Monday, August 17, 2015

Taken and Blessed

I have revised one of my original hymn texts after spending part of my summer in a class, "Liturgy and Moral Imagination." The class was a wonderful experience with my old friend and esteemed professor Don Saliers.

I share it with you today in hopes that it enriches our common prayer. May we be continually shaped and transformed in patterns of grace by God's gift of the sacraments.

I have a simple setting of it with an original tune, if anyone would like to use it. I'll be glad to email it to you and grant permission freely.

Steve West

---

"Taken and Blessed"

Taken and blessed, broken and shared,
We come back to the table the Lord has prepared.
Washed by the water, born by the wind,
We come back to the fountain all over again.

Here you are present in holy space,
And you shape us and form us in patterns of grace.
Life is a circle of joy and pain,
So refresh us, oh God, with your baptismal rain.

Always becoming what we receive,
May our breath take on life beyond all we achieve.
Transform our purpose to love outpoured,
So our living is sharing the cup of our Lord.

Take us, your children, bless us with grace.
In your hands, gently break us, who dodge your embrace.
Share us with others, bread for the world.
We're the body of Christ, now redeemed by his blood.

"Taken and Blessed" by Stephen P. West,  copyright Stephen P. West 2004, revised 2015.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Forgiving the Raccoons

This is the full version of my raccoon story, published in The Arab Tribune on July 29, 2015. Abbreviated versions have been published in The Huntsville Times, The Upper Room, and Alive Now.

The early years of ministry left me with some bruises and a few scars. I was young, and I had a nagging ability to hold onto residual pain from those occasional conflicts that come our way.

One spring, my family went camping at Cumberland Island, a wildlife preserve off the coast of Georgia. Our campsite, nestled in the palmetto, came with two poles. One held a lockable cage to protect food from the raccoons. The other had a single hook to hang the trash out of their reach.

One evening, I suppose I neglected to tie up my trash. I woke in the night to the noises of plastic ripping and metal clanging. Yes, the raccoons had come.

In my typical fashion, I rolled over and went back to sleep until morning. But remembering the raccoons, I rose early to have a look.

The campsite was a mess, with trash and other items strewn everywhere. Somehow, they had even managed to open our cooler with the child-proof lock. Sitting at the picnic table in the midst of the mess, I was suddenly swept into one of the most wonderful meditation experiences I'd ever had. I pondered three amazing things as I looked around the site.

First, I thought, "This is what raccoons do. There's no reason to be angry." Second, "They really didn't hurt me." It's aggravating, yes, but I am no less for it. Finally, and most importantly, "Next time, I'll tie my trash up higher."

I grabbed my journal. I felt led to list all the "raccoons" of my life, the people who had sorted through my trash for something to criticize or consume. Then I prayed over each of them in light of my revelations. This is what raccoons do. They didn't hurt me, not really. And yes, maybe it's time for me to establish a few boundaries, keeping my "trash" tied up higher. It was a wonderful time of letting go.

Then I had one of those moments when I was led to just the right scripture. I turned to Philippians 1:15-18. Paul was in prison and wrote of some of the "raccoons" who had been sorting through his trash. "Some proclaim Christ out of envy or rivalry ... others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice."

Wow. What acceptance he had! I was inspired.

The next Sunday, my sermon was entitled "Raccoons Are Welcome." It was a communion Sunday, and I told the whole story. I encouraged my congregation to let go of what others have done to us. In God's house, raccoons are welcome at the table! If we are bothered that our protagonists are Christians, it helps to remember that Paul's raccoons were not only other Christians, they were other preachers.

On Monday morning, I felt a nudge from the Spirit, as if to say, "Steve, do you believe what you preached yesterday?" I pulled out a file of old letters and emails from those occasional conflicts. Why was I holding on to these raccoons?

On top was a more recent letter, so I thought, "I'd better keep this one, just in case." Laying it aside, I took the file and headed outdoors. One by one, I read each letter to remember. I burned each one as I prayed for forgiveness. I found such release as I poked through the smoldering ashes of my past pain.

After while, the Spirit nudged again. What about the letter still in my desk? No, I might need it. But why not let it go? I sat for a long time in the quiet, internally debating over the one that was left.

Suddenly, I heard a rustle. I opened my eyes. There in broad daylight, just 30 feet away, was a raccoon. He looked at me quizzically. After a few moments, he turned and meandered through the trees. Astounded, I thought, "God, you have a sense of humor."

Needless to say, I burned that last letter.

For years, I have told this story in one form or another to encourage people to find forgiveness. I have discovered that people that drive us crazy are a gift, for they keep us humble and teach us to let go.

Several years ago, I wrote a devotional about the raccoons for a periodical called The Upper Room. Months after I was notified of its acceptance, the morning of its appearance in the magazine arrived without notice.

I got a call in my office. "Is this Steve West?" "Yes, it is," I said. "Is this THE Steve West? The one who wrote about the raccoons?" I suddenly remembered that today was the day. "Why yes, it is."

The woman sighed with relief, "I have been calling everywhere to find your number." She was from several states away. "I had to tell you what happened to me this morning. My daughter is going through a nasty divorce. Her husband has been terrible to her, and it has driven both of us crazy that he acts this way and yet says he's a Christian.

"This morning, when I read your devotional, I just couldn't believe it. I immediately went over to my daughters house, and we laid in the floor while I read the devotional to her. We cried and we cried, and we forgave him for all he had done." "Wow," I said, "I'm so honored that you are telling me this."

"Oh, you don't understand, that's not all," she said. "Here's what's so strange. Her ex-husband's last name is COON!"

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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nope, Hate Did Not Win


This is my column which was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, June 27, 2015.


I think of my monthly column as musings on things that are light, perhaps even humorous. Love shines through the simple moments of humanity, when we are willing to gaze into them with an eye for the divine.

But this month, I don't feel like telling a story or pondering an experience. I've got nothing. That's because my heart hurts.

Last Wednesday night, a young man visited a prayer meeting in Charleston, at a sister congregation in the Methodist family I am a part of. They welcomed him into their midst, and he sat with them for an hour. Then he pulled out a gun and opened fire, killing nine of them including the pastor. This is more than tragic. This is horror.

My heart aches that we live in a world of such brokenness. There is so much hate. There's even hate in the church. It's not limited to the "us and them" distinctions we create, for Muslims are killing Muslims, Christians are killing Christians, and believers are killing believers. Violence of every kind and description goes on and on.

We may feel Arab is a "city on a hill", insulated from this kind of thing. But we're not. We are one human family. It breaks my heart, and I know it breaks the heart of God.

It is sad that we have to peer into the darkness of an event like this to see that there are deep racial wounds that just don't want to heal. But we pretend they don't exist. I don't want to get into political arguments, I'm just feeling the rawness of the truth.

These nine people were shot in a church, when attending a prayer meeting. This is not a "tragedy," like a flood or a tornado. This is hate. We may be tempted to dismiss it as one more guy who lost his mind. But in this case, there is no way not to see this as violence motivated by racial hostility. His own manifesto is the proof.

Please don't just politicize this. Don't dismiss it as if there is no hate or racism in our country. It's like the Nazi Party that's still active underground in Germany. There is a residual strain of hate, hidden beneath the surface. It's real and it's time to stop pretending it's not there.

I am as Southern as you can get. I love grits. I have never lived north of the Alabama state line, and neither did my parents or grandparents (okay, one of them grew up in south Tennessee). I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers as well as Revolutionary patriots, and I know what it means to honor our heritage. But this kind of violence degrades it.

I don't pretend to have a simple solution, but I do believe that the gospel transforms this world. That's why I believe in a life of worship, because vague familiarity with a few superficial niceties and tidy doctrines doesn't make sense of why these things keep happening.

We live in a world that builds layers of hostility. But when we live the life of the church and live it well, Christ comes to peel the layers away, redeeming us and showing us the face of God, even in the face of evil. For those of us who carry the banner of Christian, the good book says the one who prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" was lifted up from the earth so that the world might be drawn to him. Well, we're not there yet.

But here's the hope. Love always wins. Christians are called that because we are called to be "little Christs." That means we love, and we forgive, and we bring peace in places of hate, and we bring calm in every storm, and we tear down what Paul calls the dividing walls of hostility. We don't do this because we think it "works," or because we think it "wins." It's not a strategy. It's because this is who we are. And love is what God is.

The people of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church know this. Did you read about the relatives of the people slain who spoke to the alleged shooter at the bond hearing? They did not speak words of anger or hostility. One by one, they offered forgiveness and prayers for his soul even as they plunged into the depths of their pain.

"I forgive you," one daughter said. "You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul."

A grandson said, "I forgive you. My family forgives you ... We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most: Christ. So that he can change it."

One mother said, "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms," her voice trembling. "Tywanza was my hero. But as we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you."

Wow. These are not words of people who are suddenly trying to come up with some semblance of hope in a vacuum. These are the words of people who pray and study together every week. They have embraced the love that first embraced them.

After the hearing, folks gathered outside the courtroom to sing favorite gospel hymns.

Nope, hate did not win.

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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Voice of Your Baptism



This is a short teaching on baptism I wrote as part of my studies this summer. It is intended for use in my local church setting.

When I was young, I went through confirmation classes where my father was pastor. It came time for a decision to join the church. I asked my dad if I could be baptized again, since I didn't remember the first time. Dad paused, and with a twinkle in his eye, said "it's not important whether you remember being baptized. The important thing is remembering that you were baptized."

In his gentle and pastoral way, my father pointed to the greatest truth of baptism. Something happens at a place in time, as the church claims us as one of God's own. But it also points to a hidden mystery. The journey of our lives becomes one of allowing baptism to unfold, transforming from historical fact to timeless truth.

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim?

Baptism is the very core of who we are. It is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Since the beginnings of the church, it has been the sign of our very identity in Christ.

There is a kaleidoscope of images in scripture which bring baptism to light. In the beginning, the Spirit of God blew across the face of deep waters. Emerging from chaos, water became central to existence. We drink it, we wash in it, and we can't live without it. So it is by the imaginative grace of God that one of the most fundamental signs of life, water, is made holy. It is through water, at the time of the great flood, that we were saved, and it is by crossing the waters of the Red Sea that we were set free.

Likewise, the New Testament gazes at the prism of baptism, revealing rich colors. It is a sign of our new creation in Christ. It mirrors our participation in his death and resurrection and reflects the washing away of sin. In baptism, we claim that we are born from above, receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We become light for the world, now clothed in Christ. We are set free from the bondage of evil and welcomed into the family of God.

It may seem strange to claim such vast meaning for an event we may or may not remember. But the nature of the baptism is that it is a gift given once. A second baptism would imply that God's grace wasn't good enough the first time. Regardless of where we are in life when we receive it, one baptism looks backwards and forwards to the contours and colors of Christian life. What happens at the font not only illuminates everything else, it draws us into a life beyond ourselves - the life of God.

In our tradition, baptism is a sign of the outpouring of God's grace, not our personal decision. It is at confirmation that we "make firm" the promise of baptism, saying "yes" to God who has already said "yes" to us. As far as the amount of water, I am fond of saying you could be baptized in the ocean, and it still doesn't measure up to the amount of grace it represents. Baptism takes place in the midst of God's family; it is not a private transaction. It is a blessing shared with the whole congregation, who renews their baptisms and helps us live into our baptismal identity.

Among the scriptural images of baptism, perhaps what is most central is the baptism of Jesus himself. Scriptures distinguish the baptism of John, one of repentance, with our baptism in Christ, one of fire and Spirit. At Jesus's baptism, the sky opened and a dove descended. A voice from heaven spoke, saying "this is my beloved Son."

What is this truth it takes a lifetime to claim? The same voice is heard at our baptism. We are God's beloved. We are not what we are culturally conditioned to think we are. We are not consumers, or collectors, or achievers. We are the beloved, in the community of God's beloved. That changes everything. It is the truth we always come back to as we practice the art of life.

After years of reflecting on my father's words, I wanted to learn about my baptism. I asked Dad where I was baptized, and he didn't remember. I asked him who baptized me, and he didn't remember that either. I thought, "I should have asked my mom while she was still alive!" Finally, after some work, the historian of the church Dad was serving found it in their book.

I was baptized on May 30, 1965, by Rev. J.P. West, Sr., my grandfather. I went back to that church to spend time by the font and remember.

Later, I found my baptismal certificate in some things my mom had left me. I laughed. I might have known. It is in community with God's beloved that we remember who we truly are.

Pictured is a baptismal icon by He Qi.

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.