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 stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.
  • 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 stevewestsmuginsgs.blogspot.com.


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

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014

    The Way of Grace

    This is my soul friend Glandion Carney's new book on experiencing grace during his struggle with Parkinson's. In Richard Foster's forward, he notes that Glandion says "No matter how old you are or how many degrees you have or don't have - when grace takes you to school, you start in kindergarten."

    I have been so blessed to know Glandion. For several years, we were in an accountability group together. Then for a decade, he served as my spiritual director. In an amazing experience of grace for me, when Parkinson's began to take a toll on his life, I was honored that he turned to me for assistance. I was able to express my gratitude by becoming one of his caregivers during a difficult time of transition. And I am the one who is blessed.

    Please consider ordering one, especially for people of faith who struggle with debilitating illness. It is a book of hope.

    You can find it available for purchase here.

    Saturday, October 25, 2014

    Arab eateries - gotta love them

    A slightly modified version of my recent blog post appeared as a column in the Arab Tribune today. Here it is.

    My training in Arabian dining started early.

    On a Wednesday this past June, my family moved into the home our church graciously provides. I was eager with anticipation, though I had a corresponding level of energy depletion. I had to miss the first night of summer Wednesdays at the church because the movers were running late. Really late.

    My feet hurt, and I was hungry. I would have eaten one of those microwave “burritos in a bag” I see at the gas station.

    Yet here came two delightful young women from the church, with a fresh fast-food bag in hand. The only thing better than the adventure of new places is the sight of friendly faces. But my weary craving for sustenance intensified their welcome, as if the skies had opened and angels had appeared.

    The bag had the name of a local burger joint on it.

    “Oh, I love burgers!” I said. Here came my first lesson. “Oh, they do have burgers, but we got you some chicken. One of the first things you’ll learn about Arab is that this place is famous for their chicken.”

    How strange, I thought.

    But it was good indeed. Over subsequent weeks, I realized that this was the moment my intensive training on Arabian fare had begun. I know, it’s a matter of deep suffering for me to learn about local restaurants and give them a try.

    You can tell by my well rounded nature (I have gained so much while I’ve been here).

    But everyone was more than willing to help me learn the ropes. I was surprised at how often food came up in those first conversations.

    Let’s see if I’ve got it straight. The burger place is famous for their chicken. The ice cream place is famous for their jumbo cheeseburger. The pizza place is famous for its chicken salad. The Mexican place is famous for its pork chops and ribs. The wings place is famous for its vegetable buffet.

    It’s so confusing! But it’s definitely not boring. That’s why I find it so endearing.

    Second to my surprise realization that L-Rancho is not a Mexican Restaurant, this was the most curious twist of interesting crossovers in dining experience I’d ever heard of.

    I simply love the food in Arab.

    It’s not only good, it’s whimsical. Why setlle for dining that is anything less than entertaining?

    After four months, I’m still learning some of the deeper nuances of Arabian feasting. I’m discovering what is open when, and who has lunch specials for five dollars or less.

    I’ve noticed that several restaurants serve the best burger in town, because it depends who you ask. And I’m learning where to go to get the good stuff - Brindlee Mountain chicken sauce.

    Some say food is the way to a man’s heart. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know Arab has grabbed hold of mine.

    Like the food, this town is imaginive and creative. It’s artsy, whimsical, and playful. And it’s definitely original.

    Where else would there be two restaurants side by side, owned by the same people, but one is only open for breakfast and the other only at lunch and dinner?

    Where else would the Italian place be in front of the Old Methodist graveyard? In what other small town do you have to specify which kind of "Oriental" you are talking about?

    Where else can you easily identify where the donuts came from, just by looking at them? In what other town can you find a waiter who is the local drum major, and ask him to sing and dance for your amusement?

    Where else do people go to the hospital just to eat at the cafeteria? Only the town that hosts the one and only Poke Salat Festival.

    I have always taught my people to keep their “spiritual antennaes” up and look for God in the strangest of places. I think I’ve found one. This fanciful food is one serendipitous way a deep sense of goodness pervades this place.

    When I get to heaven, I wonder what the table of grace will be famous for.

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

    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    "Crossover Restaurants" a sign of Arabian Originality

    My training in Arabian dining started early.

    On a Wednesday this past June, my family moved into the home our church graciously provides. I was eager with anticipation, though I had a corresponding level of energy depletion.  I had to miss the first night of summer Wednesdays at the church because the movers were running late. Really late.

    My feet hurt, and I was hungry. I would have eaten one of those microwave “burritos in a bag” I see at the gas station. Yet here came two delightful young women from the church, with a fresh fast-food bag in hand. The only thing better than the adventure of new places is the sight of friendly faces. But my weary craving for sustenance intensified their welcome, as if the skies had opened and angels had appeared.

    The bag had the name of a local burger joint on it. “Oh, I love burgers!” I said. Here came my first lesson. “Oh, they do have burgers, but we got you some chicken. One of the first things you’ll learn about Arab is that this place is famous for their chicken.”

    How strange, I thought. But it was good indeed. Over  subsequent weeks, I realized that this was the moment my intensive training on Arabian fare had begun. I know, it’s a matter of deep suffering for me to learn about local restaurants and give them a try. You can tell by my well rounded nature (I have gained so much while I’ve been here).

    But everyone was more than willing to help me learn the ropes. I was surprised at how often food came up in those first conversations.

    Let’s see if I’ve got it straight. The burger place is famous for their chicken. The ice cream place is famous for their jumbo cheeseburger. The pizza place is famous for its chicken salad. The Mexican place is famous for its pork chops and ribs. The wings place is famous for its vegetable buffet.

    It’s so confusing! But it’s definitely not boring. That’s why I find it so endearing.

    Second to my surprise realization that L-Rancho was NOT a Mexican Restaurant, this was the most curious twist of interesting crossovers in dining experience I’d ever heard of.

    I simply love the food in Arab. It’s not only good, it’s whimsical. Why setlle for dining that is anything less than entertaining?

    After four months, I’m still learning some of the deeper nuances of Arabian feasting. I’m discovering what is open when, and who has lunch specials for five dollars or less. I’ve noticed that several restaurants serve the best burger in town, because it depends who you ask. And I’m learning where to go to get the good stuff, Brindlee Mountain chicken sauce.

    Some say food is the way to a man’s heart. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know Arab has grabbed hold of mine. Like the food, this town is imaginive and creative. It’s artsy, whimsical, and playful. And it’s definitely original.

    Where else would there be two restaurants side by side, owned by the same people, but one is only open for breakfast and the other only at lunch and dinner? Where else would the Italian place be in front of the Old Methodist graveyard? In what other small town do you have to specify which kind of Oriental you are talking about? Where else can you easily identify where the donuts came from, just by looking at them? In what other town can you find a waiter who is the local drum major, and ask him to sing and dance for your amusement? Where else do people go to the hospital just to eat at the cafeteria? Only the town that hosts the one and only Poke Salat Festival.

    I have always taught my people to keep their “spiritual antennaes” up and look for God in the strangest of places. I think I’ve found one. This fanciful food is one serendipitous way a deep sense of goodness pervades this place.

    When I get to heaven, I wonder what the table of grace will be famous for.

    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" may be found at stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.

    Friday, October 10, 2014

    Brushstroke

    You are a brushstroke in the artistry of God's grace.

    The farther along I get in life, the less life seems to be about success, accomplishment, and notariety. I am no longer as motivated by getting ahead, finding a sense of security, and pleasing people.

    Rather, I am called to be faithful. And being faithful means giving myself to the bigger picture of God's love.

    I have been resonating with a line in Audrey Assad's song "Show Me." She sings "Let me go like a leaf upon the water. Let me brave the wild currents flowing to the sea, and I will disappear in to a deeper beauty."

    I pray that this is the journey in the latter half of my life!

    Saturday, September 27, 2014

    No doubt - Grits are from God

    A slightly modified version of my recent blog post (and sermon introduction) appeared as a column in the Arab Tribune today. I'm honored. I am glad to share it here as well.

    I have this theory. I think the manna from heaven, which God rained upon the children of Israel, was really grits.

    I love grits. It's true that I am a thoroughbred Southerner. The farthest north I've ever lived is Athens, Alabama (why, that's practically in Tennessee!).

    Like any true Southerner, I implicitly know how much a "mess" of greens or peas is. I know how to "fix" things that aren't broken (like fixing dinner and fixing to go to the store). I "reckon" all the time. And I know how to eat grits.

    I know they are the manna from heaven because the word "manna" means "what is this stuff?" No one seems to know what they are.

    I was once on the leadership team of an Academy for Spiritual Formation holding our week in Dubuque, Iowa. I had a lot to learn about cheese curds and a lot to teach about grits.

    I find it odd that in the part of the country where the most corn is grown, they have no idea what manna of food can come from it. For the closing week of our two-year journey, I asked the ladies in the kitchen to "fix a mess of grits" for the group. I considered it a parting gift to the community.

    I had to bring a package of them on the plane, of course. When I brought them to the kitchen, the highly professional kitchen staff said "Now, tell us, how do you prepare these?"

    I showed them the directions on the package, but then explained to them that plain grits are like an empty canvas waiting for the painter. There were creative options, but for this group I thought butter, pepper, and lots of salt would do the trick.

    I guess I should have clarified the difference between "lots of salt" and a "mess." I think they put a bucket in. They were the saltiest grits I've ever had, as if they had been cured with the bacon. Oh well. I suppose some folks don't understand the nuances of being a Southern gritsocrat.

    Some of the retreat participants seemed enlightened by the experience, but others said, "what is a grit anyway? I'm willing to try one."

    No one seemed to know grits came from corn.

    But that's how I know grits are manna from heaven. I have definitive biblical proof. In Psalm 78:23-24, the scripture reflects on God's provision in the wilderness "though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, and had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven."

    There it is - corn. That proves it. They are indeed grits of grace.

    All this is to say that God provides for us. He gave the people of Israel just enough manna for that day - they could not store it or save it, except on the sixth day for the Sabbath. There was mystery in not knowing what it was, this flaky substance that tasted like honey.

    There was faith in trusting that when the dew lifted tomorrow morning, it would be there again. We may not have everything we want, but we believe in a God who provides what we need.

    God provides for you.

    Steve West is pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church and writes a blog called "Musings of a Musical Preacher," which can be found at: www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com.