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,
A few years ago, Theodore J. Wardlaw, President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, was charged with writing an article about “Preaching on Generosity.” I found it helpful as we find ourselves working through our financial distress that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus. The article had nothing to do with a “tried and true” stewardship campaign but a call to remembrance that “we were born to be a blessing and to bless others and to receive the blessings of others.” Such an attitude is all set in the framework that “life is measured not in terms of what we own, but in terms of Who owns us.”
Wardlaw goes on to share that one of his favorite columnists was Roger Rosenblatt who years ago collected some of his most cherished essays into a book titled The Man in the Water. The book’s title was originally the title of a particularly moving piece Rosenblatt wrote back in 1982 when a commercial jet taking off from Reagan National Airport in Washington was unable to get airborne because of ice on its wings and hit a bridge and plunged into the frozen waters of the Potomac River. Rescuers came from everywhere, and television cameras captured dramatic footage of a man clinging with five others to the tail section of the aircraft that was bobbing up and down in the frigid waters. Every time a helicopter lowered a life-line and a flotation ring to the man, he would wave it off and pass it to another of the passengers. Time after time until that man – overcome by the cold himself – finally went under himself, joining the other seventy-three on the plane who did not survive.
This act of selflessness grabbed Rosenblatt to put into words what a lot of folk were thinking as they were watching the televised drama playing out before their eyes. “At some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen…The odd thing is that we do not even believe that the man in the water lost his fight….He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger….The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can be.”
Some may look at this man as a hero. Truth is, every day I am reminded that the world is filled with living embodiments of generosity. They may not have always started out that way, but after encounters with the One who owns us, their discovered their faithful destinies. “He was the best we can be,” could aptly portray how we describe Jesus to others. But we also are able to see Jesus in others and perhaps one day within ourselves. For we are not our own; we belong instead to the One who owns us!
See you Sunday,
It was a tough period in my life. Alone and by myself for Thanksgiving, I opted to go down to the church where I was serving early that morning and move some mulch into the church’s playground. Because I had participated in a Thanksgiving Eve Community Service the night before, I didn’t have the luxury of driving the eight hours to join my family for Thanksgiving so I opted to stay at home. I counted on working a couple of hours and then head downtown to volunteer with a group feeding the hungry a Thanksgiving meal.
What I didn’t realize is that in order for the people to eat, they would have to first sit through a service of preaching and singing before any food would be served. The people were hungry, and yes, I know about spiritual hunger, but there was no advance notice of such a service. Just open with a prayer, and feed them. After volunteering, I opted not to eat with the other volunteers and headed home, stopping at a restaurant to have a Thanksgiving meal by myself. I guess I am just naive about such things.
I thought about that day when I came across a story a couple of weeks ago. It was a story about a dining room in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in San Francisco where they feed a thousand needy people every day. A sign over the doorway reads: CARITATE DEI
A young man visited the Golden Gate city and found himself on the wrong part of town with the wrong people. He got drunk, was rolled, and ended up in jail without a penny. It was there in jail that he learned that once he got out, he could get a free meal every day at St. Anthony’s Church. When he got out of jail, he went to the church to get some food but he was very suspicious. When he saw a woman cleaning a nearby table, he asked, “When do we get down on our knees, lady?” The woman replied that he didn’t have to do that in order to get a meal at St. Anthony’s. Puzzled even more, he then asked, “Then when’s the sermon?” She answered, “Aren’t any.” Totally confused, he then asked, “What’s the gimmick?” The woman stopped for a moment, and then pointed to the sign over the doorway: CARITATE DEI
The man asked, “What’s it mean, lady?” “Out of the love for God!” she replied and then, with a smile, she began cleaning the next table. The young man could not believe people would do something like this simply “Out of the Love for God.” It made quite an impression on Him, leading him to give his life to Christ and becoming active in the ministry of the Church. But he was not alone as others also found themselves caught up in this web of love and acceptance.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven being lived here on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is one person giving a dollar – out of the love for God – so another person can eat. The Kingdom of Heaven is a disciple – someone with a thousand other things to do – who takes time to listen to someone else who need to share their problems. The Kingdom of Heaven is a group of folks who come together to worship God – then go into the world to share what they have discovered. The Kingdom of Heaven is to be found all around us – in the little things that we do for others – out of our love for God. CARITATE DEI.
See you Sunday,
Starting out in ministry, it was one of the first illustrations I can recall reading. Although I cannot recall that I have ever used it before, it remains with me. The story goes that there was a beautiful Monastery in a beautiful wooded setting but it had fallen on hard times. It had once been the home of a great Order but no one wanted to join a Monastery any more. Only five monks – the Abbot and four others remained – and they were all over 70 years old. Clearly their Order was dying. The monks were all discouraged and you could tell it in the way they treated each other.
Also close to the Monastery was a cabin a local Rabbi used for personal prayer retreats. One day, while out walking in the woods, the Abbot, contemplating the trouble his Order was in, noticed that the Rabbi happened to be at his cabin. He knocked on the door and introduced himself to the Rabbi. Graciously the Rabbi invited him in, and they began to engage one another in conversation. During the conversation , the Abbot told the Rabbi about the plight of his Order and asked him if he had any suggestions. The Rabbi looked at the Abbot and said, “I have only one thing to say – the Messiah is among you!” The conversation ended and the Abbot returned to the Monastery, even more frustrated and dejected because of the Rabbi’s less than direct answer.
Once arriving at the Monastery, the Abbot shared with the other monks about his visit with the Rabbi and they were as puzzled as the Abbot about the Rabbi’s answer. “The Messiah could not be one of us, could he?” They all looked at each other and wondered. In the days to follow, however, something began to happen. On the chance that one of them could be the Messiah, the monks began treating each other with more dignity and respect. And, on the outside chance that they may be the Messiah, each monk began acting in more loving and caring and devoted ways.
The Monastery was known throughout the community for its beautiful grounds which often led to the locals choosing an afternoon and having a picnic there. Yet, ever since the Abbot’s visit with the Rabbi, as they picnicked, the guests noticed something different about the monks that seemed to permeate the grounds themselves. They were friendlier, more devout, and more respectful. The guests liked what they saw and felt on the Monastery grounds and began coming more often, inviting friends and before long, it was not unusual to find large numbers of people taking advantage of the beautiful setting, either for picnics or simply a retreat for solitude. Lo and behold, some who visited were so attracted to the lifestyle they saw the monks now living that they decided to join the Order, and within a few years, the monastery was once again filled with devout, respectful monks.
Maybe there is a reason I have carried this illustration for so long, saving it for such a time as this. I have no clue how many more newsletter columns I will write, but I do believe that God is not through using us.
See you Sunday,
I find it to be a powerful article written by the Rev. Waltrina N. Middleton in the most recent issue of The Christian Century. Her cousin, the Rev. DePayne V. Middleton, was one of nine members of Mother Emanuel who was gunned down and murdered by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina five years ago. Three survived. As you recall the story from your memory, that night on June 17, 2015, Dylann was offered “one of the most humblest and beautiful offerings one can extend to a stranger: a seat at the table,” as Middleton shared.
This hospitality and love arose out of Mother Emanuel’s rich tradition as a congregation and each individual’s faith. Treated as a guest, without any thought of racial profiling or judgment, Middleton’s cousin reportedly shared her Bible with Roof and as a result was one of the first to fall to his murderous act. Just moments prior to the shooting, thirteen people were singing, studying the Bible, and closing the study by standing together, holding hands, in a circle of prayer.
Like the other eight victims, “Dep” as Waltrina called her, did not get to go home that night. Four daughters were left without a mother. They knowingly did not get to have one last meal with their mother, while Roof was treated to a meal from Burger King before he was ever taken to jail. Twelve people who had gathered for worship were targeted for the color of their skin. Unimaginable grief fell not just upon their families but the community and the nation as well. A problem too often ignored and normalized, a rush to push a narrative of forgiveness, all the while the wound is wide open and the situation calls for nothing less than lament.
Several years ago, I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where on September 15, 1963, four beautiful young girls, dressed in their Sunday best, were killed when a planted bomb exploded, courtesy of the KKK. Even now with the bronze plaque and the park of statues across the street, I question whether we had moved too fast in pushing the narrative of forgiveness without allowing us the needed time to lament, to do some deep soul-searching and truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing that might have prevented the tragedy at Mother Emanuel.?
Yes, forgiveness is a Christian response but so is lament. Middleton writes: “We can be committed to love and radical hospitality, to welcoming the stranger into our midst, to extending a seat to join us at the table – while also maintaining our right to be angry and to righteously resist the violence against our humanity.” Speaking for myself, as a white person, I tend to be more comfortable with the idea of forgiveness, as difficult as that might be to extend to someone who has wronged me. But then, have I really considered at what cost?
Even now, we continue to witness a racial divide because of our failure to name the sins of this brokenness and allow opportunities for grief work. Middleton shared her story, no doubt, in light of what we are experiencing since the George Floyd killing. Folk are already growing weary of the protesting and marches, not even seeking a stage of forgiveness but simply as a measure to appease those in authority. But the work of lament is what is needed now if we are ever to see ourselves seated next to one another. Forgiveness will come in due time.
See you Sunday,