Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Sound of Pentecost

This is my column which appeared in The Arab Tribune on May 27, 2015. A very similar version of my story appeared in my column of the Faith and Values Section of The Huntsville Times on August 8, 2008.

- Steve West 

This past week, the Church had a birthday. I'm not just talking about my church, I'm talking about the Church with the big "C."

Pentecost is one of those lesser-known holidays that doesn't get the attention of Christmas and Easter, but it ought to be a huge day if you think about it. The Church was born. People were gathered from all over the place, assembling in Jerusalem for one of the big harvest festivals.

There was a big "whoosh", like the sound of a violent wind, and tongues of fire came down. But even with all that earth, wind, and fire, what really got everyone's attention was that language barriers melted away, and everyone could hear the God-talk in their own tongue.

Have you had a Pentecost experience? I don't mean something quite so dramatic as what happened that day. Have you had one of those moments of clarity when all things converged, and there was some kind of "whoosh" that took you to an entirely new barrier-breaking place?

Years ago, I heard music that would change my life. I was twenty years old, traveling to the People's Republic of China on a mission and study tour with Christian young people from north Alabama. One Sunday, we visited a Protestant Church in Nanjing.

I was not entirely looking forward to it. The trip had been tiring, and morning seemed to come early. We had heard that we should expect the sermon to be at least forty-five minutes long, and of course it was in Chinese.

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 beautiful face of an old woman with tattered clothes who sat right in front of me. She smiled at me warmly, and we nodded at one another.

We settled into our seats as the service began, and though I was not expecting much because of the language barrier, I found myself completely taken away. From the moment I heard the first note of music, my spirit was captured by a world of connecting that was beyond words.

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. I had never heard anything like the unique blend of voices in different languages singing as one. Throughout the service, I found every note strangely familiar.

The choir sang John Steiner’s “God So Loved the World,” in beautiful Chinese intonation. A shock wave moved through my spirit, for the choir of my home church had done the very same piece two weeks earlier. I knew the beloved words to John 3:16, and so did they.

During the sermon (which was indeed over forty-five minutes and in Chinese), I found myself intrigued by the songbook. Instead of the Western hymnal I was used to, it was simply Chinese words with numbers printed above them. I can remember the moment it dawned on me how the numbers represented the tune. With a number for each note in ascending scale, “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. The sermon was over and 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. Toward the end of the song, she turned and looked at me with tears streaming down her face. When her eyes met mine, it was my “Pentecost moment”. It was 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. She and I were brother and sister, and we knew it deep in our bones.

There is strangely familiar music that binds us together, spanning the globe and moving through the centuries. It's our corporate song, for our spiritual lives do not develop in a vacuum. Our journey has context.

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.

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bishops Write Pastoral Letter on Racism


When I saw this beautifully written pastoral letter from the bishops of the UMC, I immediately felt led to share it with all of you. In light of
 recent rioting on American soil, I am reminded of the historic struggles of the American soul. Let us all pray for healing for all of God's creation.

The Council of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on racism to the people of The United Methodist Church affirming the sacredness of all lives and renewing their commitment to work for an anti-racist, pro-humanity church. The action came at the end of the Council’s weeklong meeting in Berlin in May of 2015.

The letter reads:

Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!

We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, are meeting in Berlin, Germany, 70 years after the end of World War II.  As we gather, we renew our commitment to lead, as together we seek to become the beloved community of Christ.  

We are a church that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  On every continent, people called United Methodist are boldly living the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, the people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound.  Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.

Our hearts break and our spirits cry out, as we see reports of migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa, note the flight of Jews from Europe, watch the plight of Mediterranean refugees and see racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.  The evidence is overwhelming that race still matters, that racism is woven into institutional life and is problematic to communal health.  This reality impacts every area of life – in the church and in the world.

Racism is prejudice plus intent to do harm or discriminate based on a belief that one is superior or has freedom to use power over another based on race. Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.  Racism and xenophobia, like other sins, keep us from being whole persons capable of living up to our full potential. They deny the profound theological truth that we are made in the image of God with the handprint of love and equality divinely implanted in every soul.

As bishops of the Church, we cast a vision for a world community where human worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. We acknowledge that silence in the face of systemic racism and community fears serves only to make matters worse.

We commit to lead, model and engage in honest dialogue and respectful conversation and invite people of faith everywhere to join us.  Let us repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege.  May we love God more deeply and, through that love, build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, valued, heard and safe. As we proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may we lead the way in seeking justice for all, investing in and trusting God’s transforming power to create a world without hatred and racism. 

As United Methodists, we affirm that all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.  We renew our commitment to work for a Church that is anti-racist and pro-humanity, believing that beloved community cannot be achieved by ignoring cultural, racial and ethnic differences, but by celebrating diversity and valuing all people.

“This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 1 John 4:21 (CEB)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Little Birthday Banter


This is my column that appeared in "The Arab Tribune" on Wednesday, April 29, 2015.

I am turning this in to the local paper the day before my fiftieth birthday. I thought I’d give myself a present and write about it, so here it is. Happy birthday to me.

Yes, it’s true. This is the “big 5-0.”

I’m not sure the reality that I’m half a century old has set in yet, but it’s starting to. I looked up what was going on when I was born. Why not? I don’t remember it.

It was April of 1965, and Lyndon Johnson was president. “Girl Happy” featuring Elvis was a box office hit, and “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes reached #2 in the charts.

Earlier that month, the first jet-to-jet combat took place in Vietnam, and Robert Downy, Jr. was born. Two men were executed in Kansas by hanging, and “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn won eight Academy Awards. West Germany paid Israel the final $75 million in reparations, and the first commercial communications satellite took orbit.

The month I was born, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War was observed, and the Beatles released “Ticket to Ride.” The first march in Washington was organized to protest the Vietnam war, and Mickey Mantle hit his first indoor homerun. On the day before I was born, the New York World’s Fair opened for its final season.

Wow.

All I ever knew about the month I was born was from baby pictures. It was all about my dad’s horn rimmed glasses and my mom’s bouffont, not to mention some awfully interesting colors which never cease to come back.

But things have really changed. And I guess I have too.

It’s Mohammed Ali who said "A man who views the world at fifty the same as he viewed the world at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

What have I learned during this half-a-century romp in the playpen? The biggest thing I've learned is that I've forgotten more than I remember, but here are a few things that seemed to stick. My life is not so much about success, achievement, or notoriety as it is about creativity. What I don’t say is more important than what I do. I can't control other people’s behavior, but I can try my best to shape mine.

I've learned that some things I used to get upset about are just not worth it. And if I get down in the ditch with somebody who is picking a fight, we both lose. Life is really about relationships, and I don’t have to agree with someone to treat them with dignity and respect.

And I’ve learned things go better when I’m wearing the smile I feel, when I’m willing to sing a song, and when I’m able to have a little fun.

So here I am. I've been through my mid-life crisis and emptied my nest. Now that my kids are both away at school, my wife and I can afford to go back to school ourselves (yes, I’m still trying to figure that one out). Life is a new adventure, and adventure is good.

They say life begins at fifty. Or fifty’s the new forty. Or fifty looks pretty good when you’re sixty. 

Whatever they say, I’m just glad to be here. I may have streaks of gray in my hair, but I’ve earned these stripes. They are my platinum highlights.

My dad says growing old is not for sissies. He once told me he thought he was old when people started asking if he wanted the senior discount, but he knew he was old when they stopped asking.

Well, I haven't been asked yet, so I don’t think I’m old. But if I am the one to ask, I already get a 10% discount at Krispie Kreme. Who'd have thought turning half a century old would have its perks?

Agatha Christie said “I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming … suddenly you find – at the age of 50, say – that a whole new life has opened before you.”

So at fifty, I'm not sad. In fact, I’m pretty excited about the rest of my life. I have another half-a-century of things to learn. Bring it on.


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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Cup of Love Poured Out

A Good Friday Meditation
(and critique of Ransom and Substitution Theories)

I have a communion chalice that I keep on my shelf. It’s my favorite chalice, aside from the ones given to me as gifts. I found it at a local pottery shop in North Carolina and was completely captivated by it. I thought this earthy, blue chalice was the most beautiful one I had ever seen.

It occurred to me one day a few years ago that the purpose of this chalice is not to sit pretty on my shelf. It was made for so much more, yet I leave it on display most of the time. I suppose we are like that at times. We are created in the image of our gracious and loving God for more than we can possibly imagine, yet sometimes we find ourselves sitting pretty in church, as if that’s what’s important.

Reflecting with my chalice in hand that day, I began to think that the real purpose of this chalice is not to sit there; it is to be filled. We come to a place in the Christian life when we discover that we are called beyond the ministry of showing up. This longing is evident in our prayer and praise, as we sing “Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.” We yearn to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be completely saturated with the love of God.

Yet upon further reflection on the cup in my hand, I realized that this is not the ultimate purpose of the chalice either. As I tipped my wonderful blue chalice over on its side in my hands, I began to see that the purpose of this chalice is not to be filled. The ultimate purpose of this chalice is to be emptied. It is to be poured out.

This is our spirituality of Good Friday. The cross is the intentional, redemptive, self-emptying love of God poured out.

There have been many teachings throughout history on the atonement, the work of God for our redemption through the cross. These have taken shape in a few different ways over the centuries. Perhaps the most prominent theories are “ransom” theory and “substitution” theory. I am at a place in my journey where I am not a fan of either.

Ransom theory was developed fairly early in Christianity. It’s my understanding that for the first thousand years or so, the idea prevailed that the blood of Christ purchased our forgiveness from Satan. But for me, the idea that God “paid off” the devil falls gravely short of capturing the truth of the cross.

In later history, the idea was transformed to the theory that God purchased our pardon not from the devil, but from God’s very self. Similar to this later development is substitution theory, the idea that because of God’s righteousness and justice, God had to place judgment on somebody. So God substituted Jesus for us, who took the punishment for our sin. Again, this falls short because it is hard to imagine a God who needed a “cosmic punching bag” to settle his internal issues.

Here’s the thing. The ideas of ransom and substitution are definitely scriptural, as the early church began to unpack the meaning of the cross. In some ways, they are rooted in Christ’s transformation of the temple sacrificial system, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But I believe ransom and substitution are best seen as metaphors and illustrations, for they fall short of giving us a comprehensive theory on how the cross reconciles us with God. In the end, placing all our eggs in one of their baskets just doesn’t make sense.

So what is the fullest meaning of the cross? What better place to go than Jesus’ first words about it, the first Christian sermon about it, and the first Christian hymn about it.

The first thing Jesus said about the cross in the book of John was “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John notes that he was indicating the kind of death he was to die. The first time Jesus spoke of cross should carry some weight. The cross was intended to draw all people to the heart of God, “for God so loved the world (“cosmos” in the Greek) that he gave his only Son” … “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

That means there is something cosmic, something earth shattering and game changing about the cross. Whatever it is, it’s not just an “example to follow.”

If Jesus’ first words about the cross carry weight, what about first sermon and first hymn? In a recent Bible study, we were reading Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. Someone in the group remarked “this is the first Easter sermon.” I was intrigued.

Knowing this was not the first sermon in the early church, a distinction that would go to Peter, I looked back at the texts. This was indeed the first sermon that contained what I would consider theory of atonement. After reciting salvation history in Hebrew style, culminating in the cross and resurrection, Paul continued “Let it be known to you therefore … that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”

This cosmic event is one that frees us from sin, yes indeed. But I noticed there there was no purchase language here, and no substitution language either. By the incredible love of the cross, all who respond are freed from the bondage of sin.

What about first Christian hymn we have record of? That would be in Philippians 2. Scholars agree that in verses 5-11, Paul is reciting the words to an ancient Christian hymn, which makes it the first one we still have record of.

It’s incredible in its expression of the atoning work of Christ, singing “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” This is why he is exalted and lifted up.

These three sources give us a pretty good understanding of the outpouring of love expressed in the cross. Who can beat Jesus’ first words, the first sermon, and the first hymn about the cross?

So my theory of the atonement is this. The cross is the ultimate, redemptive expression of God's intentional, self-emptying love. It was not something that happened when God wasn’t looking, sort of a “cosmic fumble” after which God returned the ball in the last second of the game. And it is a comprehensive mystery that can’t possibly be fully explained with a metaphor such as a financial purchase or a substitution for a sacrifice.

It was not just given to us as an example to follow. It completely changed the game. It brings forgiveness to all who would be drawn to the cross. And it calls us to a new love, with the way of the cross guiding us. As the hymn Paul shared reminds us, “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

So it turns out the overturned chalice in my hand a few years ago gave me a pretty good understanding of the cross. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s the meaning of what love is, and life is not about being filled up but about being emptied out.

That’s the meaning of the cross. That’s the meaning of Holy Week. And that’s the meaning of life.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

There's So Much Drama in my Church!

This column was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Usually when I hear someone talk about all the drama in their church, it’s not a good thing.

Maybe they got their feelings hurt or a decision didn’t go their way. Maybe they caught wind of the occasional gossip or internal politics. Maybe someone spread a rumor or jockeyed for a leadership position.

This kind of drama can sting, and I’ve seen it happen over the years. While this is not part of the nature of what it means to be the Church, it’s definitely part of the nature of what it means to be human. And last time I checked, everybody in the church is human.

Nobody likes drama in their church. Or do they?

This next week, we’ll see some of the best drama the Church could ever have. Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable.

It begins with Palm Sunday, a day full of children, grand processionals and palms, and acknowledging Christ as king who reigns in glory and honor. During many churches’ Palm Sunday services, our thoughts and prayers progress toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We begin to fathom the wondrous love it is that would pour itself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries crystal clear - cultural and commercial religiosity is not at the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, it’s good to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial of the week. Talk about drama! I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends. It’s the people you care about that can hurt you the most, not the people you don’t know.

It has occurred to me that out of twelve disciples Jesus spent three years closely working with, one betrayed him, one denied him, and two couldn’t see past their own noses, which were sniffing out status and position. In the end, a third of the disciples let him down.

Later in the week, Maundy Thursday rolls around, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood, instituting our precious meal.

Despite their protests, he washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world.

We pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday. Then as a community of churches, we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter.

We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope. All of our church activities lead us through all this drama. I hope you will participate in your church as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama in your church. That’s just what the world needs to see.

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

Prayers for the Persecuted Church


Our beloved bishop in North Alabama, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, released this prayer which we used in worship yesterday at the church I serve. It is a prayer for the persecuted church.

She has invited all United Methodists in North Alabama to a week of prayer for our brothers and sisters who face persecution for their faith. Whoever and wherever you are, please join us in this prayer. In today's world, there are those in our Christian family who are losing their lives and livelihood because of their belief in Christ.

I try to pray prayers not clouded by the language of politics, but purely for the sake of the Body of Christ. It is not the first time in history that the blood of the martyrs has been part of the painful struggle of carrying the cross of Christ.

Steve

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Prayer for the Persecuted Church

God of us all, You love us so passionately that you sent Your Son to help us experience the fullness of divine love. And while we love you, we are not often asked to risk our lives because of our faith.

This is not true for many of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Our hearts break as we see more of them suffering and dying simply because they are living as disciples of Jesus. We pray for their safety and sanctuary. We pray that you will give them grace in suffering. We are humbled by the witness of these martyred for their faith. We pray for their persecutors, and that acts of violence and persecution will cease.

Help us to grow in our commitment to live as Jesus' disciples. Remind us that we are the One Body of Christ: when one member suffers, all suffer. Stir us to pray unceasingly. And empower us to speak boldly.

We pray all of this in the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Kiss of Peace


This devotional was written by Pastor Steve for the "Night Watch" at Discovery Weekend.

John 14:27 says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I went to see “Bye Bye Birdie” last weekend at Arab High School. What an incredible show! I had seen it before, and knew a few of the songs. But I had never seen it performed so flawlessly. I’m so proud of the talent in our community.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is about a huge rock and roll star of the 60's who was drafted for the army (I assume it’s based on the true story of Elvis Presley). His assistant thinks he can make a fortuneand marry his girlfriend, if he gets Conrad on the Ed Sullivan show to kiss a high school girl goodbye. So it’s all about that kiss.

Have you ever thought about how God has given us a BIG kiss? Obviously, it’s not the kind of kiss you can get from Conrad Birdie. It’s more like the kiss my mother used to give me on the cheek to wish me goodnight. It’s the kind of kiss that makes you feel warm and safe, the kinds of kiss that makes you feel special.

This kiss is called the peace of Christ. He gave it to his disciples when he was saying goodbye. He knew he was going to die and that they would miss him, at least until he rose again. So he gave them one last kiss, the kiss of his peace.

The reason am calling it the “kiss of peace” is because in the ancient church, people actually did that. They puckered up and kissed each other during worship, and called it “the kiss of peace.

For obvious reasons we don’t do it anymore … we shake hands and give hugs! But it still means the same thing. We pass the peace of God to one another.

So let God “kiss you goodnight” tonight. His gentle presence brings you a “peace that passes all understanding.”

PRAYER: Dear God, you promised us a peace that passes all understanding. That means it’s a peace that makes no sense. Sometimes we don’t feel a whole lot of peace in our lives, but you said you do not give it to us as the world gives. Tonight, help melt away the trouble in our hearts and take away our fears. Help us feel your presence. In Jesus’s name, Amen.