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

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