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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, "Glory to the Newborn King!"

As people of faith we have wondered and wandered the past four and a half weeks of Advent discerning God’s coming into the world. Two thousand years ago God came in a most unexpected way that we celebrate today, in the form of a vulnerable infant. The birth of the Christ child ushered us into witnessing God’s Kingdom on earth and the conquering of death. Yet, what was still more unexpected was that Christ went to the cross of death to free us from sin and give us eternal life. Such is God’s radical and wonderful Kingdom, where love knows no bounds and will go to any length for God’s creation.
Yet after Christ died on the cross and was resurrected, we have found ourselves in a world that continues to bear witness to God’s activity.  But it is one that is not completely conformed to the ways of the Lord. This life is one that the royal psalms write of and prepare us for the coming again of God.
The royal psalms as a genre within the book of psalms speak directly about the human Davidic King during certain times such as celebrating military victories, weddings, and times of mourning. As the Israelites adopted the governmental form of a monarchy they hoped that they might be saved by this king. However, they were not. King after king continually disappointed the people of God as well as God, never fulfilling their vocational calling.
During the compiling of the psalms into an enduring collection of songs and prayers, the editors found it important for some reason to keep the royal psalms despite the fact that the monarchy had been disestablished. That reason was hope that the King, not the flawed kings of old, but that the ideal and anointed King from God would come to redeem Israel. The royal psalms were kept because they offered this hope.
Such a confidence kept the faith alive that God would fulfill the covenantal promises of long ago made with our ancestors. Theologian James Limburg writes, “Even though there were no more kings, no more coronations, no more celebrations involving the monarch, the royal psalms were still used. Now they expressed the people’s hope for an ideal ruler who would come…a messiah” (Limburg, Psalms, 7). This messiah came, this messiah was born away in a manger.
Let us sing together with the saints and angels that God has indeed kept the ancient promises of salvation and redemption. Let us proclaim to all the world that God is with us. Let us go to Bethlehem to honor the Christ child, the newborn King!
Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
Christmas Blessings,
Tom Westcott

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Faith Formation

It is one week from Christmas day! Time has certainly flown by since Thanksgiving and I am trying to catch my breath in light of finals and preparing for Christmas Eve. I think I am almost there!

In thinking about Christmas, it occurred to me that a lot of my childhood memories are from this time of the year. A tree with presents. Sledding with my siblings and neighbors. Eating Christmas cookies on Sunday evening. Attending Christmas Eve service at my grandfather's church. All of these formative memories flood my mind in a somewhat nostalgic fashion. However, Christmas is also a time in which our faith is formed.

Christmas provides a time in which we eagerly await the coming of God in unexpected ways. Christmas provides a time for us to slow down and to consider how we are living out our faith, are we like the shepherd in the field or are we like Herod? Christmas is a time in which we can concretely see that God has said yes to creation by coming to us.

I'd like to share with you a video about my definition of faith formation that I created for a class. It is short (3 minutes), but it gets at this Christmas view of faith formation. That such learning is not in a straight and narrow path, but it is a narrative with twists and turns. Faith formation is a beautiful mess.

Faith Formation Definition

Happy Advent!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Waiting for Help

Cars and me do not get along very well. I'll spare you the details, but this morning I discovered I had a flat tire when I really needed to be grocery shopping. After muttering a few obscenities underneath my breath I went back inside to scour the internet for the best deals and settled on a national chain that had a decent end of the year sale. However, I had to wait until 3:00pm for an appointment unless I wanted to wait there all day long. I took the appointment and began working on papers for my courses because it is finals week of all weeks! So I began to wait.

I went back outside at 1:30pm giving myself plenty of time in case an problem should arise...and of course it did. I emptied the trunk into the back seat (wow I have a lot of crap back there!) to get at the spare. I lifted up the false bottom to get at the spare tire and I discovered it had no air in it. Not enough to limp to a gas station to fill it, absolutely no air was in it. It was like a tire on a bike during the winter, you could squish the rubber down to the rim.

So I went to my neighbor's door and knocked hoping she could give me a ride to the nearest gas station to fill it up. I waited there pondering what would I do if she did not answer or could not help me. "I could walk or jog there, it wouldn't take too long. But then I probably wouldn't make my appointment" I told myself. It felt like forever as I played out different situations in my mind. And then she answered the door. "Of course I can help you Tom!"

We went and got the tire filled within 10 minutes. Now back to the business of changing the tire. I have changed many a tire, but this one was stubborn. Tried as I may, the lug nuts would not budge. I grew frustrated and in all honesty rather angry. Why today of all days?!?! So I did what any helpless person does, call AAA.

I placed the request for assistance and they said they would be there within an hour, officially making me late for my appointment. I called the tire shop and informed them. I waited in the car for the roadside assistance to call me when the mechanic was 5 minutes away. I paged through a magazine, thought about upcoming church services, and stressed about the homework that needed to get done. No phone call came. I sat there waiting.

And then all of a sudden a tow truck came. I hopped out and it stopped. The driver asked if I has called AAA and affirmed that he was sent to help. Within 10 minutes he changed the tire (he had an extended pipe that allowed for more leverage to loosen the lug nuts) and I was on my way to my appointment. And guess what I made it there on time. So here I am sitting in the lobby sipping on some weak, not so tasty coffee. But I am thankful that in all of my situations of waiting in need, help came. It arrived unannounced after long expectation.

My day thus far has been a day of Advent. In this church season we wait for God's coming to fulfill the covenants of old, sometimes patiently...sometimes not. We expect and have faith that God will be faithful to God's promises. The Hebrew word that expresses such faithfulness is "hesed." The New International Commentary of the Old Testament on the Psalms describes this word:

Hesed includes elements of love, mercy, fidelity, and kindness. Hesed is a relational term that describes both the internal character as well as external actions that are required to maintain a life sustaining relationship. While the term is used both of humans and God, in the Psalter it is above all a theological term that describes God's essential character as well as God's characteristic ways of acting - especially God's characteristic ways of acting in electing, delivering, and sustaining the people of Israel. Hesed is both who the Lord is and what the Lord does (NICOT, Psalms, 8).

The psalms of thanksgiving testify to such faithfulness, such hesed-ness. We see this word throughout the Bible, yet psalms of thanksgiving address God's tangible, concrete activity in the world. Rising from a crisis the psalmist fulfills their promise to praise God after God has saved them from calamity and woe. Advent is indeed a time of hesed-ness for God keeping the particular promise of coming to save us. God came two thousand years ago as a baby in Bethlehem and so we look into the future expecting that promise to come again...even if it means waiting for that help to come.

Waiting in the tire shop,

Monday, November 24, 2014

Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow

My wife recently received a new full time position at St. Joseph’s Home for Children as an assistant supervisor for daytime treatment and schooling. She was showered with congratulations from family, friends, and those from the realm of social media. However, not a one expressed praise to God! Have we forgotten how to thank and praise God for all blessings great and small? Or is it easier to give ourselves credit for such work? We need to shift our thinking from everything being our doing, and to praise God from whom all of our blessing flow. Additionally, we need to recognize that this needs to occur not just within worship, but in every aspect of life.
The hymns of praise in the book of Psalms can help us to refocus how we praise God. The purpose of these writings are, “to tell who God is by telling what God has done” (Jacobson and Jacobson, Invitation to the Psalms, 45). In other words praise psalms are explicit testimonies to God’s very identity and God’s unfolding action within the people of God. This testimony is completed through a call to praise as well as unfolding testimony to God’s actions. The same could be said of our congratulating of others. The flow is as follows:
Congratulation / Call to Praise
Reason(s) for Congratulation / Reason(s) for Praise
Let’s be honest though, we want to give ourselves credit for doing all of the hard work for things. My wife is the one who has worked her tail off at St. Joseph’s for over a year to get this promotion, shouldn't we tell her what a good job she has done? If we take such a road, we quickly forget where such gifts, talents, and abilities came from, God. Instead we create a world where we are the rulers and must take responsibility for all of its happenings, we limit our possibilities by saying no to God’s options, and finally we negate the polemical and political power of praise (Jacobson, The Costly Loss of Praise, 381-383). By praising God we are making God’s abundant blessings realized and recognized. Perhaps when we do this on a more regular basis we can begin to make praise a part of our everyday language.
But why should we do this? We praise God because we offer thanks for blessings and also to make a new world known. Both are important, but the latter deserves a bit more attention here. When we praise God we make God’s activity in everyday life known. Lutheran theologian Rolf Jacobson writes, “Praise assumes a world where God is an active agent, and then praise evokes this world by naming God as the agent responsible for specific actions and blessings. There is no such thing as uninterrupted reality. By ascribing agency to God for specific transformations, praise interprets reality in such a way that God is evoked as an active agent in daily life” (Jacobson, The Costly Loss of Praise, 377). Praising God acknowledges God as an active and thriving God who is not cloistered away in the heavens. Praise makes the bold statement that God loves each and every one of God’s creation to be involved at an intimate level, to come to us as a baby.
I propose the following to help us praise God anew: we ban the word “congratulations” as a reminder to praise God and embark in an Advent of praise. The refusal to say the “C” word will remind us that it is not our efforts that generate our blessings, but it is God. For example, when a friend has a new baby praise God with them for this new life and blessing. Or when someone graduates from school, praise God for the blessings of education and leadership.
Finally, such focus will praise God for all that God has done in the past to deliver God’s people and it will praise God for coming to us as a child. But furthermore it will evoke God as the incarnate Word as an active agent in the world who is deeply needed to make a new horizon of healing and justice for the world. If we do not praise God, this radical reality of God coming to us is not recognized and may go unseen. Let us praise God from whom all blessing flow on Thanksgiving day, then let us look to the manger as the proof positive of God’s active agency and bring forward the gift of praise.
Tom Westcott

Monday, October 27, 2014

What's REAL Community?

A few weeks ago my favorite TV show started a new season, The Walking Dead. It's a show about people surviving in a world of zombies. It may not seem that appealing to most folks, but the show is more about the relationships between the survivors than about gore. In the opening episode a new minor character was explaining his view of friendship in light of the zombie apocalypse. He said, "I don't have any friends. I mean I know people, they are just a******s I stay alive with. Is that other woman your friend? I used to have them, we used to watch football on Sundays. Went to church. I know I did, but I can't picture it anymore" (AMC's The Walking Dead, season 5 episode 1). This clip asks us in our current context, that is not ravaged by zombies, if we have a community as well or if we have people we just survive with. While we can take many different approaches to this question, it seems to me that German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers us a unique perspective on what it means to be community as Christians in his work Life Together.

“Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.” – Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30

This passage from the opening chapter of Life Together illustrates Bonhoeffer’s main thrust of his definition of community that it can only exist through the mediation of Jesus Christ. He expands on this point in the following pages by describing Christians as needing others for the sake of Christ, a Christian comes to others only through Christ, and finally that we are united with Christ in eternity (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30-31). This threefold description of what it means to be in Christian community begins with our justification. It is not done by our own merits, but through Jesus Christ alone (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 31).

This means that in the Christian community there is a continual movement of death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit works in us from the outside, deconstructing us and our self-made constructions, and giving us new life in Christ. It can then be said that Jesus on the cross is the primary moment of deconstruction, it is the moment in which we are told we do not save ourselves because it is Christ on the cross who does. Such a realization creates community because it relieves us from the expectation of performance before God, or climbing the spiritual ladder, it frees us to serve our neighbor.

From this comes Bonhoeffer’s second point, “…a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ” and our efforts to do so on our own are failures because we run into our own egos so we rely only on Christ to mediate our knowing of the other (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 32). This means that we can only experience others from Christ’s actions, not our own. We are then opened up to live, love, and serve with and for others. We are once again freed from the expectation of serving according to our egos and we are shown a way of being through Jesus’ ministry and the Holy Spirit stirring within us.

Bonhoeffer’s final point of defining a Christian community relates to the person of Jesus Christ and how we are united with him. He writes, “Third, when God’s Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily, out of pure grace, took on our being, our nature, ourselves…Wherever he is, he bears our flesh, he bears us. And, where he is, there we are too…” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 32). With this description, community becomes much more than a gathering of people, community becomes the body of Christ that lives out the life of Christ in the world. Such a community embraces the costly grace of God, clamors for the theology of the cross and resists the theology of glory, serves the neighbor, and engages life in all of its beauty and messiness.

Indeed we seek relationships out of self-serving goals (like this character's noting he gathers with people to simply survive), so it is God who mediates community for us showing us that community is not about physical connection, but instead a spiritual one. Such a community is about the Word of God in Jesus Christ, truth, light, service, and where the Spirit and Word of God in Jesus Christ rule (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 38-40). This is what Bonhoeffer envisions as being the Christian community, the spiritual community that is radically active in the world.

While we agree with Bonhoeffer and admit that this is what we strive for, we know that it is not necessarily reality because it is a hard calling! Yet, Bonhoeffer further challenges us, “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 38). This makes Christian community not something that humans must meet as if it were a law, it is the opposite. We enter into community simply by the free grace, faith, and justification from God. We are wholly undeserving of these things, but we are given it. It is God who created us to be in community and provides us such an opportunity.

Real community then is about embracing the struggle of everyday life while simultaneously living out the gospel message. For the characters in The Walking Dead, their morals and their underlying discipleship to God is tested daily by decisions to act mercifully or selfishly, emotionally or spiritually, peacefully or violently. And in these decisions their view of community and communal reality is challenged. Do we welcome this person into our group out of gain because of their skills? Or do we welcome them because that is what we do, extending hospitality and love in a dangerous world?

This reality is not so far from us is it? My wife has a thousand and one friends whom she would consider real community because they do just about anything for each other and build each other up out of love and live in service to the world. But I find myself having far fewer friends when I look at my real community. There are of people I stay alive with and know, but not many that fit into Bonhoeffer's vision of community. Now I do not lament over this, rather it opens up a perspective about how we all interact  in the world and challenges us to live out of thanksgiving to God for giving us such an opportunity. Where do you find yourself in this spectrum of community? Are your friends plentiful or just enough? Do you have real community or ones that you just live with?

May you rethink who your community is and in the process find God calling your community to more than survival.