Thursday, July 10, 2014

Xenophobia, Children at the Border, and Jesus

"You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Deuteronomy 10:19

"I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Jesus

Do you see the living Christ fully present in these children and in this family? Do you remember that due to the violent, political atmosphere in their own country, Mary and Joseph took their child and fled, as undocumented migrants, across the border into Egypt? How many of us are here today because our ancestors also fled religious, political, economic, and wars in their homelands? Some may have come through "proper" immigration channels, but not all. Many came across the borders and into this country through other ways.

In 2005, I along with 12 others, went on an immigration educational trip through BorderLinks out of Tucson and Nogales. As a part of our learning, we went down to Altar, Sonora, Mexico where many people fleeing their own land were gathering to risk their lives by crossing the dangerous desert in search of refuge and hope. This family was just one of several who we met and learned their story. They came from Central America. Unable to provide for his family, due to the economic situation, and fearful of the violence in that country, this father and mother, like Joseph and Mary, decided to flee their homes in hopes of a better life. Many of the people we talked with would welcome the chance to return to their homes and home country, when the economic and political climate changes and the violence ends. I also learned that we are part of the problem and part of the solution. We want our investments in companies that move across the border or down into Central America to do well, so we can retire in some comfort or make some money to take that dream trip somewhere. The unintended consequence is that in wanting our investments in these companies to return higher dividends, we want them to pay their workers unfair wages, often just a few dollars a day, provide no benefits, or health care. These companies never support the community or schools around them. The workers live in constant fear of being fired the workers if for any reason are unable to work. If we lived in these conditions, we too might do what many of families and children are doing today, and risk our lives, fleeing such dire circumstances for a chance at a better life. It's not just the politicians or our President, it is us, we the people, who must find it in ourselves to love kindness, do justice, and walk with God, by walking with our brothers and sisters who come to our borders. Organize a trip through BorderLinks or some other immigration education group, learn about the real issues at work in this humanitarian crisis! It is far to easy to be critical of what others are or aren't doing. What are we as human beings doing to help our larger global family? Will it cost us, yes, financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Is it worth it? If it was you and your family, your children, how would you want to be received and helped by others? Fredrick Buechner says: “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Jesus said: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." The writer of Deuteronomy said: "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Do you remember?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Struggling with My Calling: A Second Job or Bi-Vocational?

I wanted to introduce myself to you.  By Sunday, I am Rev. Scott Marrese-Wheeler, a mild-mannered minister at Oakland-Cambridge Presbyterian Church, but by week day, I transform myself into Super Sub - MDubs, in the McFarland School District!  With a single phone call, I asked to teach math to 6th graders, lead a discussion on a classic piece of art to 7th & 8th graders, facilitate a discussion on college literature to seniors, lecture on the political process in the United States to high schoolers, oversee the eating habits of 650 high school students, and face my kryptonite fear by teaching shop class!  

It is my role as an educator working as a Substitute Teacher at McFarland Middle & High School that I was invited to talk to you. In her April 2 - Christian Century blog - Celeste Kennel-Shank - “Does having two jobs make you bi-vocational?”   Some my say my work is simply a second job, meant to off-set the income of being a part-time minister.  Maybe when I started subbing it was simply for that reason.  But after 5 years, it no longer is simply a job to me, it is a calling by God to serve in a parish beyond the walls.  

Our focus as a Presbytery was to transform ourselves into a “missional” ministry.  I am still not exactly sure what that fully means or actually looks like.  Maybe that is part of what it means to live into this new way of being the church, it is an emerging, unknown, and yet to be fully defined image of Church.

What I do know is that we are invited to live our faith out in a more “missional” way, engaging the world where we live our daily lives and not simply to stay inside the walls of a church building.   To use the oft quoted quote of Fredrick Buechner - “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

For me, and as my colleagues who work in public education would attest, the world’s deep hunger is sadly found, daily, in the public classroom.  Poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental health issues, special needs, families in crisis, immigration and sexuality issues, grief, stress, anxiety, fear, and the list goes on, all take a seat at the start of class and remain a constant presence through the school day and year.   This is not limited to our students but also in the lives of the staff.  Into this mix, educators must teach.  

I feel God has called me to the ministry of being a substitute teacher.  Being the presence of Christ without preaching Christ is key to my ministry.    Being present to the person before me, whether they are student or staff, receiving them as if they were the Christ is what I believe is my calling.  Of course, this is what we are all invited to do whatever our work, wherever we work.  A second job, maybe?  A “missional” ministry?  Yes, and more.  It is the place we are called, out there and in here, because everywhere we find ourselves in life is where we discover the Kingdom of God among us.  

In closing, I want to share a poem with you, as I have shared it with the staff at McFarland.  It is a poem by Brian Doyle that I found in the Christian Century magazine.  Brian Doyle is the Editor of Portland Magazine on the campus of Portland University.   For me, this poem speaks to my dual calling in the church and in the school:

The Window Through Which to Whisper

Talked to six high school students this morning,
Two young men and four young women, for 20
Minutes each. Ostensibly the discussion was all
About college admission essays, but one thing I
Have learned in life is to be quiet and listen and
Out will pour real honest naked hard holy grace,
And there it was, child after lanky child. So very
Many masks worn as armor. So many polite bits
Of college admissions essays that skated over the
Stories they were so desperate to tell they would
Even tell me—given the chance, the shy window
Through which to whisper. When we were done
I stood up rattled and blessed. Such terrible gifts
And such generosity in the giving. I remembered
Confession, in the old days, when the old shutter
Made of oak or pine would shiver open suddenly
And a voice, often so calm and gentle, would say

Say what you most want to say, and have not said.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Bible goes Hollywood!

A few years ago, my son read the entire Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan.  His mother and I read them as well.  As Hollywood is prone to do with books that are popular with young adults (and adults), they made it into a movie!  (The latest in this line of popular young adult fiction to be made into a movie is - Divergent!  I keep trying to check out a copy through the libraries and am like 678 on the waiting list!)    He was very excited to see the movie, so we took him and a few of his friends to the see it.   Film critics have nothing on pre-teenage boys when it comes to harsh criticism.  According to them, Hollywood had “ruined” the story taking great liberties with the storyline, the major characters, the setting, and well, everything!  They hated the movie!  Having read the series, Staci and I agreed, the book was so much better!  Aren’t they always?  My favorite novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, was turned into the movie - Simon Birch.   The movie version was so far off from the book, I had to re-read it just to get, as saying goes, “the bad taste out of my mouth!”  Have you ever had a similar experience with a book being made into a movie?  

Of all the books ever made into a movie, the Bible seems to be one of Hollywood’s favorites.  The 1920‘s saw the release of Ben-Hur: The Tale of Christ and Noah’s Ark.  1949‘s biggest hit was Sampson and Delilah.  The 1950‘s saw the remake of Ben-Hur, along with David and Bathsheba, The Robe, and Cecil B. DeMille’s classic starring Charlton Heston - The Ten Commandments, which was nominated for 7 Academy Awards!  A bit of trivia, all of the legal fuss over the 10 Commandment monuments that many communities have in parks?  Those stone tablets were just an early form of Hollywood marketing a movie in order to make money.  They were given out to communities by Cecil B. DeMille to promote the release of his movie.  It worked!  The 10 Commandments was the biggest money maker in 1956!   Of course, not all major movies based on the Bible were commercial successes.  The 1960’s movies:  The Greatest Story Ever Told and The King of Kings did not fare so well financially, failing at the box office.  The 1970’s brought us the classic Rock Operas:  Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.  The 1980’s saw a scantily clad Richard Geer dancing around the Ark of the Covenant in King David and Willem Dafoe playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ.  
The 1990’s saw the advent of animated movies based on the Bible:  The Prince of Egypt and The Story of ChristmasJonah: A Veggie Tale is one of our personal favorites.  The 2000’s have brought us many more movies like The Nativity and Mel Gibson’s controversial movie - The Passion of the Christ.

And now Hollywood is at it again, releasing this winter, Son of God, starring, as critics called him - the “Hot” Jesus due to his looks and Noah - starring another Hollywood superstar Russell Crowe.  
The list of biblically based movies seems endless.  How many have you watched over your life time?  I have seen most of the one listed in this article, a few of them multiple times.  Some I have liked and some have disappointed me.  Here is the thing, Hollywood always embellishes the story and characters.  These films, as entertaining and moving as they maybe, rarely do justice to the Biblical story.  So my advice as a film buff and a person who loves to read a good book is read the book before you see the movie.  Especially when it comes to Hollywood trying to turn a biblical story into a movie.  I believe you will find the book is always more accurate and better!  

p.s.  For me, the best film Hollywood ever made based on the Bible was Places In The Heart starring Sally Fields and Danny Glover.  The opening and closing scenes are powerful!  If you have never watched the movie, do so!  You will not be disappointed!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Watershed Moments in Life (A reflection on Pete Seeger's death and my son's 14th birthday)

Turn, Turn, Turn song and lyrics by Pete Seeger as found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace." Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Howard Thurman, writing in With Head and Heart said:   "A [human] life is a single statement. This does not seem to be the case because we measure our lives episodically, in terms of events, particular circumstances and experiences. But every incident is but a partial rendering of the total life. Some events are marked by dramatic intervals, by pain or joy, which may cause us to mark the place and to memorialize it for all our days. They are watershed moments."

A Facebook friend, David LaMotte, who is a singer/song writer, teacher, author, social justice advocate, says that one his “watershed” moments was having the opportunity to sing on stage with Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94.  David wrote a beautiful tribute to Pete Seeger.  You can read it at this link -

Yesterday, my son turned 14.  80 years separated Pete Seeger and my son in life and in death.   Like David LaMotte, Pete Seeger had a moment of influence on his young life as a budding guitar player.  Sam and I had dinner at our neighbor’s home on Saturday night.  Sue loves folk music, so naturally it was playing in the background while we visited over supper.  Sam received an education on the folk music - history, songs, their meaning, and of course the singers.  He also had to put up with the small group of adults gathered around the table, pausing in the midst of the meal and chewing to sing a few verses.  No discussion of this classic American genre of music would be complete without Pete Seeger.  While Sam’s encounter with Pete Seeger is nothing compared to David LaMottes, I think it goes to show the type of influence this man had on many people young and old.

Howard Thurman says, “Some events are marked by dramatic intervals, by pain or joy, which may cause us to mark the place and to memorialize it for all our days. They are watershed moments.”

Singing with Pete Seeger on the 10th anniversary of September 11, the birth of our son, the death of a loved one, the doctor’s words, a friends comforting presence, a sunset, a bird’s song, a poem, a song.  All these things, little and large as they may seem in our lives are key moments, “watershed” events, and none are to be overlooked.

Today is January 28.  It is a new day.  Pete Seeger who lived among us, now lives eternally in our hearts and songs.  Sam is 14.  He is no longer the baby I held in my arms, rocking him to sleep, but is a young man.  A turning from one day to the next, one year to another.  Life goes on.  On this new day, the sun is shinning brightly, warming the chair I sit in as I write these words.  Outside my window, the polar vortex grips most of the Midwest, freezing us with its sub-zero weather.  Winter being what it is, reminds me of the seasonal changes in all our lives, giving us pause to reflect, remember, celebrate and give thanks, and then turn the page on the day past, welcoming this new day, this different day, this different you and me day, this new God day, which when you think about it, ordinary as it may be, is a watershed moment in all our lives.

I wonder what have been those key moments you "book mark" in your life, turning the pages back, remembering why it influenced you, changed you, inspired you, and sent you off in maybe new directions

Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck Dynasty, Faith, and the Reality Show Called - Life!

I am not a fan of reality television shows. I have watched “Duck Dynasty” a few times. They seem, to me, to be a quirky bunch of guys who make duck calls and enjoy their lifestyle. I would never consider them Biblical Scholars or Theologians, though they certainly pray together as an extended family at the end of each show around a dinner table. I don’t think that is such bad thing and maybe something more of families should do together when they share a meal, though most of us don’t do it while being filmed for a television show. The first time I saw them pray, it reminded me a bit of the Walton’s holding hands and praying around their kitchen table. Most people might say that in both television shows, they were doing nothing more than modeling good family values at least on the surface. If you remember, after the Walton’s went off the air, Judy Norton Taylor, needing to break out of her wholesome Walton image as Mary Ellen, posed for Playboy magazine.
Now we have Phil Robertson making, what many people would say are, very offensive comments in GQ magazine. A&E has suspended him from the show. A firestorm has erupted on Facebook and other social media outlets from people defending him and those criticizing him. The Robertson has released a statement, saying they are praying together, rallying around Phil and hoping that through prayer (and fans outrage) that A&E will reconsider. I wonder if they are not also praying that they do not lose the financial benefits that come with being reality television stars? When you think about it, aren’t we all in some way on a “Reality Television Show,” mic’d and with the cameras rolling? Well, not literally, but since faith is a part of the controversy over Phil Robertson’s comments, let’s say, figuratively speaking.
The Psalmist sings out in Psalm 139:1-4:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” I wonder how many of us, in the shadows and recesses of our own lives, or maybe in very public places, have made comments or behaved in an inappropriate, maybe even scandalous manner, that would shock and offend our family, friends, and neighbors, let alone all of the social media world? I must confess, I have done said and done things I later regretted. What about you? Be honest.
When I was a child, I learned a little Sunday School song that went something like this: “O be careful little lips what you say, for God up above is looking down in love, O be careful little lips what you say.” Every now and then this childhood song pops back into my head, especially when I catch myself thinking or rather, not thinking about what I am saying or doing as I react to another person outrageous comments in public or on Facebook. In the letter to the Church at Ephesus, the writer says: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”(4:29-32)
At the McFarland School District schools where I work, we talk with the students about the using such words as “compassion, empathy, respect, responsibility.” At the high school, our principal reminds students to “Make good choices that past the test of Spartan Pride.” I suppose if you are on a reality show that expects its “cast members” to say and do outrageous things in hopes of drawing in a large viewing audience – and making a nice profit for the network and sponsors, Phil’s comments are just par for the reality television show course. However, I am not sure they are par for the course as those who profess a faith in God whose sacred image dwells in all of us, on camera and off. I pray, Phil and the family Robertson might not “duck” this opportunity to reflect on and grow in faith and relationship with God. I hope we all might do the same, as we seek God’s grace while living in the Light that shines in the darkness of our lives and world, inviting us to love one another as God first loved us. Of course, none of this means A&E will reinstate Phil or that Duck Dynasty will live to see another season. If that is aim of our reflections and prayers, I wonder if we all “ducked” the real hope and pray of God?

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints' Day and 6th Grade

All Saints' Day and 6th Grade:

Yesterday a group of 6th graders were working on making their sentences come alive with the use adjectives and adverbs.  One group had the word "caravan."  They wrote a sentence that talked about the Native Americans being forced to walk in a caravan along what is now known as the "Trail of Tears."   As their teacher helped them re-work the sentence so people could "see" their use of the word caravan more vividly, one boy said what if we added: "and their memories trailed behind them."   I suddenly saw this painful, forced march the United States Government made the Native Americans make come alive!   I was moved by this phrase.

Today is All Saints' Day.  Many of us will wake this morning, make coffee, turn on the morning news, shower, dress, and head out into a day, joining the caravan of humanity going about its daily tasks.  As move along our journey in life, may we take a moment on this day to glance if for just a moment into our rearview mirrors or over our shoulders, and see "the memories trailing behind us."

Without knowing it (or maybe he does) this young 6th grade boy touched on what the writer of Hebrews calls "such a great Cloud of Witnesses."  Our memories of loved ones trail behind us, walk beside us and show us the way through life, death, and life beyond death.

Today, we have a chance to remember and give thanks for our living memories of those we have loved and lost and who live within us forever and always in Love.

Fredrick Buechner writes:  “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I'm feeling most ghost-like, it is your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I'm feeling sad, it's my consolation. When I'm feeling happy, it's part of why I feel that way. If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget, part of who I am will be gone.”  (Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary)

On this All Saints' Day, may God bless you and keep you and the memories of your loved ones, now and for ever.  Amen.