Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Post-Christmas Feast

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, December 26, 2015.

My name is Stephen. My aunts and uncles, and some of my cousins, have always called me that.

It wasn't until eighth grade, when the Six Million Dollar Man's opening sequence on TV resounded with the words "Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive", that I informed my family I was to be going to be called Steve from now on. What can I say, it was more "cool."

Now, sometimes I ponder the origins of my name. It means "prince" or "crowned", a designation I certainly don't deserve. My wife doesn't appreciate it when I remind her of that, in contrast with the fact that her name means "helper." I'll probably get in trouble for putting that in the paper.

But every year, on the day after Christmas, it's my special day to pause to think of my name. Why? Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen.

Most people around here would know who Stephen is. He was the first Christian martyr, as recorded in the book of Acts. He was stoned to death for his faith, even while gazing into the heavens with his face aglow. A young Saul, later named Paul, stood nearby. It's an important part of the early Christian story. Today, when Christians are still persecuted in some parts of the world, we need to remember Stephen.

But most of us probably think, "why do we sing about the Feast of Stephen in a Christmas carol?" There is a long tradition in many places in the world that this day is "box day," a day to care for the poor by boxing up food and gifts for those in need on the day after Christmas.

"Good King Wenceslas" is a carol based on the legend of a 10th century duke, the Duke of Bohemia. He was a saintly monarch who personally cared for the poor and widowed. He was martyred for his faith, and followers kept the stories of his compassion alive.

The carol never mentions the nativity, but it's associated with Christmas because the narrative occurs on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26. It is a call to follow in the footsteps of the saint, as did his page, in order to care for the poor.

So today, on the Feast of Stephen, let us also think of the poor and needy. As the text concludes, "ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." What a great way to head from Christmas into a new year.

Here is the complete text of the carol by John Mason Neale, first published in 1853. May it bless your day and our many days ahead.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod 
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

It's time to have "wonder-full holy days"

This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, December 2, 2015.

It starts.

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the leftover turkey will find its way into the soup, the sandwiches, and the crevices in the floor. The company will go home, happy and well fed.

My father-in-law will treat us to a holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, like he always does. I'll take my annual opportunity to tease my wife about how cornbread dressing is so much better than oyster dressing (she's from Louisiana, she can't help it).

I will start gathering up some Fall decorations to put them away, and get around to a few chores that I was supposed to do before Thanksgiving. Okay, maybe I'll do the chores. It's time to find the tree and get the Christmas lights out.

It's the holidays! Gosh, they have already started. But just for a moment, I breathe.

There is something about that pregnant pause between Thanksgiving and when the Christmas parties and church activities start cranking up. I'm not into shopping on Black Friday, since shopping's not my thing. So maybe I'll wait until Cyber Monday. Or maybe I'll miss that, too, because I love this in-between space.

In my faith tradition, the first Sunday of Advent comes and we light the first candle. I know it's coming and my heart starts to anticipate the anticipation.

But for now, I pause. I stop. I reflect. Here come the holidays.

Every year, I recall that the word "holidays" comes from the fact that they are holy days. I don't get upset about the so-called war on Christmas, because I know that even saying "Happy Holidays" is a hidden, secret, subversive statement of faith. These times are holy, and I can feel it in my bones.

So I think this year, instead of jumping into all the things I need to do (or maybe just want to do), I'll pause to ponder what not to do.

I'll try not to eat too much. One plate at every party is fine, really (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can).

I'll try not to get too rushed. I will intentionally not attend everything I want to go to. My wife has been teaching me that it's really okay.

I'll try not to neglect my quiet time every day, because I crave the silence more than the sugar (okay, maybe not more than the sugar ... but I need it, and I know it).

I'll decide that one Christmas tree in my home is plenty (two last year was a bit much). Planning with our church's worship arts directors for a special service, celebrating the ornaments that represent Christ on our tree, reminds me that the simple act of placing one ornament on a branch is a life-giving expression of faith.

So I should savor the moment, not rush through it. This is the time, this in-between space, when I can decide to make the holidays holy.

Making them holy doesn't mean deciding they are boring or chant-like. It simply means that I am going to keep my antennas up so I can detect when God is present, ever-so vibrantly present, in the midst of them. And when I find God is present, I'll pause to pay attention.

It seems like very year, some little gesture, some humorous experience, or some serendipity will remind me of how human, how simple, and how profound these coming days are. Last year, it was when the donkey relieved himself on sweet Mary's dress at our Live Nativity. I laughed and I laughed.

This year? Who knows, but the holidays have a way of giving me a moment or two of reminders that it's all about the regular, the common, and the ordinary things made holy. It's about a manger, a smelly bunch of hay, a family really put out (literally) because of taxes, and a miracle in diapers that completely transformed the direction of the universe.

We call it the incarnation. That's a fancy word for the crazy way God showed up and moved into our neighborhood. What a strange way to save the world.

So have some wonderful holidays. They are meant to be exactly what the words say they are, "wonder-full holy days" indeed.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," is found at