Saturday, December 27, 2008

The God Who Comes

Here is a quote from Carlo Carretto from the book The God Who Comes. Blessings to you for continued wonder during the days of Christmastide!

God presents himself to us little by little. The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.

It is always he who comes, even if he has not yet come in his fullness. But there is indeed one unique moment in his coming, the others were only preparations and announcement.

The hour of his coming is the Incarnation.

The Incarnation brings the world his presence. It is a presence so complete that it overshadows every presence before it.

God is made human in Christ. God makes himself present to us with such a special presence, such an obvious presence, as to overwhrow all the complicated calculations made about him in the past.

"The invisible, intangible God has made himself visible and tangible in Christ."

If Jesus is truly God, everything is clear; if I cannot believe this, everything darkens again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Eve Prayer

I found this wonderful prayer I would like to pray, oh Lord. As we approach Christmas Eve, may Margaret's soul lead ours to the manger.

Into the bleakest winters of our souls, Lord, you are tiptoeing on tiny Infant feet to find us and hold our hands. May we drop whatever it is we are so busy about these days to accept this gesture so small that it may get overlooked in our frantic search for something massive and over­whelming. Remind us that it is not you who demands large, lavish celebrations and enormous strobe-lit displays of faith. Rather, you ask only that we have the faith of a mustard seed and the willingness to let a small hand take ours. We are ready. Amen.

Margaret Anne Huffman

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's In a Name?

This is my LifePoints column which appeared in the religion section of the Huntsville Times on Friday, December 19, 2008.

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'." - Matthew 1:23

In the English language, we have some strange names for things. I have often wondered why we call certain appliances "hot water heaters." Don’t they heat cold water, not hot? More disturbingly, at airports we park planes at a "terminal", and pilots announce each landing as a "final approach." I try very hard not to think about what that could mean.

Yes, names can be quite revealing. As Christmas approaches, I have been pondering the two names given for Jesus before he was born. While Christmas reminds us of his many grand titles (like Messiah, Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace), there are only two actual names assigned to this little baby. The angel tells Joseph to name the child “Jesus,” and Matthew comments that in doing so, the scripture is fulfilled which names him “Emmanuel.”

As a father myself, I’ve noticed how conspicuously quiet the scriptures are about Joseph. It seems everybody else has a song to sing on that first Christmas, from Mary to Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon. But Joseph? He’s apparently not much of a singer. He gets no credit for performance, poetry, or prophesy, and we can only guess at his fatherly feelings. Yet what little the scriptures say about Joseph concerns naming the baby. He definitely gets that job, and he gets two names to work with. Why two? What could they mean?

The name Jesus means "Savior." I imagine this comes as no surprise to persons of faith, who believe Christ came to free us from sin. But the name Emmanuel means "God with us." Maybe that’s the name that truly encapsulates the brilliance of Christmas. God is not beyond us, or above us, but with us. That simple name broadcasts a bold belief that because of Christmas, something has fundamentally changed in the way salvation works.

God has crossed over the great divide. The divine has become human, grace infused into the grind. God didn’t just write a memo, make a call, or send his errand boy. He showed up in the flesh. God came to co-mingle with us, pitch a tent down the street, and become one of us. This is the spirituality of the incarnation. And the incarnation might be what is most radical about the Christian faith.

Our God is not content with being as far away as the stars. God is the God who comes. The incarnation changes everything, because in the midst of the mess of our lives, God is with us. The God who escapes our grasp mysteriously shows up when we least expect it. God appears in the eyes of a child, in the warmth of a home, in the poverty of a struggling family, and in the longing for peace.

Have you noticed the way people talk about this year’s season in light of the economic downturn? A few weeks ago, I heard someone say “it’s going to be a dismal Christmas.” Dismal? Do economics really have the power to hijack our holy days? The birth of Emmanuel means God is with us, no matter what. In a world of wars, hate crimes, and economic slowdowns, we live in the stubborn hope that Christmas can still change everything.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christ Lives in You

The power of the incarnation is that God comes! God is with us! Christmas is not just about God "sending" us a Savior and about having a birthday party on his behalf. Our definitive Christian spirituality is so much more. In a miraculous historical moment, the divine has become human and this changes everything. Christ lives in us. This video entitled "Stethoscope" is a funny little reminder of the incarnational spirituality that is unique to Christianity.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Advent Prayer

by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Advent Conspiracy

Sandy and I are making the intentional effort of spending a bit less this Christmas. Honestly, I think we are going to enjoy it a lot more. I saw this video that has gotten me really thinking about how much we have let consumerism overtake the holy days of the holidays.

If you are interested in finding out more about this movement, check out The Advent Conspiracy.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Passionate Advent Spirituality

Passionate Advent spirituality is all about longing with a stubborn and persistent hope. There is nothing bland or boring about it. God has done something in this world through the birth of Christ ... and God is not finished doing it. The miracle of the incarnation changed everything. The coming of Emmanuel means God is with us. That keeps changing everything as we continue to live into the miracle.

Carlo Carretto writes, in The God Who Comes:

"The best metaphor for our world of today is astronauts speeding through the cosmos, but with their life-supporting capsule pierced by a meteorite fragment. But the Church resembles Mary and Joseph traveling from Egypt to Nazareth on a donkey, holding in their arms the weakness and poverty of the Child Jesus: God incarnate."

When we hold in our arms what is profoundly alternative, it brings healing and wholeness in our world of brokenness, anxiety, and pain. All in God's time. God is doing something with us, one layer of grace at a time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Advent Devotional Websites

I just found a wonderful daily online Advent devotional guide that might be helpful for your spirit as you connect with God's Spirit during this Advent season. I find it to be a beautiful, peaceful way to pause during the workday for a few minutes and remember the joys of passionate longing in Advent spirituality. You may find it at Following the Star .

There is also another, simpler Advent calendar with a quote for the day if you prefer that. It's at Explore Faith's Advent Calendar .

Blessings for a holy Advent season!

Friday, November 28, 2008

The World is About to Turn

Thoughts on Advent Spirituality

When I think of what Advent could mean if we let the words and images of the season sink in, I remember the holidays of 1989. Sandy and I were visiting her family during the week following Christmas. She took me to a local park in Baton Rouge near her parents’ home. As I opened the special gift she had for me, I found a teddy bear holding the pregnancy test results. Yes, indeed, we were expecting our first beloved child, and my heart leapt with joy and excitement about this new journey before us. My world was about to turn!

Never mind that the season of Advent had already dissolved into Christmas that year. For me, a nine month Advent had just begun. It was nine months full of anticipation, fascination, worry, joy, stress, hope, love, hard work, and teary eyed wonder. Ready or not, her she comes! We didn’t just sit around and wait, nor did we get so busy with “doing” that we did not pause to behold the mystery of what this would mean. It was a nine month journey on its own, full of its own rhythm and fire.

I have realized over the years that we are a people who need to reclaim Advent spirituality. In a culture where the season is tritely seen as “getting ready for Christmas,” we get lost in too many parties and too much shopping. A balanced diet of activity is fine and good, but frenzy lacking balance leaves our souls exhausted and still hungry at the end of December though we’ve had plenty to eat. As one sign of this lost spirituality, I have been disturbed by the way I hear people talk about the upcoming season in light of the economic downturn in our country. The other day, someone said bluntly “it’s going to be a dismal Christmas.” A dismal Christmas? How sad that we can let economics and materialism have the power to overtake our language and lay aside our faith. Perhaps we need Advent more than ever.

I invite you to the journey of rediscovering Advent. Its rich images and stories dance in the mind and inflame the heart. Isaiah promises the coming of the prince of peace. Zechariah is struck mute in disbelief, but when his mouth finally opens it is filled with song. John the Baptist insists that we prepare the way of the Lord, who will lay the mountains low, exalt the valleys, and make the paths straight. Mary sings “my soul magnifies the Lord” and speaks prophetically of the new justice Christ would bring to the world. John the apostle writes poetically of light and darkness that will never overcome it. We fathom a mystery that shakes us up profoundly. I invite you to take time to be washed over by the rich texts and the wonder-filled songs. Go deep. Don’t keep things on the surface.

As I write this, I am attending a week of Academy for Spiritual Formation and we are singing a song probably unfamiliar to most of you that is based on the passionate, active spirituality of Advent. It is improvised from the words of Mary in Luke 1:46-53 traditionally known as the “Magnificat.” The song sings:

"My heart will sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!"

In today’s world when we are involved in two wars and have a stumbling economy, more than ever it is time to rekindle our passionate longing for God. Have an unsettling Advent. It’s what we need more than anything.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Berakah" for a People Weathering Economic Downturn

I have returned from a week of refreshing renewal at the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Dick Eslinger taught writing the berakah (Hebrew "blessing"), the traditional form for prayer in Jewish faith. This form was the context of early Christian eucharistic prayers and is divided into three sections: blessing God for God's majestic and creative works, thanksgiving for God's redemptive actions, and petition.

While, interestingly, Hebrew has no real word for "thanksgiving", I found the berakah to be a deeper way to pray than my typical prayers of surfacy thanks. I wrote a "Berakah for a People Weathering Economic Downturn" and I hope it blesses you during this week:

I. Blessed are you, ever-so-personal Creator
of all that was, and is, and is to come,
of all that is born and all that dies,
For you breathe into us life's breath.
You feed famished souls with good food of the earth.
You quench parched spirits with flowing waters of grace.

II. We give you thanks, Holy One,
for awakening in us every desire to
breathe, to eat, and to drink,
for it is your deeper desire to give.
We thank you, for giving us your Son,
Jesus Christ, who calls us to consider the lilies of the field
and the birds of the air.
We know that you provide. You are Jehovah Jireh,
the Great Provider.

III. Have mercy, Living God, on us who
forget with our hearts what we know in our minds,
that you are the source of all breath, food, water, and life.
We sing occasional praise from one side of our mouths,
while we continually speak words of trust in our own
security and exacting control,
in our banking institutions and investments,
with the other side of our mouths.
Restore us, oh Lord, to a people who
live out of your abundant goodness
rather than cowering in our self-created sense of scarcity.
Bring us back to dependence on the one thing,
love of God and neighbor,
when we are disturbed by so many things.
It is enough, oh Lord, for YOU are enough.

Blessed be you, oh keeper of the universe,
who draws us back to your heart.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Spirituality of Thanksgiving

I recently saw this fascinating article on the spirituality of gratitude. It is written by Father Kevin Goodrich, an Anglican Dominican priest. May it help prepare our hearts for Thanksgiving. I long for a more grateful heart, aware of the blessing of each breath, each moment, and each glimpse of beauty.

"Thank God" is perhaps the most basic form of prayer in Western civilization. Even if we didn’t grow up in a home that immersed itself in a rich tradition of spirituality most people would have some familiarity with the idea of table grace. In my work with families over the years I’ve always been amused by the "forced" thankfulness of some young people. If you’re a parent or where once a child you probably know what I’m talking about. Here is how it works. A parent comes to pick up their child from some activity at school, sports, or church. As they leave the parent inevitably says, "Did you say thank you?" to which the child replies with a monotone "thank you," as he/she walks off to the car. In families where manners are valued the idea of please and thank you are drilled into children from infancy. I’m not complaining about this because it was drilled into me and I’m glad it was.

Yet I wonder how much of this robotic responsiveness to thankfulness continues to influence our spirituality of thankfulness as adults. Consider the fact that in general we tend to approach thankfulness as an obligation and not as spontaneous response of gratitude. We write thank you notes because we’re supposed to, and we say thank you to gifts, lunches, and compliments that are less than appealing because we want to be polite. Recent events in our country and across the world bring out glints of genuine thankfulness in our hearts and from our lips. When a crisis strikes a neighbor or a different part of the country we are often reminded of our blessings. We pause to consider that our life isn’t so bad after all and we are very grateful that whatever tragedy has struck, hasn’t struck in our backyard.

Even this kind of thankfulness fails to capture the spirit of Christian thankfulness rooted in the Bible. It is true thankfulness but in a way it’s a thankfulness that says "I’m glad those other people got hurt, and not me." Closer to the Biblical notion of thankfulness is the mere acknowledged of your heartbeat. The simple thanks for the air you breathe or an innate sense of gratitude when watching children playing. It’s a thankfulness that has been placed deep in our hearts by the Spirit of God. It’s a posture that we as followers of Jesus are to approach life with.

Life may have its up and downs, but we won’t change our posture. Christians are fundamentally called to be a thanksgiving people. Are you a thanksgiving person?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Thoughts on the Election of Obama

This week, we witnessed with awe an extremely significant moment in history as the first African American was elected to the presidency of the United States.

I don’t wish to discuss partisan issues, and I affirm differences and disagreements as a healthy part of life. I do not believe either major party is entirely right or wrong, and Christians vote faithfully for different candidates based on the Christian values most important to them. But no matter who we voted for, I’d like to suggest that we pause and do two things.

First, we are called to support our president whoever that may be! I have said this after every election for all the years of my ministry. The new president is our president and we support him with fervent prayers, open minds, and willing hearts. It is important to give witness to our Christian faith by working together, even with those whom we disagree. The strength of a democracy is that candidates fight and debate hard, out of desire to serve the country they love. When the people have spoken, it is time to put fighting to rest and come together as one. If we don't, we don't really trust in the purposes of democracy, do we? I encourage you to express your discomfort to others who might continue negative rhetoric, including rhetoric against those who lost.

Second, let us take note what has happened here historically. As I shared many weeks ago in a sermon, it delighted me that no matter which way the election went, an important glass ceiling would be broken. One has been broken indeed, in a nation with a very difficult story of race relations beginning with our original sin of slavery. This is a defining moment that I would lift up regardless of which party won the White House.

My Wednesday night Bible study mused about this the day after the election. Some could personally remember when it was illegal for women to vote. Others recalled the poll tax and other prejudice practices which prevented elections from being fully inclusive. Still others, like me, were born later than all that, but born in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement when the injustice of segregation was addressed with a great deal of pain and passion. For most of our lives, it would have been very difficult to imagine this day.

I love our country very much. For me, part of that love is honestly recognizing its struggles as well as honoring its accomplishments. I believe this election is a significant historical event in the life of our nation, and I pray that it helps in the healing of some very old pain as well as giving those historically less privileged a renewed sense of hope. We can be prouder than ever to be American.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Prayer for the Presidential Election

This is a wonderful prayer by Ken Carter for the United States Presidential Election. May this be our prayer as the people of God. I pray that whatever the outcome, we unite around our new president as one, trusting that the people have spoken.

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation and the hope of earth and heaven:

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:
That we live under God,
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.

We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:
The displacement of native peoples,
racial injustice, economic inequity, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ
be a peaceable people in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace,
justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship, and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Can a Christian Celebrate Halloween?

Of course. However, many contemporary Christians are concerned about Halloween. Given the rise in the practice of witchcraft, the occult, and satanic worship, coupled with the fact that the deepest roots of the Halloween tradition come from an ancient pagan Celtic festival which pre-dates Christian faith, I believe that it is important that every parent have an awareness of what lies behind the Halloween tradition. Many of us will celebrate the fun and frolic this year, and how we practice and teach this cultural tradition to our children needs to be an informed decision.

There is a lot written on the subject of a Christian response to Halloween from a variety of sources, ranging from the most belligerent and judgmental to the most academic in nature. Some Christian criticism of Halloween is erroneous and inaccurate when compared with the actual roots of the festival. So here's my attempt to offer an accurate assessment of the origins of Halloween. I hope it helps Christian families make a decision on their acknowledgement of the holiday.

Origins of Halloween

Contrary to some Christian criticism, Halloween did not originate as a satanic festival but as religious in nature (though it was the Celtic faith of ancient Druids rather than Christianity). This is an important distinction, for any association between Halloween and satanic worship is a modern phenomenon. In Celtic faith, there was no real concept of heaven or hell. Some fundamentalist sources have called Halloween a festival worshipping the devil or a “demonic god of death”, which is not accurate. Halloween is a descendant of the ancient Celtic new year festival of Samhain, a feast of the dead signaling the close of the harvest and the initiation of winter. There is no evidence that Samhain was considered a deity as claimed. The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal happiness called Tir nan Og. It was believed that at Samhain, the turn of the new year, the separation between Tir nan Og and our world was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead.

The origins of what we call "trick or treating" come from the most ancient form of the festival. Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. But they did imagine that fairies, neither bad nor good, would roam the lands between the worlds of the living and peaceful dead (in a sort of "purgatory"). Resentful of humans moving about their lands, they would try to trick them. Bonfires were lit to ward off the mythical figures. Humans would cause mischief and imitate or dress up like these fairies, going from house to house begging for treats, which usually amounted to food or milk. The people who roamed abroad would sometimes carry turnips carved with faces with a candle inside to scare away the "real" fairies and also light their way. This is the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern.

Little else is known about the festival, except that it was an important transition into the new year, with party-like fervor like modern new year celebrations. It is true that in its most ancient practice there was probably animal and possibly human sacrifice, not unlike other pagan religious practice of the ancient world. There is also evidence of divination and playful fortune telling practices, which is the origin of "bobbing for apples" (the first to bite was the next to get married, like the modern toss of the wedding bouquet).

While there is historical evidence of ancient occult practice and what we now call witchcraft in the origins of Halloween, these practices were consistent with ancient pagan religious life according to their world-view. In recent decades, satanic and cultic groups have claimed Halloween as a "holy day,” but Christian accusations concerning demonism or satanic worship in the ancient festival are simply not accurate.

All Saints' Day - a Day of the Church

One of the most wonderful things we can do in the church is use the occasion of Halloween to teach about All Saints' Day. The Church practice of All Saints Day developed in the seventh century A.D. It was originally called the Feast of the Holy Martyrs and developed independently of Samhain to praise God and honor the deceased of the Christian faith. Yet centuries later (the A.D. 800's), the day was assigned to November 1 to coincide with, yet by no means adopt, what had continued as a local harvest festival. This sort of dating was not unusual. Christmas, for example, was set on December 25 to coincide with and alter the meaning of a pagan holiday celebrated as the winter solstice Festival of the Unconquered Sun. Even the English word "Easter" reflects the name of a pagan cultural festival originally associated with the season.

Modern churches practice All Saints' and All Saints' Sunday (the first Sunday after November 1) and remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and our spiritual connection between all the "saints" of earth and those that have gone to heaven. We celebrate in the spirit of the book of Hebrews 11 and 12 and remember the "cloud of witnesses" that give us energy to carry on the work of the gospel.

An interesting twist on all this is that the name "Halloween" is actually derived from its later association with All Saints, formerly called "All Hallows" during Medieval times. October 31 became called "All Hallows Eve" and the name was later shortened to "Halloween."

The Christian and Halloween

You and your family can decide what is appropriate for you as Halloween is celebrated in our culture, and I don't propose a singular solution. You may want to consider alternatives, some of which may be subtle (dressing up in "good character" costumes not associated with evil, displaying harvest pumpkins, or having family parties). I would certainly suggest using the holiday to teach children about the triumph in Christ of good over evil and the joy and celebration of All Saints. Churches, too, could consider some form of an alternative witness through festivals, food drives, or trunk parties rather than participating in the darker side of Halloween. In any case, it is always important for God's people to resist all serious association with the scary, the superstitious, and anything that gives credence to the occult.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Comparison of Political Party Platforms and the United Methodist Church

Methodists are a diverse people. Wesley is well known for saying “we may not all think alike, but can we not all love alike?” Even though we see things in different ways, as a whole we take seriously our Christian calling when it comes to good citizenship. Did you know there are more Methodists in congress than any other denomination? Yet the fact that both Hillary Clinton and George Bush are members of the United Methodist Church might tell you something about our diversity of viewpoint.

With the election coming, it's important for Christians be prepared to vote based on our faith's heart leadings and in light of the complex issues of our day. I would like to share with you a helpful document from the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. It encourages thoughtful voting and is intended as a discernment tool to help evaluate potential leaders and political agendas as they relate to the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Check out the Comparison of Political Party Platforms and The United Methodist Church.

Friday, October 17, 2008

May God Bless You with Discomfort

Here is a Franciscan Blessing I recently shared in worship. I found it to be powerful. What do you think?

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Last Lecture

On Sunday, I shared about Randy Pausch's inspiring "last lecture" while considering our theme "Journey to a Grateful Heart." Facing death from pancreatic cancer (which transpired 3 months ago), he delivered this lecture to his students a year ago on "Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." He had found such a place of deep gratitude about life. I long to be at such peace and perspective. Here it is:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mysticism as Encountering the Divine

I recently heard a brief and fascinating interview given by Carl McColman. He finds a way to clarify what mysticism is in his interview on mysticism. Check it out!

Here is what I wrote on his blog in response:

Thank you so much for this. Your basic premise, that a mystic is one who finds a way into direct contact with God, is one I really resonate with. By that definition, there are certainly mystics in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I have experienced, by grace, “mystical moments” along my journey, powerful moments when I felt a deep sense of oneness with God, often in the midst of intense struggle or searching. They were serendipitous and completely transformative. For me, they are a means of grace, gifts given me for a moment in time but for a meaning that transcends momentary time. It is not that I long for some kind of permanent and complete union with God while still on earth, nor is that even possible. But there are “thin places” along the journey of life and ministry that I relish.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Word for Each Decade of Life

Have you ever pondered each decade of your life as you look back? I suppose this would only work for those who have lived a few! Someone once defined spirituality as "poring over the stuff of life." This summer, I spent some time at Lake Junaluska, a pristine retreat setting in the Carolina mountains. I walked the beautiful two mile lake walk, and about 1/2 way around I saw the most gorgeous sunset shimmer over the water. I sat for a long, pregnant time of quiet. I am 43 years old. I could very well be at the 1/2 way point of my life, and what a shimmering place it seems to be for me. I am ready for the next chapter of my journey, whatever life brings.

Considering that I was at Junaluska on a mission of leadership that is new for me, I pondered what one word might describe each decade of my life to this point, and what one word might describe the season I am in now. What an exercise. I concluded that the first decade of my life was about GROWING. The second decade of my life was about BECOMING, discovering who I was and setting the basic direction of my life. The third decade was about STRIVING, about pushing to find my way, setting up career and family. The fourth decade was about LEARNING, and there were some very hard lessons to learn, too. What would be the decade I am in? Perhaps it's about MATURING. I hope so. I am in a new place and we'll see what it will be like to look back on it.

What single word might describe each decade of your life?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Voting Your Faith

My old high school friend, Greg, is the youth minister at a Catholic church near me. In this week's GregCast, he encourages people to "vote your faith" through a humorous, absurd journey through the world of stereotyping. He drives from store to store trying to ask people who they are voting for. It's silly and thoughtful at the same time. He asks really good questions about why we are afraid to talk about our beliefs. Check it out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga

Many summers of my adult life, I have been a part of the leadership team of Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga. It is one of the "thin places" in my life where I have found a deeper sense of God's presence and I sense the Spirit moving pervasively as adults, youth, and children discover their gifts that can be used to glorify God.

There is now a video to promote Music and Arts Week, made by last year's videography class. Check out the Music and Arts Week Video!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thoughts on the Bailout

I wouldn't dream of suggesting how our nation should address this economic crisis. I try to be a thoughtful voter as a part of my Christian spirituality and I seek responsible citizenship, but I'm certainly no economist. I will have to trust others on this one.

But I am intrigued by the huge sum that is being proposed to bail out Wall Street, and so suddenly. I saw a quote by the well known rock star Bono that has left me prayerfully mulling over how this experience is a real look in the mirror concerning our values. He says,

"It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to save 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

G8 (the "Group of Eight") is an unofficial summit of leaders from the richest nations of the world. I don't understand the politics of Bono's statement, really, but I do understand the tragic truth in what he is observing.

Lord Jesus, help us. Cleanse and make new your people of the earth. Nudge us into the realization that we can touch the world by being good stewards of that which you have given us. This is not a world of scarcity but a world of bounty. There is enough for your children. There is enough.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Marshmallow Moments

I've had a lot of wonderful conversations since this past Sunday about "marshmallow moments." I told a story in my sermon of a vivid memory with my younger brother, sorting out marshmallows two by two to make absolutely sure it's "fair", only to find that my parents gave him some more. I don't always post a link to my sermon, but would like to do that today for anyone who has time to listen. Maybe you've had "marshmallow moments," too, from early childhood to last week at work - moments when you feel shafted, when life seems so unfair. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard reminds us that grace is not fair. It's a gift. How can we approach life as a gift instead of always comparing ourselves with others? Here's the link to my Sermon Archive and you can click "Turnabout is Fair Pay" from there.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Blessing of St. Teresa

Let nothing disturb you
nothing distress you;
while all things
fade away,
God is unchanging.

Be patient,
for with God
in your heart
nothing is lacking,
God is enough.

As I reflect on this blessing of St. Teresa today, I pray that you give me neither poverty or riches, neither ease or angst, neither notariety or irrelevance. Give me, oh Lord, just what I need to serve you with my whole heart, for your gifts are enough. Nothing is lacking.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Forgiveness is the Attribute of the Strong

I saw this quote today and wanted to share it, since my sermon last week generated several good discussions about forgiveness around the church. The quote is "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Spirituality and Elections

I read a fascinating column on spirituality and elections that we might want to keep in mind as we sort through all the mudslinging this year. My favorite quote is "Yes, we rightly have an institutional separation between church and state in this country. Which is for the protection of both. But on a human level it is much more messy." It has been interesting to watch the intricate weaving of religion and politics during the last few elections cycles, for good and for bad. Another good quote is "I'm sure life might be simpler if we had a clear separation between faith and politics. But we can't divorce the two because we can't be human and not be spiritual. And this connection means that we must make sure that political ideology doesn't run away with our churches and also that our churches don't disconnect from the political sphere. We have to live in this tension, make choices and accept the consequences." I think the idea of living in the tension, and doing our best to integrate faith and life as a voter, is priceless. The full article is at Spirituality and Elections.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Pastor's Spiritual Life

I found an article on the The Pastor's Spiritual Life I encourage you to link to. I really appreciated the article and couldn't agree more!

I have been a pastor for 19 years. About halfway through that journey, a series of experiences cracked open the hard outer shell of my heart and I realized how empty I was on the inside. I was functioning well and doing a good job, but not attentive to the hidden cave of my own soul. I found spiritual formation experiences to be lifegiving water, first through retreats at the monastery and then through the Academy for Spiritual Formation. There was an immense and intense cavern of emptiness within me that I was trying to deny and hide from my own consciousness, yet it was just waiting to be explored. When Christ's healing light began to shine on that hidden space, it became quite a beautiful journey of discovery.

We live in such a functional, success-driven culture that I think pastors unfortunately do not discover this deep truth unless they make it through a time of heartache or struggle and rediscover their thirst for God.

We are so much more prone to "doing" than "being". The key is growing to abide in Christ, the true vine, and trust in him for the fruit. We abide through making time and space for God to do soul work in us.

I would add one thing to what they have written in the article. They note the important disciplines of prayer, scripture meditation, and silence. These are indeed means of grace, but I would add authentic, honest community (through a covenant group, spiritual direction, etc.) as a necessary ingredient. This was the power of the Methodist society, so we should be the first to recognize its importance in our spiritual formation. Our spirituality can not burn brightly when void of relationship and loving, mutual accountability.

There is much focus on effectiveness in ministry, but the article has rightly shown that we define that effectiveness so narrowly, and usually in merely functional ways. Perhaps our lack of fuller vision is a byproduct of our denominational anxiety about institutional loss. For me, it is all about finding my holy center in God.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dancing in Front of the Casket

I went to a funeral recently that was one of the most wonderful resurrection experiences I've ever had. It was for an outstanding Methodist laywoman and friend, held at a Missionary Baptist Church where some of her family attend. It was so amazing, so energizing to attend a funeral of African American style and spirituality. The singing, the constant improvisation, the musical praying, the dialogue of Word and music, and the wonderful processional and recessional was a rich liturgy, though not in the sense I have usually thought of liturgy. It was so freeing, and so joyful. It opened my heart.

One of the most striking moments was when the choir was singing a selection and a woman near the front, dressed in a pink pants suit, jumped up and started dancing in front of the coffin. I don't mean a "liturgical dance" ... I mean it was a holy boogie! She just danced in joy around our friend's body. I'd never seen anything like it, and since I was sitting to the side (near the piano where I shared a musical selection earlier), I got a full view of her face. In some ways, it was the most beautiful worship moment I've ever seen. I found myself swept away for a moment into the glory of heaven.

And why not dance in front of the casket? Do we not believe in resurrection and new life? Do we not believe our friend had been ushered into heaven? How can we hold back this joy?

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Little Humor About Prosperity Spirituality

I love this lighthearted look at a contemporary American spirituality that I find quite troubling.

All humor aside, I find prosperity teaching to be lurking around our religious climate. Ultimately it's a dead-end street. Christ did not come to help us get rich, achieve great things, be successful, or win friends and influence people. He came to save, which (Biblically) means to make whole that which is broken, to heal. Jesus is not a tool I keep in my pocket to pull out and use when I want something. He is the Way, and he is an entirely new way, the way of opening my heart to the bigger picture of God's grace rather than focusing on the little picture of myself and what I want and desire. Faith is about taking up a cross that leads to new life. It's about abiding in the true vine, and trusting that our lives will bear fruit God has designed for us. This is the greatest abundance of life, not that God showers us with all the blessings we desire and it trickles down to others, but that we become part of the great picture of what God is blessing. Even our problems, struggles, and pain are not so much things to get rid of but part of the context of a bigger picture. I prefer to think not that Christ gives us all things, but that all things draw us to Christ.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thoughts After the Political Conventions

I don't normally write about politics on my blog, in part because one thing I love about Christian faith, and about contemplative spirituality in particular, is that it is a journey that transcends the things that divide. I do think it's important to vote and be involved in social action and transformational ministry as a part of our Christian call, but I also believe that faithful Christians who prayerfully consider what is best will vote in different ways and believe in different views on complex issues. If we do not believe this (and claim there is only one "Christian" way to look at things), we not only do a grave disservice to the theory of the democratic process, but to the exercise of Christian ethics!

Well, both the Democratic and Republican conventions are over and the darker side of politics (i.e. mud slinging) has certainly begun. I always struggle during elections because it seems like we give into taking the low road. I see too much posturing and not enough intelligent discussion. Those of us who are committed to prayerfulness, and to the principle of practicing the presence of God as a radical alternative to "us and them" thinking, can also slip into the anxious bantering.

Not me. I invite you to join me in refraining from labeling, categorizing, and generalizing and trust the process. I want to encourage all of us prayerfully consider who we will vote for and trust that if others do the same, the outcome is probably going to be generally best for us. If not, the journey will teach us something.

As a Christian, I have thought a lot about a variety of social issues. I do not believe either major party is completely right or completely wrong. Both parties need to grow, to improve, to consider and reconsider their positions. I believe with one major party's platform about some important matters and with the other party's platform about other matters. So I vote based on what I think is best overall in terms of being faithful to what I believe is most important. And all of this is trumped by my spirituality of the kingdom of God, which I believe is not of this world but is breaking in by waves of the Spirit.

Let me add that no matter what the outcome of the election in November, this is going to be a historical, barrier breaking experience we should all be very proud of! Talk to your children about this and reflect on what this means. Either the first African American or the first woman will be elected. Either way, we are witnessing history and social change, and one important step of healing for a long history of brokenness. I have longed for this day.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Meditation on Our Anniversary

This weekend, Sandy and I retreated to Atlanta and Stone Mountain for our 20th anniversary. We ate at Everybody's Pizza, the first place we ever went out to eat together. We replayed our first date at the Stone Mountain Laser Show. What a wonderful trip down memory lane.

It is amazing to reflect on what marriage means to me. What a beautiful design God laid down for our lives. God so ordered our lives that we would become one flesh and create a family. Sandy and I participate in the picture God pressed into the fabric of creation, and there is great blessing in being part of something much bigger than we are. It's not that marriage is an institution, though our culture is built around that assumption. No, it's that marriage is a form of completion, a way of being made whole. It's not the only way, and there are certainly those called to the single life. But for us, it is an integral part of our spirituality. Marriage is companionship, it is togetherness that brings our loneliness into a sense of wholeness. It is both solitude and communion. It is oneness for our brokenness.

My wife does not complete me in the sense that Christ completes me. But together, Sandy and I journey in love. We are not alone on this lone quest for God. There is great wisdom in the vows of marriage. There has been better and worse, there has been richer and poorer, there has been sickness and health. But we honor each other with all of who we are.

I'm thankful for 20 years of finding great joy in the stuff of life. It's a joy that comes not because every moment is "happy," but because we are finding it together. Marriage ushers our spirits into the great joy and praise of creation. We were made for one another.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ordinary Radicals

I saw this trailer for an upcoming movie. I am leading a Wednesday Night Bible Study on "The Radical Edge of Jesus" so I can't wait to show it to them.

Regardless of how diverse we are on political and social issues, I do believe there is a movement within contemporary Christianity to reclaim the power of the radical nature of Christ. Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven was "at hand" and among us, and taught us to pray that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. This is radical, precisely because it is rooted in the assumption that God's kingdom is breaking into our present reality and transforming it in mysterious and almost subversive ways. Isn't it true that when we live Christ's radical love, it leads us to lay aside many of our cultural assumptions valuing success, achievement, power, and influence?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to Make a Difficult Decision

Everything we do in the church must be rooted in the mystery of the incarnation. Christ is present and the Spirit is at work. How do you make a difficult decision? I felt led to write down some notes:

1) With a sense of discernment about God's will for us (this is more important than individual opinions)

2) With a sense of consensus building (this takes time, and does not necessarily mean that all will agree, but that we find a place where it is best to live together on the issue)

3) With a sense of deep respect for our differences (much church conflict is rooted in the assumption that others do, or should, see things like we do)

4) With a sense of "seasoning our speech with salt" (a phrase from Colossians, how we say something is just as important as what we say, we are called to speak the truth in love)

5) With a sense of trusting the process (the journey is often more important than the outcome)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Ahas" from the Academy This Week

It seems I always come home from an Academy experience with a couple of "ahas," insights that God has spoken into the deepest part of me. Here are two for this week.

Spirituality is healing. It is a response to the brokenness we experience in four areas: relationship with God, relationship with ourselves, relationship with others, and relationship with creation. This was a profound insight for me, for this is how I have personally experienced spiritual formation. Grace continually touches the deepest part of who I am. It is not that I was once in the dark night, and now things are better, so I can move on to something else. Rather, spirituality is a lifelong journey of healing through the grace of Christ that will bring me finally into the bare presence of God, as earthly life comes to an end.

Spirituality is waiting. It is about waiting for Christ's birth as Mary waited, and when the Word is born in me, "waiting actively" as it grows into maturity and completion. I need to restore a sense of waiting in my daily quiet time, trusting as I give God time and space to do soul work in me. My daily time with God needs reformation. I need to do less and listen more.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I'm Off to the Academy!

I'm about to attend my first week as a team member of a two-year Academy for Spiritual Formation, meeting at Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. I will serve as Worship Coordinator and I'm so very excited. There is something about leading Academy worship from the piano that fits my spirit like a glove. It is hard to explain, but it's as if the gifts I can humbly offer and all my passions converge into one moment in time.

I am reflecting with deep gratitude on all the Academy has meant in my spiritual journey during this past decade of deepening. I recently past the "10-year anniversary" of some difficult and formative experiences that cracked open the protective shell of my heart and exposed me a deep cavern in my soul, ready for exploration and exposure to the healing, cleansing light of Christ. The Academy came into my life about 1/2 way through that 10-year journey.

I have experienced new life. The Academy gave focus, clarity, and articulation to the rumblings of the heart God had been creating in me. I have discovered that:
  • Christian life (and ministry) is not so much about "doing" but about "being".

  • I am called to become like a tree, planted by streams of flowing water. If I am truly grounded, when heat comes my leaves will stay green, and when drought comes I will not cease to bear fruit.

  • Prayer is not my work, but about allowing God time and space to do "soul work" in me.

  • My lifelong quest is not to perform and function, but to abide in the true vine, so that I bear fruit that will last.

  • All my anxious strivings for success and achievement reflect cultural values I have imposed on the gospel, and I am called to a journey of letting go, living from my center (my true self, the "Christ self" in me).

  • Scripture is a place where I can go to be transformed, and prayer is a place where my spirit can dance.

  • Much of the spiritual journey is a dark night of the soul.

  • Relationships are both my greatest blessing and my deepest struggle. Forgiveness is a continual journey.

  • Christ draws me near in the midst of pain as well as in "mystical moments" of grace.

  • My joy is a choice.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

History Brings a Sense of Perspective

Last week, Sandy and I drove to Franklin, Tennessee and took a tour of Carnton Plantation. It is near the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, a desperate attempt of the confederates to retake Franklin and turn the tide. Some 8,000 to 9,500 died.

We had the most mesmerizing tour guide I've ever heard. He even answered questions poetically. Perhaps for the first time, I felt the cold, entrenched pain of this tragic war that dealt with America's original sin of slavery. In this quiet little community, the clock struck 4:00 on November 30, 1864, and 20,000 gray coats stood against 20,000 blues. There was a knock on the door of the plantation house, and a gray coated gentleman gently stated the non-negotiable request that this house be used as a hospital. The blood stains on the floor remain and remind.

History at times gives me a deep and liberating sense of perspective. We get so upset over such little things. Somebody doesn't like us, or opposes us, and we can't get what we want. Somebody makes our life difficult, or an issue overtakes our consciousness. Jesus said to Martha, "you are anxious about many things," and his words describe us.

Yet nobody is knocking ono our door of my house to take it, because it happens to be in the middle of a bloodbath. None of the things that bother me really matter, compared to the huge events that shape history.

So help me, Lord, to let it all go. Help me, with Paul, to "count it nothing but joy." I am privileged and blessed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Turnabout is God's Play

"Let the redeemed of the Lord say so." Psalm 107 is one of my favorite psalms because it reminds me, with its rich literary parallels, that it is only because of what God has done in me that I may speak of it. Must we not have gone through the hard journey, and been made new in the midst, in order to be able to articulate the depths and heights of grace?

Those who have gone through the desert wasteland of depression, and God gave a way through, are able to truly give praise. Those who were imprisoned in the darkness of sin, and God granted release, are able to articulate true freedom. Those who have been sick and grieved, and God poured out healing, are able to speak of wholeness in Him. Those who have sailed through the storms and throes of life, and found stillness, are able to truly give thanks.

The psalm closes with a poetic expression of grace, which turns rivers into deserts and also turns deserts into pools of water. It destroys and restores. Turnabout is God's play. Grace works through our ups and downs, and we find voice to speak of God's way through, God's release, God's healing, and God's stillness. Lord, you have given me something to speak, and I am grateful for the journey.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Made It to "Finals" for Hymnal Committee!

Thanks to those of you who offered prayers and assistance as I made myself available for consideration for the Hymnal Revision Committee!

As I feared, with all the categories for inclusivity the Council of Bishops had to pay attention to, I was not included on the final list of at-large members of the Hymnal Revision Committee.

While I'm disappointed (only because it got this far!), I knew it was a longshot from the beginning. I also knew there was a good possibility I would not wind up on the committee, though I was one of the 2 nominees from the Southeastern Jurisdictional Council on Bishops. I guess you could say I made it to the "finals" ... and I really enjoyed trying!

Just so you are aware of how "nearly miraculous" it would have been to be selected, there were 2 nominess from each Jurisdiction (it was an incredible honor to be nominated at this level). But once the 10 nominees from across the country were put together, an Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops had to make sure 3 were laymen, 3 were laywomen, 2 were clergywomen, and only 2 were clergymen. They needed to be sensitive to racial inclusivity as well. As I said, it was a longshot.

My name was, however, forwarded by the bishops as one of the "consultants" that the committee and staff may call on. I am not sure what the next steps are, but I will probably be involved in the process through some level of feedback and consultation. I'm looking forward to being part of a new hymnal for the United Methodist Church in whatever way I can, and again, it was a thrill to be seriously considered for this venture!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Movement from Illusion to Prayer

This quote from Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out resonates in my soul.

"The movement from illusion to prayer requires a gradual detachment from all false ties and an increasing surrender to him from whom all good things come. It takes courage to move away from the safe place to the unknown ... giving up the familiar and reaching out with open arms toward him who transcends all our mental grasping and clinging makes us very vulnerable ... It is a sign of spiritual maturity when we can give up our illusory self-control and stretch out our hands to God. But it would be just another illusion too believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering. Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go. But we know that without going there we will not find our life."

Over the last ten years, I have been on this wayfaring journey from illusion to prayer. It has not been easy, but it is so lifegiving to hear Nouwen and others articulate the transformation of the heart that I have been slowly experiencing. God is opening a whole world of grace, which brings both a peace beyond all understanding and a depth of pain and compassion for the hurting world.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Holy Moments of Electing a Bishop

I am back from my first experience at Jurisdictional Conference and reflecting on what it was like to participate in the election of Bishop Leeland. There was something deeply spiritual about it and I have been trying to discern what it is. I felt a sense of holiness because participating in this act of “apostolic succession” put me in touch with a vast tradition of preserving the unity and order of God’s church. The apostle Paul called us “stewards of the mysteries of grace.” As messy and imperfect as church life can be, I felt as if I were joining something that has been flowing powerfully through many centuries. I was caught up in a current that is larger than me, and that gives me a profound sense of trust in what God is doing despite our flaws and culture's moods. The worship preparing us for elections was a deep, meditative reminder that this is all about discerning God’s will. How can we keep our focus on the Holy Spirit when it is tempting to simply think in terms of politics? I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Left Behind" Meets "You've Got Mail"

Sometimes that which is a faithful effort for some can strike me as truly humorous. One of my parishoners showed me this. Did you know that for $40 a year, you can arrange for dozens of friends and family to receive an email message 6 days after the rapture? "You've Been Left Behind gives you one last opportunity to reach your lost family and friends for Christ," reads the website. An added feature is that a few can get 150 megabites of personal documents from you. Check it out at .

Monday, July 14, 2008

Prayers While I'm at Jurisdictional Conference

Hello everyone! I'm leaving for Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church where I will be serving as a delegate, elected by clergy peers here in North Alabama. I will enjoy a few days of vacation after that while in North Carolina. If you would join me in prayer during this meeting for discernment, I'd really appreciate it. Here is some information on Jurisdictional Conference that might help you hold me in prayer. You can see what Jurisdictional Conference is, and even read daily reports and see live video feeds. It's at .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Meditation on Ruby Falls

This is my article which is published in the January/February 2009 issue of "Alive Now." - Steve West

There is a deep, beautiful chasm within us waiting to be discovered and explored.

I recently took my son to Ruby Falls, a magnificent underground waterfall in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had forgotten how glorious a place it is. I love to visit caves because they capture my imagination and remind me of the context of our lives in the expanse of history. For some 200 million years, this chasm had been forming, slowly growing in beauty and yet completely undiscovered until one man, looking for another cave altogether, stumbled into it with a drill and shone the first light in that dark space. I can only imagine what it must have been like to crawl into it the very first time, with fear and trembling, and see the first sparkles of light reflect off the water cascading from the cavern above.

The difference between what was completely obscured, frightening, and dangerous, and what was beautiful to behold, was the introduction of light. The beauty was already there but remained vast, dark, and unseen. Now that it is illuminated, it is a wonder to behold.

Many of us live our lives on the surface of who we are, in the world of doing and functioning and relating. By doing so we can live very good and faithful lives. Perhaps we have no idea what lies underneath the thick crust of our personalities, or perhaps we have an inkling that something is there but dreadfully fear what might lurk in the darkness. So we stay on the surface where the playing field is predictable. Yet by God’s grace, there comes a time of deepening awareness, when we stumble into the dark night of the soul while looking for who knows what. We find a whole new undiscovered realm of spiritual beauty awaiting our attention.

It took me years to discover this interior space and begin inviting Christ into the dark places underneath the surface of who I am, shining his healing and cleansing light to chase away the fear and evil and illuminate the inner beauty God had been creating in me. For although I am a sinner in need of grace, I was created in the image of God.

There is a reason Jesus and the writers of the New Testament loved the metaphor of light. Christ’s light "shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it" (John 1:4). When we become willing to go to that hidden, silent space and invite God in, Christ’s light blesses and beautifies. We can lead active and productive lives on the surface with a transformative connection to our inmost self, our quiet center in God that has been carved out for us since the foundation of the earth. We have always had this interior place of the soul, but out of fear we dared not open it up and explore it. By grace, God cracks open our shell and it becomes a place that Christ's light can fill and make new.

This is the Christian spiritual journey.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Why I Went to the Academy

The Director of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, Jerry Haas, asked me why I went to the Academy. Here was my answer to him.

After years of ministry, I found myself spent and was drawing from an empty well. I had become really good at doing church work and had at the same time neglected my own soul. It took a painful situation to expose this chasm of emptiness to my own awareness, and as I embarked on the journey of healing I discovered a whole world of spirituality and passion within me for something more. I began to see that all I was experiencing was a dark night of the soul that put me in touch with centuries of spiritual flow. I set out on a quest that brought me first to a monastery, then to the writings of spiritual masters, and then to the Academy. I felt undeniably drawn to it because the rhythm and balance enlivened a craving for silence, authentic community, and a life of prayer in me. Through the Academy, I found rootedness for the first time in my life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Raccoons Are Welcome

A "Folk Mystic" Finds Forgiveness
by Steve West

The early years of ministry left me with a few scars. I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from occasional experiences of conflict in the household of God.

One spring, my family went camping at Cumberland Island, Georgia. A national wildlife preserve, the island features armadillo, palmetto, and wild horses running on the beach. Arriving at our campsite, I was struck by the sight of two poles. The first held a lockable food cage and instructions on how to outsmart raccoons scavenging at night. The second was to hang trash out of their reach.

One night, I neglected to tie up my trash. The night was filled with noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. I rose early next the morning to see the sight. Indeed the raccoons had come.

The scene drew me into meditation. Sitting in the midst of a mess, I spent time with three weighty thoughts. The first was “this is what raccoons do.” There’s no reason to be angry. Secondly, “they really didn’t hurt me.” Aside from the hassle, there was no pain. Finally, and most importantly, I thought “next time, I’ll tie my trash up higher.”

I opened my journal and feelings poured out. I listed the raccoons in my life, people who had “sorted through my trash” looking for something to criticize or consume. I prayed over them in light of my three revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn’t hurt me, not really. And maybe it’s time for me to learn a few boundaries, keeping my “trash” tied up higher.

I was led to the first chapter of Philippians. Paul was writing from prison of the raccoons in the church, not unbelievers but Christian preachers who had been sorting through his trash. “Some proclaim Christ from envy or rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.”(1:15-18a) What acceptance Paul had about life’s raccoons! Not only could he let go of their pain, he rejoiced in them.

The following Sunday, my sermon title was “Raccoons are Welcome.” I told my story, encouraging them to let go of anxiety about what others have done to us (or what we perceive they have done). In God’s household, raccoons are welcome. If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul’s raccoons were other preachers. And what does it matter? In all things, Christ is glorified.

On Monday, I felt a nudge, as if to say, “Steve, do you believe what you preached yesterday?” I pulled out a file of old letters from occasional conflicts I had experienced over the years. Why was I holding on to these raccoons?

On top was a more recent letter, so I thought “I’d better keep this one, just in case.” Laying it aside, I took the rest of the file and headed to the outdoor prayer trail. Sitting on a bench, I went through them one by one, praying and burning the letter. It was a time of release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of past pain. Once all were burned, I entered a time of stillness. The Spirit nudged me again. What about that letter still on my desk? Why not burn it too?

Suddenly, I heard a rustle in the bushes. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He raised his head and looked at me quizzically, then turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I said, “God, you have a sense of humor.”

Needless to say I burned that last letter.

Copyright 2008 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Sunday, July 6, 2008

God Has Spoken Himself Into That Very Situation With Grace

A couple of days after leaving my previous post, I watched a popular TV preacher say quite the opposite of what I have proposed. He said that God honors expectations with blessing, that "God meets us at the place of our highest expectations." He noted that God wants to make our dreams come true, and that we need to change our thoughts to claim the blessing of good things that are going to happen to us. I personally find prosperity spirituality to be a dead-end street. It feels more like "spiritual self-help" than a spirituality of the cross. It leaves me hungry for more of God and less of me. The greatest joy comes not in pursuing my goals and getting Jesus on my side to make it happen, but in looking beneath the struggle to see that God has spoken himself into that very situation with grace. If there is a restlessness in us for something more, it is not because we need God to pursue our dreams. It's because we need God.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Letting Go of High Expectations

After I left my response to a reader's comment on the previous post, I thought I should post a great link I found. It's a wonderful article entitled "Great Expectations". It notes how Christian spiritualists of old discovered the truth that letting go of high expectations leads to spiritual freedom. As a pastor, it has been an amazing journey to find that as I grow to tend to my own soul, rather than focusing on my expectations of everybody else, it's a journey of freedom. It's the grace of letting go and finding joy and humor in all of life.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Work of Spirituality

Here is a quote from Eugene Peterson's "The Contemplative Pastor" that resonated with me:

The work of spirituality is to recognize where we are - the particular circumstances of our lives - to recognize grace and say, "Do you suppose God wants to be with me in a way that does not involve changing my spouse or getting rid of my spouse or my kids, but in changing me, and doing something in my life that maybe I could never experience without this pain and suffering?"

One of the biggest fixations in our culture is that we expect others to live up to our expectations! It is a kind of "cultural perfectionism." We are profoundly disappointed when families, teachers, or churches do not love us perfectly or take care of our needs completely. Christian spirituality, however, leads us on a journey of discovering that only God loves with unconditional love. When we experience profound loneliness because we expect from each other what we can not give to one another, this pain draws us back to Christ. God is doing something in us in the darkness this suffering, for it is our own hearts that need changing.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Songs for Morning Prayer CD

Steve West had the privilege of serving as arranger, producer, and primary musician of this project. Copies are available for a free-will donation to the "Academy for Spiritual Formation" (see below).

Dedicated to ELISE ESLINGER, who for more than twenty-five years has worked with The Upper Room and The Academy for Spiritual Formation developing resources that are both theologically sound and Spirit-led.

Steve West - arranger and producer; keyboard, percussion, vocals
Gary Furr - guitar, vocals
Jeannie Crawford-Lee and Janet Nabors - vocals
Jeff McKee - engineer (Boutwell Studios, Birmingham, Alabama)

There are 10 tracks on this recording. There are 5 songs which may be used for Morning Prayer (with Upper Room Worshipbook in hand) recorded with voices/melody, followed by the same songs recorded without voices for use as accompaniment.

Songs on This Recording:

"All Are Welcome" - words and music by Marty Haugen
"Psalm 63" (In the Morning I Will Sing) - music by David Goodrich

"Blest Be the God of Israel" (Canticle of Zachary) - words by Michael Perry, music by Hal H. Hopson

"The Prayer of Jesus" (The Lord's Prayer) - words by Mother Thunder Mission, native American melody

"Song of Shalom", stanzas translated or written by Elise Esslinger, Mexican melody

Ordering Information

Steve West has them on hand to distribute for a free-will donation to "The Academy for Spiritual Formation" for scholarships. He will mail you the CD and forward your donation to the Academy. Mail a check made out to "The Academy for Spiritual Formation" (please enclose $3 additional cash for shipping) to him at:

Steve West
966 Fry Gap Road

Arab, Alabama 35016

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Pilgrimage Journey

I just returned from the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, where the theme for our faculty sessions was Pilgrimage. The pilgrimage metaphor has given me a great gift as I seek to understand my journey. The life of the Academy is part of my ongoing pilgrimage, initiated by the undeniable niggling hunger of my heart. This ongoing pilgrimage is larger than any single retreat or set of retreats. It is a marked path others have travelled before; it is the path of spiritual formation, the labyrinth journey, a circular homegoing. It is longing for my true home in Christ's arms and going to "thin places" where I can find healing, transformation, and rest, letting go of that which takes me away from center and taking up that which comes from my passion for God. Then returning to the base camp of ministry in our culture and world. This ongoing departure to sacred space, this continual pilgrimage and return, is my voluntary intention to leave behind the status quo and pursue what the restlessness of my heart draws me to. I am learning that most of my spiritual life is lived in the in-between places of going or returning.

I rely on a community of fellow travelers shaped by common experience, yet it is a subversive community for it changes all we leave behind when we pursue God together. We encounter resistance and find ordeal in our continual return to the world. For me, the greatest resistance is not without but within, yet I am slowly growing to trust in the "ministry of presence" in the setting I return to. I am becoming the kind of person I long for God's people to become, and not everyone will "get it." That's okay, for this is the nature of encounter with the holy.

I am being made into a subversive, cross-bearing, carrier of the fire, and most of my journey is not living on the mountaintop but in the darkness and ordeal of longing and return. This becomes more mysterious the longer I am on the journey as a wayfaring stranger. This subversiveness is the kingdom of God, and resistance is to be expected. I think something is wrong when it feels dry or dark, but nothing is wrong. So I stand on the threshold again and again, called to hear Christ's voice and follow the hearing, then to return changed from one degree of glory to another.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"God Whispers" at Auburn

I had one of those moments when God whispers to me at Camp War Eagle, of all places (registering my daughter for Auburn). I knew that Auburn was started by the Methodist Church. But taking an evening to rest and reflect, I happened upon a historical plaque in the Centennial Garden in front of the Foy Student Center. It outlined a journey that began in 1856 when Methodists began the “Alabama Men’s College” on that site to prepare leaders for ministry. 8 or 10 years later, the property was deeded to the state for an agricultural and mechanical college, which eventually became Auburn University.

I imagined what it must have been like to start this school for young pastors and then see it fail, having no idea where failure would lead. The denomination at that time was divided because of issues related to slavery, and in the middle of this mission project the Civil War broke out. I’m guessing that the economy fell apart, the school failed financially, and they deeded the school to the state to help with agricultural and mechanical needs related to Reconstruction.

While imagining all this, I went inside for a drink and came back out. Some students were serendipitously gathered around the pond singing “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” and the words resonated in my soul. It struck me powerfully that there was no way those who experienced what must have felt like a miserable failure of the church could have imagined that 150 years later, a thriving institution of 25,000 students, some of who sang “in the cross be my glory ever” as part of active religious life on campus, would be here because of what they tried to do.

When we take up the cross, we don’t have a snapshot of where it will lead 150 years later. In fact, we rarely see results. Moses did not get to set foot in the Promised Land, Abraham never saw the descendents as numerous as the stars, and Mary never met the generations that would call her blessed. We don’t get the glory, and rarely do we even see a glimpse of it. One of the deepest mysteries of the body of Christ is that our glory is in taking up the cross, and we trust God for the trajectory of where that might lead. God just might use us, in times of failure and perceived failure, for something wonderful. I had some amazing time of meditation, looking back over the decisions of my past and considering the decisions of my future, with all my failures and burdens, and pondering those of our church. I had a blessed time of putting it all in God’s hands, trusting God for the trajectory, for the “fruit that will last” if we would simply abide in him while we take up the cross. Faith is believing in what you can’t see.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"The Sound of Pentecost"

This is my column which appeared in the Huntsville Times on August 8, 2008 - Steve West

Years ago I heard music that would change my life. I was traveling to China on a mission tour with Christian youth from Alabama. One Sunday, we visited a Protestant Church in Nanjing.

I smile when I remember I was not entirely looking forward to it. The trip had been tiring and morning had come early. We had heard that the service was entirely in Chinese and the sermon was forty-five minutes long.

When we arrived, they had reserved space for us near the front. It was a good thing, too, for the room was absolutely full. I remember the face of an old woman with tattered clothes who sat right in front of me. She smiled at me warmly.

Drawn into a mystical experience, my spirit was captured by such wonderful, familiar music. We began by singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Chinese. I knew only one verse in English, but I sang it over and over just the same. Throughout the service, I found every note strangely familiar. The choir sang John Steiner’s “God So Loved the World,” with beautiful Chinese intonation. A shock wave moved through my spirit, for I had directed the choir of my home church in the very same piece two weeks earlier!

During the sermon (indeed forty-five minutes and in Chinese), I found myself intrigued by the songbook. Instead of the Western hymnal I was used to, it consisted simply of Chinese words with numbers printed above. I can remember the moment it dawned on me how the numbers represented the tune. “Jesus Loves Me,” for example, was notated “5-3-3-2-3-5-5.” Once I saw this, I searched from hymn to hymn to find tunes of my faith inside this book on the other side of the world. The magnitude of our connectedness filled my soul.

We sang again. By this time my heart was racing and my voice bellowed with whatever verse or phrase I could remember. I will never forget the face of the old woman sitting in front of me. In the midst of the song, she turned and looked at me with tears streaming down her face. It was my “Pentecost moment”, a profound experience when I realized that though we were separated by a world of culture, we could hear each other in our own language.

There is strangely familiar music that binds us together as God’s people, spanning the globe and moving through the centuries. Our spiritual lives do not develop in a vacuum. Our journey has context. We are notes of God’s creative instrument, beautiful on our own but having no meaning unless heard in the context of a phrase, a melody, a song, a symphony. We are breathed into existence with larger vision in mind. When I came out of that crowded church in Nanjing, I had seen a glimpse of God’s dream for humanity, a people wonderfully diverse but forever bound by the song of our hearts.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spiritual Formation - New Age or Christ Centered?

I saw a post on The Website of Unknowing from a reader troubled by the idea of Christian spiritual formation practices, seeing them as "new age movement" that had trickled into the church. She thought of it as dangerous, even Satanic. Here was my posted response.

I too am very much in favor of keeping centered on Christ, and I share your concern as someone who is radically Christian and who believes Christ is the way, truth, and life. I am by vocation a minister of the gospel and have been a Christian since I professed faith in Christ on a church retreat at age 10. But for me, this focus on the centrality of Christ is precisely what Christian spiritual formation is all about. To say that all spiritual formation is from the new age movement, imposed on the church, is to throw out many centuries of Christian prayer experience and spiritual flow … all because some pray using these practices who are of other spiritualities.

For me, Christian spiritual formation is going from a world of seeing religion as “doing” back to experiencing Christ as the true vine, and we the branches. It is letting God in Christ be a transforming presence in my life, changing me “from one degree of glory to another” as Paul said, so that I bear the fruit of love, “fruit that will last”.

I think that there is certainly new age spirituality out there, and I admit that I prefer to think of it not as Satanic or false doctrine but as partial truth. However, I’m concerned about what is probably some rhetoric you may have heard, dismissing all spiritual formation efforts, because we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Jesus himself was a spiritual formation teacher. His sermon on the mount was a reflection of God’s alternative values that change us, tranforming us into the image of Christ over time. He spent time in contemplation and silence and prayer as evidenced in the scriptures, even as people were clamoring for him to do things. And his prayers in the book of John indicate a real contemplative spirit. He was a faithful Jew, so he prayed the psalms letting the ancient words shape and form his prayer life, which is one reason he quoted them so often. Naturally, if particular prayer practices are not helpful for your spirituality than that’s okay. But it concerns me that spiritual practices rooted in Christ, that might be experienced differently for different people, would be dismissed, rather than accepted as part of the Holy Spirit’s movement in bringing forth the gifts of prayer among those called to a more contemplative life. For me, it enriches my spirit and deepens my roots, drawing me ever closer to Jesus Christ. It is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of love. Having said all that, I do think for those concerned about purity of spirituality have a good point. Christian spirituality needs to be rooted in Christ, but I would say only fear would cause us to neglect to experience the breadth of spiritual practice, when Jesus promises his presence in the Holy Comforter who would teach us in the midst of all our spiritual exploration.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Struggle With Numbers

Some ask why I struggle with the way we talk about numbers in God’s church. It's not because numbers don’t represent people (they do, and I have a passion for reaching people!). I struggle because Jesus gave us a gift, and the gift is a metaphor. The metaphor is that he is the vine and we are the branches. It may seem idealistic, but I believe that if we abide in the true vine, we will bear much fruit, "fruit that will last". Turning around decline will not be because of focusing on fruit or being more anxious in the call to produce, produce, produce. Growth will always come from focusing on the holy center, our vine, the love of Christ. This is so simple yet it escapes us! We think working harder or smarter will save God's church; it is a new form of “works righteousness” to think so. If we put it in God’s hands, focus on abinding in Jesus, and trust, we will be changed and we will "bear fruit that will last." We will touch lives.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why Do I Blog?

Blogging is a new experience for me, though I have known for a while that writing is a form of creative expression and spiritual discipline I feel drawn to. I have been nudged by the Spirit into a life of Christian spiritual formation and have, over the last ten years, found depth and healing in finding myself immersed in centuries of spiritual flow. God has deepened my roots through the practices of spiritual direction, meditation, silent retreat, Academy for Spiritual Formation, covenant group, lectio divina, healing prayer, shadow work, writing, attentiveness to body, rule of life, liturgy and sacraments, silence, and studying the spirituality of saints. I pray that blogging is a new step in the journey of creative expression and praise.