So it all comes down to this last column after writing the “Wandering West Word” twice a month since my arrival here in May of 2008. Thank you for granting me this privilege and honor of serving as your pastor. We have covered a lot of ground, engaged in ministries and outreach into the community as well as the world. I have been touched by the ways you have not only supported my ministry but revealed yourself and your gifts in sometimes surprising ways.
Some of you have done so without the spotlight, doing for others or for the church, not for recognition but as a faith response. Maybe later I would hear of something you may have done, or in all likelihood, it remained unknown to me. One of the concerns I had initially in coming here was the age of the congregation and wondering how much of my ministry would be involved in funerals. Certainly we have had our share of funerals but perhaps no more so than any other congregation where I may have been called to serve. Still I cherish many memories of those whom we have said “goodbye,” ever thankful for their life’s witness.
I was truly blessed to spend the last five years of my mother’s life looking after her, something I had pretty much ruled out until after my retirement. You made that possible and for that, I am forever grateful. Had I waited, it would have been too late. Now, it is Linda’s turn to look in after her parents in Alabama, giving her the memories that she can carry for the rest of her life.
My ministry has been enriched by the paid staff that have joined me on this journey. It has been great to have my senior staff member, Fabio Rodriguez, with me all of these years. In fact, his employment here exceeds mine. Each of these valued staff members understand that their job is more than a paycheck, but a ministry. Thank you to Jackie Fain, Donna Nordby, Karen Bailey, and Cathi Krstulich for giving of yourselves in such ways as to honor and glorify God.
But paid staff only touches the surface of who really brings the church’s ministry and mission alive! From Sunday school and Bible study to Operation Inasmuch and “A House Blest,” from chancel choir to handbell choir, from catered meals to OJ/Coffee Fellowships, more than a handful have stepped up time and time again. Some to bring in food and paper goods, others ring bells for the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Drive, we are making a difference!
I am sure it will be an adjustment to retirement. We have lots of things to look forward to, a birth of a new grandchild in December, a place to grow a garden, and a time to rest this weary soul. I also look forward to hearing how you are transformed as a faith community under new leadership. Knowing that God has this, I believe there is a bright future for all of us. Again, thank you for allowing me to be a part of your faith journey and you mine! Thanks be to God!
See you Sunday,
Gary L. West
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever
to those who mourn.
He stands now throughout all time,
this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.’
He stands with the mourners,
for his name is God-with-us.”
—Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament
On a number of occasions, I have used these words from Ann Weems to offer words of comfort to those who were weeping. As you well know, we have been doing a lot of crying lately. Tears of loss. Thinking of those we have loved who are no longer physically with us, looking for them in the places where they would sit or be, or something triggers a memory, and without warning, tears push up into our eyes.
Tears of grief, still raw from the loss, where we walk into a room expecting to see her/him, or we pick up the phone anticipating her/his voice, but the silence and absence only mock our sense of their presence. So many tears.
Tears of heartbreak. Dreams die in their own peculiar way, but their death is as real and as painful as any other loss. Things we had hoped for didn’t materialize the way we thought it would. Life has a way of cheating us all before it’s over. When hearts break open, tears fall out.
Perhaps of all the promises of Scripture, none is more extravagant than the words we hear in Revelation: “…and God will wipe way every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Our initial thought might well be how wonderful that would be, but giving the matter second thoughts, are we really sure we want them wiped away? While our tears may pain us, are they not also our mementos of our loss, priceless treasures because we have at least known and loved someone deep enough to cry over?
When John’s gospel lifted up that moment between Jesus and the reality of His friend’s Lazarus death, it reminds us that only one who knows the infinite cost of tears can be trusted with our tears. Jesus knows what it is to weep, just as He knows the extravagant costliness and gentleness of wiping away tears. God knows the value of our tears!
Not only can I live with that, I will live with that! Thanks be to God!
See you Sunday!
Gary L. West
Time is winding down as I close the curtain on my ministry here. I am now having to tackle some things that I thought I had another sixteen months or so to address, but life moves on. And as it moves on, and Linda and I make our way to our new home in Alabama, it is essential that this transition be not only smooth but also by one that is supportive as the church moves forward.
There are certain ethical guidelines that I am bound by my ordination to abide with during this time of departure. This ensures that the interim minister won’t have interference in his or her ministry and that the ongoing spiritual health of the congregation must be everyone’s primary concern. It is helpful when the minister leaves the area so as not to be tempted to interfere in church affairs. But there are some guarantees I can offer as to how I will approach this transition.
I will not try to influence the search and call process. I trust the process that is spelled out in the By-laws. I will not participate in either weddings or funerals once I leave or make any sort of pastoral calls or visits unless invited to do so by the current minister. Nor will I return to the church for a visit until after a year has elapsed from the time a new permanent minister is called. I have been here for thirteen years and have yet to return to my previous pastorate in Pensacola. It certainly doesn’t mean that I stopped loving the people there when I left, just like my love for you will continue over the years but our relationship will be different.
You will have a great minister because you are a great congregation. Now we still have some work to do before my last Sunday and I have a whole lot of packing to get started on. Retiring from full-time pastoral ministry means unloading some of my books. I will probably need to shed even more but there are some things that I have carried from church to church that need to find their way into the dumpster.
I am taking the rest of this week off to celebrate my granddaughter’s wedding in Tennessee, fortunate enough to officiate it. Once I return, I will have four Sundays remaining to be with you, and I will cherish those Sundays. Things are going to be all right!
See you the following Sunday!
Gary L. West
Regardless of whether I was remaining here or retiring, thanks to Covid, how we do church has been changed. How long before we settle into a new normal or press towards a return to the old normal will be left in your hands. But change does allow us to be pro-active instead of feeling as if we are always behind the eight-ball. Case in point:
Two brothers watching TV in Argyll, Scotland – a less than dramatic call to life changing service. Yet the 1992 broadcast that Magnus and Fergus MacFarlane-Barrow viewed included horrendous images of Bosnian refugee camps. Shocked, the two salmon farmers, who visited Bosnia as teenagers, wanted to help.
They took a week off and began collecting supplies. Everything collected – food, medicine, blankets, clothes – was loaded up and driven to Bosnia. While away, more donations were delivered and Magnus remembers being deeply moved by the “overwhelming generosity.” It inspired him to embark on a mission.
After much prayer, he quit his job, sold his home, and dedicated himself to helping those in need. As reported by CNN.com, he not only returned to Bosnia twenty-two times but, while in Malawi in 2002, he met a local teenager, who showed him his home. “The mother of the family was dying of AIDS. She was lying on her bare mud floor, and she had her six children around her. I started talking to her oldest child [who said] ‘I’d like to have enough food to eat. I’d like to go to school one day.’”
The incident inspired the program he runs today – Mary’s Meals, named after the Virgin Mary – providing free daily meals to four hundred thousand children around the world, including twelve thousand Haitian children. When the Haiti earthquake hit, the group’s mission expanded even further, to rebuilding schools, feeding elderly Haitians, and providing medicine. MacFarlane-Barrow says that although his Christian faith motivates him, “We are very careful to never link feeding and faith. We serve those in need…period.”
Magnus came to God’s work simply by doing it, “looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others” (Philippians 2:4). What he says he learned in the process is “that every small act of kindness does make a difference.”
First Christian Church may not be the flashiest church in town, and honestly that is okay. But we can excel in service to one another by opening our eyes to the needs around us, however small they may be. More than ever, we need one another!
See you Sunday!
Gary L. West
“For everything there is a season…” we are reminded in Ecclesiastes. Thirteen years ago, you honored me with the call to serve as your pastor. My plans were to remain here until I retired. That season has now come, earlier than I had thought but God has charted a new path for Linda, myself, and this congregation. I will complete my ministry here on November 28, with my last Sunday in the pulpit on November 22.
I have invested more than one-third of my pastoral ministry here and I couldn’t have asked for a better congregation to close out almost forty years of full-time pastoral ministry. Linda and I leave here richly blessed by the memories and friendships we will always cherish. I hope in some way, you, too, have been blessed through our ministry.
The future awaits and all of us know who holds the future and for that, we can rejoice! Thank you again for inviting us to share this season with you.
With great love,
Gary L. West
In a sermon he preached a few years back, Presbyterian Pastor Gregory Knox Jones shared a story about a colleague who was celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism when the infant he was baptizing gave him a surprise. While we Disciples normally do not perform infant baptisms, substituting a Dedication Service instead, still as a pastor reading this, the wheels in my mind began spinning, imagining the “surprise.”
Even in a Dedication Service where the pastor holds the infant, one never knows how the child will respond to someone strange holding them. Will the child cry incessantly, or will it grab the wireless microphone and not let go of it? There are, I‘m sure, a thousand and one ways for an infant to respond, and if you throw water into the mix, you have just increased the number of unexpected ways.
Jones noted in his sermon illustration how most parents in church are sympathetic to parents if the child is unruly, having first-hand knowledge of such an event years before. Yet, those in the congregation seem “perfectly delighted if the child comes unglued when placed in the arms of the pastor.” He then adds, “There seems to be nothing quite a satisfying as a tiny child humbling the pastor in the middle of worship.”
Believe me, I have had more than my share of humble pie during Small Talk, my time with children. And honestly, for the most part, I have been spared such humility when in the act of dedicating a child to God. But in this case, Jones’ friend was baptizing a two-year-old and all was going well. The little boy did not fuss, cry, or tug. In fact, as Jones shared, “he seemed perfectly comfortable when the pastor took him into his arms. He seemed to be completely aware of what was happening and did not flinch when the pastor touched his head with water. But when the pastor said, ‘Christopher, you are a child of God, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever,’ the two-year-old looked him in the eye and said, clearly and articulately, ‘Uh-oh.’”
While pretty sure the two-year-old wasn’t weighing the theological implications of what the pastor had just crowned him with, it is an interesting, if not surprising answer. As we grow into our Christian faith, that same thought probably surfaces time and time again as we seek to live into this calling. Without question, such a pronouncement and a claim on our lives is life-altering. Maybe the best response is to add our “Uh-oh’s” and prepare for the ride of a lifetime. Thanks be to God!
See you Sunday,