Thursday, October 19, 2017

“Steve’s Sayings”



I’ve been reading the memoirs of a contemporary politician, as I have in times past when books have been published. I find them inspiring in a strange sort of way. Whether or not agree with all of their ideas, they are leaders. I look for what it is they hold onto that makes them tick, those deeply held beliefs that drive them to serve against all odds.


This time around, it has spurred me to think of my own core values. What are the primary things I believe? In addition to gospel essentials, of course, what are the things I will always go to bat for, that I will pursue no matter what?


Once, at a going away party hosted by the church I had been serving, they recalled the things they had heard me say. Much of this was for the sake of humor, of course, like the time I had said in staff meeting, “we don’t want people in wheelchairs tripping over wires.“


Reading the memoir got me to thinking what I’d like to be remembered for.


What are the essentials that I live for? The stakes I have in the ground? The points of no departure, no matter how much pressure I feel?


So I have come up with a few. Some are phrases I picked up from friends, some I’ve lived with for years, and some are fresh expressions.


I confess that these are somewhat random. Some are theological, some are inspirational, and others are leadership principles. That’s just the way they came to me.


  1. Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is more people who are fully alive. (from Howard Thurman)
  2. I am not what I do, nor what I have, nor what other people think of me. I am a beloved child of God. (from Henri Nouwen)
  3. God is love. This is not just sentimentality. This means if it is not loving, it is not of God. Period.
  4. If you are looking for the perfect church, you won’t find one. If by chance you do, don’t join it. You’ll mess it up.
  5. Self-giving love is the most powerful force in the universe. Really.
  6. Jesus boiled it down to love of God and neighbor. Everything else is secondary.
  7. Christianity is not about being right. It’s about being in relationship.
  8. Religion can get really out of whack when it gets confused with politics.
  9. It’s better not to wrestle alligators. They know how to fight in the swamp. If there is a way to drain the swamp, do that. Otherwise stay out, because if you get pulled in, you’ll lose. (from a friend Don Neal)
  10. If you have integrity, that’s all that matters. If you don’t have integrity, that’s all that matters.(from a friend Lem Carter).
  11. The Church is not perfect. But it’s the gift God gave us. That makes it my hope for the world. (from my friend Stewart Jackson)
  12. The true measure of Christianity is faithfulness, not success. The reason we get this mixed up is institutional anxiety about loss. When the church focuses on success, it has sold itself out to culture.
  13. There is no right or wrong worship style. Jesus’s only requirements were that it be done in spirit and truth. That means it must be led with a sense of God’s presence and a willingness to take a theological plunge.
  14. Christian life is about rhythm that forms you over time. This is not a quest for the fantastic.
  15. I am not responsible for everything. That’s God‘s job.
  16. The Church is the body of Christ. It’s a mystery. There’s a reason the gospel uses metaphorical language for it.
  17. You cannot grasp God and you can not master the Bible. Let God grab your attention, and let the scripture master you.
  18. God is profound mystery. Certainty is a myth. Listen for the still, small voice.
  19. Christianity is about being continually restored into the image of Christ. Your decision to follow is important, but grace didn’t start there and doesn’t quit after that.
  20. Christ must not be reduced to being “my personal savior.” He calls me to live the values of the kingdom of God. If I do that, somebody is not going to like it.
  21. Christianity is not about being a fan, it’s about being a follower. We don’t need pep rallies, we need authentic and heart-felt yearning.
  22. There is a reason the first name for Christianity was The Way. It is a path, a journey. You never get “there.”
  23. There is great diversity within Christianity about political issues. God made the diversity beautiful. It’s us who make it ugly.
  24. There is evil in the world, and Christians should call it out. But be prepared to pay a price.
  25. I can’t control other people‘s actions. If I live the love God has placed in my heart, that is all I can do.
  26. The miracle of Easter is the miracle of worship. Jesus shows up.
  27. Worship is not an event. It is a life.
  28. If we don’t get things perfectly right, God is not mad.
  29. Praise is not something you do. It is something you join.
  30. Even with the immense responsibilities of being savior of the world, Jesus took time for himself. Do I think I have more important things to do than Jesus?
  31. I don’t talk about people. I talk to them. Otherwise, how can I expect people to do the same with me?
  32. Forgiveness is the most essential practice in church. That’s because the Church is a big rehearsal for life in heaven, where we will let it all go.
  33. My life is about practicing the presence of God. It’s called practice, because I’m still trying to get it right.
  34. There is no replacement for gentleness and kindness. They are sweet but they are also not optional.
  35. Nothing good comes after the phrase “I’m just being honest.” Speaking truth in love is absolutely necessary.
  36. Fundamentalism and prosperity are the two uniquely American derivatives of real Christianity.
  37. You can’t draw from an empty well. I must take time to nourish my own spirituality.
  38. Living your baptism is living the deepest truth of who you are as God’s beloved.
  39. All are welcome at the table because it’s a table of grace.
  40. I have high expectations of what it means to be in Christian community. That comes with a price. Sometimes people will let me down.
  41. The way of the cross is the best way to respond to conflict. It’s not fight or flight, it’s a third way, the Christ way. It’s not winning. But it’s also not losing, because if we are faithful to the gospel, that’s all that matters.
  42. Love hurts, especially when someone betrays your trust. But the only love other people can have for you is imperfect love. We get our unconditional love from God.
  43. The Bible is the unfolding revelation of God’s love. Don’t read it “flat.” The best way to interpret it is through the lens of Christ, who is himself the Word of God.
  44. The only true leadership is servant leadership. Teamwork was the way of Jesus, and it’s the only way to change the world. I am not a Lone Ranger.
  45. God is not finished with us yet. We are always being formed and shaped.


I’m sure I could come up with more.


If my ministry is being a tabernacle (a place of God’s dwelling on this temporary journey we call life), these are the stakes I shove in the ground. They are the values I carry from place to place, as I set up a tent and invite others to experience God with me while I’m here on earth.


What would yours be?


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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bless to Me Prayer

I recently took about a dozen friends from our church on a prayer retreat to the Upper Room in Nashville.


One of several highlights was to spend some time with Beth Richardson, the Director of Prayer and Worship at the Upper Room. She taught our group of the ancient Celtic tradition of the "Bless to Me" Prayer and invited us to write one. My thoughts immediately went to what was right in front of me, which so often I fail to be grateful for.

Here is my prayer.

---

Bless to me this pen I hold.
   With it I trace the light
      and the shadows
      of each day,
   putting into words
      the unspeakable nudges
      of the heart.

Bless to me the ink that pours,
   making permanent
      the fleeting thoughts,
      memories, and prayers
      of my spirit.

Bless to me the paper on which I write,
   which allows me to read
      the contours of my
      journey's ups and downs,
   with a larger perspective,
      even God's perspective.

Bless to me those who have written before me,
   tracking the patterns
      of the spiritual life
   so I am going
      where others have gone before.

Bless to me this time,
   for all time spent reflecting
      is the best time spent.

Bless to me the idea that
   I am not writing for others,
      not really.
   I am writing for you,
      and for you to touch
      and heal me.

Bless to me, Oh Lord.

Bless to me.

Amen.
 






Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Southerner Against White Supremacy

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 6, 2017.

Pictured is the portable pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., referenced in the column.

---

I am definitely a southern gentleman. The farthest north I’ve ever lived is Athens, Alabama (why, that’s darn near close to Tennessee!). My mother was a southern lady and I grew up on Dixie cuisine. My soul food is fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and watermelon, and my favorite delicacy is fried chicken livers with ketchup. I have concluded that there are two kinds of tea ... sweet, and "not worth it." As for grits, well, they are manna from heaven.

All four of my grandparents were southern, and all eight of their parents were southern, too. In fact, several of us on my family tree made southern preachers. So I can say with confidence that I speak with a southern voice.

I believe we need to hear southern voices stand up and speak against white supremacy. White supremacy is wrong. It is hateful, it is anti-Semitic, and it is evil. There is no room for it in public discourse, and we can't just normalize it. That's because this kind of racism is not a political issue. It's a gospel issue.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I understand the desire to remember southern heritage. Southerners do not believe we were right (or even just righteous) about the Civil War. We joke about it bring the war of "northern aggression” as a way of honoring our past with a bit of humor. I wonder if those who live outside the south can really understand the sense of southern tragedy that is attached to remembering where we've been. It tastes bittersweet.

That tragic southern memory is in my blood. My great grandfather was an artilleryman at Fort Morgan, captured by the Union army in the Battle of Mobile. Another great grandfather was in the confederate cavalry, captured by the Union army then rescued back by the confederates in an exciting train heist. Another one of my great grandfathers supplied beef for the confederate army.

Yet another set of ancestors came from a county in North Georgia that had outlawed slavery long before the war. The family story is my relatives indeed did not believe in it, but joined the confederate fight simply because they didn't appreciate their town being invaded by Yankees. I wouldn't call that being driven by racism.

So I know from my own blood that the story of race relations in our country is more complicated than it is black and white, proverbially speaking.

I realize that the Charlottesville protest, as offensive as it was, was over a carved symbol of confederate heritage. While I can in no way accept the use of confederate flags with swastikas, and chants with torches, because of the obvious overtones that bring back to life a painful evil in American history, at the same time I know cultural symbols are important. I encourage open conversation over symbols like statues and how they are perceived from various viewpoints. I also believe communities should make their own discerning decisions.

Remembering the power of symbols for good or for evil, I went to see a potent symbol in Montgomery recently. Just a couple of years earlier, I had stood on the steps of the capital where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the confederacy. At the time, I looked down the street and imagined how just a little over 100 years later, the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery culminated at this same spot. I had planned to take a tour someday of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the building in view from this scene on the steps, where Martin Luther King, Jr. started his ministry. Since I had a meeting in Montgomery, this was a great and timely chance.

I stood at the portable pulpit from which King preached the sermon "How Long? Not Long!" at the conclusion of the march from Selma. I considered that the star on the capital steps I had once stood by was indeed an icon of cultural heritage, and that this pulpit was too. The step at the capital is my Alabama, but this pulpit is my Alabama too.

This platform where I stood a few moments was where Dr. King spoke the immortal words, "the long arc of history bends towards justice." I recalled that this march from Selma and its concluding speech happened precisely one month before I was born.

We must not forget it. All of it.

I know that for many of us in southern small towns, life is a fairly insular experience. There are pros and cons to that.

I remember years ago when I was growing in my personal commitment to stand for the gospel of Christ and therefore against the original sin of racism in our great country, and I realized I had no close friends who were African American. I began years of praying until God gave me one, a dear soul friend. This changed my whole life.

I'd like to challenge us all to have a good look within, but also to find a way to connect significantly with someone dramatically different than us. Make a cross-cultural connection. Discuss what symbols are meaningful to their culture and why others may bother them. Listen with your heart and plan to come to a whole new conclusion.

In the meantime, it’s important to call out racism out for what it is. Racism has a very specific definition. There is no racism in "playing the race card," speaking out on political issues, fighting for fair treatment in the criminal justice system, or counter-protesting white supremacists. We can argue about these things, but they are not racism. The dictionary says racism is "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior." That last part is important.

Those who assume that people who oppose white supremacy, or who stand for issues important to African American experience, are racist must be wearing a different pair of glasses from me. White men are not being persecuted by political correctness. Those of us who say that are blind to our own white privilege.

I say all this as a deep fried southern preacher, who loves our southern heritage and desires that we remember it in a way that moves us beyond the hatred of the past and honors the glorious ways we have overcome. Let's actively remember our heritage ... all of it ... so we can move forward, not backward.

In the kingdom of God, there is a way to honor the past without living in it. Jesus said "no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Let's remember where we've been and put our hands to the job of making things better, until freedom's song is sung from sea to sea.

Rev. Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First UMC in Arab, Alabama. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Prayer of Confession

I wrote this prayer of confession for a communion Sunday when I was preaching a sermon "Where's the Fire?", in reflection on the story of Moses and the burning bush.

"Lord of holy fire and living water, God of wind and flame, descend to us now and burn in our hearts. We honestly and earnestly confess our sin, and we ask for your renewing flame to burn away the impurities of our souls. Kindle in us a deeper desire to serve you, for our embers grow cold. Holy fire, blaze before us and draw us out of our chilled complacency into the warmth of your holy light. Through Christ we pray. Amen."

Friday, August 4, 2017

A little girl's $11 offering touches my heart

It was one of those moments that brings it all together.

In an instant, I was reminded of all that I believe and everything that I live for. When one outstanding young lady came forward with her offering, I felt completely washed over with a wave of “this is why I do what I do.”

Last week, our church held our annual Vacation Bible School at “Hero Central”. It was a super experience, well attended and perfectly organized, without a troubling incident.

I always love the kids and enjoy every minute of being a part of something like VBS. I know in my soul that it plants deep seeds of the Word in the fertile soil of young hearts, and what we instill begins to grow like fine wheat over one’s life journey.

At the end of one session, though, this particular little girl planted something in me. I had led one of the skits (yes, I am a ham and come by it honestly). After the song orchestrated by one of our “Harmonious Heroes”, we reminded the kids of our mission offering for the week.

We were raising funds to feed children of our community for the school year with gifts going home in their backpacks, through the “Blessings” program.

When this little girl came forward to bring her offering, she said “I have eleven dollars here. This is all of the money my sister and I made at our lemonade stand this summer.” She smiled and put it in the jar.

I have replayed that moment in my mind countless times. I am left with a lingering memory of the gentle glow of her face when she came to put her eleven dollars in the big purple container. It is as if time slowed, because it was so weighted down with meaning.

I have seen lots of unique “offering moments” in my time. In the congregation I presently serve, I witnessed a creative, lay-initiated miracle movement that raised over a million dollars to pay off our debt this year as we start dreaming about the future.

I have traveled to Ghana in Africa, where I have seen a house of worship filled with jubilant dance as people came forward to place their offerings in one of seven buckets, depending on which day of the week they were born.

I have seen a teenager be so moved by worship that she just had to give something. Since she had no money on her, she removed her brand new socks and put them in the offering plate, and she left the service in tears.

But this one takes the cake as one of the sweetest moments of innocence and beauty, of the sheer joy of giving what one had spent so much time and energy working for.

She didn’t have the words to say so, but it is as if I could peer into her pure soul and see the extreme gratitude she had for life. She was so full of blessing that she wanted to give all she had made toward making someone less fortunate have some of the essentials they need.

I wouldn’t say it was a widow’s mite, not exactly; but I would say it was a summer’s delight.

Here I am, planning my retirement finances with my wife (yes, we just finished paying my son’s last semester in college…it’s time). But at the moment, I’m more fascinated by the creativity that went into the joy of giving those eleven dollars than any speculations about my pension fund.

God gives me these moments, and I hope to treasure them.

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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Ancestral Letter

This is a handwritten letter by Laura Francis Clark Hamby or George Washington Hamby (my great grandparents), sent to their son James Earley  Hamby and his wife Charlotte Goins Hamby after the death of their three year old daughter, Stella. The writers were Stella’s grandparents.

This was found in Jesse M. Hamby’s (1920-2012) photos by his daughter, Jean Suico. She copies it as it is written without changing or interpreting their words.

The poem quoted is an Isaac Watts hymn text. The "Jessie" referred to was the two year old child of the writers, deceased just a decade earlier.

---

Birmingham, Alabama, Feb. 19, 1899
Mr. and Mrs. J.E. Hamby
Winnsboro, S.C.

Dear Ones,

    Words fail to convey our feelings of sorrow on receipt of the sad intelligence of the death of your darling Stella. Our own grief at the loss of this precious one teaches us how crushing must be your affliction. We feel like we would do or say something that would comfort your hearts in this sad hour, if we only knew how. However, we will attempt to write a letter of condolence, feeling it a necessity to do so, though very difficult to compose, since the more earnestly and touchingly it is written the more deeply will it probe the wounds still bleeding under the stab of affliction.

    We recognize the fact this morning that never before has providence in his wisdom sent a great grief or a more bitter sorrow into your hearts and house than in the present dispensation. Never before since the death of little Jessie has our house been sadder or our hearts been made to act with such severance than now.  Therefore, our grief is mutual and you have our deepest sympathy and earnest prayer.
May God sustain you in this trying hour by putting you to remembrance that he has only taken back to himself what was sent you for a short while. He has plucked the little bud from your home that it may blossom and bloom around His throne up yonder. Yes, it was a sweet tender little plant, so delicate that God saw it could not withstand the fiery darts of this troublesome, unkind and unfriendly old world, and He has only come and taken from you to replant it in the Garden of Eden to care for it for you until the dawning of that great morning when all nations and tribes of the earth shall be gathered together that God may from the great assembly make up his jewels.

    The sweet consolation is for you that your darling one who has already preceded you to that throne will be, beyond all questions, one of His brightest jewels. Its little sun had hardly risen from the Easter morning of life before death pleased its shinning.  For about four years its little rays have been peeping over the Eastern hill of life, shinning in your home churning your hearts and brighten all prospects for a useful happy life.  But just after passing the fourth milepost of life and ever before reaching the meridian of time, death overtook it that it might be invested. And today it shines in God’s home with a celestial brightness that it could not have possibly demonstrated here below.  Yes she was a little sunbeam, and now that her light is out the home is dark. But be comforted. For if God left her here just long enough to fasten tight the golden cord of love around your hearts, then be well assured that he holds the other end near his great throne of Grace and after a little while you may meet her.
She is not dead, but asleep in Christ.

As the poet says:
“Hear what the voice from heaven proclaims
For all the pious dead:
Sweet is the savior of their names,
And soft their sleeping bed.

They die in Jesus and are blest,
How calm their slumbers are!
From sufferings and from sin released.
And freed from every snare.

Far from this world of toil and strife,
They’re present with the Lord:
The labors of their mortal life
And in a large reward.

    May God’s richest grace help and sustain you both and help you to bare in submission to His sweet will and feel that the cord of blessed kinship binds you closer to the skies.
No more will its sweet voice be heard on earth tho’ it be dead still it continues to speak.  Its voice used to be heard here below calling pa-pa and ma-ma. But today the same words are murmured in its new home.

    Be faithful father and mother that by-and-by you may meet and have a happy reunion in the sweet hereafter.

   God bless and comfort you both is the prayer of your folks at home.  

Your
Father, Mother & family  

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Grandpa in the Firing Line

It's amazing what you can find on the internet. My grandfather, Rev. C.P. Hamby, was referenced and then quoted in the book "Five Years on the Firing Line: A Book on Earnest Evangelism" by James Oscar Hanes, written in 1913.

This was originally posted on my other blog, The Taylor Legacy, if you want to have a look there.

Here is what I found:






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The "Book of Nature"

This is my column that appeared in the June 6, 2017 issue of "The Arab Tribune."

Displayed is my photograph of the scene at Bon Secour.


It's that time of year.

I imagine you love to get outside as much as I do, now the that the April allergies are a thing of the past. Open the door, here I come!

Even the last few days, I have enjoyed walks in the park with my wife and bicycling around the neighborhood behind us.

My family started responding to the call of the outdoors early this season, taking a week of vacation in the first of May. It's the first time both of my adult children and my daughter's serious boyfriend could join us at the beach.

We enjoyed the food, the sand, the ocean, my first experience with a family "breakout game," and just being together. We also got to take in a deep breath of nature, between parasailing and biking and trying out a Segway tour (that was a new experience for me and my wife!).

My family had to leave toward the end of the week and I had a day or two to myself. This quiet retreat was yet another layer of blessing. I must have biked 35 miles at the state park greenway.

One afternoon, I found myself beholding the most glorious sunset. It was breathtaking as I sat on the edge of the pier, gazing endlessly. I've discovered that if we would just pay attention, we would find that God is speaking.

The "book of nature" is an ancient Greek Christian and philosophical concept. The idea is to view God's creative works with an eye for deepening our understanding of the mystery of God. When it is "read" along with sacred scripture, the "book" of nature shows us God himself.

I suppose I had my own revelatory experience at one special moment during the week. I took my bike to visit Bon Secour. It's a beautiful wildlife reserve along the eastern coastline of a secluded bay which adjoins the edge of Mobile Bay.

I never will forget gazing back upon a stretch of walkable sand that I had already traveled over, a stretch of land which separated two bodies of water in close proximity to each other. Reading about what I was seeing on an informational display, I realized the profound uniqueness of what I was looking at.

On the left side of the slender strip of land was a salt water bay, and on the right side was a fresh water lake. There it was, two sides of liquid reality almost touching.

I carefully traced the contours of each shoreline with my eyes. Even the vegetation was dramatically different. Both sides were water, and both sides were teeming with life. Yet one side seemed to represent the salty side of things, and the other side the fresh experiences life brings.

On the one hand, life is full of tears. There is a certain weight to the water and a depth of soul. Being immersed in the salty side has an almost a healing quality, and though you can't see it on the surface, you know that life lays deep within.

On the other hand, life is a fresh adventure, a flowing mystery to drink in freely. There is a freshness, a clearness, and a clarity that comes from bathing in the fresh side of life.

I recalled that in the scripture, Christ spoke of "living water". He was offering a woman fresh water from a well to quench her thirst (a way of offering her himself), but I couldn't help but wonder. I was gazing at two sides of the world's water, and both were full of life. One I could drink in, the other I could float on. I love both salt and fresh water, yet a swim in each is a very different experience.

Such is the way of immersing myself in the two sides of life.

Bon Secour is French for "safe harbor," and I suppose its seclusion is part of why I enjoyed the quietness of these moments pondering what was before my eyes. In this beautiful display of glory God created, I was reminded that life has both a fresh side and a salty side. God made it that way, and seeing a visual reminder got me in touch with the stirrings of my own soul.

And for that, I am truly grateful.

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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Let's Allow the Cross and Resurrection to Bother Us

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on April 12, 2017.

From time to time, our politicians debate over what stimulates the economy. Everyone agrees we’ve got to do something, but there is little agreement over what.

Do we invest in programs that create jobs or cut taxes to create spending? Do we need regulation or deregulation? Is government involvement the solution or is it the problem?

I don’t know much about economics, but I do know something about the greatest stimulus package … ever. It involved a cross and resurrection. The details of this enormous package are being outlined in churches during Holy Week. I invite you to claim your share.

This package is not new. The Bible is full of people who got stuck in deadly patterns. In God’s time, we were given a stimulus plan to loosen the patterns of death.

Jesus called some religious leaders "whitewashed tombstones," a metaphor for people who wanted to look alive but were dead at the core. Our economy and our leadership falter from time to time. Do we continue patterns of death such as partisan posturing? Or do we let imagination stir us to life?

People who live in denial about our deadness can’t be raised. The cross and resurrection give us a jolt, a real shock treatment. Thank God.

In the book of Mark, I’ve noticed Easter is anything but nice. The women at the tomb were so profoundly shaken they couldn't follow the angel's instructions to go and tell. They were confounded, perplexed, disturbed, disordered, and confused.

I looked up “stimulus” in the dictionary. I found most definitions unsurprising, but one entertained me. It is "something that incites especially a violent response." Not only does that remind me of some of the things I see on the news, it sounds to me like the women at the tomb.

Maybe we need a bit of their bewilderment. The cross and resurrection have messed with our assumptions about life and death and what it means to win or lose.

This stimulus package kicked in to create a whole new “economy” in which self-giving love is the greatest power on the planet.

We may not bring oil and spices to tombs anymore, but we do bring fragrant flowers. Imagine coming back to the grave of someone you love a few days later, only to find a hole in the ground. The coffin lid is flung open, and their suit or dress is neatly folded.

Would your first response be “How nice, let’s go hide eggs?” I believe it would be more along the lines of screaming.

Maybe we need a little shaking up. We choose patterns of death, not intentionally but subtly, living in what I sometimes call “functional atheism”. We believe in God with our heads, but in our hearts it's still all up to us. We've still got to fix everything, and we still want to please everybody.

I hope that this year, you will let the cross and resurrection really bother you. Let it get under your skin and perturb you. Maybe we’ll be so irritated we can’t go back to sleep.

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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Civil War Era Treasure Makes It Back Home

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Pictured is my cousin, Marian, with a Civil War era family treasure back in her hands.

Oscar Wilde once said "the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention."

Recently, my family received one I will never forget. Because of a random act of kindness from someone I've never met, an 1866 wedding gift made it back home.

I have to pause to tell you that years ago, I got bitten by an insidious disease called the "genealogy bug." I contracted a love for my ancestors. I am my generation's family historian (I suppose every family needs one).

Yes, I can make your eyes roll with my incessant stories because nothing is more boring than someone else's family tree. For a while, even my kids told me I was only allowed to tell them one family story a day. That was when they were teenagers and I was in the throes of my research.

But every so often, something happens that makes it exciting and fun for all, and it's worth all the work. Here's how it happened.

I have online memorials for some of my relatives on FindAGrave.com. A very nice lady named Peggyjo from Lake Butler, Florida found my email when she was Googling one of the names I had memorialized. She had been visiting an antique shop on the border of North Carolina and Georgia while traveling.

There, she found a very dirty old lithographic print in a unique wooden frame. After she turned it over, she realized it had clues inscribed on the back, a date with a few names. The hunt was on.

She purchased it with the intention of finding its owners. She began the clean up process and it revealed a beautiful photo of a young girl with an umbrella, underneath all the grime. Beginning her search, she discovered it was a wedding gift in 1866 to a Mrs. Winne Rainey, the mother and grandmother of a few others named on the back of the frame.

Peggyjo traced the family to her great grand daughter, Marian. But she could find no information on her because of the privacy rules on ancestry.com regarding personal information on those who are still living.

It happens that Marian is my second cousin on my Dad's side, and I know her well. Peggyjo had hit the jackpot when she found my email, seeing that I was somehow related to the names on the frame. She wrote to me, hoping I could help her return this precious piece of history to the right hands. She said, "I have no reason other than it is a passion of mine to research antiques, and I simply would love to see the right hands holding the lithograph again."

You should have seen Marian's face when I went to visit and brought her this serendipitous gift. She recognized it immediately from her childhood. It had belonged to her grandparents, who owned a little cabin in the woods. The cabin had been sold years ago, presumably with the little frame in it. 

But now this Civil-War era wedding gift is back in the hands of family. That's where it belongs. 

Everyone is probably familiar with the phrase "random acts of kindness." It's a bit self-explanatory. They are those surprising, creative, and unusual actions to help somebody out or cheer them up. 

There are resources all over the internet for random acts of kindness. It's a craze in schools, communities, and homes, and it's a good thing. The idea is to share love in the simplest ways possible.

I have heard about them many times before, and I try to practice them. But my eyes were opened and my heart was warmed by this random act by someone who went to a while lot of trouble. It meant the world to someone I love.

In part because of the inspiration I received from being a part of such a random blessing, in the church I serve we are having a most unusual Lent. In my faith tradition, the forty days before Easter are usually a time of introspection and meditation, and it's often practiced by giving up something for Lent.

This year, we are challenging the congregation to "take up" something for Lent, something that moves us out of our comfort zones into the creative and unusual. We are doing a "Random Acts of Kindness" campaign.

We do this because there is nothing random about the love of God expressed through the cross. Yet when we are filled with that love, it spills over into life in ways that seem random and completely unexpected.

I hope you get blessed by one! And I invite you to do a random act of kindness for someone today. It makes all the difference in a chaotic world.

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@blogpot.com.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Broken Cedar Chest I'll Never Give Away

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, February 1, 2017.

I have a small, rectangular cedar chest that I keep in my study at the house. It holds essential things like my passport and social security card.

The funny thing is the lid is broken length-wise in two pieces and doesn't lay flat. That's precisely why I have kept it for the last 37 years.

Here's the story of this little broken box and why I will never, ever let it go. It reminds me of who I am and where I've come from.

When I was in eighth grade, I think there were times when I had no brain. One of those times I stole some money from the church.

My father was the pastor of the church we attended in a suburb of Birmingham. Once a month, I sang in the youth choir at the early service.

Since the rest of my family couldn't get going that early and attended the later service, on those Sundays my dad allowed me to hang around in his study after I'd put in my time. I would nap on his couch, fiddle at his desk, and walk down the hall to the Sunday School classes and explore.

I learned to drink coffee from the half-sugar concoctions I created when the classroom coffee pots had just been turned off. I practiced the art of cartooning, drawing my favorite figures on the chalkboards.

On one particular Sunday, I happened to check the door of the main office, and the office was unlocked. It never had been before. I just couldn't resist.

As I entered, there in the chair was a bank bag of money. It was offerings from the early service and from Sunday School classes. Wow.

I must pause and tell you that this was one of those moments when the testosterone in my eight grade body outweighed the wisdom of my eighth grade brain.

I thought to myself, "they won't miss one envelope." I took one off the top, stuffed it in my pocket, and got away fast.

When I got home, I pulled it out and saw that the envelope had seventy dollars in it. That was a lot of money in eighth grade.

Well, they did miss that one envelope. The next day, my dad came home for supper and told us at the table that someone had come into the office and taken an envelope with a Sunday School class offering in it.

I'll never forget the next few moments. My mother looked at me. I stared at the ceiling as if I didn't hear what was said or had not noticed her piercing eyes. She kept on looking at me.

Whew. Later that night, just when I thought I was off the hook, my mom came to my room.

"What do you keep in that little cedar chest?" she said. "Oh, my baseball cards and stuff like that." She smiled. "Okay. Open it."

That's when bad went to worse, because my nose started growing. "Um, I can't ... I've lost the key."

She smiled again. "Okay, then go to the kitchen and get a butter knife, and bring it back ... and we'll break it open." She said it with finality. There was no going back and no wiggling out.

So that's how my little cedar chest lid got cracked in two. Needless to say there were seventy dollars in it. Busted!

My dad told the church office that the money had been turned in, and I had to apologize to some man which was pretty uncomfortable.

But I learned something through the grace of God and the loving accountability of a good family. I learned that there is a part of me that can do bad things, and for no good reason.

That was the last time I stole from the church (that's a good thing since I'm a pastor, by the grace of God!).

I asked my mom years later if it was just written all over my face or if I looked just a little suspicious when the subject came up at the dinner table. "No, you looked completely innocent." "Then how did you know?" I asked. "I don't know how to explain it. I just knew."

Mothers amaze me. I don't know how they know these things, but it comes from a magical power, a special sense mothers have been given.

I still see my cracked open cedar chest all the time. I pause to look at it from time to time and remember my shadow side.

I'm not tempted to steal anymore, that's not what I mean. But if I am honest with myself, there's still a part of me that wants MORE.

Yes, I've grown now but if I'm not careful my shadow side can still rear itself. I'm not really talking about material things.

There's a part of me that desperately desires more experiences, more successes, more accomplishments, and (this is the big one) more people pleasing. My shadow side is compounded by our cultural strivings for the "more" and the "better," two things we venerate daily. It's a recipe for darkness. But I choose to live in the light.

So I keep my cedar chest to remind me where I'd be without God, without grace, and without the love of people who hold me accountable. I will always keep a few things in my broken cedar chest because I need to be aware of my shadow side.

I've never thought about this before now, but it's funny that the "valuables" I keep in my cedar chest now are mostly my papers for identification. Maybe that's not an accident.

Our shadow side is part of who we are. It's not that I don't feel forgiven, for I know that I am. But my cracked up cedar chest is a kind of holy relic for me. It's a precious object that carries a revealing memory. It's a picture of what it means to be me, broken as I can be, yet still something priceless because I'm living in grace.

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.

Mission Team from Arab Goes to Ghana

This article was published on the front page of The Arab Tribune on Saturday, January 28, 2017.

There is a turn of a phrase in Ghana that catches me by surprise every time I hear it. When greeting those of us who are traveling from the states, Ghanians say "You're welcome." The customary response to this salutation is "Thank you." It seems quite backwards, but it makes perfect sense. When we go, we feel welcome indeed.

During the New Year holidays, a team from Arab First United Methodist Church went to Ghana for the second year in a row. It was a week full of joy, sharing with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We visited the Eugemot Orphanage near Hohoe, in the Volta region of Western Ghana. It is a four hour van ride from the airport in Accra, which is quite an adventure on less than perfect roads.

Each day we would visit the orphanage and spend time loving the children. Game and play time with the kids was the highlight of each day. We got to see the completed barn that we financed and began construction on last year, and we helped out on the farm to begin filling it with its first crops of rice and corn.

Our main project this year was to upgrade the water system and help restore the foundation of the Peggy Good School on orphanage property. The new underground water pipes to the dorm which we financed was complete. We worked on the foundation and left enough money to finish that out, as well as replace the windows and doors to the school.

We also had opportunity to go into the villages and bring food relief, mosquito nets, water filters, and a little money to help families in need. Local pastors identified these families for us and went with us to visit them and pray. One of the families we visited was the home of one of the former orphans we knew.

New Year's is a big holiday in Ghana, more so than Christmas. It's a time to look back on the year in gratitude and look forward to the fresh start of a new year, a "Thanksgiving" of sorts. There are religious services everywhere.

New Year's Eve at the orphanage was a grand feast. There was music, food, and fun. The children shared memory verses and dances to entertain and bless us. Older youth who were away at school were home for the weekend and spoke to the younger orphans words of inspiration and hope. Afterward, there was a huge bonfire with hours of African drumming, song, and dance.

One of the highlights of my life was being invited to preach the sermon at the local Methodist Church in Hohoe on New Year's Day. The service began with a sparse crowd, but by the time I preached, the place was packed. Just before the service, the pastor leaned over to me and told me I would be familiar with the full Methodist liturgy but that I could expect "moments of African spontaneity" as well. And there certainly were.

The choir was dressed in robes and mortar boards, resembling graduation. There were several hymns and scriptures, four offerings brought forward, and two extended praise singing times (complete with drums and dancing in circles). My preaching was translated into Ewe (the local language), and after serving communion, we gave the church a gift for their local ministries.

They sent us out in appreciation and kept on praising with trumpet, drums, and dance as they received their final offering of the day with seven basins ... each person was to place thanksgiving offerings in one of the seven, according to what day of the week they were born. Apparently, everyone in their culture knows the day they were born on because they grew up with a special family nickname because of the day.

As we stepped out, they were planning on another sermon and a luncheon after our departure. The service had started at 9:00 a.m., and we left the service early at 12:30 p.m. Times really does fly when you are having fun, and for African Christians the whole day belongs to the Lord. What an experience of vibrant and beautiful faith.

Leaving the orphanage after our week of working, playing, visiting, worshipping, and giving was hard ... and this was the second time around for me. Yet smiles and joy pervaded the place as we got back on the van one last time for the four hour journey to a much longer flight home.

I used to think that the purpose of overseas mission work was to go and share Jesus Christ with others. I have since realized that we don't bring Jesus, because Jesus is already there. We go to discover him where he is already at work, and get a chance to join him for a while.

I was incredibly touched by the simple and passionate Christian spirituality of the people of this third world country, where it is quite common for local businesses to have names like "God is Great Beauty Salon". We went to give, and received so much more from the experience.

Members of the mission team were Robert Burton, Brian O'Dell, Lois O'Dell, Jill Hinds, Josh Millwood, Caitlyn Scarborough, Marc Scarbrough, Hannah Shirley, Lisa Sloan, Tarah Sloan, and Steve West. Leslie and Lianna Smith were planning to go, but were unable to attend because of a family funeral. Dawn Liebner, Joy Privett, and a number of others from our church kept the trip surrounded in support and prayer.

The team will be sharing a dinner and trip presentation on Sunday, January 29, at 6:30 p.m. in the Arab First UMC fellowship hall. Free-will donations will be accepted toward next year's mission trip. The public is invited and no reservations are required. I hope to see you there.



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.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Paws for the Holidays

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, January 4, 2016.

Every year, it seems something unusual makes my Christmas holidays delightful. It serves to remind me that blessings always come, if we just pay attention.

One year, when my daughter was a little girl, it was decorating her dollhouse with the same paint and carpet from our newly remodeled home. Another year, it was musing over the mice scurrying in our basement.

Still another year, it was having an exchange student from Germany in our home. After taking her to our Christmas reunion where we told the family holiday stories of me and my three brothers, she said, "I just have one question. How did your mother survive?"

Last year, it was the John the Baptist Christmas ornaments that appeared on my tree from generous parishioners, after I mentioned in a sermon that nobody makes John the Baptist Christmas ornaments. I think they enjoyed proving me wrong.

Who'd have thought that this year it would be having a puppy home for the holidays?

Let me introduce you to Jameson. He is the cutest and best behaved puppy on the entire planet, of course. He is a small terrier mix that belongs to my daughter, who is in nursing school in Birmingham.

My wife and I got to keep him for the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas while his "Mommy" had exams. It was pure joy (most of the time). He loves to play ball and chase bones, and he has the cutest little growl when he plays tug of war. He always comes back immediately when we let him out in the yard to do his business for a few minutes and then call him ... unless he gets distracted by something of a canine or feline variety.

Jameson is less than a year old, so the first time I took him on a leash to Arab City Park during the holidays, he had never seen Christmas lights. He wasn't so sure about the tunnel of light between the park and the historical village, especially with little girls running through it. But we went so many times, he overcame his anxiety.

He can sit, lay down, hop up on his hind legs, and (thanks to his holiday stay with us) shake hands. He is learning to roll over. When his roaming snout draws him toward a plate of holiday food, the words "leave it" keep him from eating it. Boy, he's smart.

He learned a less conventional trick during the holidays on his own. When I am laying on the couch reading or playing on my phone, sometimes it suddenly gets quiet. Too quiet. Then I feel his doggie breath.

He has sneaked up behind me and careful placed his tennis bone (yes, that's a "thing") just above my shoulder. He's just daring me to notice, grab the bone, and throw it again. I'd like to say we trained him on this one, but now that I think about it, I think he trained me.

We created a most unusual game with Jameson. We were sitting around in the living room drinking hot apple cider and I theorized that he always jumps in the lap of whoever moved last. So we started taking turns wailing and wiggling our arms in the air. This was of course a thoroughly scientific method and provided evidence that my theory was correct.

As a man of faith, I know what Christmas means. It is much more than a glib acknowledgement that it's Jesus's birthday (news flash ... nobody knows what day he was born). The reason it's a such a great feast is because it's about the miracle of the incarnation.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. It was the kind of glory that chose to come through enfleshed humility, a love that only begins to unfold from a wrapped up baby in a barn. It is a love born to an unwed mother everybody must have been gossiping about, but that shepherds heard the truth about from a more reliable source.

And there were animals conspicuously hanging around in every aspect of the nativity.

Somehow, in his own simple way, Jameson enfleshes the love of his creator, too. Just as the "grand miracle" of Christmas (thank you, C.S. Lewis for that phrase) is this divine-become-human strange way of saving the world, my "grandpuppy" reminds me of the lesser miracles of life and love, of joy and playfulness, that are wrapped up in the greater miracle of the incarnation.

Jameson reveals to me the reasons why even the animal kingdom expresses the hope of the Messiah. So much of the prophesy of the coming of Christ is a picture of the "peaceable kingdom" where lion and lamb lie together.

As I am writing this, here he is, laying his head on my stomach. His eyes are finally getting droopy and he is falling asleep. I thought he'd never want to quit playing fetch. We are laying in the couch by the fire, and it's 10:37 pm.

If Jameson is my grandpuppy, I guess that makes me a "grandpappy". And it's no coincidence that grandpappy rhymes with "happy."

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.