Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Embracing Mystery in a Culture of Certainty

This article was published in Alive Now, a periodical publication of The Upper Room, in the November/December 2015 issue.

The theme for the issue is "mystery."

I remember the moment I met Jeff, who led the praise band for the church I had come to serve in Huntsville, Alabama. “I heard you are a rocket scientist,” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “but I don’t do that here!” He smiled with a width I’ve grown to love and went back to playing his guitar.

The church I served at the time was fruitful in the context of a highly technical culture. We worshiped ten minutes away from the NASA space flight center where Space Shuttles were designed and built. Nearby was the arsenal where missile command for the United States was controlled.

One parishioner's full time job was to write the computer programs that test the computer programs that operate the Shuttle. I once found myself at a church social event with someone who flew helicopters, someone else who tested helicopters, and yet another person who did the computer support for helicopters. It was a culture of engineering, mastering information, and exacting personalities.

Yet I discovered that the people had a corresponding hunger for mystery. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes his call to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” and “make plain the mystery.” Do we dare claim a faith that is about something bigger than what we can identify, control, or explain?

I come from a long line of pastors that go back to the days of riding horseback. At my great, great, great uncle’s gravestone these words are chiseled: “For 50 years preached the unsearchable riches of Christ until his decease.” Those words echo Paul’s words and continue to touch me deeply.

Years prior to arriving in Huntsville, young in ministry and dealing with my first frustrations and disappointments, I went to that uncle’s grave and knelt. I considered the hardships of the early circuit riders. My heart melted in realization that my struggles were not just about me. The difficulties I was going through placed me in the company of generation after generation of people who had experienced the unfathomable richness of Christ’s love. Seeing my life in context of a bigger mystery gave me a great deal of hope.

While serving in Huntsville, I felt led to write my own mission statement. I kept it by my desk the whole time I was there. It read: “I have been placed here in the Huntsville culture to help people who are conditioned to think they can fix any problem, explore any place in the galaxy, or settle any conflict by force to live a life that encounters mystery and embraces uncertainty.”

I tried to live by it, but God had a great surprise in store for me. The people taught me much more about how to do that than any insight I could have brought them. They already longed for mystery; that’s why they were there. They implicitly knew this, and lived faithfully in that creative incongruity. I suppose all of us do.

Each year during the season of Epiphany, we remember the wise men who saw a bigger picture and followed a star. The King had been born right under the noses of the people of bustling Bethlehem, and it took some stargazing Persian astrologers to see it.

Sometimes we are so concerned with what’s right under our noses that we miss the mystery. We water down the gospel to acquiesce to a culture of work and rewards. We reduce the message to a few principles to follow in order to make our lives a little better. The problem with all that is that we’re still in control. Face it, we’re control freaks.

But the good news of the gospel is that certainty is an illusion. It’s mystery that’s real. Christ makes plain the unrevealable and reveals the unsearchable. Christ makes God touchable, lovable, knowable, even feelable. This mystery can’t be encapsulated in a few bullets on a power point slide. It can only be absorbed throughout a lifetime of beholding its light.

Stephen P. West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC in Arab, Alabama. His blog "Musings of a Musical Preacher" may be found at

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Singing My Heart Songs in Singapore

This is my column published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, November 7, 2015.

As I walked out the door of my Arab home to get to the airport early in the morning, I stopped for a moment to ask Siri, "how far is it to Singapore?" My phone offered her reply with characteristic wit. "9,981 miles as the crow flies."

I got on the plane for the 30 hour sedentary journey, but my mind started racing. Though my wife's family were moving her parents to an independent living apartment, and I was quite literally going to be "as far away as possible," I couldn't pass on this opportunity.

I was recruited by the director of an ecumenical ministry dear to my heart. He invited me to join him on this mission of the Upper Room, the spirituality center of Methodism in Nashville. We were launching the first Academy for Spiritual Formation held in Southeast Asia.

Since I was going this far, I went two days early to explore the country before duties began. I went to taste and see. Boy, did I. It was simply amazing.

Singapore hosts the busiest port in world, and is a first class city and financial center. It has developed dramatically in the 50 years since recovering from Japanese occupation during WW2 and declaring independence 20 years later.

It is clean and bright, and hosts some of the most beautiful gardens and cultural highlights in the world. The people are free and happy, and doing well financially. The locals say the state bird is the "crane", because you can see the steel contraptions busy with construction all over the place.

There is not even one package of chewing gum for sale. If you wonder how that can be, ask a local who says "it's a FINE city," referring to the fees the government imposes for spitting out gum (or spitting at all for that matter), for littering, and the like. So while at first it seems curiously western, it's not so western when you look a little deeper.

There is no drug problem because there is a death penalty for distributing, and there is no litter because of the $200 fine. The city is lined with Disney quality manicured shrubs and coordinated lights. Few have cars because of the $45,000 license required for permission to drive for ten years, and 80% of the people live in government "flats."

The animals are even different. I saw my first bearded pig and heard my first barking deer at the zoo. I absolutely loved the food and hospitality, though I admit I could not bring myself to try their famous "fish head curry" since I make it a habit not to eat things that look back at me. But of all I tried, the only thing that just didn't work for the western tongue was a dessert with shaved ice with gelatin and fruit jam, along with kidney beans. That was interesting.

One of the most delightful clues about the differences in our cultures came to me after a long day of walking in the tropical humidity. My host dropped me off at a Hawker Centre, which is kind of an Asian food court. I ordered iced milo (a chocolate drink which is sort of like Yahoo). The attendant asked, "are you having here?" I said, "no, I'm having iced milo." "Are you having here?" he repeated. "No, iced milo." I had no idea he was asking me if I was "eating in". This was my first lesson in "Singlish", a unique mix of English with Mandarin syntax and other dialects.

I reminded my new friends that here in Arab, Alabama, we talk funny too. We say "hey ya'll," and we fix things that are not broken ... like fixing dinner and fixing to go to the store.

One of the days I was touring, I took a bicycle tour with a local guide, one on one. We saw Chinatown, the business district, and the marina area. Since we toured two temples, we talked about religion and I got to share some of my faith. He knew everything there is to know about Buddhism and Hinduism but very little about the church. He didn't know the word Protestant, or who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. Imagine that.

Yet with all these incredible differences, when I arrived at the Academy what struck me the most was what we held in common. When we gathered for worship services I was responsible for coordinating, with Christians from Singapore, East Malaysia, West Malaysia, Australia, and Hong Kong, my heart began to melt.

The worship had a beautifully Asian flair with gongs and percussion instruments and Asian musicians. Who in my neck of the woods would have thought to use a room-sized palm branch on the floor under the altar to decorate? We sang some beautiful Asian hymns I'd never heard, yes, but by and large they knew my songs. Or perhaps I should say I knew theirs.

From the first praise song in worship, "Open the Eyes of My Heart," to their request that I lead the rousing camp song "Rejoice in the Lord Always" in the conference room, the sounds of music connected the hearts and souls of people from all over the world. Though I'd never donned a clerical collar before (this is a tradition of Methodists there, but not here), I felt comfortable in my skin.

The more we shared our faith, the more it dawned on me that the communion table we gathered around was the longest table in the world. I happen to know it was at least 9,981 miles long, as the crow flies.

No geographical distance, cultural diversity, or political complexity can take away our common story. We may have a different history, but His story is the same.

My new Christian friends laughed heartily when I told them the name of my town was pronounced "Ay-rabb", and there were no Muslims in town I was aware of. But my heart was strangely warmed by what we have in common, not what makes us different.

Perhaps that's because it is precisely the things that warm the heart that are what we hold in common. We're different, but not so different after all. I left having experienced one of the most amazing journeys of my life.

Hopefully, I helped plant seeds for a cross-continental retreat to bless lives for generations to come. But most of all, I left knowing I have found new brothers and sisters who sing the songs of my heart. 

Steve West was in Singapore Oct. 7-17. He 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 at www.

Pictured are two photographs of Niam Kai Huey, one of the pastors I worked closely with in the Singapore mission, and myself.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pointers for Scripture that Doesn't Make Sense

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.

Jesus said some strange things.

It's part of his whole strategy I think. Jesus responded to people and circumstances in ways that completely surprise us. He didn't just do the usual or act like normal - that never figured in to his methods.

Here are some of the many things Jesus said that seem crazy, but he didn't say them to make us crazy. He said them to take us to a deeper, crazy kind of wisdom. They are signals into a richer reality. On the surface, they just don't make much sense:

  • "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
  • "Let the dead bury their own dead."
  • "Be perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect."
  • "I come not to bring peace but a sword."
  • "It is not good to take food from the children's table and throw it to the dogs."
  • "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off."

That last one is a stark reminder that the scriptures are not always meant to be taken literally. It's a good thing, too, because I still have all my fingers and toes.

There's more where those scriptures came from. How do you deal with difficult sayings of Jesus? For that matter, how do deal with difficult passages in the Bible?

Scripture is meant to open us up to the mystery of grace and the revelation of truth, and not always to be taken literally. There is a deeper spiritual meaning under the surface. It's a matter of discovering the Word that is sometimes hidden underneath the words. It is there for us, when we are ready to find it. Scripture is like a treasure hidden in a field. (Matt. 13:44)

Here are my pointers for reading scripture that doesn't seem to make sense.

1) Read around it. Examine the context around difficult passages to see how the saying functions in the setting. Look for literary devices like hyperbole and exaggeration that help get across a point. Allow other scripture to help you interpet scripture.

2) Pray through it. Invite the Holy Spirit to pour over it, as you pore over it. The Spirit is our advocate, and as Jesus promised, the Spirit will teach us everything Christ has given us. The Spirit opens the heart and unravels truth.

3) Begin to see it through lenses of God's grace and Christ's love. These are the "interpretive lenses" that guide us to see underneath the surface. They bring light on the subject. They help us to see more deeply.

4) Expect to come to a new conclusion. Look for a deeper spiritual meaning underneath the text. The scriptures are the gift of God for the revelation of truth, but by the grace of God who wants us to wrestle and struggle with that truth there are stumbling blocks.

There is grace in all the wrestling. There are endless layers of mystery underneath the stories, the unfolding of grace. It is for our growth in the journey that the scriptures say these things.

So yes, Jesus said some strange things indeed.

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Great Fishing Boat Caper

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, September 2, 2015.

I enjoyed writing this story down for the first time!

When I was growing up in the years around kindergarten and first grade, my family lived in Sheffield, Alabama. I had older brothers, but I was the one folks remember as the toe-headed kid running around the church my father served.

We lived in the church-owned home on a cul-de-sac on Rivermont Drive. Behind our houses, back in the woods and down the slope, was a large creek.

Amy and Becky were my friends. They were the two little girls that lived across the street, and we always found something to do.

Playing down in the woods by the creek one day, we came upon a little fishing boat tied to a stump. And that was the beginning of the great fishing boat caper.

Every day, we would go down to the boat and untie it. One of us would hold the rope while the other two climbed in the boat. Then we would trade places. I have no idea how many times we did this, but boy, it was fun ... until the day one of the girls dropped the rope.

I can still visualize her scrambling to take hold of it before the boat drifted to the other side of the creek, with Becky and me in it. It lodged into a grassy area on the other side, but it was nowhere near the other shore. I did not know how to swim yet, and there was no paddle in sight. Oh dear.

My parents were going to find out, and all I could feel was the shame. Amy ran to get help, and help did come. My memory is fuzzy on how many people came to the shore and how long it took them to come up with a plan.

But what I vividly remember is the little motorboat coming up the creek to save us. Here we were, lost in our fears, and a young man appeared in the distance with the buzz of the motor behind him.

I've never been so glad to see a motorboat, before or since. It was as if Jesus himself was parting the waters, with a divine glow about him and heavenly music playing in the background. With no hint of judgement, and a smile on his face, this man came and took us to a place of safety.

In the years since, I've laughed that as a kid I was smart enough to know it's easier to get forgiveness than permission, but was just not wise enough to leave the boat tied up to the stump.

But I've never forgotten the joy of that moment when I saw the motorboat coming.

All these years, I've pondered what a Christ figure he was for me. Here I was, wallowing in my shame and fear, but he offered no condemnation and no harsh words. He just smiled and invited me to get in the boat.

Jesus is the one who comes.

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

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

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