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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Does Your Church Smell?

I hope the title of my blog post got your attention!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the kind of chemical or perfume smell that many can’t tolerate well. I am speaking of the “fragrance of Christ” Paul detected in his church in Corinth:

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” - 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Every church has a fragrance, a blessed aroma that is their special version of God’s grace. I have spent the last six weeks sniffing it out at the church I am not privileged to serve. I have paused many times to take a full breath, and I am delighted to say that “it smells really good here!” This places smells of the grace and acceptance my family has experienced during the first six weeks of our journey together.

I am the new kid on the block, but I have already taken a whiff of the essential character, the aroma of love here that is pleasing to the nostrils of God. I have smelled it in the kind expressions of welcome, the willingness to participate in conversations, and in the informal visiting with the people of this place. No church is perfect, but this church does indeed have a wonderful fragrance about it.

My wife and I are grateful for everyone who participated in our "Dream Gatherings" to get to know the people here, and their hopes and desires. I had my “nose to the air” for the fragrance here as we heard stories of how they found grace in this church. Some responded to the point of tears. Ahh, the sweet smell in the air.

Some old friends of ours came to visit our church a few weeks ago for the first time. She wrote me about “what she smelled” here, and with her permission, I share it with you:

"I loved the worship service … such a blessing. I was blown away with the friendliness of the folks in the congregation. I don’t recall one single person not saying hello to us and with a sincere smile on their face. I think that congregation is the friendliest one with perhaps the exception being the congregation at [she named another church she had visited]. Another thing I observed is that the folks at Arab First seemed to truly enjoy being there to worship. I love that small town flavor and hospitality … so very appealing."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Uncovering the Mystical Church

There is a difference between the institutional church and the mystical church.

Both are gifts of God, but one serves the other. The institutional church serves to uphold the mystical church, to ensure its propagation and to invite and welcome people to encounter its mystery. But it is the nest where the real eggs are hatched.

Many of the frustrations and hurts of Christians are rooted in getting tied up in the institutional church, which is all about programs, property, and personalities. The institutional church is not bad, not at all. It's just imperfect to be human, and the church is not immune to being human. In fact, we should be the first to stand up and say we are all broken, for our entire purpose is to point to the One who brings healing and wholeness and transforms our hurts with grace. When the institutional church sins, it sins boldly and trusts God to redeem us, rather than pretending that what we are doing is perfectly in the will of God.

A healthy and vibrant institutional church knows deep in its bones that there is a deeper movement underneath the surface. It's not a matter of recovering the mystical church, it's already there. It's a matter of uncovering, not recovering. The Spirit is at work and we are the body of Christ, bound together with a love that is beyond our human ability to love.

The mystical church is the fine wheat in the midst of tare. But where would we be if both churches did not co-exist, graced by God to grow?

The institutional church seeks converts, members, and volunteers. The mystical church seeks Jesus. The first serves to make the second possible, adn we give God the glory.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Memorial Day is a Monday

Memorial Day is a Monday, not a Sunday.

I say that as a grateful American who loves my country, who celebrates the blessings of freedom that so many laid their lives down for. I say that as someone who has a number of ancestors that fought boldly in the Revolutionary War, in addition to those that fought with courage in a variety of conflicts. I say that as someone who has traced his ancestors from early American history in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, some of whom were involved in the beginnings of Methodism and some of whom were directly involved in the establishment of our principles of religious freedom. I say that as someone who has been to see their graves and remembered their sacrifices.

One of the things I value most is religious freedom in our country. The downside, of course, is that there are more versions of Christianity than I can count on our continent. Most are faithful traditions seeking God. Others are distortions that I consider dangerous. But I believe that due to the religious freedom we value so dearly, time sifts through what is truth and what is not. Each movement thrives or dies according to the purity of its fruit. I leave that to God, and I appreciate the right to choose expression of faith.

All this is to say it’s important to acknowledge those who have gone before us, remembering their sacrifices. But I must admit, it bothers me that we seem to forget Memorial Day is a Monday. We tend to just take the day off to barbeque, or go to the lake, or get some housework done, or spend leisure time with family. And we assume the church is there to cover for us on the day before.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday celebrated every year on the final Monday of May. It originated after the Civil War to commemorate the deceased Union and Confederate soldiers. By the 20th century, it had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. I usually spend a little time maintaining or sharing the online memorials I have made of family who served in the military.

So I suppose I’m not reminding us Memorial Day is a Monday just because of my discomfort with too much of a sprinkling, into Sunday worship, of “civil religion,” that set of quasi-religious attitudes, beliefs, rituals, and symbols that tie members of a political community together. It is true that I am conservative about what is displayed on the communion table and religious symbolism in the sanctuary, which should point to Christ and to the grace of God, and not who we are and what we stand for. It is true that I do not consider the flag an essential piece of Christian worship furniture with the same prominence as the communion table, the pulpit, and the font.

Mainly, I’m reminding us the Memorial Day is a Monday because we must never forget national holidays, such as Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and Labor Day were created to give us Mondays to commemorate, remember, and respect our heritage and national blessings. It’s not to be “covered” by worship the day before. Worship is to focus all of our lives on the redeeming grace of God through the love of Jesus Christ. Each national Monday is a time to do something intentional to remember, reflect, and respond.