Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Accepting our Sinfulness in a Time of Hypocrisy

By my desk I keep the devotional book "A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer," which my daughter thoughtfully gave me for Christmas in 2007. I've never been regimented about doing one devotional each day, but from time to time I plunge in for a number of weeks.

Today, I arrived at this one. It resonates with me as I think about the new year, and ponder the resolution rekindled in me to live in the "wonders of his love" as a person of great compassion for others.

It is so imperative during the massive struggles of Christ and culture in North America today that we do this. I'd like to share this quote with you as we all seek a faith that is more real, relevant, and relational in the midst of "cushy Christianity" and hypocrisy that seems so exposed right now by the winds of change.

"The Pious Community"

"Confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16). Those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone. It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together, and all their community through service - that the final breakthrough to community does not occur precisely because they enjoy community with one another as pious believers, but not with one another as those lacking piety, as sinners. For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone in our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 108.

May you have more than a "happy" new year. May it be a time to be real with yourself, with God, and with your Christian community. With Thomas Merton, I have no idea where I'm going or how I'm going to get there, but I trust that my desire to please God does in fact please God. Yet I do know this. We are here by the grace of God, not by our own perfectionism. The only perfection I strive for is perfection in love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Keeping the X in Xmas

This is my Christmas Eve column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Tuesday, December 24, 2019.

I imagine that some of you are pretty surprised by the title of my column. I can almost hear the voices, “What do you mean, keeping the X in Xmas? Aren’t you a pastor, for goodness’ sake?”

It happens every year. Statements come out during the holidays decrying the use of the abbreviation "Xmas.” They proclaim our need to "keep Christ in Christmas" and not "X him out.”

I do understand the desire to keep Christmas faithful to the true reason for the season, of course. I get it. But it's a fairly common abbreviation that you can find scribbled with a Sharpie on the storage boxes in my attic.

Is it unfaithful? Should this be on the forefront of the culture wars to “keep Christ in Christmas?”

Actually, no. There's a huge misunderstanding about the etymology of this abbreviation that could help Christians learn about our faith heritage. Instead of criticizing the use of it, maybe we should lean into it.

The use of "Xmas" is actually a remnant of a tradition in the historic art of Christianity which is dear to our spiritual heritage. In the ancient church, there were times of great persecution when Christians met in the catacombs, which are cave tombs and underground burial grounds that Romans and other officials wouldn’t go near. Christians met in catacombs and other secret places to worship freely and safely.

Some of the art found on the walls of ancient catacombs feature the use of the Greek letter “X” (pronounced chi in the original Greek) to represent Jesus because it was the first letter in the Greek word Christos, the New Testament word for Christ. It became sort of a secret symbol.

This is similar to the use of the ichthus, the characteristic little symbol of the fish, in the ancient church to represent the Christian faith. The sequence of letters in this Greek word for fish, ichthus, were an acronym for a statement of faith. Each letter of the word was the first letter of words translated “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Christians used this fish symbol to identify each other and safe places to gather for worship in times of persecution. And a picture said a thousand words.

You can find remnants of these traditions in religious art even today. The X (chi) is quite common in sanctuaries. As a matter of fact, you can find them in the building my congregation worships in.

When we put our Chrismon (“Christ-monogram”) tree up during the season of Advent each December, the “X” symbol is on several of the ornaments. It is often paired with a second letter that resembles a “P” (actually pronounced rho) to form a chi rho. These are the first twoletters in the Greek word for Christ.

A chi rho is pictured here, often found on the pulpit or the paraments (pulpit cloth) where a pastor preaches.

The use of “Xmas” in modern English is as old as the 16th century and has been found in headlines, abbreviations, and informal writing (like my attic boxes) ever since.

I’d say writing "Xmas" on a box is no more unfaithful than putting the symbol of the fish on the bumper of your car. I think it’s actually quite beautiful.

The use of the abbreviation Xmas is not "X-ing out Christ." On the contrary, one could look at it as a statement of faith. Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.

As I tell my confirmands every year when teaching these ancient truths, Christ is not Jesus' last name. It's his divine title. It means that he is not only the human Jesus who walked the earth. He is Christ the anointed one, the Messiah.

So don’t worry that “Xmas” is part of a grand conspiracy to keep Christ out of Christmas.

In the words of the late Rachel Held Evans, a young evangelical writer, “The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up—not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble.”

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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Random Acts of Gratitude

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, November 27, 2019.

I was appointed to pastor my first church at the ripe old age of 24.

Sandy and I had only been married for a year, and this was the first time we had gotten out of an apartment and set up house. We couldn’t wait to get started.

We moved into the modest little home next to our church in Fyffe, Alabama and the journey began. After setting up our new post office box, I started to check the mail every day. But only one letter stands out in my memory from that whole first year in our home.

When I think of that letter, it takes me back. I visualize the whole setting, including the extra wide sidewalk in front of the post office.

What was this singular letter? It was what I now call a “random act of gratitude.”

The handwritten letter was from Rev. John Rutland, who was many years my elder, a retired pastor in North Alabama.

He knew my family well, but he was mostly the stuff of legends to me. He had taken a progressive stand during the civil rights era when that wasn’t so popular in Alabama. He had stood toe to toe with his own parishioner, the infamous Bull Connor of Birmingham, and had worked hard to integrate the Annual Conference of the Church. I’d heard stories of his contentious relationship with Governor George Wallace over issues of segregation. And he was an incredibly loving man.

I couldn’t imagine why such a prominent figure in ministry would write a note to little old me. But I can still remember how the scribbled black ink flowed on the creme colored personalized stationary. He wasn’t being a legendary figure that day. He was all pastor.

He told me how proud he was of me, how much he loved my family, and how thankful he was that I was starting out in ministry. He described how every November, he made a list of 30 people he was thankful for and wrote one every day. He said today was my day. The card stock stationary just oozed with gratitude.

You’ve heard of random acts of violence, and maybe you’ve heard of the movement to counteract them with random acts of kindness. Whenever I ponder the idea of random acts of gratitude, I think back to John Rutland’s letter. It has stuck in my mind all these years because it was a completely unexpected and serendipitous expression of the quality of being thankful. I found it incredibly encouraging as a young pastor.

Perhaps the latter part of November, at least, could lead you to perform some random acts of gratitude.

Go out of your way to express your thanks. Share a word of appreciation in a way that’s unexpected, if not wild and crazy. Make thanksgiving not only something you give to God but something that spills over onto everyone else. Let gratitude be way more boundless than the obligatory annual family prayer over turkey and dressing. Let it be a daily attitude, not confined to a holiday but something that makes every day a little more holy for someone.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer that pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thanksgiving Blessing from “The Fonz”

“I live by two words, gratitude and tenacity. Tenacity gets me where I want to go, and gratitude does not allow me to be angry along the way.” - Henry Winkler

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Thought from Kahlil Gibran

This thought resonates with me today from Kahlil Gibran.

“Speak to my soul, oh Lord. May it continue to unfold itself unhindered. May the treasure you have placed in me be revealed to my eyes. My ears indeed thirst for my heart’s knowledge.”

This is what draws me to the table in my studies, because it gets at the heart of me, and the heart if the matter, in ways beyond words.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Bound by Love

“As a Christian, when confronted by a tension between a religious certainty which leads me to violate the law of love and a deep unknowing that still moves in the direction of ‘loving my neighbor as myself,’ I am bound to choose the latter course.”

Cynthia Bourgeault 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Hard Times and Civil War Tokens Give Hope

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, October 23, 2019. The photo of tokens identical to the ones in my collection appeared with the article in the paper.

My Dad is eighty-seven years old, and he tells me he’s never seen anything quite like it. As an amateur student of human history, I’m pretty sure we live in distinctively divisive times.

Rarely does a day go by without media mention that we are a “divided nation,” but it’s not just about politics. It’s about race. It’s about religion. It’s about sexuality. It’s about our present-day propensity toward “us and them” thinking, leaving moderates having a tough time helping us all meet in the middle. But here’s the thing. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. What can we learn from our own American story that will help us through these crazy times?

Since I’m a pastor by trade, most people are surprised to hear I collect coins. I find it fascinating. It’s like carving a slice of historical pie and having a taste.

Steel pennies point to the economics of war. Large cents and half cents remind you that inflation is a big deal over time. Two and three cent pieces show you some ideas just don’t last. Endless incarnations of Lady Liberty during the first half of American history, including the Indian Head penny (yes, that’s her in the headdress) and the Mercury dime (no, she’s not the Roman goddess everybody thinks she is), remind you of the values of a flourishing new nation. The choices of presidents on coins tell a story, starting with Lincoln, the first one who made the cut, on his 100th birthday in 1909.

But a few years ago, I cut into a new slice of history. I got hold of some Civil War tokens and Hard Times tokens. And they’ve given me insight that puts our divisive times into a grander perspective.

Civil War tokens were made between 1861 and 1864 because of the lack of government-issued cents. Coins were being hoarded, and merchants turned to private mints. By 1864, there were over 7,000 varieties, from patriotic tokens, to store tokens, to “sutler” tokens (bearing the name of an army unit). They did not became illegal until after Congress passed laws in 1864 prohibiting private coinage.

I have three in my collection, and each one tells a story. One is a patriotic token with “Army and Navy” on the front. On the back is the slogan, “The Federal Union – It Must and Shall Be Preserved.” Since the majority of these were minted in Union states, their slogans and images were clearly pro-union.

A second Civil War token I have is a bit of a shocker. It’s a “Dix Token,” named for the Secretary of the Treasury in 1861 who ordered a ship captain to relieve another of command for refusing to transfer currency from New Orleans to New York City. The letter said "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." The token has a flag with the words “The Flag of Our Union – 1863” on the front, and on the back, “If Anybody Attempts to Tear It Down, Shoot Them On the Spot.” Wow, that’s stark.

A third one in my collection has a nicer tone. Minted in 1863, the one cent token features Lady Liberty on the front and two hands shaking on the back, with the words “Peace Forever.” Minted by Union banks, it expressed the desire to end hostilities. These three tokens give differing snapshots of the complexities of the Civil War.

I also have three “hard times” tokens from even earlier in history. These were struck from 1833-1843 as privately minted mercantile, political, and satirical pieces used in a time of political and financial crisis. In 1832, Andrew Jackson won re-election intending to abolish the Second Bank of the U.S. State banks issued notes, which fueled inflation. Hoping to curb it, Jackson issued a “Specie Circular” in 1836, saying banks must accept only gold and silver for land. Instead of calm, this created panic. The public hoarded coins (“specie”) and distrusted paper money. Depression ensued. By this time, Martin Van Buren was president, and the Panic of 1837 came to be known as the "Hard Times".

My first hard times token was minted in 1834 featuring anti-Andrew Jackson political satire. The front has Jackson with a sword and bag of money, and his claim to a “A Plain System Void of Pomp.” The figure on the back is a jackass with the words “The Constitution As I Understand It - Roman Firmness,” referring to his leadership style. On the jackass are the letters “LLD” which refer to Jackson having a “degree” in this approach. One cannot help but laugh.

A second hard times token is also satire. Called a “Not Cent,” it was minted in 1837 and has a building on the front with “Merchant’s Exchange Wall St. N York - built 1827 burnt 1835.” On the back is a classic motto, “Millions for Defence, Not One Cent for Tribute,” referring to a diplomat sent to France in 1797 to negotiate an end to French attacks on ships; the French demanded tribute, and his response became a rallying cry. It appears on many hard times tokens as humorous reference to the irony of their present circumstances, when I presume people didn’t want to pay taxes to rebuild Wall Street!

The third hard times token I have was minted in 1841, and it has a Liberty Head on front with the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” The back reads “Specie Payments Suspended” and “May Tenth, 1837,” a claim as to why these tokens were needed. On this date, banks in New York City suspended specie payments, meaning they would no longer redeem commercial paper in specie (at full face value).

So in my collection are six tokens that tell stories of hostility and violence, of satire and resentment, and of political and financial instability. While one calls for peace, another calls the president a jackass! These six coins give me a sixth sense of sorts. Oddly enough, they give me hope.

I can hold in my hands a snapshot of a history far away, with struggles and complexities I don’t really understand, yet which seem strangely familiar. We have made it through tough times before. But I am here now, in this unique time and place in history, to be the person I’m called to be and trust God for the rest.

Today’s times may seem more divisive than my dad and I have ever seen. But in the greater arc of history, we’ve seen them before, and we’ll see them again. Somehow, we make it through by the grace of God. It’s part of the ebb and flow of culture, the dark and bright sides of human nature, and the painful but passionate journey of democracy and religious freedom which we hold dear.

Columnist David Brooks said, “It’s up to the rest of us to tell a better story about America.” I choose the narrative of diversity over the narrative of division. I choose to tell it by the way I live, knowing that people who are different from me are not my enemy, they are the people I was created to love.

Let’s rekindle the value of civility, knowing we’re all on the same team. It’s less important to be right than it is to be in relationship.

Pastor and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says, “new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” Maybe this dark place we’re in isn’t so bad.

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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Tortured by Their Own Hunger

“For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?” - Kahlil Gibran

This is an extremely wise saying. The farther I get in life, the more I see it. There’s a reason Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It helps us see that those who oppose us in life are coming from a place of brokenness we can’t understand. It’s freeing to be clear with ourselves about who we are, and give the rest to God.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Podcast on Jeremiah

Well, I made my very first attempt at Podcasting. I really enjoyed it!

If you have about 20 minutes, join me in walking through some of the chapters of Jeremiah, exploring some of the images and sacred metaphors of my favorite right-brained prophet.

Just click this link:

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Reckless Love

Sunday my heart soured as our worship band did this song ... it’s my favorite now.

It’s about prevenient grace, which warms my Wesleyan heart and reminds me why I am (and always will be) Methodist!

“Before you spoke a word, you we’re singing over me” ... “I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you give yourself away” ... “there is no shadow you won’t light up, mountain you won’t climb up, coming after me” ... “there’s no wall you won’t kick down, lie you want tear down, coming after me.”

That’s the God we worship, the hound of heaven who pursues all God’s children with reckless love!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

What is our Most Essential Belief?

A friend asked “what is the most essential belief in Christianity.” This is what I said:

I’d say the one essential belief (since you asked it that way) is we are created and called for loving God with our whole heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Jesus said this was the most essential thing, and added “do this and you will live” which is profound). But on the next tier, to make that possible in grace, I’d say there are FIVE “sacred mysteries” that are core and essential (the Trinity, humanity and divinity of Christ, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection).

Monday, April 15, 2019

Why is Easter All Over the Map?

This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

Few things can be more mind-boggling than the dating of Easter. Who made that decision? And why in the world is it all over the place?

Christmas is easy. It’s December 25. Rain or shine, whether it’s a Sunday or not, it’s always December 25.

That’s basically because we decided it was, a long time ago. It never gives any indication in the Bible that this was the date (don’t tell your kids we don’t really know when Jesus’s birthday is!). In the wisdom of the ancient church, a winter festival was co-opted and Christianized. I don’t mind. It’s brilliant, actually. Bring on the yule logs and the wreaths.

Easter’s not so simple, however. How do we know when it is (besides just trusting your calendar)? The short answer is that Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon, on or after the vernal (or spring) equinox. Try to say that with your mouth full. The spring equinox is when the axis of the earth lines up with the sun, the day and night are the same length, and spring officially begins.

Why such craziness?

It is all because we DO know when Easter happened. The resurrection was the week of Passover, according to scripture. That’s incredibly significant, since Jesus instituted communion on Passover night, just before he was betrayed. And the first Easter happened on the “first day of the week,” so it’s always Sunday. In fact, the resurrection is the whole reason we meet on Sundays.

So in 325 Ad, the Council of Nicea determined the dating of Easter, and they decided to keep it tied to Passover which was (and still is) calculated on the Jewish lunar calendar. It’s different dating than the Gregorian calendar we have used in the West since 1582 (its predecessor, the Julian calendar, is still used in parts of Orthodox faith and is 13 days “behind” … the reason that in Russia, Christmas is on our January 6!).

There it is, mystery solved, it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. But here’s the thing. That’s the rule, but it’s kind of like “I before E except after C” … there are caveats and exceptions. And this year was one of them.

Are you ready to be even more mystified?

All this is based on the “ecclesiastical date,” or the Church’s date, of March 21 as the spring equinox. The actual astronomical event of equinox varies between March 19 and 22, and the date depends on your time zone. Since it is calculated based on the fixed date of March 21, this was one of those “weird years” with a confusing exception.

The astronomical event of equinox was on March 20, while the full moon was actually on March 21 (in some time zones). So Easter should have been March 24, right?

But the decision is made by another fixed “ecclesiastical date” of the full moon being on March 20. So on the church calendar, the full moon was on March 20 and the equinox was on March 21. But what actually happened in the sky is the reverse.

Are you confused yet? Easter is based on the next full moon on the “ecclesiastical” calendar, which is April 18. My brain is tired just thinking about it.

So, what are the earliest and latest Easter dates, since we are talking about this wacky way of calculating it?

The “Paschal Full Moon” (that’s another word for the Church’s date of the first full moon after the equinox, coming from the word “Passover”) ranges from March 21 to April 18. It is way too confusing to explain how the ancient church figures that, but the simple explanation is it is based on a 19 year cycle that approximates astronomical facts.

Since Easter happens on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, it can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25. So …

Easter lands on March 22 in 1761, 1818, 2285, and 2353. In other words, Easter can be as early as March 22 but forget it, not in OUR lifetimes!

The second earliest date of Easter is March 23. Easter lands here in 1788, 1845, 1856, 1913, 2008, 2160, 2228, and 2380. We saw it ONCE and I hope you enjoyed it, because that’s it!

The latest date of Easter is April 25, which happens in 1886, 1943, and 2038. So my Dad saw it once, and if I live to be 72, I will too. I hope so!

The second latest date is April 24, which happens on 1791, 1859, 2011, 2095, 2163, 2231, and 2383. So WE saw it once (and unless you’re a pretty young adult and live to be over 100, you won’t see it again).

You might ask why I am so interested in this.

What can I say, my birthday is April 22. When I turned 8 years old, Easter was on my birthday (that was 1973). We had a huge church egg hunt at the city park for my birthday party (never mind that it was Easter, I thought it was just for me!).

Then again, in 1984, Easter was on my birthday. I turned 19 that year.

If I live until 2057, my birthday will be on Easter one more time. The third time will be the charm. Can I live to 92? Sounds good to me!

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” may be found at www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Why Does Easter Move Around?

I prepared this for a Rotary Program on April 9. I hope you find it interesting!

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after (or on) the Spring Equinox. That’s the short answer. But there’s more …

Why? The resurrection happened the week of Passover. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea determined the dating of Easter. Passover was (and is) calculated by the Jewish lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we have used in the West since 1582 (its predecessor, the Julian calendar, is still used in parts of Eastern Orthodox faith and is 13 days “behind").

There are confusing exceptions! The Church’s date of March 21 is considered the spring (vernal) equinox, regardless of time zone, while the actual astronomical event of the equinox varies between March 19 and 22.

This year is one of those “weird years”! The actual equinox was on March 20, while the full moon was March 21 in many time zones. If we followed the actual astronomical event, Easter would have been March 24. This is further complicated in that it is based on the “ecclesiastical” date of the full moon, March 20 (not the actual astronomical date). CONFUSING!

Easter 2019 is based on the next full moon on the “ecclesiastical” calendar, which is April 18.

Earliest and Latest Easter Dates

The “Paschal Full Moon” (another word for it) ranges from March 21 to April 18. Since Easter happens on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon, it can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25.

Easter lands on March 22 on: 1761, 1818, 2285, and 2353. In other words, forget it, not in OUR lifetimes.

Easter lands on March 23 on: 1788, 1845, 1856, 1913, 2008, 2160, 2228, and 2380. In other words, we saw it ONCE and I hope you enjoyed it, because that’s it!

Easter lands on April 25 on: 1886, 1943, 2038. So my DAD saw it once, and if I live to be 72 I WILL see it once! I hope so!

Easter lands on April 24 on: 1791, 1859, 2011, 2095, 2163, 2231, and 2383. So WE saw it once (and PROBABLY nobody in this room might see it, unless you’re one of our young un’s and if you live to be, like, over 100!).

Why am I interested in this?

My birthday is April 22. When I turned 8 years old, Easter was on my birthday (1973). We had a church egg hunt for my birthday party (never mind that it was Easter, I thought it was just for me!)

In 1984, Easter was on my birthday. I turned 19!

If I live until 2057, my birthday will be on Easter. Can I make it to age 92?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Joy and Sorrow

I have had this book for decades but have felt led to go through it again during my morning prayer time. This devotion met me this morning and strikes a chord, during difficult times in our country and larger church. I find joy in the midst. I feel at peace, knowing my place in the universe.


On Joy and Sorrow
 Kahlil Gibran

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 

Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Ghana Always Teaches Me Something New

This is my column which appeared on February 2, 2019, in The Arab Tribune.

It was my third trip to Ghana, and I guess that means it’s becoming a habit. If you do something once, it can be a fluke, and if you do it twice, it’s still just a pattern. But going to Ghana has now become a habit indeed, and it’s a holy habit I’m glad to have.

In one way or another, the church I serve has supported the Eugemot orphanage in the Volta Region of eastern Ghana since it was founded fifteen years ago. But four years ago, the Spirit led us to organize an annual mission trip to put some hands and feet to our prayers and support. I personally got to go on three of the four. Our last mission team came home just a couple of weeks ago.

I thought I had learned what there was to learn on my other two trips, and I was there to support the others like a good pastor should. But as usual, I was wrong.

The newly found wonder I brought back with me this time is capsulated in one simple prayer. One of the older orphans who had been away at school came home for the holidays and went with us to guide us on our tour of the waterfall for our Sunday afternoon Sabbath time. He met our team for lunch beforehand, and we asked him to pray. He paused and told us he would like to teach us the prayer Mama Eugenia had always taught them at the orphanage.

He prayed, “Father, we invite you to come and eat with us. Amen.” I loved that prayer. He told us that at night, they also say “Father, we invite you to come and sleep with us.” There it is.

I have never heard such profound simplicity in prayer, which reflects amazing trust in the very presence of God in our midst. Yes, we know God is the one from whom all things come.

In the churches in our country, we had just finished the busy Christmas holidays honoring Jesus our Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” And our prayers are usually (if we are honest) asking him to bless what we are doing ... from far, far away.

Not that day. Not Bless (that is the young man’s name). He prayed to the “God who comes”, as Christian spiritualist Carlo Carretto describes it. God is a God who eats with us, who sleeps with us, and who holds us close.

As I reflect on the trip as a whole, I suppose that simple, beautiful prayer has become a prism through which I observed the beautiful colors of gratitude in the hearts of these people. They are thankful for the One who eats and sleeps with us, present in the rhythms of every day.

There is something about stepping out of my own culture, and into another place, that helps me see faith come alive. As one of our participants said, “when I go to Ghana, I see God working in ways I never see at home.”

God is here as well as there, of course. But I wonder if we have our spiritual antennas up to detect God’s presence. All of the experiences of this year’s mission trip led me back to this basic truth that Ghanians know in their bones. God is real and God is present.

We were there during the holidays, and while Christmas is less of a fuss, their New Year has energy like an American Thanksgiving, except it’s even better. They thank God over and over for the blessings of the past year, and they ask God to be with them this coming year. Most churches offer Watch Night services that go on for hours up until midnight.

At the orphanage, we built a big bonfire and enjoyed a drum circle, with dancing and singing that takes me to yet another place of heavenly bliss. On New Year’s Day, everyone wears white and we have a great feast, with traditional rice dishes and barbecued meat. The orphanage puts on a show, with memory verses, dances, and encouraging testimonies by some of the older young women and men who have come home.

What I began to see this year is that this gratitude is not just about the holiday; it’s imbued in everyday life. One young woman showed us the river where her family in the village washes their clothes, washes themselves, and gets their water for cooking and drinking.

Once again, I noticed local shops and businesses out on the road, which have openly religious names like “Salvation Mini-Market” where I bought some Milo (a chocolate milk drink). Once again, we shared food relief with families who were so grateful to be alive.

This year, we met a young woman in a wheelchair and visited another woman who could walk again after many years. We celebrated the story of how prayer had healed her. One of our participants gave the woman her metal cane to replace the hand made wooden stick she was using to show us the glory of what God can do. It was inspiring.

We visited churches that were so incredibly hospitable toward us. One was simple and beautiful, made of wooden slats and a thatched roof. In another, they recognized me from when I preached there two years ago and ushered me up to the stage to sit behind the pastor while he was preaching. Then the pastor introduced me (this was a really strange experience, since I had never met him) and I offered a gift for the new mission house they are building.

They treated me as if I honored them with my presence, but I’m the one that is honored. I get to worship with a faith family that is alive with song and drums and dance.

I was really excited about seeing the new orphanage, finally. The dorms had been under construction by work crews from England for years, while the orphanage had been in a three bedroom rental home down the road. Children had spent years stacked like sardines, but now there was spacious room.

It was heartwarming to see a vision become reality, to see the barn we built for them in view just behind the new orphanage wall, and to watch the running water we helped pay for in use. We watched them installing the new whiteboards we were donating for the classrooms at the school in front of the orphanage, which had been built by schools and churches from good old Alabama.

The highlight, of course, was spending time with the orphans themselves. One little boy just couldn’t get enough of my sunglasses and didn’t mind posing for pictures when he looked so cool. We played card games, did crafts with beads, and tussled with the little ones.

This year, there was a piano in the new common room, so I was in my element and we sang some songs. I got to connect at the keyboard with one of the school officials, who was a church music director on the side and asked me to play hymns he had been learning. Mama Eugenia’s son and one of the older girls were wonderful at harmony. The kids just sang and sang.

All these experiences that unfolded during the week were wrapped up together in that simple prayer that kept mulling around in my mind. Father, we invite you to sing with us, to play with us, to work with us. You are here. We depend completely on you.

I brought home another Gye Nyame, a West African symbol which means “except God.” For them, it is a national symbol. It means we could never have what we have, or do what we do, or be who we are, except for God. “Except God.”

I’m looking at one on the wall in my home as I write. Gye Nyames remind me that in so much of American Christianity, we only consider ourselves somewhat dependent on God. It’s up to us to make a difference, rely on our smarts, and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Then we pause to trust God for the rest.

But not in Ghana. God is a God who does it all with us.

Maybe we can get back to that spiritual place in America again. Maybe I can get back to that place in my heart again.

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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Ghana Trip Made the Papers

I am blessed with the opportunity to write a column for The Arab Tribune. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that they were able to make room for the pictures. Celebrate with us a life-changing journey.