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.


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!