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)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I Work More Than One Day a Week!

When I tell people that I am an intern pastor they are interested in what exactly that all entails. I inform them that I pretty much do everything an ordained pastor does, except for baptizing people. The conversation usually goes on and on about something or another concerning being a pastor and my lifestyle. However, I was shocked when someone said to me, "It must be nice to only work one day a week." My jaw just about dropped. One day a week? No. Pastors most certainly do not work only one day a week, in fact often times we work everyday of the week in some form or another. I think it might be appropriate to give an example of a typical day in the life of the intern pastor to prove that we are quite busy.

6:20am Wake up, feed the dog, shower, shave, brush teeth
7:00am Walk the dog
7:30am Leave for church and eat a granola bar on the way to work
8:15am Arrive at church, check emails, check voice mail
8:30am Lead Tuesday morning women's Bible study
9:30am Check emails, send emails, gather items for worship planning in the afternoon
11:00am Pastoral care visit(s)
12:30pm Lunch
1:00pm Review sermon for Wednesday night worship
1:30pm Worship planning for the coming Wednesday and Sunday
2:00pm Plan "God's work. Our hands." events
3:00pm Drop a theology book off at a parishioner's house
3:30pm Beat rush hour traffic home
4:00pm Feed the dog and take the dog to the dog park
5:00pm Make and clean up dinner
6:30pm Sit down and relax with an adult beverage
7:30pm Do homework for my seminary course (it's on faith formation in congregations)
9:30pm Pray the on-call phone doesn't go off during the night and go to bed

I could copy that day over and over and over. It simply isn't true that a pastor works less than others throughout the week. If anything, work often has a bad habit of following us home. I often will check emails late at night, I'll write a sermon at 5:00am when my wife is opening up the bakery, when preaching I try and review the sermon for at least an hour each day over the weekend, etc. This is the most I have ever worked in my life...and I love it. The work I do is extremely rewarding and I wouldn't change it for the world, even though at times I feel like a 24 hour pastor.

Running Around,
Intern Tom


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Walking Dead

Well it is finally here, the last blog post on faith in pop culture! For this week's post I want to look at something that seems to have grabbed many TV viewers attention, zombies. In doing so we will look at the specific show The Walking Dead, but before that we should look at zombies themselves.

If for some reason you are unfamiliar with what a zombie is, it is usually defined as a genre of film, literature, or game where the dead come back to life as a mindless creature preying on living humans. Traditionally they are known to eat the living, though most often leaving some remains behind to become reanimated as a zombie. To kill one of these things, one needs to kill the brain whether through  forced trauma or with a bullet wound. Sounds pretty scary and disgusting doesn't it? 

However, the genre of zombie usually concerns itself less with the horror and more so with social commentary. More recent zombie films have critiqued racism, classism, consumerism, science, and individualism. Writing about each of these realms of critique deserve their own article, but it is enough to say that zombie writers and directors are making us look at the horror our sins and wrongdoings unleash upon the world. 

Theologically speaking, zombies offer us a closer look at our sins and human brokenness. Anthony R. Mills writes, "Most zombie films end up asserting that other living humans are a greater threat than the hordes of cannibalistic walking dead, not only in the metaphorical suggestions and parallels to real-life systemic injustices but also in the power struggles among the survivors, which often lead to them killing each other" (Don't Stop Believin', 205). Mills' argument is unfortunately true. Our sinfulness and brokenness pits us against each other when we need community most. Ending world hunger...good luck. Ending homelessness...yea right. Education for all...forget about it. Our human condition does not generate life, it creates ruin. We need God's grace to heal our wounds and to restore the world. It is only when we work with each other and with God to end these injustices of the world that the impossible becomes possible. 

With all of this said I turn to AMC's The Walking Dead as a prime example of our faith being lived out in zombie film. The setting is typical, a virus has spread across the world turning some into the walking/living dead leaving a small percentage immune to the pandemic. We meet our host of characters in the southern U.S., specifically Georgia. Rick is a former sheriff's deputy who awakens from a coma (he was shot in the line of duty prior to the zombie virus) to find the world he once knew long gone. Eventually he reunites with his family, but he struggles to find the meaning behind all of these terrible things. In the opening episode of season 2, Rick and the group narrowly escape a large group of zombies and take refuge in a church. Rick looks up to the statue of Jesus and asks for a sign that he is doing the right thing:

"I don't know if you're looking at me with what sadness, scorn, pity, love...maybe it's just indifference. I guess you already know I am not that much a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere, my family mostly. My friends. My job. The thing is we...I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgment, indication I am doing the right thing. You don't know how hard that is to know. Well, maybe you do. Hey look, I don't need all the answers just a little nudge, a sign. Any sign will do."

He gets no response, at least in the way he was hoping. Rick is struggling to find his faith a midst the horrors of the world and often times we do as well. With the recent military action in the Holy Land, planes being shot out of the sky, gun violence in Minneapolis, and child abusers being brought before the public we sometimes struggle to see exactly where God is working in the world. But God is here, God is not dead. God is working in those who combat the ills of the world, God is working in the the offenders to make them stop, God is sending those on the sidelines into the fray to be a part of the solution and healing of the world. Rick may not have gotten the answer he wanted, but God was working through his leadership to navigate a dark and frightening world for a small band of survivors. 

Another scene I would  like to mention reflects on what it is to pray. Often times we have a specific prayer we offer up to God, I have opened prayer the same way every night since I was in Sunday School! As a community we all pray the Lord's Prayer. But sometimes those words do not speak from our hearts, sometimes we need different ways to pray. Another character named Herschel, who serves as one of the group's doctors (he was a veterinarian before the zombie take over), has been running around trying to cure everyone of a flu like illness that has infected their now large group who currently resides in an abandoned prison. After a long day of treating people and fighting off a zombie infiltration, he sits down to read the Bible (he was and still remains a Christian), but can't. Instead he weeps. You see, sometimes we can't find the words to pray, sometimes they just don't do us justice. We can learn from Herschel to weep, or maybe to yell, and in some cases laugh. To let our emotion go and lay before God our pains and joys is indeed an honest prayer from the heart. 

My hope through this post and previous entries has been to open eyes to the work of God in the world. The Bible might be a closed book, set in stone if you will, but God's work is not. God is alive and well working throughout time and space to bring about healing, redemption, justice, mercy, and peace to the world. We need to listen to the Spirit calling us by our baptismal vows to be partners with God in this world. May we always find God in the unexpected doing the unbelievable. 

In Christ,

Intern Tom

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Harry Potter

I can recall my Dad ordering my siblings and I a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone from when we were youngsters and were enchanted by all things mysterious and magical. I eagerly tore through those pages and could barely wait for the next book to be published. These memories are not all that dissimilar to others who grew up with Harry Potter as the book series of their generation. And so it is to the Harry Potter franchise that we turn to in our examination of the 2000s.

The Harry Potter books (there are seven of them) focus on the life of Harry Potter from his infancy to young adulthood. The newly orphaned Harry is left on is Uncle and Aunt's doorstep and endures years of what I would deem "servitude" to his own family. All until he begins to notice that he has special powers and then on his 11th birthday he is invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is a wizard. The rest of the books describe his adventures and mishaps while at school and also wrestle with the evil villain, Lord Voldemort. This man wants to control the world and rid it of "muggles" (non-wizard folk) and any wizard who may come from a family without any magical parents of grandparents, or "mudbloods."

The literary series, the movie series, the theme park, the supplemental series have made J.K. Rowling the first author to make over one billion dollars. With over 400 million books sold in 67 languages, plus the movies series being dubbed in other languages, one must say that the Harry Potter enterprise has left an imprint in our global culture.Now some may dismiss the Harry Potter series as whimsical books and movies for children or even worse, as awful works that promote witchcraft and should be avoided and/or destroyed. But such attitudes do not value the implicit elements of faith that present themselves to readers and viewers. Let's look at a few of them.

The Issues of Ethnic and Racial Discrimination
Lord Voldemort's focus and obsession with his cohorts to promote the wizard pure bloods reminds us of racial and ethnic discrimination similar to that of World War II. Both Hitler and Stalin had massive pogroms aimed at killing and/or ridding them of those deemed undesirable. Included were Jews, people with disabilities, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, political dissidents, and more. This issue can bee seen perfectly in the character of Draco Malfoy, Harry's enemy at school, who has blonde hair, blue eyes, and whose parents are Voldemort supporters. Such attitudes of superiority are not supported by Harry and the rest of the "good guys" of the series because they see all people and magical creatures as worthy of having their own voice and should be respected as such.

Economic Inequality
The Malfoy family is of high economic standing with Draco's father working within the government. However the Weasley family, Harry's good friends and pure blood wizards, don't enjoy such economic privilege despite the fact that the Weasley father works for the wizard government as well. Throughout the series the Weasleys are looked down upon by those of greater wealth, but they do not let such attitudes bring them down nor do they give them any credence. What the Malfoys have in money, they lack in values. The Weasleys are the ideal family: they stick up for each other, they make the best whatever situation they are in, and they love each other fiercely.

The Power of Death
It seems safe to say that groups around the world and throughout time have been fascinated with death and all have dealt with it in different ways. So the same reactions are played out in this series. Lord Voldemort seeks to thwart death by becoming immortal. He even goes so far as to split his soul into seven pieces so that he could come back to life if he were to die. Indeed Voldemort wants to control death by conquering it.
Harry and his like minded friends and family take a different route. They focus on death as not something that needs to be fought with every waking breath, instead they focus on the value of relationships here in this world as well as looking past death. Eric Bumpus notes, "Harry reads two scripture passages on the tombstone of his parents and of Dumbledore's mother and sister...The first is from Matthew 6:21 ("Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also") and the second from 1 Corinthians 15:26 ("The last enemy to be destroyed is death")..." (Don't Stop Believin', 181). Such passages note that there is a life after death, not a life without death. And Harry lives these out when he willingly sacrifices himself in Christ like fashion to save others, but ends up returning from the dead to stop Voldemort, the personification of evil, once and for all.

So please, do not dismiss Harry Potter as pure fiction or heresy, there are some excellent nuggets that pertain to our faith. It is in looking for God in unexpected places that we may be the most surprised! Next week is the final week of the faith in pop culture series. Any suggestions for a new series or something of the sort?

In Christ,

"It is my belief...that the truth is generally preferable to lies." - Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblit of Fire, 2000