Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Online Testimony

I am going to be completely honest, I see people posting things on Facebook that make the individual seem holier than Thou. In essence, I see a lie. I know them to be deceitful, harsh, rude, and disrespectful yet they present themselves as a saint online whose life revolves around the Bible. So how far is too far when we provide testimony in our online communities? Or does it even matter? 

Perhaps this is not even a true testimony. Thomas Hoyt Jr. writes about testimony, "In different ways, testimony happens in every vital Christian community. It also happens, as we shall see, in the midst of daily life and in the life of society. In testimony, people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen, offering it to the community for the edification of all" (Practicing Faith, Kindle Loc. 1912). Perhaps then the sanctification of the self is not even true testimony because it does not tell the truth as it is. True testimony from this perspective might look like this, "I am dishonest, selfish, and narcissistic. I am a sinner. But God love me still..."

I am guessing that most of us will not be posting or tweeting our faults and flaws online anytime soon, but maybe we need to check ourselves before we write something online about God or make ourselves appear to be saintly. Are we really providing a true testimony? It seems to me that we need to revisit providing testimony to God throughout our lives and not just posting a picture of a sunset with a psalm. One of my friends who is a new mom was driving home and she ran into some car problems on the highway. While neither her or her son were injured, her Facebook post notified her community of friends what had happened and expressed how thankful she was to be safe and how lucky she was to be a mom. This might be the testimony we are after. A story from the randomness of life that describes what God has done (Practicing Faith, Kindle Loc. 1952).

These are just a few thoughts on the matter. I'd love to hear what you all think!


Monday, September 29, 2014

Spiritual Discipline: Listening to Music

For this week's spiritual exercise I opted to listen to music. More times than not you can come into my office and find me listening to music. There is something about it that helps to calm me and to make the tedious administration work go by much faster. However, whenever I am crafting sermons or creating Bible studies I often do them in silence with the hopes of focusing on the work at hand. This week it was my turn to preach so I thought I might change things up a little bit. I tried to listen to music while working on my sermon.

Now my music tastes differ almost daily, but it is safe to say I most enjoy blues, country, folk, and bluegrass. However I wanted to move myself into a genre I have not given much attention to as of late. I grew up listening to classical music and still do, but nowhere near as much as I should, so this seemed like a natural fit. To narrow down the composers and scores I settled for my favorite, Ludwig van Beethoven. I scrolled through my iPod and picked out his 7th symphony in A, Op. 92. While the second movement in this work, Allegretto, is the most popular I wanted to listen to it in its entirety. I was surprised to find myself drawn to the opening movement.

The music starts out gentle and quiet with  unexpected short bursts of loud notes. However after only a minute or so, the instruments build up to almost full volume and fill the space with uplifting music. It then goes back into a tranquil pace. The opening movement continues on this back and forth battle of volume for the next five minutes.

Reflecting on my sermon preparation for this week, it was much like the music, it would start out slow and then increase in speed and efficiency And before I knew it words, ideas, thoughts, illustrations, and inspiration poured out of my mind and onto the page in front of me. It was as if the Holy Spirit was quite literally shocking me to life, the music providing CPR for the discipline of sermon writing. This was a new experience, but one that I found quite fulfilling. Usually I listen to music to relax, but this spiritual exercise gave me energy. This shift might be because I need to relax when doing administrative duties in order not to become too stressed, while in sermon writing I need to be inspired to work. The Holy Spirit certainly moves in creative ways!

I imagine this spiritual practice to be employed more often than not when it comes to writing studies or sermons because I found it life giving, not taxing. However, it is not something that I would want to over do or make it into a "law." Rather, music is a gift that the Holy Spirit can use to open, inspire, and move us in audible ways beyond what we may have been able to do on our own. Such is prayer, a moving outside of ourselves and into the world to meet the neighbor and God. This is extremely important for sermon writing. If you are speaking in general terms and not connecting the good news to people's lives or using happenings from the community, then you are not engaging the spiritual discipline of writing a sermon. This week was then a combination of spiritual disciplines, but also an unexpectedly fruitful one.


Here is a you tube video of the entire piece:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Spiritual Discipline: Stations of the Cross

This was somewhat of a strange week. In the midst of pressures from work and the ever looming cloud of homework, my wife and I had scheduled a weekend away to visit family and friends in the farm country of Bancroft, Iowa. While down there our attention was called away to deal with some happenings at our home, but we were able to find some time to rest and relax from the start up of the new school year. One of those times that I found most restful was at "The Grotto of the Redemption" in nearby West Bend. The majority of the work was completed under the guidance of one man, Fr. Paul Dobberstein, over the course of 57 years. He was able to fuse his passion for rocks and minerals with his vocation of ordained leadership. We took a tour of the nine grottos as well as the Christmas Chapel within the church building. It was a sight to see, I encourage you all to check out the link!

One of the most memorable parts of this place was the stations of the cross. They were in the middle of the various other constructions as if to focus our attention to Christ as the center of the Bible and our journey in life. The images were mosaics with ornate stonework surrounding the image drawing you into the colorful depiction of Christ's journey. I am not a well seasoned participant in praying the stations of the cross, but something about this way of practicing a spiritual discipline drew me in. As I made my way down from station to station I would read the corresponding verse on my Bible app on my phone trying to focus on Jesus' ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection. But my mind could not stay focused on such a topic. Instead my mind focused on the beauty and the dedication it took one man nearly all of his life, and some of the life of a few others, to create this artwork. I was humbled to see how Fr. Dobberstein lived out his vocation to the fullest and challenged me to live out  mine to the best of my ability.

In all honesty I thought walking the stations of the cross outside of Holy Week would not be very fruitful. And it wasn't, at least in the ways I had expected. A traditional focus of the stations may be most useful for Lent, but that is not to say it should not be used during ordinary time after Pentecost. The readings and praying helped me settle and think about what was weighing me down spiritually.  As I reflected on my vocation of ordained leadership, my other vocations of friend, brother, son, and husband came to mind as well. If there is anything I took away, it was a re-commitment to my roles in life and to fulfill them to the best that God's gifts and talents will allow me to. This was a much needed insight because I have been struggling with the transition from intern to student (and in my case still remaining on the staff ). I have felt drained as of late, but I trust in God's vocational calling and that God will help me through this year. The grotto reminded of that calling and God's promise of life, even though we feel like our life is ebbing away in the stress and demands of life. Thanks be to God!


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spiritual Discipline: Fasting

This week I took up the spiritual discipline of fasting. In all honesty this is not something I have a lot of experience in. The extent of my practice in this discipline before this week has only extended to refraining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. As you might be able to tell, fasting is not something I am used to, and in all honesty it is not something that is all that interesting to me. I love to cook and try new recipes, so the thought of abstaining from this hobby of mine seemed outrageous. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the insights I learned this week.

I emailed my professor for assistance before taking this on. His wisdom framed fasting as a way in which the body prays and is reminded of its limits. He also told me not to do anything too radical, rather skip a specific meal or food. With this in mind I decided to forgo lunch this week and in its place I decided to enter into a time of silence or reading as a form of prayer.

I have mixed feelings about the practice of fasting after a little less than week of practice. This spiritual discipline was able to help me focus on my body and what my body actually needs (not necessarily food, but hydration and rest). This was accomplished through reflection and realizing that I deeply resonated with a book I am reading on spirituality, I think I know what my body needs, but I don’t. And so I took this learning to the realm of spirituality. Am I engaging my spirituality enough? Or am I settling for a mediocre form that really leads to spiritual stagnancy?

I also noticed that when I fasted during the usual lunch period I was not too terribly concerned with my hunger, but an hour or so after I noticed myself craving food. It got to the point where I was focusing on dinner and not the work at hand! And while this was annoying and concerning, such thinking gave way to more intentional applications of fasting. This lead me to rethink how much my body needed to eat, how much I actually ate, and how others in the world do not have nearly as much to eat.

All in all this exercise humbled me, made me aware of our culture’s infatuation with food, and helped me to appreciate how much I have been blessed with. However, I am unsure how practical this practice is for most people. I am concerned that fasting from a meal for an extended period of time may not be of any help spiritually or physically. Rather it would distract the participant from spiritual practice and focus instead on the physical needs of sustenance. So when might fasting be appropriate? It seems to me that fasting would be able to add importance to liturgical seasons. For instance, fasting on Good Friday would highlight humanity’s need for God’s grace as much as we need daily bread and water.

 I look forward to seeing how others may have experienced fasting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Spiritual Discipline: Walking with a Psalm

In one of my courses at Luther Seminary the class is charged with experimenting in a multitude of spiritual practices. Each week we are to try on of the three or four suggested practices with the hopes of finding one that works best for at this point in life. I thought reflecting on these exercises might help encourage you all to engage in a spiritual discipline as well. So for the next six weeks or so I'll ask that you take up a weekly spiritual practice, they can be the ones that I will describe or totally different. Here goes!

Walking with Psalm 123
1 To You I lift up my eyes, 
      O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 As the eyes of servants
      look to the hand of their master, 
as the eyes of a maid
      to the hand of the mistress, 
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
      until he has mercy upon us. 
3 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, 
      for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4 Our soul has had more than its fill
      of the scorn of those who are at ease,
      of the contempt of the proud.

My attempts at spiritual discipline have been quite varied throughout my life. Often times I take on a different discipline with each liturgical season with the constant of daily prayer. I hope that these exercises will assist in equipping me with a deeper discipline of engaging my spirituality. This week as I walked my dog, Summit, I recited Psalm 123. I approached this practice by briefly memorizing a verse prior to each walk and would speak it aloud or within as I walked around the local park. 

Throughout the week I noticed a few things. First, I slowed down. Usually walking Summit entails a quick pace with a few encouragements for him to cease sniffing a bush for five minutes. However, as I recited the particular verse our pace became more relaxed as did my attitude. I was able to take in my surroundings and to simply be in the moment.

I also was able to gain new insight into the text. Often times when I preach or compose a Bible study I rely heavily on biblical commentaries as opposed to self-discernment and reflection. Maybe I don't think my ideas are right or good enough. But it is a practice I need to change. This discipline offered me a view of the text from life itself, not from the dust jackets of academia. 

After close to a week of walking with Summit and this text I could not help but be drawn into the theme of vocation. As we were walking Summit stopped and was sniffing a tree...I stood there waiting for him, getting lost in the repetition of verse one. Suddenly I looked at Summit and he was staring at me, a bit confused as to why I was not hurrying him along. I thought to myself, "The psalmist looks to the Lord, but does that always have to be to the heavens? What about when we look to the world and see God in our vocations and everyday life?" It seems like an unlikely intention from Psalm 123, but it refocused my attention to my duties in life as being sacred...doing God's work with my hands.

As the week progressed the psalm shifted as the writer asked for God's mercy from contempt and scorn. However, I could not shake the theme of vocation. As I dwelled in this psalm I thought that the writer might be drawing us out of our own anger and frustrations and moving us towards God's mercy. In doing so, we are called to reflect that mercy back out into the world in our daily life. These words helped me let go of anxieties and stress (or at least lessen them!) of starting my final year at seminary. In their stead I was given a place to rest within the mercies of God and given the sustenance to move forward with confidence and hope. If only it couldn't always be this way!

That's it for this week. I encourage every one of you to take up a spiritual practice this week and comment on this post. Let this space be a place for you to voice and share your own experiences!


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pastoral Associate Tom Westcott 102

Every year the outgoing intern interviews the incoming intern for this blog so that the people of St. Mark's get to know this person better. However, here I am...interviewing no one. As you all know St. Mark's did not receive an intern this year so I have been hired on part time as the pastoral associate. But to keep the tradition of learning more about the incoming person, I thought I could interview myself for you all to learn some more tings about me. Here goes...

State your name, for the record.
Thomas Grant Westcott. You can call me Tom.

Where’d you go to college?
I spent my first two years at Macalester College before transferring to Augsburg College for my final two.

What was the last movie you went to see?
Wow, for such a movie nerd it has been a few months since I have seen one! I believe it was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

What is your favorite liturgical season?
Hands down Advent. As a kid my family would have a special Sunday meal with the lighting of the Advent nostalgic of me. Theologically I appreciate this season because in a sense we are in advent, we are waiting for Christ to come again. However, that does not mean we sit around reading our Bibles and ignore the needs of others. We are called as an Easter people to go out and work in the world. But we are continually preparing the way as John the Baptizer did. 

What would I find in your refrigerator right now?
Leftovers, beer, condiments, you know typical stuff :). 

Do you drink coffee or tea?
Both. But right now I am drinking a cup of coffee with a splash of half and half. 

Favorite book of the Old Testament?
Genesis. For me this book states how God works with the world and how God calls us to interact with creation. It also has plenty of intriguing stories.

Favorite book of the New Testament?
I'd have to go with Luke because he pays attention to the Jewish roots of the Christian movement while also focusing about how Jesus ministered to everyone.

Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star there is a real decision to make here!

What drew you to St. Mark’s?
Well, working in my field as opposed to a ware house with my father in-law for the next year sounds like incentive enough. In all honesty this is the perfect fit for me during my senior year because I can hone my pastoral skills while working with a people I know and love dearly! 

That's all for now folks. I look forward to my next year with you all. 


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Big Events Coming Up!

Beer + Food = Fighting Hunger!
Finnegans Brewing Co. located in Minneapolis is a rather unique company. All of their proceeds go to feeding the hungry. That’s right, you heard me correctly, a beer company donates everything it makes to fight the battle against hunger. One of the innovative ways Finnegans does this is through their “Reverse Food Truck.” This food truck does not give out food, instead they collect non-perishable food donations and cash at large events around the Twin Cities. In this area of the Midwest, many of the proceeds from this truck go to the Emergency Foodshelf network.
And guess what, they’ll be at St. Mark’s this Sunday August 24th! So please bring a non-perishable food item or a cash donation to the truck to support this creative way a brewing company does God’s mission in the world. Come chat with me on Sunday to see how you can spread the word about this pioneering company.

God’s Work Our Hands Day
“God’s Work Our Hands” Day is an ELCA church wide event held on September 7, 2014. It is an opportunity to celebrate our life of faith in service to the world with the nearly 10,000 other congregations of the ELCA. St. Mark’s will be participating in this afternoon of service by working in the North St. Paul neighborhood. We will have lunch after the 10:15am service in Rees Hall and leave for our projects by 12pm. All of the volunteering will be done around 1:30pm so you can go home and watch the remainder of the Vikings game. Packer fans, your team plays the previous Thursday so no excuses for not being there!
Go to this website and sign up for one of the many projects. Included are Polar Packs, yard work at the Ramsey County Care Center, work at the Southwood Park Preserve, and more! Or you can sign up in Rees Hall.
Once you are registered, stop by the sign up table in Rees Hall on Sunday and get your "God's Work Our Hands" t-shirt. We paid around $5 for them, if you are willing please give a free will offering to help defray the costs. 

Alright, enough plugs for big events. Enjoy your weekend and the State Fair!

-Intern Tom (at least until Monday)