Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Moment with One of Ghana's Children

         

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, February 3, 2016.

The simplest experiences in life can be like prisms. When light hits them at a certain angle, they cast a rainbow of color. You see the same light, but you see it much differently.

One of those moments for me was with Daniel, one of the kids at the Eugemot Orphanage in eastern Ghana. After a couple of days on the ground, our mission team from Arab spent some time with the children down by the creek. We watched a few of the older ones doing their chores, washing clothes on the rocks by the stream. Some were there to fetch water to carry on their heads, in characteristic African fashion. But Daniel, among others, was one of the younger ones there to play.

Two times he started to jump into my arms and twice I refused. After all, I still had my phone in my pocket. But the third time, I gave in and opened my arms, and here he came. Whoosh!

I turned him over my shoulder head first, threatening to drop him in the water behind me, just as I had always done with my own kids. He squealed with delight. I turned him back over, and that's when they snapped the picture.

For just a moment, all the children of the world shined with the same light in many different colors, whether they were my own children or one of God's many children. As Thomas Merton famously said of others he saw in one of those prism-like moments on a street corner in Louisville, how could I possibly tell them they were all shining like the sun?

What an experience it was to go to Ghana. During the New Year holidays, twelve other adults from Arab First United Methodist Church went with me to Hohoe, a village in eastern Ghana. We went to visit Mama Eugenia and the Christian orphanage that we have supported for a number of years there. We visited during the New Year's holiday, a major time of thanksgiving for Ghanian people. We went to church late New Year's Eve after enjoying hours of African drumming, singing a mixture of folk and gospel songs, and dancing by the bonfire. In addition to the over 30 orphans in residence, many of the older ones had come back to the orphanage from their stay at high school or the university to celebrate at home.

After the big feast, I remembered how to use a saw and a shovel, for in the hot African sun, we helped lay the foundation for a barn we had raised the money to build near their new dormitories. As a result, they will be able to store crops and be more self-sustaining, as any orphanage in a third-world country should be. We made concrete bricks with shovels, dirt, cement, water, and molding. We helped bag a crop of corn. We visited three churches, one of which was a house-church, and offered food relief to families in poverty. We walked through the village to see goats and chickens crossing the road at every turn. We met the local chief and paid our respects. Each night, we had dinner together and reflected on the miracles of the day.

I have been on mission trips before and knew the experience would bless me in more ways than I could possibly bless others, but I had no idea how much I'd be touched by their faith. Ghana is a very Christian country. It is third-world, yet their faith is so simple, so beautiful. They pray to God every time they get in the car, and they believe God provides the food they have to feed their family ... tonight.

It seems there is "God language" and symbolism everywhere. I walked down the dusty street near our hotel to see little shops called "The Lord is My Shepherd" and "His Mighty Hand." I saw "God's Grace Beauty Salon" and "Blessed Assurance Fashion." The bumper stickers on taxis had phrases like "Nothing without grace" on them.

On the Sunday we were there, we had some Sabbath time. After going to worship in an outdoor chapel hut, we headed through the jungle to the waterfalls. In good Methodist fashion, we held a baptismal remembrance service in the cold fresh water and brought home stones to remember it by.

As far as shopping, well, that's not what we were there for but we did stop by the marketplace. Several in our group made it home with djembes (west African hand-made drums) or cutlasses (that's what they call machetes).

I am grateful for the twelve friends I will always cherish for they shared this experience with me: Robert Burton, Brian O'Dell, and Lois O'Dell (the three who coordinated the trip), Tammy Bass, Carl Ivey, Ben Richey, Marc Scarbrough, Lexi Scarbrough, Hannah Shirley, Tarah Sloan, Lianna Smith, and Peyton Tanner. They poked fun at me for being the only one on the whole team that liked Spam and for how short my old shorts were (I had planned on leaving them there!). Half of them were young adults on their first overseas trip, some on their first plane flight ever. What a joy to share this with them.

From the four-hour swinging van rides navigating all the potholes, to the strange way everyone said "you're welcome" when they first saw us on the street, to the daily dose of rice and red sauce, going to Ghana was an intense, fun, deep, and powerful experience. By our standards, they didn't have much ... but on the other hand, they had much more. There was joy always on their faces, and so much about everyday life to love.

But my favorite part? That's easy. It was playing with the children.



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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gye Nyame - "Except for God"


Ghana is a very Christian country. It is "third world", yet their faith is so simple, so beautiful. They pray to God every time they get in the car, and they believe God provides the food they have to feed their family ... tonight.

It seems there is "God language" and symbolism everywhere. I walked down the dusty street near our hotel to see little shops called "The Lord is My Shepherd" and "His Mighty Hand." I saw "God's Grace Beauty Salon" and "Blessed Assurance Fashion." The bumper stickers on taxis had phrases like "Nothing without grace."

We carried the above symbol on our Ghana mission team shirts. It is common to see this in Ghana. It is called a "Gye Nyame," a sign with long history and a deep meaning. It's an ancient Adinkra symbol (used for cloth and textiles) in Twi tribal language which translates "Except for God." Referring to the supremacy of God, it is very popular not only in clothing but in decorations, woodwork, pottery, metal casting, and artwork, and says something about their faith.

If you look closely, you might see that it depicts a person inside of a hand. It is a picture of how we are held in the hand of God. The tradition is that it refers to creation - no one was alive to see its beginning and no one will live to see it end, "except for God". A local pastor also told me is that African people are taught that they are strong and to fear no one, "except for God."

In traditional Christian theology, God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipresent (always around us). I would add that God is omniloving and omnigraceful (I like to make up words).

This is the starting place for all faiths, and it's no wonder that Christians in Ghana carry it forward in their folklore and history. As we go into the year together, let's start at that place, too. God is everywhere, in everything. Let's keep our spiritual antennas up and look for God's presence.

Thank you so much for your love and support of the 13 of us who went to Ghana over the holidays to visit the children of the Eugemot Orphanage, lay the foundation for the barn we are building, offer food relief, and visit churches to share Christian fellowship. It was life-changing.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Post-Christmas Feast

My name is Stephen. My aunts and uncles, and some of my cousins, have always called me that.

It wasn't until eighth grade, when the Six Million Dollar Man's opening sequence on TV resounded with the words "Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive", that I informed my family I was to be going to be called Steve from now on. What can I say, it was more "cool."

Now, sometimes I ponder the origins of my name. It means "prince" or "crowned", a designation I certainly don't deserve. My wife doesn't appreciate it when I remind her of that, in contrast with the fact that her name means "helper." I'll probably get in trouble for putting that in the paper.

But every year, on the day after Christmas, it's my special day to pause to think of my name. Why? Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen.

Most people around here would know who Stephen is. He was the first Christian martyr, as recorded in the book of Acts. He was stoned to death for his faith, even while gazing into the heavens with his face aglow. A young Saul, later named Paul, stood nearby. It's an important part of the early Christian story. Today, when Christians are still persecuted in some parts of the world, we need to remember Stephen.

But most of us probably think, "why do we sing about the Feast of Stephen in a Christmas carol?" There is a long tradition in many places in the world that this day is "box day," a day to care for the poor by boxing up food and gifts for those in need on the day after Christmas.

"Good King Wenceslas" is a carol based on the legend of a 10th century duke, the Duke of Bohemia. He was a saintly monarch who personally cared for the poor and widowed. He was martyred for his faith, and followers kept the stories of his compassion alive.

The carol never mentions the nativity, but it's associated with Christmas because the narrative occurs on the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26. It is a call to follow in the footsteps of the saint, as did his page, in order to care for the poor.

So today, on the Feast of Stephen, let us also think of the poor and needy. As the text concludes, "ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing." What a great way to head from Christmas into a new year.

Here is the complete text of the carol by John Mason Neale, first published in 1853. May it bless your day and our many days ahead.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod 
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

It's time to have "wonder-full holy days"


This is my column that was published in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, December 2, 2015.

It starts.

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the leftover turkey will find its way into the soup, the sandwiches, and the crevices in the floor. The company will go home, happy and well fed.

My father-in-law will treat us to a holiday dinner at a nice restaurant, like he always does. I'll take my annual opportunity to tease my wife about how cornbread dressing is so much better than oyster dressing (she's from Louisiana, she can't help it).

I will start gathering up some Fall decorations to put them away, and get around to a few chores that I was supposed to do before Thanksgiving. Okay, maybe I'll do the chores. It's time to find the tree and get the Christmas lights out.

It's the holidays! Gosh, they have already started. But just for a moment, I breathe.

There is something about that pregnant pause between Thanksgiving and when the Christmas parties and church activities start cranking up. I'm not into shopping on Black Friday, since shopping's not my thing. So maybe I'll wait until Cyber Monday. Or maybe I'll miss that, too, because I love this in-between space.

In my faith tradition, the first Sunday of Advent comes and we light the first candle. I know it's coming and my heart starts to anticipate the anticipation.

But for now, I pause. I stop. I reflect. Here come the holidays.

Every year, I recall that the word "holidays" comes from the fact that they are holy days. I don't get upset about the so-called war on Christmas, because I know that even saying "Happy Holidays" is a hidden, secret, subversive statement of faith. These times are holy, and I can feel it in my bones.

So I think this year, instead of jumping into all the things I need to do (or maybe just want to do), I'll pause to ponder what not to do.

I'll try not to eat too much. One plate at every party is fine, really (I think I can, I think I can, I think I can).

I'll try not to get too rushed. I will intentionally not attend everything I want to go to. My wife has been teaching me that it's really okay.

I'll try not to neglect my quiet time every day, because I crave the silence more than the sugar (okay, maybe not more than the sugar ... but I need it, and I know it).

I'll decide that one Christmas tree in my home is plenty (two last year was a bit much). Planning with our church's worship arts directors for a special service, celebrating the ornaments that represent Christ on our tree, reminds me that the simple act of placing one ornament on a branch is a life-giving expression of faith.

So I should savor the moment, not rush through it. This is the time, this in-between space, when I can decide to make the holidays holy.

Making them holy doesn't mean deciding they are boring or chant-like. It simply means that I am going to keep my antennas up so I can detect when God is present, ever-so vibrantly present, in the midst of them. And when I find God is present, I'll pause to pay attention.

It seems like very year, some little gesture, some humorous experience, or some serendipity will remind me of how human, how simple, and how profound these coming days are. Last year, it was when the donkey relieved himself on sweet Mary's dress at our Live Nativity. I laughed and I laughed.

This year? Who knows, but the holidays have a way of giving me a moment or two of reminders that it's all about the regular, the common, and the ordinary things made holy. It's about a manger, a smelly bunch of hay, a family really put out (literally) because of taxes, and a miracle in diapers that completely transformed the direction of the universe.

We call it the incarnation. That's a fancy word for the crazy way God showed up and moved into our neighborhood. What a strange way to save the world.

So have some wonderful holidays. They are meant to be exactly what the words say they are, "wonder-full holy days" indeed.

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

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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

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. stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

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