Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Isaiah's Dump Truck Christmas Ornament

This is my article which was published on the blog of "Weavings," a journal for the Christian spiritual life. To see the original post, see Isaiah's Dump Truck Christmas Ornament.

I wonder what the prophet Isaiah would put on his Christmas tree. I am thinking he’d have a dump truck Christmas ornament.

When I read Isaiah 40, I hear “Every Valley” from Handel’s Messiah resonate in my mind. How incredible that the prophet spoke words of longing for a Messiah using road construction images. He speaks of making a highway in the wilderness, making the path straight in the desert so that every valley is lifted up and every mountain is made low, the rough places made smooth. He beckons us to get out the tractor and the shovel and make a way for the coming of Christ.

In my tradition during Advent, we have a Chrismon tree with symbols of Christ on it in the sanctuary. Maybe we should have an Isaiah tree, too. It could have hardhats and shovels and bobcat ornaments. We could hang dump trucks and cement trucks from the branches, and let’s not forget the little leveling tools with the green bubbles in them. Those would be cute!

Advent is a time of clearing the way for Christ, the true WAY, to come. He yearns for a place in each of our hearts. He longs to bring love and justice to a broken world. We don’t have to go find Jesus or get our hearts right before him … these teachings are a remnant of many painful versions of ancient moralistic heresies. We don’t go get Christ, Christ comes to us in pure grace. That’s what the incarnation is all about. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Maybe road construction is what Advent is all about. We don’t drive to Jesus, but our part is to make space for him to come.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, AL. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at .

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Spirituality of Waiting

This is my article that was published on the blog of "Weavings," a journal for the Christian spiritual life. To see the original post, see The Spirituality of Waiting.

We know that waiting is a difficult concept for us. Our culture demands fast food, fast cars, and fast answers. We are accustomed to having a world of information at our fingertips with laptops and smart phones. We expect pills that will immediately take the pain away. Simply put, we don’t like to wait.

I appreciate Advent for all sorts of reasons. I love the music, I love the missions, and I love the families that work and play together as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ!

But one of the main reasons I value Advent is that it puts us in touch with a deep spiritual reality that we too often neglect. The things of the Holy Spirit take time. Feasting on the Word is not a fast food meal, but an experience to be savored. Prayer is not a quick fix but an invitation to be changed from within over time. Forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight but can be quite a journey. Feeling at home in a local church takes “making a home” there, building relationships that last. A deeper relationship with God is not something we can download instantaneously.

During Advent, we become people who get in touch with that part of ourselves that is empty for God. Advent is counter-cultural in a time when we expect instant results. I pray that this year, we prepare a manger of the heart for Christ to be born anew.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, AL. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is found at

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Snow Globe Worship Experience

The past several days were very busy for me. I had a funeral come up to celebrate the life of a dear church member, I held a series of meetings related to staff, I went out of town for a championship football game, and I had a myriad of wonderful Christmas parties to attend over the weekend (when you are an extravert, Sunday School Christmas parties you are invited to are one of the best “perks” of being a pastor). The weekend culminated on Sunday, our arrival at the “first day of the week,” when we experienced the second Sunday of Advent with wonderful music, drama, and joyfulness.

I think the highlight of my worship time this week was not one of the three services (including the funeral) that I led yesterday. It was being led in worship by our awesome youth group last night, who had a youth-led worship experience in the youth center. They focused on finding calm and rest in the midst of a stressful time of year.

As I walked in, I felt as if I was walking into the calm of a snow globe. This was, after all, their intended effect. I loved the music of the youth praise band music. I loved the strings of lights, the snow globe worship backdrop on the screen, and the altar setting with candles next to the tree. The prayers were deep, the music was great, the readers and speakers were wonderful, and the thoughts shared were rich. Most of all, as a “professional worship leader,” it was wonderful to just kick back, relax, and be led by such a thought-provoking, restful, and faithfully planned worship time.

It truly got me in touch with the “silent night” I so desperately needed. Toward the end of our time together, the youth gave out snow globes as a worship gift, inviting us to find the peace of the Prince of Peace. They led some wonderful quiet prayer time, and I went away feeling refreshed and invigorated.

This morning, I spent some time turning over my snow globe again, watching the snow fall, and meditating on the scripture from Philippians 2 we were asked to take with us. I am so grateful for worship that is not only heart-felt, but also so faithful to the gospel call to step out of the chaos of consumerism and hyperactivity and into the calming sea of the life of God. Thank you so much, youth group!

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Journey of Advent Has Begun!

What is this “Advent” we have entered?

First of all, it’s not Christmas … yet. In the Western church, the season of Christmas (also called Christmastide) begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days, ending on January 6. The twelve days of Christmas did not start with the song … it was the other way around! I love to keep the Christmas lights up until January 6. I’m often the last holdout on the street where I live.

The time before Christmas is Advent, a season of preparation. This tradition is much older than contemporary cultural Christmas traditions. It’s not time to say “Merry Christmas” yet. Christians prepare for the birth of Jesus by remembering the longing of the Old Testament prophets for a Messiah. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” We keep in mind both “advents” of Christ, the first in Bethlehem, and the second which is yet to come.

Some people, as children, have Advent calendars, decorative paper displays with 25 little “windows,” one of which you can open each day of December leading up to Christmas. Some Advent calendars are made of wood and featuring 25 little boxes with treasures inside. Many families light the Advent wreath at home, not just at church, and this has always been a rich part of my family’s life. Last week I emailed the people of the church I serve a sample order for Advent worship and devotions in the home around the wreath.

If you’re from a tradition that is unfamiliar with Advent, I imagine that it’s odd to think of the weeks before Christmas as something more than Christmastime. There are things about Advent that you might find odd if you’re unfamiliar with it. The strangest might be the color scheme. We associate Christmas with the typical Christmas colors of red, green, and white. Advent, on the other hand, features purple (or dark blue). The purple color signifies royalty (purple was in ancient times the most expensive dye, associated with kings and queens). We are, indeed, longing for a king. Come, Lord Jesus.

Secular culture ignores Advent because there isn’t much money to be made there. I think, however, there are lots of good reasons for us to pay more attention to Advent. For one thing, we have deep longings for God to do a new thing in us. Get in touch with your yearning for Christ to be born in some new way in our broken world and in our broken hearts.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seasons of Worship and the Seasons of Life

As American people, we emerged from this past week with what I hope is more than a couple of extra pounds! Perhaps we have emerged with a deeper sense of gratitude for all of God’s blessings. Now that we have stepped through the door of Thanksgiving, we have entered what is customarily called the holiday season. This coming Sunday, the season of Advent begins. Like you, I simply love the smells and sights, the lights and traditions of this time of year.

There is something very earthy, very primordial about worship being embedded in our annual seasons. The deepest worship experience of the heart comes from realizing that worship is not a singular event designed to give you something practical you can use. Rather, worship is a life, a rhythm, an entry into the life of God and into the sacred story. When we give ourselves to the spiritual life of worship, rather than coming to it with our own expectations about what it should “do” for us, the deepest worship begins to happen in our hearts.

For this reason, the church has given us a holy gift in observing seasons of the Christian year. Our worship moments are guideposts along the way of life, and they are designed to immerse ourselves in the whole of the gospel story from start to finish. This last week was the big finale, Christ the King Sunday, when we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. This week, the circle of life begins again. We go back to the deep longing for a Messiah, one who is to come and redeem the broken world we live in.

We are seasonal people in so many ways. On the largest level, there is an essentially seasonal nature of our existence. We go through seasons of our life as we age and through seasons in our relationships and our spirituality. On a slightly smaller level, each year we go through seasons that relate to the revolution of the earth around the sun. Our whole world goes through these seasons. Our worship life does, too, and we connect with the gospel story from beginning to end. On an even smaller level, each week has its seasons … it begins with the Lord’s Day of worship, we plunge into our work and projects, and we rest and play. On the smallest level, even our days themselves are seasonal … there is morning, noon, and night. There is time to eat, time to work, time to relax, and time to sleep.

The seasons of life, the seasons of the year, and the seasons of the day all remind us that we are people of the seasons. And here we go again.

It saddens me when cultural observances seem to take precedence in our minds over the holy days of the Christian year. As we go from Christ the King Sunday to the first Sunday of Advent, I invite you to enter the holy rhythm of worship life that has profoundly shaped generations of Christians. The life-changing glory of worship is that we worship in context of a greater movement of grace!

Monday, November 19, 2012

I Thirst

An important facet of the spiritual formation of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, began long before his heart-warming experience on Aldersgate Street. As he traveled to Georgia in mission, he fell in love with the singing of German Moravians. Their spiritual songs and poetry, venturing beyond conventional metrical psalms of the time, captivated his soul.

It would take him a while to embrace the "religion of the heart" he was beginning to taste. But he was so touched that he learned German in order to translate their songs. Long before his brother Charles began his career as the most prolific hymn writer of history, John introduced these songs to his mission. It was such a radical idea that he was accused of introducing songs that were "not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature."

I have been meditating on one of these spiritual songs I found in praying through my 1813 copy of the "Double Hymnbook," a pocket hymnal with a supplement compiled by Bishop Asbury. It contains "I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God", one of these hymns translated from German by John Wesley. It captivates me. I have included the text below, and in a future post I may add some of my commentary.

For a beautiful contemporary musical setting, listen to "I Thirst".

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
To wash me in thy cleansing blood,
To dwell within thy wounds; then pain
Is sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart, and let it be
For ever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast, and let me wear;
That pledge of love for ever there!

How blest are they who still abide
Close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
Who life and strength from thence derive,
And by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death,
Till thou thy quickening Spirit breathe!
Thou giv'st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

How can it be, thou heavenly King,
That thou shouldst us to glory bring?
Make slaves the partners of thy throne,
Decked with a never-fading crown?

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o'erflow,
Our words are lost; nor will we know,
Nor will we think of aught beside,
"My Lord, my Love is crucified."

Ah, Lord! enlarge our scanty thought,
To know the wonders thou hast wrought;
Unloose our stammering tongues, to tell
Thy love immense, unsearchable.

First-born of many brethren thou!
To thee, lo! all our souls we bow:
To thee our hearts and hands we give:
Thine may we die, thine may we live!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trust in the Slow Work of God

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest, biologist, geologist, and philosopher who lived until 1955. At times, his ideas were at odds with the church.

This quote was shared by one of the faculty at a recent Academy for Spiritual Formation, and it touched me deeply. I spent some more time with it this morning in prayer and want to share it with you.

I believe that we rush God's slow, abiding work in us so often and therefore, we pass by or gloss over the deep work God wants to do in us. Healing takes time, and grace pours out abundantly like a meandering stream we must come back to time and again for refreshing water.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
-- that is to say, grace --
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

Pictured is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Only Unconditional Love

This quote from Henri Nouwen resonates with my soul:

"The spiritual life starts at the place where you can hear God's voice. Where somehow you can claim that long before your father, you mother, your brother, your sister, your school, your church touched you, loved you, and wounded you- long before that, you were held safe in an eternal embrace. You were seen with eyes of perfect love long before you entered into the dark valley of life...The spiritual life starts at the moment that you can go beyond all of the wounds and claim that there was a love that was perfect and unlimited, long before that perfect love became reflected in the imperfect and limited, conditional love of people. The spiritual life starts where you dare to claim the first love. - Love one another because I have first loved you. (I John 4:19)"

We look to others for love, and rightly so, but the only love others can give is imperfect love. People we love in our churches and families can hurt us, in part because they are at the mercy of their own brokenness, and in part because we really expect too much of them. We long for unconditional love, but others can only show us a dark mirror reflecting a greater love.

The only way to truly be grounded in Christian maturity is to be rooted in the one love beyond all human ability to love. It's the love of  Christ, who in his very person is the incarnate expression of the unconditional love of God. The more we get in touch with that first love, the more we begin to accept others in the body of Christ for their raspy personalities and rough edges.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

John Wesley on Elections

What would John Wesley have to say about our upcoming elections?

Actually, he did have something to say. I saw this posted by a friend in social media recently and simply had to share it. It is from John Wesley's Journal, dated October 6, 1774. He was speaking of elections in England, of course. I pray that we hold fast to the same spirit today.

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

It troubles me when the grand opportunity for civil discussion and voting responsibly as a good citizen, a holy privilege for all of us, degenerates into name calling, demonizing, and black and white thinking. Perhaps we should take Wesley's word seriously and stand for love, compassion, and civil discourse. If our spirits are "sharpened" against those who vote the other way, it is unhealthy for the soul.

My trust is not in whoever is elected or in one party over another. My trust is in God, as revealed in the person of Christ. The rest is simply the best we can come up with, so I participate as a responsible citizen and believe in the principles of democracy, but know my allegiance truly lies in the kingdom of God.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Clicking of Her Coffee Cup

It is such a joy to lead Evening Prayer at the Piano on Sunday nights. It’s a place where we can lift simple gifts of music and song, hear a brief homily or exhortation, and share the weekly feast of communion. It is warm and vibrant and personal. In some ways, it feels more like the ancient ways of worship for most Christians in history than what many churches do on Sunday mornings.

Last night, I shared a story about my mother with the people gathered. When I was young and growing up with three brothers, our house could definitely be rowdy at times. Yet one place of calm in the daily storm of activity was that my mother always carved out her morning quiet time.

That’s what she called it, simply “quiet time.” She insisted on it. Every morning for at least 45 minutes, after the morning rush to get my older brothers off to school but before she settled into the day, she sat with her coffee. She had sacred space for this holy time … she sat in a particular upholstered rocking chair with brown and rust colored stripes in the kitchen. As a child, I can remember the sound of her coffee cup clicking against the saucer. That was the sound of prayer, because when I heard that clicking from other parts of the house I knew Mom was still having her time alone.

We learned as children that unless it was an emergency, we didn’t bother Mom during her quiet time. We also learned that because of this, she was always really, really good to us the rest of the day! What I didn’t realize until I was older was that Mom was giving me a gift. She was a witness to her love of God by making time with God a priority in her life. She was ingraining in my own life and habits the hunger of the heart.

Some of the other participants at Evening Prayer last night, who happened to remember my mom from her involvement in the Walk to Emmaus, shared some of their memories of her speaking and leading and encouraging women. She had a ministry both within and beyond the local church. It warmed my heart to hear how she had touched some of them long ago.

But today, I am not thinking of the four UMW special recognition pins I inherited from her or all her many accomplishments and speaking engagements. I am simply hearing the clicking of her coffee cup on the saucer, and letting that strangely sweet, holy sound of prayerfulness resonate in my soul.

Monday, September 17, 2012

He Kissed His Hymnal and Slammed It Shut

I didn’t even see it myself. Someone told me after worship on Sunday how much it touched her heart. Just hearing about it, I was brought to tears and it’s been resonating in my mind. Often a serendipitous worship moment fills my heart with joy.

One of the many, many wonderful ministries of the church I serve is our Good Neighbor Fellowship. They reach out each month to 40 or 50 Birmingham area adults with mental challenges. I love to visit them at their monthly dinners, the annual Birmingham Barons game, and their Christmas party. I’ve never, ever seen such excitement when Santa walks in!

Since I came to Saint Mark last year, two of the delightful men from Good Neighbor Fellowship joined our church and they just love to come. They are part of a Sunday School class created especially for them and others with special needs. They come to Men’s Breakfast and sing in the Men’s Chorus at 8:30 each month. And they sing with joy and enthusiasm … though neither of them are actually able to read. They wave and they smile. And I remember how truly grateful I am to be a part of a church who strives to welcome all of God’s children with unconditional love. It blesses us all.

On Sunday, after we considered our commitment to become a Christian and many came to renew their vow to be a follower of Christ, we sang the old hymn “I Surrender All.” One of these dear friends had his hymnal open and sang his heart out. When he was done, he kissed the pages of his hymnal and slammed it shut.

I wish I had seen it myself, because for at least one person who told me about it, it was a holy moment. In his own way, he says yes to God and surrenders his heart to the holy one who created all of us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

God Before Us

I realized that I have not included one of my hymns on the list of publications found in the right column of my blog.

I composed the tune and text of "God Before Us" which emphasizes the immanence of God's grace.

The music can be found by clicking the link to the General Board of Discipleship Worship Website.

The text is below.

“God Before Us”

God, before us as we seek,
Yours the path, our guiding.
Word, our lamp and light of day,
Show your will abiding.

God, behind us as we walk,
Make our way unswerving.
Hands and lips in concert sing,
Into freedom serving.

God, below us as we fall,
Weakened knee, our binding.
Race ahead, we take our cross,
Strength in weakness finding.

God, above us as we reach,
Yours the earth our grounding.
With creation, lift our praise,
Guide our understanding.

Copyright 1994 by Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Monday, September 3, 2012

Finding Your Voice

As I write, I am taking it easy on Labor Day. I really was planning on biking this morning, but the rain last night (and sleeping late after my daughter’s birthday party) compelled me to stay inside. So far, it’s been a good day. As I relax, at the same time I am thinking of how much I appreciate the opportunity to work, not just to pay the bills but to do something with my life that makes a difference.

Labor Day came about in the late 1800’s after a labor union strike where a number or workers were killed at the hands of the government. President Cleveland sought reconciliation with the union chief, and congress unanimously approved rush legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday. It had, however, for years been developing in various states as a reflection of the strength of the American worker.

The day has become a relaxing rite of passage at the end of summer, a great day to go shopping, a time to put away my new seersucker in the closet, and an afternoon to fire up the grill. This is what Labor Day is about, but there is so much more. It is about celebrating work as an expression of the human spirit.

Today, I am pondering Christianity’s unique understanding of work. For Christians, life is not about toiling hard to get the rewards you deserve. It’s not about success, achievement, or getting ahead. We operate instead from the larger vision of being part of the body of Christ. Our work reflects how we fit in to what the Spirit is doing in our broken world.

The word vocation comes from a root word meaning a “calling” or “summons”. For Christians, our occupation is not a choice but a response to the designs of the Holy Spirit, who imparts gifts on God’s people. I am reading a book by spiritualist Parker Palmer called “Let Your Life Speak,” the title reflecting a Quaker phrase. Christian understanding of work is rooted in the spirituality of the incarnation … our task is to be the hands and feet of Christ, an expression of God’s love in the world. Life is not just about working hard but about being the presence of Christ for others. In short, it’s about finding your voice.  It’s about living a life beyond desires for your own happiness and security, with a higher purpose in mind. Each of us find our voice in the world, and every voice needs to be heard.

The concept of a calling is not just for clergy. Each of us discovers joy when we let our soul speak its own truth. The Christian concept of vocation is at odds with popular attitudes about self-actualization and following one's dreams. Our vocation is a gift of God, not a goal to achieve.

How are you letting your life be an expression of God’s desires for you? How are you letting your life speak, unfolding the gifts and passions God has placed in you?

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20

Monday, August 27, 2012

One Small Step

I have been flooded with memories since hearing of the death of Neil Armstrong this weekend. I so vividly remember the first moonwalk, when I heard for the first time the words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These words, along with his very name, are now etched in the annals of history. The experience defined a generation and spoke a pervasive word to humanity.

To remember the first walk on the moon, you have to be about my age or older. I was four! My mother sat me down in front of the old black and white TV with the rabbit ear antennas and said, “Stephen, you need to watch this, it’s a day you will always remember.” I certainly do, and I remember it vividly.

I am humored by memories of our housekeeper, who came in and told me it was all a hoax, that it wasn’t real, just like the radio show about Martians had been fake (when I got older, I realized she was talking about the infamous “War of the Worlds”). I was confused, but my parents told me later that yes, it was indeed true, and I had been watching history in the making.

Throughout my life, my mind has floated back to that day in front of the television watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. When so often our lives are defined by our limitations (our abilities or lack thereof, our circumstances, our decisions), the first moonwalk reminds me that there is another way to look at life. Life is defined by our infinite possibilities.

What step are you called to take? Wherever you are in your life, one small step might lead to your own spiritual moonwalk on a whole new world of possibilities. It takes one small step to embark on this new path, this new walk, this new adventure.

Are you willing to take it? Perhaps you have spent much time and energy preparing to take that one step, and you know very well what it is but you are caught in fear. Or perhaps God has not shown you what step it is that you might be called to take. Wherever you are in life, I pray that you might have both clarity and courage to step off the ladder.

"We walk by faith, not by sight." - 2 Corinthians 5:7

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It's Not Enough to Be Honest

We value honesty, and rightly so. It's a pretty good thing.

But I'm fascinated that though the scriptures compel us to speak the truth (after all, "bearing false witness" made it to the top ten "no no's"), speaking the truth is not just about being honest. Not really. 

You can learn a lot not only by what's in the scripture, but by what's NOT. Here's the astounding thing. When Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Ephesians, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control," honesty is conspicuously not included. Why? It's not enough to be honest.

I'm going to say something radical, perhaps even controversial. Honesty is not a uniquely Christian value.

I'm certainly not encouraging you to lie. George Burns said, "You've got to be honest; if you can fake that, you've got it made!" I'm not suggesting you be dishonest, but I am saying it is not ENOUGH to be honest.

Maybe we should watch out when we find ourselves saying "I'm just being honest!" Do we hear what we say? JUST being honest? If we are only being honest, we haven't gone far enough.

The call of the gospel is not to speak the truth ... period, end of sentence. The call is to speak the truth in LOVE. That's a bigger commitment than just being honest.

In Ephesians 4, where Paul writes of our call to speak the truth in love, he begins "I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling ... with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

Honestly, how can we ever be brutally honest?

Season your speech with salt. Spread the fragrance of Christ everywhere you go. Speak the truth, and often a deeply profound truth. But always speak the truth in love.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Meditation on My Broken Gourd Instrument

This morning, during my morning prayer, I felt an unexpected urge to spend time with my broken  gourd instrument. I didn't know why, really. It has sat on my shelf for a whole year, ever since I broke it moving here from my last ministry appointment.

A couple of times over the year, I have rummaged through my desk to find superglue, only to squeeze the tube and have nothing come out. Rather than fool with it further, I had tossed the glue back in my drawer and gone on with life. So there the gourd sat.

It's a beautiful, fully rounded brown gourd shaker that was a gift for use as hand percussion at the Academy and other worship experiences I lead. It's also in my study just for fun! It's from Cameroon. I can shake, thump, or rub it to make different sounds. People who look around in my study often reach for it, it's a natural hand magnet. I have missed shaking my gourd, but still it has sat there all year in two pieces, laying bare its brokenness.

But today, I was drawn to my broken gourd. I went to my desk and found the superglue again, and once again I routinely squeezed it and remembered I had been through this before. But this time, I did not give up so easily. I examined the glue, taking the top off. To my surprise, I found the reason glue had not been forthcoming is that I had not punctured the necessary opening in the first place. You know how it works, one has to take the top off and use the pointed end to get the whole thing started.

I thought, "really?" What does that say that it has taken me a year?

I mended my wonderful gourd and laid it on my small altar on the corner of my desk altar by the candle. And I meditated about my own journey of spiritual healing and the healing so many others desperately need in a world of distrust, competition, and unhealthy dynamics. How often do we lay in our brokenness when healing is so readily available? How often have I let something lie that needed mending, getting accustomed to seeing it in pieces rather than pursue the grace God has for me so closeby? How often have I just gotten so used to things being broken that I don't notice?

I think God has given each of us just what we need to find wholeness again. But we don't always approach the gift creatively. We rummage through the drawer looking for hope, some scripture or prayer or holy place, some relationship or conversation or means of grace ... but we throw it back when we find it doesn't work fast enough or without a little more effort. We get comfortable with leaving things broken and laying around, whether they are outer relationships or inner rhythms. And so we don't make the music we would love to make with life.

I'm glad I listened to the Spirit's nudge and glued my gourd today. And I'm glad it formed some great morning prayer time. I look forward to shaking things up now that I've got it together.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don't Ask Yourself What the World Needs

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it, because the world needs more people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman

This week, I am living with this powerful quote in my heart and spirit from Christian spiritualist Howard Thurman, pictured to the left.

In today's culture of consumerism ("I am what I can have"), functionalism ("I am what I do") and rugged individualism ("I am whoever I want to be"), it is so counter-cultural to truly live with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in me. I have also spent so much of my life and energy doing, accomplishing, achieving, and building. Even in Christian work, which I have committed my life to, I can become lost in a swirl of getting it done.

During the second half of my life, I'm entering the journey of rediscovering what makes me come alive. I want to live from my center and be who God crafted me to be!

Lord Jesus, help me to let go of everything I want to do, and seek to let your life come alive in me. Let my doing flow freely from my being.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Update of My "Crowd of Witnesses"

I don't know why I've been so blessed with passionate and faithful preaching blood. Most of the 30 pastors on my family tree (yes, that's right, 30, and that doesn't count the ones that are still alive!) are Methodist though there are those of other faith traditions as well.

It's deep in my bones to love sharing the gospel. After a couple of years of continued research, I have updated my "Crowd of Witnesses" including those pastors that are on my family tree.

I keep this list handy in my Bible and look over it when I need encouragement or when my spirit is nourished by feeling grounded in their spirits.

Steve’s “Crowd” of Witnesses
Some of the communion of saints surrounding Stephen Pierce West.
They are pastors I am related to.

Rev. Isaac Taylor
Methodist Circuit Rider in Alabama, Mississippi, 3rd Great Grandfather on Hamby side, accused of murdering wife, name cleared when found she had left him and children for Texas

Rev. Harris Taylor
Methodist Circuit Rider, 3rd Great Grand Uncle on Hamby side, story of shaft of light appearing on grave at funeral

Rev. William Taylor
Methodist Circuit Rider, 3rd Great Grand Uncle on Hamby side, founder of Taylor Memorial UMC with prominent gravestone

Rev. Nathaniel Henderson Self
1st cousin 4x removed (descended from Isaac's sister Catherine), Methodist pastor

Rev. Gordon Ware
Cousin on Granny Hamby’s Taylor side, Methodist pastor, my Candidacy Mentor when I didn’t know we were related (had dinner several times)

Rev. William Blackburn
Husband of 1st cousin 4x removed, Methodist pastor, married Isaac Taylor’s niece after clearing his name

Rev. William Thomas HambyGreat Grand Uncle, brother of Grandpa Charles P. Hamby, Methodist pastor

Rev. Gene Malcolm “Mack” Hamby
1st cousin once removed on Mom’s side, Methodist pastor and evangelist who traveled world

Rev. Charlie P. Hamby, Sr.
Grandfather on mother’s side, Methodist pastor and “pistol packing” evangelist, husband of poet and painter Louie Ann Williams

Rev. Warren Hamby, Sr.
Uncle, Methodist pastor, brother of my mom, pastor of Trinity UMC in Huntsvilleand Gallaway Memorial in Jackson, after being a DS he raised local church capital funds with GBGM

Rev. J. Pierce West, Sr.
Grandfather on father’s side, Methodist pastor who died when I was 4, descended from Garrisons on his grandmother’s Hagood side

Rev. Thomas Maxwell
Early American Anglican-turned-Baptist pastor, ancestor of Dad’s mother, persecuted and jailed, defended by Patrick Henry, historical figure

Rev. Charles Higginbotham
7th great grandfather, first missionary to Barbados, ancestor of Jane Higginbotham Maxwell, Gene Maxwell's grandmother

Rev. Robert Hill Thompson
1st cousin 4x removed, grandson of ancestor Joseph Robert Thompson of the Thompsons and Wills buried at Midway UMC

Rev. Jedediah Garrison
5th Great Grandfather, helped found the Mt. Pleasant society in Georgia, revolutionary war soldier, ordained deacon with a number of pastor descendants

Rev. Levi Garrison
4th Great Grandfather, ancestor of Dad’s father, early American Methodist pastor in SC, son of the older Jedediah

Rev. David Garrison
4th Great Grand Uncle, brother of Levi and son of Jedediah, ordained by Frances Asbury, pastor in GA

Rev. Thomas Coke Prickett
Husband of 2nd cousin 4x removed, married Louisa E. Garrison, daughter of direct ancestors Levi and Nancy Garrison, twin of Rev. Asbury Pope Prickett

Rev. Asbury Pope Prickett
Brother of husband of 2nd cousin 5x removed, twin brother of Rev. Thomas Coke Prickett above

Rev. Jedediah Garrison
1st cousin 5x removed, grandson of Jedediah through Caleb Capias Garrison, buried Damascas Road near Mt. Pleasant

Rev. Michael Box Garrison
1st cousin 5x removed, grandson of Jedediah and son of Caleb Capias also,trustee Mt. Pleasant

Rev. Thomas Wesley Garrison
1st cousin 5x removed, also grandson of Jedediah but through James Caleb Garrison, founded Wesley Chapel in Cobb Co. and donated the 4.5 acres of land for it and the school, Civil War

Rev. Levi B. Garrison
1st Cousin 5x removed, son of David (nephew of my ancestor Levi), Methodist local pastor in GA

Rev. Levi Garrison
2nd Cousin 5x removed, cousin of my ancestor Levi Garrison and child of Jedediah’s brother or half-brother Ebenezer, Methodist pastor, opposed slavery, freed 12 slaves from wife’s dowry once they married

Rev. David Garrison
2nd Cousin 5x removed, cousin of my ancestor Levi Garrison, also son of Ebenezer, Methodist pastor, disagreed with brother Levi over slavery, started Corner Greek Church near Dothan, AL

Rev. Jedediah Asbury Meaders
1st Cousin 5x removed, nephew of my ancestor Levi, Methodist pastor in GA, farmer and wagon shop owner

Rev. Andrew Jackson “Bud” Latham
Married to 2nd Cousin 4x removed, private and ambulance driver in Civil War, Methodist pastor in GA

Rev. Jeremiah Winster
Father-in-law of 3rd great grand uncle Henry Garrison (painter, confederate private), London

Rev. Jim McKay
Uncle who was licensed as a local pastor and served for a short time, from Guin,AL

Rev. Howard Erwin
Uncle who was licensed as a local pastor and served the Philadelphia church inGuinAL

Living relatives that will join the crowd one day are Rev. C.P. Hamby (uncle), Rev. Ed Self (cousin on Taylor side), Rev. J.P. “Pete” West, Jr. (father), Jonathan Todd (husband of Williams cousin, Susan), and my beloved wife, Rev. Sandra O’Quinn West. My wife has ancestry in the clergy, too, including her 3rd great grandfather, John G. Jones, Mississippi church historian.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shaped by Andy Griffith

Last week, one of my heroes died. I know it’s unusual for me to comment on entertainment on my blog. But Andy Griffith has shaped a generation of people who, in the midst of social change, longed for a solid rock of values and a sense of being at home in our world. It’s not that I want to go backward into “the good old days” with nostalgic sentiment. I don’t believe in moving backward. But as we move forward, Andy has always reminded me to claim what’s truly good and important.

I was born in the middle of the years “The Andy Griffith Show” was airing, so most of my memories are of watching reruns after school. I can’t say I’ve been an Andy Griffith nut (I don’t own the episodes and definitely haven’t seen them all), but at the same time I am grateful that he is one of the influences that shaped me. I love the comedy, the warmth, and the wholesome themes of what it means to be family and to be a responsible part of your community. Who can forget Barney’s craziness, and all the other characters and their idiosyncrasies? I’ve seen the lakehouse on Logan Martin that once belonged to Jim “Gomer” Nabors. Rarely does a month go by without some fleeting reference to an episode in a conversation with a friend or parishioner.

I believe all of us are shaped in life. My spirituality has embraced the truth that I am shaped and formed not only by the Bible and worship, but by how and with whom I spend my time. Spirituality is not divorced, somehow, from regular life and relegated only to what happens on Sunday or during morning prayer time. So I’m glad that for at least part of my life, Andy Griffith was part of that shaping.

I believe that all people are spiritual beings, shaped by the influences they give themselves to. Even the most profound atheist is actually on a spiritual journey, whether he or she knows it. Sometimes anger with or disbelief in God is not the opposite of relationship with God, it’s just the chosen stance within that relationship. Thankfully, God’s side of the relationship is always one of grace. A life of spiritual maturity is one that integrates all the shaping influences into one whole, one sense of who we really are and what it means to follow God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves. I’m glad I let myself be shaped by Andy Griffith.

Earlier this year, Andy’s companion George “Goober” Lindsey from right here in Jasper, Alabama, also died. In light of these deaths, I’m feeling led to have a bit of fun for my Pastor’s Study during Wonderful Wednesdays this Fall. I’ll do my rendition of the “Andy Griffith Bible Study” that has been a rave among churches and small groups for the past several years. We’ll watch a 27 minute episode and have a 45 minute Bible study. I’ll even tweak the study materials I have seen online for more depth.

Sunday, I got a Facebook message from a friend in church, who said I really nailed my sermon, and “That's one subject you just can't talk enough about: sin.” He and I have talked about good old Andy. I knew immediately the episode, “The Sermon for Today,” he was quoting (Barney really hadn’t heard the sermon but was making something up to say to the preacher after church). Thanks for the laugh. And thanks, Barney and Andy and the gang, for being part of my life.

Monday, July 2, 2012

My Fourth Great Grandfather's Fight for Freedom of Religion

As we approach Independence Day, I share a story from my family heritage that I told on Sunday. I hope it bears repeating. Six of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. One of them also made a mark on our religious history. My fourth great grandfather was Rev. Thomas Maxwell. Though I have multiple Methodist circuit riders in my family background, it is the Baptist preacher who made it into the history books!

After Thomas Maxwell fought in the Revolutionary War, he began preaching the Baptist faith he believed. He was imprisoned for this, since his teaching did not reflect orthodox Anglican beliefs. The story goes that he continued to preach through the bars of the prison, so that his protruding nose was rubbed raw. Patrick Henry defended his religious liberty and sought his release. In time, Patrick Henry went on to support and help shape the writing of the first amendment, guaranteeing freedom of religion.

Just imagine for a moment the period of time, after the Revolutionary War was over, when the persecuted became persecutors. So my fourth great grandfather was part of the movement to truly claim freedom of religion. His persecution became a catalyst. It spoke of something that we’ve had to say many times, whether the issue was slavery, child labor, women’s rights to vote, or the civil rights movement. His persecution said “wait a minute, do we believe in freedom, or not?”

Sometimes I get frustrated with American religion, with all the completing groups and independent churches, the crazies on TV, watered down Christianity that resembles self-help, and theological challenges to Biblical faith such as fundamentalism, unbridled Pentecostalism, and prosperity teaching. We also live in a time when dialogue with other religions has been rendered difficult because of politics and world events. But whenever I get frustrated, I remember my fourth great grandfather. I remember that if we value freedom of religious expression, we have to trust that the truth will work itself out in God’s time.

This Wednesday, I encourage you to celebrate the two essential freedoms our nation was founded on: Freedom from tyranny of foreign rule and freedom for religious expression. Let’s not confuse these essential freedoms with other things we so easily call freedom, for the essential nature of what it means to be human is not that we are independent individuals, free agents who can do whatever we want with no rules or social responsibility. Rugged individualism goes against the grain of our core identity as part of the body of Christ, and our Christian identity must trump any manufactured concept of patriotic identity. Freedom has never meant everybody is on their own, with no regard for our neighbor. For Americans, it has always meant we are free to take responsibility for our own destiny as a nation and free to follow God however we feel led.

My father's mother was Doris Maxwell West, daughter of the Maxwells of Gainesville, Georgia, descendants of Rev. Thomas Maxwell.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Quotes from Mike Slaughter

Last week, I posted about Michael Slaughter's inspiring teaching at Annual Conference. Here are some nuggets from our time together.


"How can anything God created be evil? It's not evil. It's broken."

"The hope is not in the organization, but in the organism of the church."

"Jesus saved us to get heaven into the world."

"If its not good news for the poor, it's not the gospel."

"The church will win, maybe not in my lifetime but I lay my life down for that victory."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beyond Cruise Ship Evangelism

This quote from Michael Slaughter was shared at Annual Conference and it resonated with my soul. He was also there to teach and encourage and was a real highlight of our time together.


Strategic planning and programming during the height of the 1980s and ‘90s church growth era were driven by an “attractional” model of evangelism. The mantra was “build it and they will come.” We built quality programming for every age and life stage. It was well targeted to meet the needs of the young baby boomers and their growing families. The church mastered slick marketing campaigns that scratched the itches of the “me generation.” We built buildings that resembled the shopping malls they frequented and pioneered contemporary worship styles that rivaled the bars from their college days. The mega-church became the idolized model of success and numbers in the pews the measure of effectiveness.

But somehow in the cycles of programming, capital campaigns, concerts, and Bible studies we forgot an important truth: curious crowds don’t equate with committed disciples. Many of us in our well-intentioned efforts had done well in attracting crowds who were bringing Jesus into their soft-secular worldviews instead of being transformed into his. We thought it was working yet all the while the church as a whole continued to decline at escalating rates. And many who had come into the church continued to worship at the altar of self-indulgence, materialism, and indifference.

The church must make a major paradigm shift from attraction evangelism to mission evangelism. In simplest terms, this is what Jesus meant when he said that all people would see that we were his disciples through the demonstration of our sacrificial love. Attraction evangelism parallels the marketing strategy of a vacation cruise line. A cruise is a hedonistic experience of extravagance and excess. Okay, so maybe I have never been on one, but my parents have gone on thirteen cruises in the last ten years; I feel vicariously bloated every time my dad talks about the buffets.

Have you ever been on a cruise? A cruise ship is a self-contained fortress of programming for every age and interest. The experience is intensely planned and organized. It has a hierarchical structure that is staff-driven (captain and crew). The staff serves the vacationers, the vacationers only concentrate on their own enjoyment, and no one is worried about what’s going on outside that ship. Sound familiar?

Mission evangelism, on the other hand, parallels the priorities and focus of a mission outpost in a challenging place of great human need. Unlike the self-contained programming model that has been practiced by many growing churches in the past, the mission model is dependent on networking. The missional church is actively creating partnerships with social agencies, public schools, government and non-government organizations, as well as other faith groups. Mission evangelism is experimental and flexible. Like Lewis and Clark mapping an uncharted route to the West, missional churches plan and resource as they go, and those who participate vision and seek those new horizons alongside their leaders.

Catholic theologian Hans Kung put it this way: “A Church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling….[We must] play down our longing for certainty, accept what is risky, and live by improvisation and experiment.” The attraction model is deficient and inefficient in its overdependence on professional staff.

The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. (I prefer to use the term servant instead of volunteer because volunteers serve at their own convenience while the servant serves at the discretion of the one who calls.) The rehabilitation work that continues to go on along the Gulf coast is a powerful example of the unrealized potential of the unpaid servant. Over 90% of all of the work being done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is being done by faith-based organizations.

The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. The missional leader’s job is to inspire, equip, and enable that passion to be used for God’s kingdom.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Searching for hope amid our dark night of the soul

This is my column which was published on June 14, 2012 in The United Methodist Reporter.

You might prefer to read it in The United Methodist Reporter


By Steve West, Special Contributor…

Some United Methodist leaders have been gloomy in recent weeks. They feel that General Conference, the massive every-four-year gathering of denominational leaders, failed to produce change.

There was, in the works, a dramatic overhaul of the agency structure, aimed at downsizing and simplifying. Many feel the present system of agencies is too expensive and top heavy for a declining membership, and less and less relevant to the mission of local churches and average members. I agree.

But in a late ruling by the Judicial Council, a compromise reorganization plan that passed General Conference was deemed unconstitutional. One delegate told me that I couldn’t imagine how disillusioning it was to work so hard and then be told on the last day that all would be undone. He added, “You might as well just take a 2012 sticker and put it on your 2008 Discipline. Why buy a new one?”

I hope that disappointment will be redemptive, leading us to do a better job of working things through next time. Perhaps it simply wasn’t time yet for major change, and the meeting was part of a larger overarching journey. Sometimes in our history it has taken two or three General Conferences to do something of major proportions. I have been interested in monitoring online responses, some of which have been highly anxious, offering unhealthy blame and finger pointing. Some doomsayers say the church is headed toward a colossal dismantling.

I passionately believe in Wesleyan spirituality and see God’s Spirit moving everywhere in our church. I love and serve with my whole heart, but you must know that I don’t think of General Conference as the definition of “church.” The church is where two or three or are gathered in his name, where the Holy Spirit is alive and Christ is present.

I don’t believe that in this period of institutional decline, we can hold onto life as we know it. If certain aspects of our institution fall apart, that’s OK.

No escape

I have seen several articles and open letters after General Conference expressing the frustration of leaders in a system riddled with institutional anxiety. But the one that resonates with my soul is “We need ‘call to holiness’ more than Call to Action” by Sarah S. Howell (see Reporter, April 13).

With Sarah, I believe that we are experiencing a dark night of the soul. That’s not a bad thing. It just is, and like mid-life crisis or grief, it’s something we have to go through to find our hope, to be made new, and get to the place God would call us to be. It can’t be avoided or escaped, as much as we’d like to try.

The language of the dark night of the soul comes from deep in our spiritual heritage. It is a place that feels a void of God’s presence, yet it is pregnant with meaning as we let go of things we have held onto. For the denomination, it’s been a long 40-year night. But the problem is not unique to the United Methodist Church. This dark night is part of the larger, overarching decline of American Protestantism.

Proponents of our anxious efforts to keep the institutions propped up sometimes lack the wisdom of seeing the larger picture of where we are spiritually and what God might be doing during this time of the dark night.

Perhaps most of us can’t see past our own favorite issue, which we think is going to fix the problem. So we work, work and work harder to change the system. Some of the changes are good, but may not address the larger issues of relevance in contemporary culture. The idea that working harder will turn the church around is a new form of works righteousness.

There is no way around this dark night with a flashlight, and there is no one thing that we can do to fix it. Some UMC leaders get caught in a tailspin of anxiety, working diligently for a solution; but the reason we are declining in number is the same reason that ALL mainline denominations in America are declining.

It’s not an institutional issue that institutional reform will fix. It’s a spiritual issue. We need to plunge into a new mystery, a revolutionary revival. And it appears a cross will precede the resurrection. That’s our story, isn’t it?

The cross ahead

On the local level as well as the global level I see the Spirit at work in amazing ways. Our membership is growing like crazy in Africa. We each have a candle to light in our corner of the world, and I see vibrant and wonderful things going on in the local church. Let’s keep the Spirit alive as we bloom where we are planted, knowing there is a disconnection between the institution and the local church.

I’m not sure how long this dark night of the soul of American Protestantism will last or where it will lead, but I find hope in the language of the dark night. One thing I’m certain of. Working harder doing what we’re doing won’t turn institutional decline around.

The only uniquely Christian understanding of transformation is that it involves a cross and a resurrection, and you can’t work hard to create a resurrection. I’m afraid of what taking up the cross might mean for our beloved institutions, but I know that when a cross happens, God is in it. And something new and beautiful will emerge, even if it hurts.

The Rev. Steve West is senior pastor of Saint Mark UMC in Birmingham, Ala.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More Mountain Bike Meditations

When I clicked past age forty, I had a sudden, surprising, compelling yearning for the trail. I started with four wheeling and have morphed to mountain biking. I presently go bike in the woods at least once a week.

I have never really excelled at sports, but I do love being one with the trail. I'm not the fastest or the youngest and I don't travel the farthest. But I'm getting stronger and more confident each time. It's good for my heart. It's good for my soul.

It's a feeling that I can't describe. It's not that the obstacles aren't there. I navigate the roots, I roll over the rocks, I pedal hard up the hills, I brush against the trees, I notice the breeze. I'm aware that parts of it are hard and parts are pure fun. But the trail is not about the bumps, obstacles, and heavy breathing. It's about the journey. No rock, tree, root, or bundle of leaves is what I'd call fun. In fact I must be crazy to enjoy them. But what I enjoy is the total experience.

The trail is not a summation of all the obstacles any more than life is a bag full of problems or the modern church is by definition a host of its issues. The whole experience is what is utterly amazing. I've spent too much of my life thinking that it's all about overcoming obstacles and not enough of life captivated by the total experience. But in my midlife journey, I feel the call of the wild. Renew me, Lord.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Meditation on a Civil War Ancestor

I spent a little time over Memorial Day Weekend perusing family history, particularly on one of a dozen ancestors on my tree who served in the military during conflict. None of them died in war, and they lived to have children (otherwise they wouldn’t be my ancestors!). But I have cousins on my tree that did give the ultimate sacrifice.

In this season of midlife spirituality, I’m aware of a kind of inner integration going on in my spirit as I honor ancestors and learn from the hard lessons of history. I spent many of my early years as a pacifist and still believe in Jesus’ call to be a radical peacemaker. But as I have matured, I have grown to accept some war as “necessary evil”. I consider myself a just war theorist, upholding Christian values but regarding some conflicts as justifiable and appropriate. It has been a journey for me.

This weekend, I explored the family story that my great grandfather, George Hamby, had been in the 1st Alabama Artillery in the Civil War and was a prisoner of war. I confirmed that his name was indeed on the muster roll for Company E of this battalion, and learned the history of how he was captured. His unit was stationed at Fort Morgan, which fell during the Battle of Mobile in August of 1864. 400 Confederates were captured, including George Hamby, who was then imprisoned on Ship Island off the coast of Mississippi. My great grandpa later worked in the cotton mills during Reconstruction and had a large family, including two sons who were Methodist preachers. One of them was my grandfather, Rev. C.P. Hamby, Sr.

Part of the maturity of spirituality is integration, holding onto the solid principles of Christ, and still integrating the history of who we are into the whole. We discover that life is not so either-or, black and white. There is, ironically, for those of us that descend from the wrong side of the Civil War, a lot of “gray” to embrace. It is part of the story of Southern tragedy. Though the institution of slavery was clearly a most heinous crime against humanity, we are left with a mixture of pride and tears.

I pray that all of us, in our spiritual quest for integration, can ultimately return to sort of a second naïveté. Life really is ultimately about becoming more Christ-like. In the midst of every trial, and the insanity of all the conflicts that rage in the world, we are a people who overcome and become. That is our core identity.

Pictured is Fort Morgan, Alabama