Saturday, October 25, 2014

Arab eateries - gotta love them

A slightly modified version of my recent blog post appeared as a column in the Arab Tribune today. Here it is.

My training in Arabian dining started early.

On a Wednesday this past June, my family moved into the home our church graciously provides. I was eager with anticipation, though I had a corresponding level of energy depletion. I had to miss the first night of summer Wednesdays at the church because the movers were running late. Really late.

My feet hurt, and I was hungry. I would have eaten one of those microwave “burritos in a bag” I see at the gas station.

Yet here came two delightful young women from the church, with a fresh fast-food bag in hand. The only thing better than the adventure of new places is the sight of friendly faces. But my weary craving for sustenance intensified their welcome, as if the skies had opened and angels had appeared.

The bag had the name of a local burger joint on it.

“Oh, I love burgers!” I said. Here came my first lesson. “Oh, they do have burgers, but we got you some chicken. One of the first things you’ll learn about Arab is that this place is famous for their chicken.”

How strange, I thought.

But it was good indeed. Over subsequent weeks, I realized that this was the moment my intensive training on Arabian fare had begun. I know, it’s a matter of deep suffering for me to learn about local restaurants and give them a try.

You can tell by my well rounded nature (I have gained so much while I’ve been here).

But everyone was more than willing to help me learn the ropes. I was surprised at how often food came up in those first conversations.

Let’s see if I’ve got it straight. The burger place is famous for their chicken. The ice cream place is famous for their jumbo cheeseburger. The pizza place is famous for its chicken salad. The Mexican place is famous for its pork chops and ribs. The wings place is famous for its vegetable buffet.

It’s so confusing! But it’s definitely not boring. That’s why I find it so endearing.

Second to my surprise realization that L-Rancho is not a Mexican Restaurant, this was the most curious twist of interesting crossovers in dining experience I’d ever heard of.

I simply love the food in Arab.

It’s not only good, it’s whimsical. Why setlle for dining that is anything less than entertaining?

After four months, I’m still learning some of the deeper nuances of Arabian feasting. I’m discovering what is open when, and who has lunch specials for five dollars or less.

I’ve noticed that several restaurants serve the best burger in town, because it depends who you ask. And I’m learning where to go to get the good stuff - Brindlee Mountain chicken sauce.

Some say food is the way to a man’s heart. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know Arab has grabbed hold of mine.

Like the food, this town is imaginive and creative. It’s artsy, whimsical, and playful. And it’s definitely original.

Where else would there be two restaurants side by side, owned by the same people, but one is only open for breakfast and the other only at lunch and dinner?

Where else would the Italian place be in front of the Old Methodist graveyard? In what other small town do you have to specify which kind of "Oriental" you are talking about?

Where else can you easily identify where the donuts came from, just by looking at them? In what other town can you find a waiter who is the local drum major, and ask him to sing and dance for your amusement?

Where else do people go to the hospital just to eat at the cafeteria? Only the town that hosts the one and only Poke Salat Festival.

I have always taught my people to keep their “spiritual antennaes” up and look for God in the strangest of places. I think I’ve found one. This fanciful food is one serendipitous way a deep sense of goodness pervades this place.

When I get to heaven, I wonder what the table of grace will be famous for.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First UMC. His blog, "Musings of a Musical Preacher," may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Crossover Restaurants" a sign of Arabian Originality

My training in Arabian dining started early.

On a Wednesday this past June, my family moved into the home our church graciously provides. I was eager with anticipation, though I had a corresponding level of energy depletion.  I had to miss the first night of summer Wednesdays at the church because the movers were running late. Really late.

My feet hurt, and I was hungry. I would have eaten one of those microwave “burritos in a bag” I see at the gas station. Yet here came two delightful young women from the church, with a fresh fast-food bag in hand. The only thing better than the adventure of new places is the sight of friendly faces. But my weary craving for sustenance intensified their welcome, as if the skies had opened and angels had appeared.

The bag had the name of a local burger joint on it. “Oh, I love burgers!” I said. Here came my first lesson. “Oh, they do have burgers, but we got you some chicken. One of the first things you’ll learn about Arab is that this place is famous for their chicken.”

How strange, I thought. But it was good indeed. Over  subsequent weeks, I realized that this was the moment my intensive training on Arabian fare had begun. I know, it’s a matter of deep suffering for me to learn about local restaurants and give them a try. You can tell by my well rounded nature (I have gained so much while I’ve been here).

But everyone was more than willing to help me learn the ropes. I was surprised at how often food came up in those first conversations.

Let’s see if I’ve got it straight. The burger place is famous for their chicken. The ice cream place is famous for their jumbo cheeseburger. The pizza place is famous for its chicken salad. The Mexican place is famous for its pork chops and ribs. The wings place is famous for its vegetable buffet.

It’s so confusing! But it’s definitely not boring. That’s why I find it so endearing.

Second to my surprise realization that L-Rancho was NOT a Mexican Restaurant, this was the most curious twist of interesting crossovers in dining experience I’d ever heard of.

I simply love the food in Arab. It’s not only good, it’s whimsical. Why setlle for dining that is anything less than entertaining?

After four months, I’m still learning some of the deeper nuances of Arabian feasting. I’m discovering what is open when, and who has lunch specials for five dollars or less. I’ve noticed that several restaurants serve the best burger in town, because it depends who you ask. And I’m learning where to go to get the good stuff, Brindlee Mountain chicken sauce.

Some say food is the way to a man’s heart. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know Arab has grabbed hold of mine. Like the food, this town is imaginive and creative. It’s artsy, whimsical, and playful. And it’s definitely original.

Where else would there be two restaurants side by side, owned by the same people, but one is only open for breakfast and the other only at lunch and dinner? Where else would the Italian place be in front of the Old Methodist graveyard? In what other small town do you have to specify which kind of Oriental you are talking about? Where else can you easily identify where the donuts came from, just by looking at them? In what other town can you find a waiter who is the local drum major, and ask him to sing and dance for your amusement? Where else do people go to the hospital just to eat at the cafeteria? Only the town that hosts the one and only Poke Salat Festival.

I have always taught my people to keep their “spiritual antennaes” up and look for God in the strangest of places. I think I’ve found one. This fanciful food is one serendipitous way a deep sense of goodness pervades this place.

When I get to heaven, I wonder what the table of grace will be famous for.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC. His blog "Musings of a Musical Preacher" may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Brushstroke

You are a brushstroke in the artistry of God's grace.

The farther along I get in life, the less life seems to be about success, accomplishment, and notariety. I am no longer as motivated by getting ahead, finding a sense of security, and pleasing people.

Rather, I am called to be faithful. And being faithful means giving myself to the bigger picture of God's love.

I have been resonating with a line in Audrey Assad's song "Show Me." She sings "Let me go like a leaf upon the water. Let me brave the wild currents flowing to the sea, and I will disappear in to a deeper beauty."

I pray that this is the journey in the latter half of my life!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

No doubt - Grits are from God

A slightly modified version of my recent blog post (and sermon introduction) appeared as a column in the Arab Tribune today. I'm honored. I am glad to share it here as well.

I have this theory. I think the manna from heaven, which God rained upon the children of Israel, was really grits.

I love grits. It's true that I am a thoroughbred Southerner. The farthest north I've ever lived is Athens, Alabama (why, that's practically in Tennessee!).

Like any true Southerner, I implicitly know how much a "mess" of greens or peas is. I know how to "fix" things that aren't broken (like fixing dinner and fixing to go to the store). I "reckon" all the time. And I know how to eat grits.

I know they are the manna from heaven because the word "manna" means "what is this stuff?" No one seems to know what they are.

I was once on the leadership team of an Academy for Spiritual Formation holding our week in Dubuque, Iowa. I had a lot to learn about cheese curds and a lot to teach about grits.

I find it odd that in the part of the country where the most corn is grown, they have no idea what manna of food can come from it. For the closing week of our two-year journey, I asked the ladies in the kitchen to "fix a mess of grits" for the group. I considered it a parting gift to the community.

I had to bring a package of them on the plane, of course. When I brought them to the kitchen, the highly professional kitchen staff said "Now, tell us, how do you prepare these?"

I showed them the directions on the package, but then explained to them that plain grits are like an empty canvas waiting for the painter. There were creative options, but for this group I thought butter, pepper, and lots of salt would do the trick.

I guess I should have clarified the difference between "lots of salt" and a "mess." I think they put a bucket in. They were the saltiest grits I've ever had, as if they had been cured with the bacon. Oh well. I suppose some folks don't understand the nuances of being a Southern gritsocrat.

Some of the retreat participants seemed enlightened by the experience, but others said, "what is a grit anyway? I'm willing to try one."

No one seemed to know grits came from corn.

But that's how I know grits are manna from heaven. I have definitive biblical proof. In Psalm 78:23-24, the scripture reflects on God's provision in the wilderness "though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, and had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven."

There it is - corn. That proves it. They are indeed grits of grace.

All this is to say that God provides for us. He gave the people of Israel just enough manna for that day - they could not store it or save it, except on the sixth day for the Sabbath. There was mystery in not knowing what it was, this flaky substance that tasted like honey.

There was faith in trusting that when the dew lifted tomorrow morning, it would be there again. We may not have everything we want, but we believe in a God who provides what we need.

God provides for you.

Steve West is pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church and writes a blog called "Musings of a Musical Preacher," which can be found at: www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Manna from Heaven, Grits of Grace

I have this theory. I think the manna from heaven, which God rained upon the children of Israel, was really grits.

I love grits. It's true that I am a thoroughbred Southerner. The farthest north I've ever lived is Athens, Alabama (why, that's practically in Tennessee!). Like any true Southerner, I implicitly know how much a "mess" of greens or peas is. I know how to "fix" things that aren't broken (like fixing dinner and fixing to go to the store). I "reckon" all the time. And I know how to eat grits.

I know they are the manna from heaven because the word "manna" means "what is this stuff?" No one seems to know what they are.

I was once on the leadership team of an Academy for Spiritual Formation holding our week in Dubuque, Iowa. I had a lot to learn about cheese curds, but a lot to teach about grits. I find it odd that in the part of the country where the most corn is grown, they have no idea what manna of food can come from it. For the closing week of our two-year journey, I asked the ladies in the kitchen to "fix a mess of grits" for the group. I considered it a parting gift to the community.

I had to bring a package of them on the plane, of course. When I brought them to the kitchen, the highly professional kitchen staff said "now, tell us, how do you prepare these?" I showed them the directions on the package, but then explained to them that plain grits are like an empty canvas waiting for the painter. There were creative options, but for this group I thought butter, pepper, and lots of salt would do the trick.

I guess I should have clarified the difference between "lots" and a "mess." I think they put a bucket in. They were the saltiest grits I've ever had, as if they had been cured with the bacon. Oh well. I suppose some folks don't understand the nuances of being a Southern gritsocrat.

Some of the retreat participants seemed enlightened by the experience, but others said, "what is a grit anyway? I'm willing to try one." No one seemed to know grits came from corn.

But that's how I know grits are manna from heaven. I have definitive biblical proof. In Psalm 78:23-24, the scripture reflects on God's provision in the wilderness "though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, and had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven."

There it is, corn. That proves it. They are indeed grits of grace.

All this is to say that God provides for us. He gave the people of Israel just enough manna for that day; They could not store it or save it, except on the 6th day for the Sabbath. There was mystery in not knowing what it was, this flaky substance that tasted like honey. There was faith in trusting that when the dew lifted tomorrow morning, it would be there again. We may not have everything we want, but we believe in a God who provides what we need.

God provides for you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Holding People in a Different Place of the Heart

Jesus loved Gentiles and tax collectors. It’s a good thing, too, or I wouldn’t be here writing this. So I have always been perplexed by the closing words of this scripture:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” – Matthew 18:15-17

Does that mean to just put them out of your mind? Or cut all ties with them? Or to treat them as trash and throw them away? Gentiles and tax collectors were deeply reviled by the people Jesus was speaking to. For the longest time, I struggled with this because I thought this must be what Jesus meant. Just forget them as if they are no part of you.

But here’s the thing: Jesus loved Gentiles and tax collectors. He called a tax collector to be one of his disciples. He ministered to Gentiles. My goodness, prophesy said he came to be a light to the Gentiles. In fact, the entirety of the book of Acts is about how his movement became a world-wide faith for Gentiles and Jews alike.

So here’s what I am starting to think. Maybe Jesus was saying to keep loving them, but to hold them in a different place. It means to realize we are “out of fellowship” with them. They are children of God, so we can never treat them like trash, or wash our hands of them, or shut down so that all we offer is disregard and unkindness.

Richard Rohr said it this way. “When you finally come to maturity, you can look back at your life and forgive every bit of it. You can let go of everyone who hurt you, even your first wife or husband. You don’t even need to hate the church that hurt you. Wisdom is where you see it all and you eliminate none of it and include all of it as important training. Finally, ‘everything belongs.’ You are able to say, from some larger place that even surprises you, ‘It is what it is’ and even the ‘bad’ was good.”

Maybe the scripture means to just accept them for who they are, and to leave the door open but give it a rest. To forgive is not to forget, and it's certainly not to treat them like trash. It is to hold them as part of your life, your memories, and your learning experiences. It is to claim down deep that you tried your best, but now you must simply accept your lot with them. And just love them anyway.

But that love holds them in a different place of the heart. You are no longer seeking and trying and reconciling. You are simply accepting. You give up the chase, but you don’t let it become chastisement. You just let it be.


Sometimes I’m slow, but I think I’m finally getting it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What We Believe



The church I serve is working on a new web page. In a link on beliefs, I attempted to craft a way of phrasing Methodist spirituality in my own words. I tried to be brief and understandable, without using too much jargon. Here is what I came up with:

Arab First is a United Methodist Church, part of a 12.5-million strong faith group who follows Jesus Christ and is shaped by the spirituality of English reformers John and Charles Wesley. But we are a people of “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” and value diversity of thought. There are many people from other faith traditions who find a place here. Just make yourself at home.

We do not believe that we are “right” and everyone else is “wrong.” But we have a unique flavor. Methodists believe that while we are sinners in need of grace, our most essential identity is that we are beautifully created in the image of God. We trust in the expansive nature of God’s grace, which reaches to us before we even know it and continues to transform us long after we embrace it. We believe that God gives us the free will to respond, and we cooperate with God through spiritual practices such as scripture, prayer, worship and sacraments, sacrificing for God, and developing Christian relationships to hold us accountable. These are the "methods" of Methodism, the ways we open ourselves to God's incredible grace.

Jesus calls us to be followers, not just fans, and personal relationship with Christ nourishes us for that great adventure. We believe in the essential nature of God as Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). We affirm that the scripture is the inspired revelation of God, and we believe that Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh to dwell among us. We assume that faith is informed by a healthy balance of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We believe that faith in Christ warms the heart and changes the world around us.

There is a website on United Methodist beliefs which includes sections on basics of faith, sacraments, and spiritual living. Check out What We Believe.