on sand? Or one half is here and the other half there? Or what if it's built on SANDSTONE?

It's so easy in a culture intoxicated with "us and them" mentality to hear Jesus' words as "us and them" words: you know, some people started out right, and others started out wrong, those are the "SAND people! Woe be unto them!" (Mimicked the sound of a house falling)

Maybe, when Jesus is talking about someone who hears the word and does it, he's talking about ME. And when he speaks of someone who hears the word and does NOT do it, he's STILL talking about me.

Are there places soft and hard, sand and rock, concrete and peat moss sharing space underneath us? Could it be that standing firm in Christ feels like being the Tower of Pisa? It leans south some centuries and north during others, never moving more than a half inch a year but somehow it still stands?

Or do we wonder why our foundations sometimes crumble no matter how well built we think we are?

I have been to the 9/11 memorial in New York. I have seen the massive waterfalls carved from the footprints of arguably the greatest foundations history ever built ... a beautifully stark reminder that in today's world, even a solid foundation is not enough to keep a building up.

So Jesus, what happens if life is just not as simple as either rock or sand?

You may have heard of the Winchester Cathedral. When huge cracks started to appear in the massive walls and arched ceilings in the early 1900's, it appeared complete collapse was immanent. The cathedral was built on peaty soil in a river valley. Efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations kept failing, for every time they dug a trench to fill with concrete, water just filled the hole. And they were going to have to fill it to 13 feet below the water table. How?

That's when William Walker appeared. He was a deep-sea diver. He plunged under water every day for 6 years placing bags of concrete. Diligently, relentlessly he dove almost every day for 6 years. To this day, you will find a small statue of him at the far end of the Winchester cathedral.

And I wonder today if Christ will show up, with goggles on his face and a snorkel in hand, at the foot of your wall, gently asking your permission to do his work.

Would you give him your consent? Would you to let him dive in, and dive in deep?

"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Carrying With

This column was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, June 29.

I was familiar with the African tradition of carrying water on the head but had never seen it in person before. She carried it with such poise and grace.

On a mission in Ghana, our team came to a riverbed across the road from the orphanage. There were children squealing with delight in the flowing water, while others sat downstream washing clothes. My gaze rested on one young woman that stood with her feet planted in the stream and a large basin balanced above. Another used a bucket to help her fill it to the brim of capacity.

Soon she toted the vessel with a smooth steadiness, and they walked together with laughter and joy. I wondered if the glow on their faces was from serving their community or the companionship of a friend. Perhaps it was both.

My thoughts wandered to Paul's encouragement that we "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." It strikes me as odd that a few verses later, Paul uses the same Greek verb to say "for all must carry their own loads."

There are some things we bear the heaviness of, and no one can carry it for us. The good news is others can carry it with us. Sharing the path lightens the load, even if one of us is shouldering most of the weight.

The Latin root of the word “suffer” means to “carry from below.” So quite literally, suffering is something we must undergo. It is part of the beautiful yet complex nature of the journey. Yet Christian community happens when we hoist our loads together.

There is a Pentecost icon in a seminary chapel I love to worship in. A number of disciples are gathered together in the house where they are sitting, and tongues of fire rest above each head.

Reading the icon one day, I traced the flames above each figure. The colors and patterns gave me the sense that they were "all together in this." My imagination wandered from the fire above their heads to the burdens they must carry below. Granted, you can't actually see weights dangling from their necks or drooping from their belts, but I imagined they were under their robes just the same, hidden from view as suffering often is.

Even those energized by love have places of heaviness underneath the surface. But we dare to carry our burdens together. It is part of the holy fire of what it means to be in community.

A profound image of this is the story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof by his friends, coming before Jesus for healing. After Christ touched him with forgiveness, he said “stand up, take your mat and walk.” Healing happened when he could carry the pallet himself. How interesting.

There is a reason we say, when praying for someone, we are "lifting" them up. We lift them, not the load they bear. That’s when community brings soothing to the suffering soul.

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Lydia Among Us

This is my column that appeared in early June of 2016 in "The Arab Tribune."

I am blessed to have some strong women in my life.

It started with my mom, who was an amazing witness to her Christian walk. She was a faithful Sunday School teacher for 50 years and a popular speaker at retreats on the spiritual life.

But what I remember most vividly is the way every morning, Mom spent 45 minutes in “quiet time.” There was a certain creaky rocking chair in the kitchen she spent that time in, and her four boys knew that this was NOT the time to bother her.

I have memories of being the kid in the other room, listening to the gentle rocking of the chair and the clicks of her coffee cup on the saucer, anxious to interact with her when she was done.

Only in adulthood did I realize this was her prayer time, which she was making a priority for her (and eventually for me).

My grandmother, too, was an amazing woman of faith. She was a painter and poet, so I suppose that’s where I got an artistic flair. Granny met my grandfather when he was a widower, preaching a revival at her church where his uncle was the pastor. By then, as the local school teacher and post mistress, she had been elected “most popular lady” in Bridgeport, Alabama in 1913, and that’s a fact.

Granny and Mom both make me think of Lydia. In the book of Acts, our history of the radical growth of the early Christian movement, Lydia was an outstanding businesswoman, a dealer in purple cloths. She was the foundational leader of the Macedonian church, the first European church Paul founded.

He discovered her in the place he chose to start his ministry north of Greece, a place of prayer outside the city gates where he supposed women would be gathered to pray on the Sabbath (they weren’t allowed in the synagogue, of course). Lydia was the spiritual leader of her household, who were all baptized because of her faith.

Exactly sixty years ago earlier this month, in May of 1956, the denomination I serve Christ in made a bold move. They decided at General Conference (by a slim margin, I might add) to grant full clergy rights to women. It was a controversial decision at the time, but was done with integrity and careful discernment of scripture though the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

The church I serve here in Arab, First United Methodist Church, holds a special part of that story dear in their hearts.

One of our active church members, Luke Pinegar, is the son of the first clergy woman ordained in the North Alabama Conference of the UMC. I want to take a moment to tell her story, since her family is such a part of the fabric of Arab.

Luke’s father was the pastor of Holly Pond Methodist Church, and tragically died while serving in that pulpit. Estelle, his wife and Luke’s mother, was appointed by their District Superintendent, Jack Chitwood, to serve out his term as pastor of the church. And the rest is history.

A few years later, in the early 1960’s, after pursuing all her educational and vocational requirements, Estelle Pinegar was ordained as the first clergywoman in North Alabama Methodism. And she served with her reputable, fiery personality all of her days. She served on my wife’s ordination committee, in fact.

Yes, I married a clergywoman. I met Sandy in seminary as the floodgates were opening for clergywomen in the late 80’s. It’s like my dad said years ago with a twinkle in his eye, when I asked what he thought about me marrying a female pastor, “if your going to marry a clergywoman, she might as well be a pretty one.”

I’m proud to say my partner in life is finishing her counseling degree and plans to serve as a pastoral counselor, specializing in working with families affected by chronic illness (something she has unique experience in). She begins her internship at The Vine Pastoral Counseling Center in Huntsville this June.

One of the children of Arab First UMC, Fred Webster, married a clergywoman, too. Dorothy Ann and Fred have been good friends and inspirations to me over the years. His father by the same name was in that famous circle at The L Rancho affectionately called "The Liar's Club," sitting at the table when the Poke Salat Festival was created.

I realize there are many faith traditions among us, and they have different practices on such matters. I totally respect that.

But my question for all of us is this. Who is the Lydia in your life? Who is the person who gave of herself, with her gifts of spirituality and hospitality (whatever those gifts may be), to make your faith what it is today?

Thank God for the Lydia among us.

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Jesus in a Coke Float

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, May 3, 2016. Similar columns also appeared in The Vestavia Voice on June 26, 2013 and in the "Faith & Values" Section of The Huntsville Times on May 9, 2008.

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. She was the angel in our neighborhood who gave Coke floats to all the little children.

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.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Crossroads of Hope

This is my column that appeared in the Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The editor told me it made him cry. I'm honored (I think!).

There are times when I feel like I’m standing on the crossroads of history, and it always brings with it strangely mixed feelings.

As I see it, standing on crossroads is different than having memories of historical events. I can indeed remember when I was four years old, watching the first man walk on the moon. I was mesmerized on the den carpet.

I can remember being seven when my mother sat me down to watch the president resign and cry on TV. “This is important, you will thank me later” she said.

I remember being on the bus on our college choir tour watching the Space Shuttle explode on television, over and over and over.

I remember the high school classroom where I was hosting teacher appreciation day, sponsored by the church I was starting, on 9/11. Our hospitality room took on a quiet and heavy tone as teacher after teacher came in to watch the news.

All these are powerful memories of potent experiences. But the feeling of standing on the crossroads of history is more than that. It is being in a place where many roads intersect and many memories collide, where my personal recollections blend with corporate remembrances of previous struggles.

One of these crossroads was a result of my involvement with the Marshall County Leadership Challenge. Some 25 leaders from our great county have been on a journey together all year, and this month we went on a field trip to Montgomery to explore state government.

After a fascinating tour of the capitol building, which I had not seen since grade school, I walked out upon the front steps. For a moment, in the midst of a crowd, my emotions were whisked away and there was a strange feeling of silence.

As if suspended in time, I stood on the steps where Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, was inaugurated. From there, I looked out upon a street scene which was the focal point of the march from Selma in March of 1965, peacefully demonstrating for the right for African Americans to vote. From this vantage point, I could clearly see the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. had preached for several years prior to leading that march. To my right, I could admire the “moon tree,” a pine that had grown strong and proud from where it was planted, after Governor George Wallace had its seeds sent to the moon and back.

Our tour guide had already told us that his was the voice narrating the movie “Selma” and he had himself been in that march, having escaped injury on “Bloody Sunday” a few days beforehand. That was certainly impressive, but for me, this quiet space was more powerful than that.

Here in one place, experiencing a few moments to myself, I stood on the crossroads of several layers of bondage and brokenness, of heritage and hope, with stories of struggles stretching well over a hundred years long. Yet I could clearly see them from one standpoint. This is a crossroads indeed.

Since that moment on the Alabama courthouse steps, I have been thinking about my life. I am 50 years old, and a lot has happened in my one little life span. The march for black voting rights, which I experienced in my mind’s eye from the top of the steps, happened just six weeks before I was born. In subsequent weeks, before I saw my first daylight and breathed my first breath of fresh air, the first commercial communications satellite was launched.

Now we have had an African American president for eight years, and I can follow the news on election primaries on my phone which, by the way, holds more power in my pocket than the massive computer that put the man on the moon, an experience I had watched on a black and white TV.

I am an Alabama boy. I’ve never lived north of the Tennessee state line, and not one of my ancestors was a yankee. I am descended from fifteen Revolutionary War patriots and about half that many Confederate soldiers.

But I live in a new South, one that is even newer than the “New South.” It is where I love my heritage, and where I live my hope.

Perhaps my life, in itself, is a crossroads. I suppose that’s part of what makes it worth living. My character has not been forged by its struggles and successes in a vacuum. Our lives are lived in context. They take shape in the midst of the grand movements of history as well as the deeper and more subtle movements of grace.

These are difficult times. There is great hostility and violence, of divisiveness and hurt, in our world. But it’s not the first time, and it’s not the last.

There will always be brokenness, but there will always be healing. There will always be sin but, thank God, there will always be grace. There will always be hopelessness.

But there, on those steps, what overwhelmed me was hope.

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

Easter Is Not "Over" Yet!

We have made some strange modern amendments to our most ancient Christians traditions.

It seems, for example, that Christmas is so heavily influenced by commercialism that it starts the day after Thanksgiving and ends on December 26. When we succumb to the frenzy, we miss out on the whole spirituality of Advent longing, and forget that Christmas is a twelve day season of feasting until January 6. We take down the tree and move on

Likewise, I wonder why we sometimes treat Lent as if it's a prolonged Easter season, and then go on to other things, as if it's all over, the day after Easter. Actually, like Advent, the tradition of Lent is a season of longing and anticipating, of expecting and journeying. And like Christmas, in our deepest tradition Easter is a season, not a day. It's Eastertide, the season after, which lasts for 50 days until Pentecost (which means, literally, "fifty").

That's why the birthday of the church moves around the calendar with Easter, and can be anywhere between early May and mid-June.

So here we are at the beginning of April, and I proclaim to you that Easter is not "over." There are so many powerful stories and images of new life we shouldn't be so quick to let go of them. It takes time to embrace the deep and multi-faceted power of the resurrection.

I invite those of you who might live in my neck of the woods to come to worship through April and May to explore with me through my sermon series, "We Will Rise." If you live out of town or already have a church home, you can also listen using our website or podcast.

In the series, we will savor the various resurrection appearances. We will use a text I wrote to go with one of my favorite new hymn tunes, YOU ARE MINE. We will add and explore one verse each week. The refrain after each verse is:

Easter is the morning of freedom,
Dayspring of new life in Christ.
Let all voices sing, let hallelujah's ring!
The day is coming, we will rise!

There are so many signs of new life right now, if we only have eyes to see! Let the scripture lead us to see with new eyes.

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lenten Devotional from 1986

An old college friend found this Lenten devotional I wrote in 1986 for the Birmingham-Southern College chapel devotional book. It was my junior year and I had no recollection of it.

Here it is again. May it bless you for this holy season.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Moment with One of Ghana's Children


This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, February 3, 2016.

The simplest experiences in life can be like prisms. When light hits them at a certain angle, they cast a rainbow of color. You see the same light, but you see it much differently.

One of those moments for me was with Daniel, one of the kids at the Eugemot Orphanage in eastern Ghana. After a couple of days on the ground, our mission team from Arab spent some time with the children down by the creek. We watched a few of the older ones doing their chores, washing clothes on the rocks by the stream. Some were there to fetch water to carry on their heads, in characteristic African fashion. But Daniel, among others, was one of the younger ones there to play.

Two times he started to jump into my arms and twice I refused. After all, I still had my phone in my pocket. But the third time, I gave in and opened my arms, and here he came. Whoosh!

I turned him over my shoulder head first, threatening to drop him in the water behind me, just as I had always done with my own kids. He squealed with delight. I turned him back over, and that's when they snapped the picture.

For just a moment, all the children of the world shined with the same light in many different colors, whether they were my own children or one of God's many children. As Thomas Merton famously said of others he saw in one of those prism-like moments on a street corner in Louisville, how could I possibly tell them they were all shining like the sun?

What an experience it was to go to Ghana. During the New Year holidays, twelve other adults from Arab First United Methodist Church went with me to Hohoe, a village in eastern Ghana. We went to visit Mama Eugenia and the Christian orphanage that we have supported for a number of years there. We visited during the New Year's holiday, a major time of thanksgiving for Ghanian people. We went to church late New Year's Eve after enjoying hours of African drumming, singing a mixture of folk and gospel songs, and dancing by the bonfire. In addition to the over 30 orphans in residence, many of the older ones had come back to the orphanage from their stay at high school or the university to celebrate at home.

After the big feast, I remembered how to use a saw and a shovel, for in the hot African sun, we helped lay the foundation for a barn we had raised the money to build near their new dormitories. As a result, they will be able to store crops and be more self-sustaining, as any orphanage in a third-world country should be. We made concrete bricks with shovels, dirt, cement, water, and molding. We helped bag a crop of corn. We visited three churches, one of which was a house-church, and offered food relief to families in poverty. We walked through the village to see goats and chickens crossing the road at every turn. We met the local chief and paid our respects. Each night, we had dinner together and reflected on the miracles of the day.

I have been on mission trips before and knew the experience would bless me in more ways than I could possibly bless others, but I had no idea how much I'd be touched by their faith. Ghana is a very Christian country. It is third-world, yet their faith is so simple, so beautiful. They pray to God every time they get in the car, and they believe God provides the food they have to feed their family ... tonight.

It seems there is "God language" and symbolism everywhere. I walked down the dusty street near our hotel to see little shops called "The Lord is My Shepherd" and "His Mighty Hand." I saw "God's Grace Beauty Salon" and "Blessed Assurance Fashion." The bumper stickers on taxis had phrases like "Nothing without grace" on them.

On the Sunday we were there, we had some Sabbath time. After going to worship in an outdoor chapel hut, we headed through the jungle to the waterfalls. In good Methodist fashion, we held a baptismal remembrance service in the cold fresh water and brought home stones to remember it by.

As far as shopping, well, that's not what we were there for but we did stop by the marketplace. Several in our group made it home with djembes (west African hand-made drums) or cutlasses (that's what they call machetes).

I am grateful for the twelve friends I will always cherish for they shared this experience with me: Robert Burton, Brian O'Dell, and Lois O'Dell (the three who coordinated the trip), Tammy Bass, Carl Ivey, Ben Richey, Marc Scarbrough, Lexi Scarbrough, Hannah Shirley, Tarah Sloan, Lianna Smith, and Peyton Tanner. They poked fun at me for being the only one on the whole team that liked Spam and for how short my old shorts were (I had planned on leaving them there!). Half of them were young adults on their first overseas trip, some on their first plane flight ever. What a joy to share this with them.

From the four-hour swinging van rides navigating all the potholes, to the strange way everyone said "you're welcome" when they first saw us on the street, to the daily dose of rice and red sauce, going to Ghana was an intense, fun, deep, and powerful experience. By our standards, they didn't have much ... but on the other hand, they had much more. There was joy always on their faces, and so much about everyday life to love.

But my favorite part? That's easy. It was playing with the children.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gye Nyame - "Except for God"

Ghana is a very Christian country. It is "third world", yet their faith is so simple, so beautiful. They pray to God every time they get in the car, and they believe God provides the food they have to feed their family ... tonight.

It seems there is "God language" and symbolism everywhere. I walked down the dusty street near our hotel to see little shops called "The Lord is My Shepherd" and "His Mighty Hand." I saw "God's Grace Beauty Salon" and "Blessed Assurance Fashion." The bumper stickers on taxis had phrases like "Nothing without grace."

We carried the above symbol on our Ghana mission team shirts. It is common to see this in Ghana. It is called a "Gye Nyame," a sign with long history and a deep meaning. It's an ancient Adinkra symbol (used for cloth and textiles) in Twi tribal language which translates "Except for God." Referring to the supremacy of God, it is very popular not only in clothing but in decorations, woodwork, pottery, metal casting, and artwork, and says something about their faith.

If you look closely, you might see that it depicts a person inside of a hand. It is a picture of how we are held in the hand of God. The tradition is that it refers to creation - no one was alive to see its beginning and no one will live to see it end, "except for God". A local pastor also told me is that African people are taught that they are strong and to fear no one, "except for God."

In traditional Christian theology, God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipresent (always around us). I would add that God is omniloving and omnigraceful (I like to make up words).

This is the starting place for all faiths, and it's no wonder that Christians in Ghana carry it forward in their folklore and history. As we go into the year together, let's start at that place, too. God is everywhere, in everything. Let's keep our spiritual antennas up and look for God's presence.

Thank you so much for your love and support of the 13 of us who went to Ghana over the holidays to visit the children of the Eugemot Orphanage, lay the foundation for the barn we are building, offer food relief, and visit churches to share Christian fellowship. It was life-changing.