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.


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!