Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Now What?

Have you ever felt stuck in between two things? For the past few weeks I have felt like I am living in the "in between time" of school and first call. On the one hand I am done with all of my school work and am set to graduate from Luther Seminary this coming Sunday. But on the other hand I am still figuring out my first call and trying to plan an ordination around a handful of schedules. This in between time is exhausting! I have done so much planning and preparation for some things to be finished and others are still coming up on the horizon leaving me wondering whether or not I am moving. I feel a little stuck.

Last night I was flipping through the channels and I came across the end of one of my favorite Disney films, Finding Nemo. One of the side plots in the overall narrative of Marlin, a clown fish, finding his son Nemo is the epic escape attempts of the fish in a dentist's office. Time and time again they plan and try, but ultimately fail. However, in the very last scene we see all of the aquarium characters finally escape by dirtying up the tank and being placed into bags while the dentist cleaned the tank. To our surprise, the fish rolled themselves out the window and on to the street below to plop down into the ocean. But here's the catch, they still aren't free! Bloat, the puffer fish asks, "Now what?"

Now what?

That is exactly how I feel. Living in the in between time leaves us begging for more. I am done with school, but I want to graduate, I want a first call, I want to move, I want____. You know how this goes. The story of the disciples is no different. After the death of Jesus on Good Friday they were left in a difficult situation not knowing what to do. And then Easter Sunday happened, resurrection happened. It is from this new reality that they went out into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the good news of God.

But getting to that other side is difficult, it takes faith. Faith does not mean that the journey will be short, nor does it mean that it will be easy. Joyce Meyer says, "faith is courage that has said its prayers." But it is so much more than that. Faith is God's free gift to all people, and it makes even the most horrible situations tolerable because faith makes God known.

So as I continue to wait in this in between time, I find myself emboldened by that faith God has given. And when you find yourself in a similar situation, may you too find that faith abounds!

Tom Westcott

Friday, April 24, 2015

Filled, Gifted, Sent

This past weekend I was in up in Fargo, ND for the Eastern North Dakota synod assembly as well as for a few interviews for first call. I was apprehensive about going because it was not only new to me, but also because it was a marker that ordained ministry is finally becoming a reality! I am a mixed bag of emotions as I am excited to be done with school (senior slide is reaching its apex), I am sad that I will have to leave my congregations, but I am also feeling confident that God is leading me into a future that will allow Emily and I to flourish as a couple, as professionals, as coaches, and also as people of God.

While I would like to think that this confidence originated in self-reflection and prayer, it did not. It came from the synod assembly where we heard keynote speakers, Bible studies, addresses from Bishop Terry Brandt and other church wide officials, worship, and more. Our theme was, "Filled with Fire, Gifted to Grow, and Sent by the Spirit." It was in all of these events surrounding this theme that I realized that indeed the Holy Spirit was stirring up within me the new creation of our baptismal identity. In my case it is ordained leadership. As I move forward along this journey I am filled with the fire of the Spirit, gifted to grow into my vocations, and sent to be God's hands, feet, voice, and presence to all of creation.

There are two Spirit filled questions I would like to share with you all that have fueled me to this state of being:

Are we called to be leaders of an institution or leaders of a movement?

Are we settled or are we sent?

Both of these are related, yet different. The first was asked to Bishop Brandt by the Chicago Area Synod Bishop Wayne Miller when Brandt asked for advice. This question forces us to ask if we are keeping alive building and traditions that have little to do with a new and changing world. It asks us if we are keeping a ho-hum status or if we are being a life changing presence, the good news of Christ. If we are the church, here and now, we need to be leaders of a movement. A movement that proclaims life and death, the good news of Christ, and the restoration of creation

The second was asked by the keynote speaker, Rev. Nancy Nyland (Director of Evangelical Mission for the Indiana-Kentucky Synod). It wonders in our leading of the church and in the life of discipleship if we are pushed outside of our contextual comforts, past our own horizons if you will, and into the world or not. It seems to me that we are indeed being sent into the groaning of creation that cries out to God in service and in love. When we find ourselves settled we must discern whether we are ignoring the Spirit's luring into the needs of creation. When we find ourselves sent we are filled with the Spirit and gifted to act.

May you find yourself filled, gifted, and sent this Easter season.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

In the Oscar award winning film from 1982, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, we see the personification of delight and happiness. In the movie, the alien named E.T. is accidentally left behind by some of his fellow space travelers. However, he befriends a 10 year old boy named Elliot who helps him try to create a device to “phone home.” Sadly, a special government task force tracks E.T. down and he appears to die from some a sickness while in their captivity. As Elliot went to mourn E.T. in his freezing cold tomb, he discovered the unexpected. E.T. is alive. And Elliot’s response is to shout with elation and smile incessantly. And what is the first thing he does? He goes and tells his older brother who shares the same reaction to the good news. He’s alive!

How do you rejoice for all of your blessings? How do you rejoice in the resurrection? In a sense this scene from E.T. is exactly what Mary and Mary do in Matthew 28:1-10. Such joy was to be shared with the disciples according to the angel’s message as well as Jesus’ instruction. You see, the focus of the resurrection is always moving forward, always interacting with others, always rejoicing. We too as disciples are called to tell others of the unexpected story of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps running around from door to door or telling everyone we meet about the greatest story ever told may not be the best way to share the good news in our culture. Maybe a better way is to translate Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection into terms people can understand. Maybe we can do this by using the stories of our lives to illustrate our faith, or maybe we pull the narratives from the silver screen. Either way, the unexpected truth remains, Jesus is alive and well! Jesus went to death on the cross and conquered the grave! What great news! So our task as disciples is just like that of Mary and Mary, to speak the good news to all that will hear; to link transitions in their life to the greatest story ever told; where we get to expect the unexpected. He’s alive. Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia! 

Easter Blessings

Friday, March 27, 2015

First Call: The Unexpected Journey

By now, anyone who is reading this more than likely knows that I have been assigned the Eastern North Dakota synod of the ELCA for my first call. At first I was surprised that the bishops assigned me to this synod because it was not on my preference list that I had submitted! However in further conversations with Bishop Terry Brandt and his staff it soon became more than apparent that he carefully read my profile and thought that Eastern North Dakota could provide the best opportunity to grow as a pastor as well as for Emily and I to flourish as a family. As each day passes I begin to see that my story is much like that of Abraham's in Genesis 12:1-5a. It reads as follows:

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered...

Indeed I am headed off for a another country, well another state, but I am picking up everything I have and moving it to an unknown place. And joining me on this journey is my wife and canine companion. 

In all honesty the thought of moving is scary, the thought of finding housing is stressful, the thought of finding employment for my wife is overwhelming, and the thought of being done with school takes me aback (I've been in school in some form or another for the past 20 years of my life). All of these things matched with work and finishing up my Master's degree has left me feeling fatigued. Such has been my journey this Lenten season, that of wandering through the wilderness of anxiety and "what if's" knowing that the promised land and gift of life awaits at the end of these forty days. 

And yet I have a strange sense of courage going through this whole process. Sure there are plenty of things I cannot control and cannot foresee, but I am stepping boldly into this call. Above you read that Abraham was called by God to go to a new country because God wanted to make of him a great nation and that through that nation they might be able to bless the entire world. And what did Abraham do? He left. 

So too God is calling me to leave the comforts of my home and close proximity of my family and friends. Emily, Summit, and I will pack up all of our possessions and head for North Dakota. It is our faith that God is blessing us with this new place and new people, it is through our faith that we might be a blessing to them, and it is through our faith that together we all might bless the world. This first first call is unexpected, but it is a journey of faith that we are joyfully entering.

Peace to you all, 
Tom Westcott 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Excessive Convergence

Wow it has been over a month since I last posted! My apologies to you all. Let me explain...This past month has been hectic with all of St. Mark's events (mainly transitioning after Steve's retirement), my last semester of school at Luther Sem. started, and finally "the draft." A few weeks ago all of the candidates for ordained ministry were divided into regions of U.S. for synod assignment. I received Region 3 which includes Minnesota and both North and South Dakota. Now I await for a call from my synod bishop this week. I am a mixed bag of nervous and excited as I am sure all of us who are waiting for "the call." With that said, I have had some trouble focusing on life. And who can't relate with all of life's anxieties and joys?!

A few months ago I went to the eye doctor because I was having trouble focusing my sight during worship when I would glance down at my sermon and then to the congregation. At first I did not think it was anything, just my tired eyes in the morning. But it continued, so finally I went to see a doctor. Now I thought I was going to need a new prescription (I have one for seeing distance when in a classroom, my current prescription is from high school!), but that was not the case. The doctor informed me that I have "excessive convergence." Essentially he told me that when I look straight my eyes are straight, but when I look down they slightly cross so that they compete for dominance and take extra time to focus. And here is the thing, a prescription would just make this worse! Instead I am supposed to go to eye physical therapy to remedy the problem.

How many of us have excessive convergence? Perhaps you do not have it literally like myself, but I suspect you do have it in your life. Think about all of your worries and anxieties, your regrets and failings. Often times they plague us, haunting us wherever we go causing our eyes and lives to blur and we find ourselves lost.But the Holy Spirit redirects us from our inward, selfish, scared dazing and up into the wonderful world around us. The Holy Spirit frees us from being enslaved to our anxieties and opens us up to living into the creation God made us to be.

My prayer for you all this Lent is to live into the creation God made you to be!


Friday, January 30, 2015

Why We Can't Wait

About two weeks ago this country celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Here at St. Mark's as we prayed for King's dream to be realized not only in our community but around the nation. Because...let's be honest, King's dream is far from realized. Racism and prejudices continue to run rampant, economic subjugation stymies the American dream to get ahead, and violence often seems to be the only response when no one listens to the voices crying out on the street. These unfortunate circumstances apply to all peoples, not just the African American community, however the current events of police shootings have made the American conscience one again aware of racism.

Coming from a white, middle class, Protestant (Lutheran) perspective on life I am privileged and have never had to worry about any racist consequence from society. However, the reality is that racism is still present. Last week I spoke with one of the founding staff members of the Polar Pack program, Sylvia Neblett, to learn from her experiences of racism growing up. 

Sylvia grew up around the U.S. and in Germany as the daughter of an Army sergeant. At a young age she traveled from Washington state across the country by car for the east coast where they would soon move to Germany. On one of the few stops that her family made, her father approached an ice cream restaurant to get get the formula for her infant sibling warmed. At the rough age of six she watched her father approach the side window where a white employee yelled, "Boy! You know better. Go to the back." Sylvia's response as a confused child who was not used to such treatment was to ask her mother, "What did they say to my dad?" Her mother quickly hushed her as they waited for his return with the formula. 

Now one might have assumed that Sylvia's mother silenced her so quickly because she did not want attention drawn to themselves as a family traveling across the country. However this was not the case. As an adult Sylvia's mother told her that she was listening to hear if her husband was going to be beaten, stabbed, or shot. Listening was her way of being prepared for the worst and saving the rest of her family. 

This is the sad truth of racism in this country's past...but it still lives. 

A few weeks ago it was discovered that the North Miami Beach police used mug shots of people from the community, specifically all black men, for target practice at the shooting range. The response from most people was a general disgust for such an action. But some clergy have taken a bold step in responding to this overt racism by posting their picture with the handle "#UseMeInstead." This was a great way for clergy to offer support for the African American community from around the nation, but all of us can do more in our unique contexts.We can't wait for things to resolve by themselves.

Back in 1963, 8 clergy members in the south wrote a letter titled, “A Call for Unity” urging for people to use common sense and the courts to wage the battle for civil rights. Not a terrible idea, but what rights did African Americans in the South have in all reality? When sitting in a restaurant was cause for arrest? The answer is little to none. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to this piece in his work, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he discusses why there is a deep need for non-violent direct action such as sit-ins and marches to bring the issues of injustice to the forefront of people’s minds, that the status quo of injustice can no longer live. 

Yet so often we choose to wait taking the stance, "let’s take a step back and look at things and get a larger perspective." But this waiting has almost always meant never. Justice too long delayed is justice denied. Action is what we are called to do as Christians. So do not think we are not still living with such racism. This type of injustice lives and in fact thrives today. Poverty prohibits healthy food options and are forced to settle for the dollar menu; inequality fails equivalent opportunities in schools; racism blinds the eyes to see only hatred.

Do not be afraid of exercising your voice, your prophetic voice that God has gifted you. It may not be the loudest or clearest, but use it none the less. “I am in Birmingham because injustice exists here,” writes King. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

So too we must not sit, letting the world go by as if we have no power or anything to do in it. We are gifted by God to act in it. Let us live a prophetic life by living out our discipleship to God, live out our gifts, live out justice and righteousness, live on behalf of others. This work of justice is not creating tension, rather it is bringing to the surface the tension and uneasiness that we all seek to suppress, it is as Martin Luther said hundreds of years ago, calling a thing what it is.

So get out of the comfortable confines of yourself, get out into the world and work for God’s Kingdom to reign. Live out your calling as a child of God and do more of God’s work in the world. As disciples we are not called to be stagnant. Not to be sitting idly by. Not to watch the world go on without our participation. Not to let sin run rampant and unchecked. We are called to act, to do, and to bear forth God’s Word to a weary world that is pleading for God’s justice to rain down like manna from heaven. 

I imagine some of you are uncomfortable with this message, it may be too extreme. But was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to those that hate you and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? “Here I stand, I can do no other so help me God.” The question of the Christian life is not whether you will be an extremist or not, rather what kind of extremist you will be. Will it be for love or hate, injustice or justice?

This is where God is calling the church into our world, radical involvement and action. Why? How? Look to Jesus. If we don’t the church as the body of Christ will be viewed as weak with an ineffectual voice, the archdefender of the status quo. If today’s church doesn't recapture the prophetic voice and other gifts from God it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 21st century. We have the awesome responsibility to be God’s people. Get up, stand up, live into the unity God calls for that bears the fruit of God’s Kingdom.

My first step:

What's yours?

Tom Westcott   

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Different Kind of Walking

Over the New Year weekend my wife and I went  up to one of our favorite places in the world, Grand Marais, MN. For those of you who have never gone it is a quaint harbor village of about 1300 people on Lake Superior. In the summer it is bustling with tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, but in the winter the visitors are drastically reduced because of the harsh winters of northern Minnesota. Emily and I have never gone up during the winter, so it was an adventure for the both of us.

We knew a lot of the shops were going to be closed, and they were, so we decided that we needed to have an adventure of sorts. We went about 30 miles inland up the Gunflint Trail in a bit of a snow storm to catch the start of a dog sled race (I was driving with white knuckles most of the way there!). But on the way back down we went snowshoeing. We rented a couple of pairs earlier that day and opted to trek on a cross country ski route closer to town than the dog sled race.

Now I have never been snowshoeing in my life. It was a bit awkward to start out knowing that your heel is actually about 18 inches longer than you are used to! I felt like a little kid walking around in their parents shoes, gingerly walking to make sure nothing fell out of place and praying I didn't make a fool of myself by falling down. After a few minutes I got the hang of it and was able to walk with more ease.

Trying new things or living into new things is a lot like snowshoeing it seems to me. It starts out with ourselves being rather self-conscious and hesitant about setting out. It takes some clumsy steps and some mistakes to get the routine and hang of things. But in the all works out. We become accustomed to our new reality and we make the best of it.

As a church we are taking off the comfortable shoes that we have come to know as Pastor Steve and are setting out to put a new pair on. I can almost guarantee you that not having him around will at first feel like you are snowshoeing for the first time. But trust me, it will get better. As we continue the ministries of God here at St. Mark's we will see that God's work goes on! And soon enough we will have a new senior pastor who can guide us with their wisdom on how to walk forward on the path of discipleship.

As celebrate Steve's retirement, may you be comforted in knowing that while the leader may change, while we may stumble for a moment, we are not alone. Psalm 119:105 reads, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." God is with us showing us the way and how to be God's people in this place, that will never change. So strap on your snowshoes, and let's get walking!

Tom Westcott