Saturday, February 28, 2015

Religious Freedom Wasn't Free

This is my column that includes the story of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, my fourth great grandfather. It was published in The Arab Tribune on Saturday, February 28, 2015.

As I reflect on the last few weeks of supercharged political and religious energy in Alabama, my mind can't help but wander back to a precious memory from my family's chronicles.

My fourth great grandfather was active in the fight for religious freedom in America, a freedom we hold dear. Carrying the name Rev. Thomas Maxwell, he was in the ministry of the gospel during the formative days of our nation.

Maxwell grew up Anglican, when the Church of England was the officially sanctioned faith of his home colony of Virginia. A few years before the Revolutionary War ignited, he was "born again" into the Baptist faith.

He fought as a patriot in the war for independence. After that, he began following his calling as a Baptist preacher.

The nation was brand new, but some colonial law hadn't changed. He was jailed several times in Culpepper County for preaching without a license. It may surprise you that licenses to preach were granted by the local courthouse, and in the infant state of Virginia, a license was only granted to those who were Anglican. Period.

Family stories include the fact that he had a large, protruding nose (that's good confirmation that he is related to me). He developed a scar on his nose from rubbing it raw, preaching through the bars of the prison to anyone who would hear it. It is reported that at least one jailer and his family came to know the Lord.

Records show that early American orator and attorney Patrick Henry defended Thomas Maxwell, and Henry had Maxwell released from jail in the 1780's. Patrick Henry was taking up the cause for religious freedom in times when it was considered a value, but certainly wasn't automatic.

Thomas Jefferson, the "silent congressman" who had penned the Declaration of Independence, spent the 1780's making its words reality in Virginia. He wrote Virginia's bill, enacted into law in 1786, which guaranteed religious freedom and allowed Grandpa Maxwell and others to preach without restriction.

By 1791, this freedom was guaranteed for the posterity of the nation by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is easy to forget that the reason the constitutional amendments included in the Bill of Rights were needed was that these freedoms weren't necessarily granted in those first 25 years.

Perhaps it is ironic that years later Jefferson, now serving as our third president, was denying a request of Connecticut Baptists to have the president proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer, when he coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state", referencing the First Amendment. The freedom my ancestor, Rev. Thomas Maxwell, and so many others fought for was a differentiation of church and state that worked both ways.

In 1792, just one year after the First Amendment passed, my ancestor moved to North Georgia and founded a number of Baptist churches there. Though he was Baptist and I am a Methodist, the fire of his spirit - and a deep appreciation of the distinctive roles of religion and government - are part of the fabric of who I am.

A few years ago, I took my Dad on a trip through North Georgia to climb up the family tree. After finding directions scribbled in the back of a locally published history book at the Elbert County library, and a considerable amount of searching, we found the grave of Rev. Thomas Maxwell, this Revolutionary War veteran and early American preacher I had grown to admire.

The grave was on the side of a dirt road, embedded in a picturesque, ivy covered oasis in the middle of a dairy farm.

As Dad and I reverently approached the well-marked grave, about two dozen cows slowly and deliberately made their way from across the field in hopes of being fed.

I hated to disappoint them, for we were empty handed. But our hearts were quite full.

The complex wrangling of religion and culture is nothing new, and I guess it will continue until the cows come home.

But that's the price of religious freedom. It's part of the healthy rub of what it means to be faithful in America. I hope I never forget how much of a gift it is.


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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Acts of kindness are seeds of Christ's love

This was my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, January 28, 2014.

Another version of it was published in the Faith and Values section of The Huntsville Times on Friday, March 25, 2011.

When my wife and I got married, it was a church wedding of church weddings.

We were in seminary and both on the part-time staff at the church where we were wed. Naturally, a large group from the church came.

The experience was complete with choir and hand bells, a car decorated by the youth group and lots of bird seed tossed.

The wedding was on Saturday, and we happily went on our honeymoon to Gulf Shores. But by Tuesday, I was feeling a strange, niggling, little itch in my left ear.

I started complaining to Sandy about it. It got worse and worse every day.

By Thursday, in desperate need of relief, I was scratching inside my ear. Lo and behold, my fingernail caught on something. I pulled it out.

There it was - a piece of bird seed that had lodged in my ear. And it had sprouted!

It had become a tiny little plant. Not only that, it was growing inwardly. No wonder it had been driving me absolutely crazy.

One year, I preached on the parable of the sower and proudly told the story of the seed sprouting in my ear. Though some seed falls in places where it won't grow, I made the conclusion that "seeds take root in fertile ground," referring of course to my head.

The church found that a bit humorous.

Yet, I never will forget the man who came up to me after the service and said, "You know what fertilizer is made of don't you? Manure!"

Then he just walked off. I deserved that.

At my going away party upon leaving that church, he gave me a dentist's mold of an ear with a little plant growing out of it. He wrote on the side, "Hear the Word, Plant the Word, Do the Word."

What a gift.

I keep it in my office to remind me that God can do great things with one little seed, no matter how unlikely the place is that it is planted.

Jesus said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. An entire forest begins with one seed.

No matter how small it is, each act of kindness, each word of grace, and each demonstration of Christ's love is a seed.

Do we trust in this mystery? God provides the growth.

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," may be found at

Saturday, December 27, 2014

All is calm, finally

This is my column that appeared in "The Arab Tribune" on December 27, 2014.

Here we are, just a couple of days after Christmas.

There are leftovers in the fridge and crumbs in the cookie jar. Trash bags stuffed with wrapping paper lay next to a stack of shirt boxes, and my tummy is full and happy (maybe the word is bloated). An ornament has fallen off the tree and this time, I didn't pick it up. I wonder if I will.

Our family is settling into a post-Christmas lull, enjoying a few days off together. I think of Julian of Norwich’s saying “All is well, and all manner of things are well.” That’s how I feel after Christmas. It feels like all is calm after the storm.

It’s funny how our celebration of Christmas has evolved. Until recent history, no one started celebrating until Christmas Eve, when the tree went up and the festivities began for a holiday that went all the way to January 6. This ancient Christmas tradition is the origin of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Nowadays, the Christmas craziness seems to start after Thanksgiving. There is lots of music, and there are classic movies on TV. The parties go all month. In church life, the pastor gets to go to lots of them. I always say it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

There’s a reason we love to sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, because by the time we get there, we are desperate for one.

So for most people these days, December 26 means we are done. Whew. We are dog tired, and Christmas is over.

But not for me. This is the best part.

I have grown to love the twelve days of Christmas, and it’s not just because it’s the pastor’s most common week for vacation (okay, that might be part of it). There is a certain stillness after our winter flurry. Even when I didn’t lose the season to too much stress, it is very nice to have some post-Christmas rest.

After all, it’s still Christmas. And Christmas is about peace on earth.

It occurred to me that by the time Joseph and Mary got to the manger to lay the baby down, all was calm and all was bright. Finally, they could give it a rest.

But getting ready for that day? No rest, only stress.

If we think our days leading up to Christmas were tough, think about Mary. She was about 14 years old, barely old enough to have a child and certainly unprepared to raise one. And though it makes us uncomfortable to use the words, she was an unwed mother. She was engaged, but not married. The angel had cleared up any potential misunderstanding about her pregnancy with Joseph, but others were undoubtedly talking.

Then Caesar orders everybody to go to their hometown. They were of little means, otherwise they would have had connections to get a decent room in Bethlehem. It was an 80 mile trip, and tradition says she rode on a donkey.

A donkey? I’ve certainly never been pregnant, but I do have an imagination. If she was great with child, this 80 miles was a long and bumpy ride. It could not have been pleasant.

By the time they got to the manger, they needed a silent night all right.

Maybe today's Christmas insanity is not just the result of the influence of commercialism. Maybe, just maybe, it evolved because our contemporary experience connects us with theirs.

If we believe in the mystery of the incarnation, this strange claim that Christians have, we have embraced the idea that the Word became flesh to dwell among us. Now that he is here, we could dwell on it a while ourselves.

So rather than succomb to post-traumatic stress, let’s give it a rest - a really good one. Let Christmas be calm and bright.

It's not too late. We're just getting started.

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

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Spirit of Christmas" on YouTube

"Spirit of Christmas" is a song I wrote a number of years ago, during my first semester in seminary. We had been studying Athanasius, an important fourth century church father, in class.

Athanasius is the one who coined the phrase "he became what we are so that we might become what he is" in his quest to clarify our belief in the incarnation. I often think of him around Christmastime.

A musical version may be found on my "Living Stones" CD, and you can listen to Spirit of Christmas on YouTube.

I share the lyrics in hopes that it helps you fathom the mystery of the incarnation during this holy season.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As you came to the wise men of old,
As you came to the shepherds who found their way home
In a manger, so loving a fold.

Spirit of Christmas, you came to us
As a mother and father, so kind,
Surrounded the babe with a blanket of love
That the world, so hopeless, would find.

For God sent the Son to reveal to the people
A love unlike that which was known.
The Spirit of God came down from above
That we might be brought from below.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As we follow our Morning Star,
Our minds be uplifted, our hearts rejoice
In discovering whose savior you are.

Spirit of Christmas, O come to us
As we seek to bring life to the world.
Abide in our hearts, let us rest in your care,
That the Spirit of love be unfurled.

Copyright 1994 Stephen P. West, all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

In the Forgotten Verses of a Beloved Christmas Song

Spending time with hymn texts can expand our spirituality incredibly.

There is no doubt that out of Charles Wesley's thousands of hymn texts, the most beloved one today is "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Did you know our present version fails to capture some of his most beautiful and poetic thoughts on the spiritual formation of the human heart, in response to the miracle of the incarnation? The last few verses were not included in the adaptation we sing today to Mendelsohn's tune.

Here is Wesley's original text of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Spend some time with the “forgotten” verses:

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born to-day!”

Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus! Our Immanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace! 
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

Mild He lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp Thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner Man:
O! to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

God of the incarnation, fix your humble home in my heart. Bruise the serpent's head in my soul, bringing light to my darkness. Restore my nature and bring me into mystical union with you. Imprint the image of Christ on my very being and restore me in love. Form your very self in my believing heart. In Christ, Amen.

Thank you, Charles, for leading me in prayer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Most Thanksgiving prayers are great, others bug me

This is my column that appeared in the Arab Tribune on Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I have heard many Thanksgiving prayers over the years at public gatherings, ecumenical worship services and meetings. Most are beautiful reflections of deep and humble gratitude for faith, family and friendship.

But the blessings that bug me go something like this: "Lord, we're so proud to live in America, where we have all this great food. We have way more than we need (praise God, I'm going to gain a pound today). Thank you for our wealth - um, I mean ‘blessings’ - because this is the greatest country in the world. We’re glad we’re not poor like people in other countries, thanks to you.”

I'm exaggerating, of course. Please forgive me. But I wonder about prayers that simply thank God for our bounty, our food and all the great things we enjoy.

Isn’t there a hint of the Pharisee who was thankful that he wasn’t “like that tax collector over there?”

It’s the nature of true gratitude to go deeper than that. It’s the nature of the American holiday itself to go deeper than that.

When the pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, it was a harvest feast held with the Wampanoaga Native Americans after a long saga of strife. They were religious separatists who longed for freedom to practice their faith.
Their two-month trip on the Mayflower to the new world was not only uncomfortable, it was extremely treacherous. The first winter was brutal and many of them stayed on the ship, where they suffered from exposure and disease.

Half of the original pilgrims died before they saw their first spring. Yes, half.

The ones that lived barely managed to eat until this first harvest. But by the grace of God, they made it.

So when they celebrated the first Thanksgiving, it wasn’t out of thanks for their bounty, riches, plenty and comfort. It was out of deep gratitude that they were still breathing. It was out of sheer joy that, finally, harvest had come.

It was out of the realization that every moment is a gift, every challenge full of grace.

It was out of the belief that it was worth all the hardship and loss to live the great adventure and to find religious freedom. And most of all, it was out of the firm conviction that God had seen them through the great struggle.

I find it intriguing that it wasn’t until the middle of the Civil War that President Lincoln proclaimed this tradition to be a national holiday, held each November.

Yes, it was during the Civil War, the greatest hardship we had ever known. Even in our toughest times, we proclaim God’s goodness.

Thanksgiving is about gratitude that we are still alive, by the grace of God.

So this year, let your prayers go deeper. Remember the true gratitude of the first Thanksgiving. Thank God for the ways you have “made it” by grace. Acknowledge that your livelihood and well-being are in God's hands.

Don't just pray over the fantastic food, but recall the tough times you’ve had this year. Remember that God is the source of every morsel of goodness. Be thankful (and honest) about how we are all in this together, and God sees us through.

Reflect upon Jesus, who taught in the beatitudes that true blessings come disguised as hardship. Let your heart be filled with the kind of gratitude that is so stubborn, it bubbles up no matter what.

  • Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” can be found at
  • Saturday, November 22, 2014

    Grandpa: Pistol-packing preacher

    Pictured is Rev. Charles P. Hamby, Sr., my grandfather.

    This column appeared on the front page of The Arab Tribune on Saturday, November 22, 2014. As I posted this, I realized this appeared on my mother's birthday! She would have been delighted.

    A version of this column also appeared on the front page of the Faith & Values section of The Huntsville Times on July 9, 2010. It was accompanied by the picture in front of present-day Genesis UMC, included below.

    It seems like issues related to gun control lead to endless debate. I am generally in favor of appropriate restrictions, and shots ringing in schools and public places over the years have confirmed my beliefs.

    Yet I can not forget a story from my family history in nearby Madison County that inspires me when I need some courage.

    My grandfather was the Rev. C.P. Hamby, a fiery preacher who spread the gospel under the banner of Methodism. In the 1920’s, he was appointed as "conference evangelist” in North Alabama. His assignment was to lead revivals and start new churches.

    One year, he was sent to the community of State Line, on the border between Alabama and Tennessee, north of Huntsville. Now, in those days, State Line was a bootlegging town.

    There was an old, white clapboard church building there that had been vacant for years, and he was sent to start it back up.

    After visiting in the community for a week, he held the opening revival service. With windows open in the heat of summer, a small congregation gathered. But as soon as the service began, the town bootleggers drove their cars up to the windows, revved up their engines, and laid on their horns.

    The service could not continue with all this disruption, so Grandpa drew things to a close and asked everyone to come back the following night. Would you believe that the next morning, he went to the county seat of Huntsville to be deputized?

    When you were deputized in the 1920’s, you were given three things: a pistol, a badge, and ... another pistol, of course.

    On his way back to State Line, the bootleggers had set up a roadblock to keep religion out of their town. They knew where he'd been but apparently not what he'd been up to.

    After Grandpa Hamby swung his pistols around, they had no choice but to move out of his way. By the time of the revival that night, half the county had heard about the pistol-swinging preacher!

    The little place was packed. There were people outside the windows looking in.

    A man of small stature, Grandpa walked slowly into the church as a hush fell on the congregation. One woman by the middle aisle said in an audible whisper, "No short preacher’s going to change this town!"

    He ignored it.

    As my mother always told it, Grandpa got up to the front, reached into his leather satchel to pull out his Bible, and thumped it down on the pulpit. After a dramatic pause, he got one of his pistols and thumped it down on the right side of the pulpit.

    Then he reached down for the other pistol, thumping it down on the left. You could hear a pin drop.

    He began, "My name is C.P. Hamby and I’ve been sent by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to lead a revival and start a new church. And I heard what you said lady!"

    He pointed to the woman by the aisle.

    "This short preacher can’t change this town, but God certainly can," he continued. "And if you don’t believe me, I have two boys up here, and each of them speaks six times. I’d be glad to have a conversation with you!"

    Later that week, thirty bootleggers professed faith in Christ, and the church has been going ever since. It is now called Genesis United Methodist Church.

    Times have changed since the 1920’s. I certainly would never mix guns and religion. But when I get discouraged, I remember Grandpa Hamby. He risked his life for a gospel worth dying for.

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

    Steve West in front of present-day Genesis United Methodist Church in State Line, Alabama.