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.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Is Happiness Really a Warm Gun?

Life is full of paradox.

Last week, Indian Mound Middle School, where my son attends and I work as substitute teacher, held an "Intruder" drill.  Like many school districts, McFarland School District, is constantly discussing, preparing and training for a possible "intruder" event.  It is mind-numbing to even think about it happening in our schools. Sadly, it is happening all too often in our schools and in other places in our society. This morning, as I was dropping my son off at Indian Mound Middle School, we noted a bumper sticker on the car in front of us. It read: "Happiness is a Warm Gun." Sam and I had to discuss what that type of statement meant, especially with the recent shooting of a middle school teacher in Nevada and the young student who then turned the gun on himself and their preparation for a possible intruder at his school.

And then there was this quote from a letter a parent had written to her child's teacher following an intruder drill at his school.  It was on Facebook by a friend of mine who works in the Monroe School District:  "After the last intruder drill at my son’s school, the children were talking about all of the 'what if’s' that could happen in their music class. Their music teacher, a gentle, caring, soft-spoken man listened to each concern and took time to logically address each one.  My son, who normally has nightmares after the intruder drill day, raised his hand and asked his music teacher what would happen if someone had a chainsaw and forced their way into the class. 'I would die protecting you.'  This teacher’s soft but strong answer made tears roll down my cheeks. Why? Because I have no doubt that this gentle, humble soul — who would choose Mozart over violence any day — would certainly keep that promise. I know that this teacher, who wants to bring joy to children and to teach them the joy of music, must go to work each day knowing that he may have to give his life for someone else’s child."

 At the same time, as we approach the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where 20 children and 6 adult staff were slain by a young gunman, Huffington Post has been sharing a story about President Obama's personal reaction and response to that particular shooting.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

"The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom...Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.  And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.  The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama."

As a pastor who has had to share tragic news like the death of a loved one, I can only image what it must have been like for President Obama or any person who had to provide comfort and care that day.  As a parent, I pray that we all might wake up to the insanity of the ongoing violence and senseless shootings happening in our schools and in our communities.  I pray to God for that day to come when as the writer of Revelation (21:5a) says:  "God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away...And God will make all things new."

"Happiness is a Warm Gun" is what the bumper sticker read. I wonder if the father has ever talked with his child about the paradox of the message conveyed on his bumper sticker, the intruder drills his son participates in during school, and the tragic school shootings like Sandy Hook? I pray, he has. If not, at least it helped me have a conversation with my son.  Hopefully, this post will help you have one with your family and friends as well.

Is "Happiness is a Warm Gun"?  I pray to God it is not and yet, for some....

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Sacred Space in All Of Us!

Let Something Essential Happen to Me O God, let something essential happen to me, something more than interesting or entertaining, or thoughtful. O God, let something essential happen to me, something awesome, something real. Speak to my condition, Lord, and change me somewhere inside where it matters, a change that will burn and tremble and heal and explode me into tears or laughter or love that throbs or screams or keeps a terrible, cleansing silence and dares the dangerous deeds. Let something happen in me which is my real self, God…. O God, let something essential and joyful happen in me now, something like the blooming of hope and faith, like a grateful heart, like a surge of awareness of how precious each moment is, that now, not next time, now is the occasion to take off my shoes to see every bush afire, to leap and whirl with neighbor, to gulp the air as sweet wine until I’ve drunk enough to dare to speak the tender word: “Thank you” “I love you” “You’re beautiful” “Let’s live forever beginning now” and “I’m a fool for Christ’s sake.” Ted Loder Source: Guerillas of Grace

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Kingdom of God is like...a school lunchroom!

“Jesus said..., ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?  The Kingdom of God is like ...a high school lunchroom.”  (Adapted from Luke 13:18)

The bell rings, it’s lunch time!  The race is on!  Students hustle out of the classrooms, making a made mad dash to the high school lunchroom.  Forming 2 serving lines, they grab their lunch, and then move with more speed and agility, like skiers on a Salomon course, maneuvering between classmates and tables, carrying their tray of food, searching out their friends, praying there is still a seat at the table.  

After 5 years of overseeing the lunchroom at McFarland High School, I can tell you where every student sits.  Like adults, teenagers are creatures of habit.  Each new term, they stake out "their" table and seat around it.  Once they do, you can find them seated in the same place, every day.

Do you remember where you sat and who you ate with over lunch?  Did you eat a school lunch or did you bring your own?  Maybe your school had an open campus?  If so, where did you go to eat and
who did you eat with when you went out?

It would be safe to say that we all have memories of our days of eating in a school lunch room.  While most of our memories of the lunchroom would bring a smile to our face, a few might still be cause for lingering nightmares.   Lunch time can be the most social time of a student's day, but for some, it can be the loneliest time.   

Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanut’s comic strip, through the eyes of Charlie Brown, writes about the school lunch hour in this manner:

“Rats! There goes the bell...oh, how I hate lunch hours! I always have to eat alone because nobody likes me... Peanut butter again... I wish that little red haired girl would come over, and sit with me. Wouldn’t it be great if she’d walk over here, and say, “May I eat lunch with you, Charlie Brown?” I’d give anything to talk with her...she’d never like me, though... I’m so blah and so stupid...she’d never like me... I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to talk to her! Everyone would probably laugh...she’d probably be insulted someone as blah as I am tried to talk to her. I hate lunch hour...all it does is make me lonely... during class it doesn’t matter... I can’t even eat... Nothing tastes good... Rats! Nobody is ever going to like me... Lunch hour is the loneliest hour of the day!” 

How many of you felt like Charlie Brown during your lunch period?

Of all the phobias his friend, Dr. Lucy van Pelt, talks with him about at her “Advice Booth,” she fails to mention one important phobia that Charlie Brown seems to suffer from - “Solomangarephobia,” which is the fear of eating alone.

Secretly, I wonder if we all don’t suffer just a bit from Solomagarephobia?  No one likes to eat alone, and yet, we all do from time to time, burying ourselves in a book, staring at our smartphone, checking our Facebook status, or Tweeting, all in hopes of avoiding that lonely feeling that comes from eating by yourself, especially in the midst of a crowded lunch room.

I am mindful of the students who sit by themselves during lunch.  At the beginning of this new school year, as I walked around the lunchroom, conversing with different groups of students sitting together, I stopped and talked with a new student.  A senior, she had moved to our small village from a larger city, leaving behind her group of friends, who I would guess, she ate lunch every day.  Now she was sitting, alone, eating, all by herself, yet, surrounded by all her new classmates.  After my visit, I continued around the lunchroom, though this time with an intentional purpose.  I knew of another group of senior girls, eating at another table, one with a few extra seats.  Stopping at their table, I mentioned their new classmate’s situation.  Without hesitation, two of the girls were up and off to introduce themselves.  They invited her to join them for lunch, which she gladly accepted.

The word, Companion, derives its meaning from the “Old French word ‘compaignon.” It literally means ‘one who breaks bread with another’.  It is based on the Latin “com - ‘together with’ + panis ‘bread.’”  

The school district where I work, does a wonderful job of providing “companions” through the use of “Mentors” for their new students and teachers.  Many churches do something similar with their new members.   I would imagine businesses and companies do something similar with their new employees.  The idea is to make the new students and staff feel welcome by showing them around the school or church, answering any questions they might have, and being a helpful resource to them as they make the adjustment to their new community.

As intentional as this type of community-building activity is, there is sometimes an important piece that is overlooked.  In relation to the new student, I discovered that while she had been paired up with a “peer mentor,” they had two had different lunch hours.  The new student was left to eat alone.  Churches also miss this important piece of hospitality on a Sunday morning.  We welcome guests to our worship, but when the service ends and fellowship time begins, we so often find the people we know to visit with, leaving our guests to eat all by themselves.

In my reading, I came upon a sermon by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, on the sacredness of food. Rabbi Goldstein offers this thought:  “We eat to live, but we also eat to be together, to share with others, to experience the joy of community and family, to exchange ideas, to nourish and be nourished.... Eating is a symbol of the life of community.  We aren’t supposed to eat alone. “Companion” is the one you break bread with.”

I believe God created us to live together in community, as companions with one another, and with God.  The meals we share together are sacred. I would even say they are “Sacramental” in nature.  When we break bread together, whether around a table in the school cafeteria, a table at fast food joint, our own kitchen table, or the communion table in a church, we are doing so with God, whose loving presence is made known to us in the food we eat and in the companionship we keep.

Margaret Visser, author of the book, The Rituals of Dinner, says, “None of us would want to live by bread alone, even if that were possible.”   Just as the body needs bread to live, so we need to be nourished by the bread of companionship.  We hunger for it, in some cases, starved for it.  I believe that is why more people are organizing community meals and planting community gardens.  I feel it is why restaurants are serving patrons at “community” tables.  For me, these are all signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

Jesus, a guest around so many other people’s tables, where bread was broken together, is now offering a spiritual form of bread to those gathered around him.  He is teaching them about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus says, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?  The Kingdom of God is like...a high school lunchroom, a place where no one will ever eat alone, again.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reflections on my 35th Class Reunion

“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,
 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

“Life is not a dress rehearsal.”
--Muriel Siebert

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

A few years ago, I was working out at the YMCA.   I really did not go there to workout as much as I go to watch television on all 8 of their big screen televisions!  As to not reveal my true intention for standing around on the treadmill, I had to act like I was really working out.  That is not an easy feat!

 As I began my workout, I happened to catch the morning news crew standing outside of their New York studio interviewing a group of teenagers.  The teenagers were standing in front of a big banner they had brought along with them, holding it up and waving at the cameras in hopes of being seen on national television.  It took a second for the name of the school on the banner to register with me.  Much to my surprise, they were from my alma mater, South Knox High School in Verne, Indiana! 

It is hard to believe that I graduated from South Knox 35 years ago this past May!   Thirty-five years ago, I wore my cap and gown, received my diploma, stepped off the platform and out into the world of life, filled with my many hopes and dreams.

Looking back on where I envisioned myself going as I left that the high school gym that night and where I am today, serving as a Presbyterian minister and working as a teacher, living in McFarland, Wisconsin was even a part of my wildest dreams.

35 years ago, I dreamed of owning a pickup truck, learning to dance like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and making it past a semester in college.  I still held out some hope that the girl of my dreams would go out on a date with me, and I dreamed of playing in a country music band. 

For the record, I never got that truck, I never had a date with Sara, and my wife informs me I can’t dance.  However, there was one dream that came true.  For two summers, I sang with the Hard Times Country Band, all-be-it, it was just one song each summer.  Still, it was a dream come true! (Of course, the people in the audience probably thought it was a nightmare!)

In an e-mail with a classmate, we reflected on our high school days and where we are in life today.   At one point, we talked about the 2003 senior trip to New York City and how we did not have that opportunity when we were in school to go on a “class trip.”

My classmate said, “Of course my senior trip consisted of a honeymoon in January and then a trip to the hospital in June for the birth of my son.  But, you know, I don’t think I would trade my experiences for anything.  Only thing I missed were a few parties during my senior year, but then again, I am not sure that was all bad missing them.”

She closed her e-mail with these words - “Well better go for now.  I have to be in Evansville early tomorrow morning for my clinical.  I am finishing my Masters Degree in Nursing program.  Just three more classes after this one and I will be finished with my degree by July of 2004 – Yee Haw!”

35 years ago, her dreams took a different direction then mine.  She married, started a family all within the last months of our graduating.  After raising her family, she then went on to finish her Master’s Degree.  My life took a much different direction, one filled with heartache, pain, and disappointment.  Life also presented me with some great joys that I never imaged.  Here I am, 35 years later, a husband, a father, a minister, and an educator living in the nations Dairy Land.  Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”― Søren Kierkegaard

In the movie, Field of Dreams, there is a scene where Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella, following the strange voice that has been haunting him - has gone to Chisholm, Minnesota to find a young baseball player named Archie “Moonlight” Graham.  When he finally meets “Moonlight” Graham, he learns people haven’t called him that in over 50 years.  The people of Chisholm knew him as “Doc” Graham.

After making it to the “Show” for an inning, never getting to bat and knowing that he would be sent back down to the majors, he hung up his spikes and became a doctor.  When Ray Kinsella asks him if he had an unfulfilled dream, Doc Graham says, “You know I never got to bat in the major leagues.”  When offered the chance to make that dream come true, Doc Graham says, “It will have to stay a wish.  I was born here, lived here, and I’ll die here.  But no regrets.”

Ray Kinsella can’t accept that idea. He argues, almost angrily that -  “50 years ago, you came within 5 minutes of making your dream come true, It would kill some people to come that close to a dream and not touch it.  Some would even call it a tragedy!”

 To which Doc Graham replies, “Son, if would only have gotten to be a doctor for five minutes now that would have been a tragedy.”

A crack of the bat, an out, a season over and one dream dies and another is born.  A young man becomes a doctor in a small town touching the lives of many people.  What dreams may come.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

For me, this is what the screen writers were trying to communicate to us through the movie character, “Doc” Graham.  I believe this is what my classmate came to realize about her life.  It is what I have come to realize about my own life’s journey.  May you come to understand the power of reflection as you live forward into the one dream that guides our living – God’s dream.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Entertaining Angels Unaware on a College Campus

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”     Hebrews 31:2

This past Sunday, September 1, I found myself on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, grilling food for college students who were coming to worship at Pres House.  Pres House is the campus ministry center for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Grilling allowed me the opportunity to greet students stopped who stopped in for worship and a meal.  Many others walked by on their way to the Memorial Union or up State Street.   Most were in pairs or small groups.  A few lone students walked by, hurrying on their way to meet up with their friends.  Yet, every now and then, I noticed that solitary figure, walking alone, not hurrying to catch up with any body, maybe because there was no one they had arranged to meet.

Seeing those individuals reminded me of my own first weeks at away at college and the loneliness I felt as I made the transition from home to my dorm room.

I spent my first two years living at home, commuting to Vincennes University.  So it was with great excitement that I headed off to Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. I was excited!  No more living at home!  No more living under the watchful eyes of my parents or for that matter the congregation, since we lived in the manse across the country road from the church where my dad served as the pastor. I was finally going to be free to experience the campus living at its finest along the many adventures that dorm life offered, or so I thought.

The Hick From French Lick, Larry Bird, may have made the campus hum in 1979, when he lead the Sycamores to the NCAA basketball title game against Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans.  But that was the year before I arrived on campus.  It was now 1980 and he had moved on to play for the Boston Celtics.  As for Terre Haute, well, it was still Terre Haute.

Attending college in Terre Haute was for me, the pits, and believe me, when I say the pits, I mean it.  Terre Haute was known for several things: 1) a former mayor who had a “shot to kill” police policy; 2) an infamous “Red Light” district; 3) a paper mill that made the whole city smell like rotten cabbage!

While I was in college, the comedian Steve Martin called Terre Haute, Indiana  the "Most Nowhere Place in America" and “the armpit of America.” 

When the Old Testament Psalmist referred to “Sheol,” the place where God did not even dwell, I felt he was referring to Terre Haute, my new home.

Within two weeks of experiencing the finest of campus life and dorm living, I was homesick.  I was so homesick that I could not even eat!  I struggled with my classes, in part because I struggled to even go to class.

One morning, I drug myself out of my dorm bed for a 8 am class.  Already late for my class that was all the way across campus, I dressed, and headed out the door only to discover it was raining – and I did not have an umbrella! No matter, the rain would hide the homesick tears running down my check as I walked all by myself, a lonely, solitary student on his way to a class, all the way across campus.

As I walked to class in the rain, another student passed by on the other side of the street. We were two strangers, students going in opposite directions, but only one of us had an umbrella and it sure wasn’t me!  Then this stranger did the most remarkable thing.  She crossed the street.  She spoke to me, offering to walk me to class even though it was in the opposite direction of where she was headed. Why she did this, I don’t know?  Who she was, I don’t know?  If she mentioned her name, I don’t remember it.  What I do remember is that this stranger shared her umbrella with me, walking me across campus to my class.   In her act of kindness I discovered that the presence of God existed on the campus of Indiana State in Terre Haute, Indiana!

In the sacred spaces called college campuses, in the university students who inhabit them, I pray you will be open to the Godlike image that dwells within and among each of them.   In extending a simple act of hospitality to even one of them walking by you on campus, you just may have “entertained an angel unaware.”   Who knows, maybe one of them just might share their umbrella with you?

“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only those who see, takes off their shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Holy Place Called Study Hall

“Then God said (to Moses): 'Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.'"  Exodus 3:5 (NRSV)

“Earth's crammed with heaven, 
And every common bush afire with God, 
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” 
― Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Ever since Moses encountered God in the “burning bush,” religious groups and spiritual pilgrims have been on quests to visit these sacred sites, hoping to have their own mystical experience with the Holy One.  Some do.  Others just come home with a tee-shirt.

A “sacred” place is defined as being “connected to God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.”

There are many such places around the world.  Some that come to my mind are:

Jerusalem may be one of the most sacred places in the whole world.  The city is home to three major religions:  Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Mecca and Medina are two of the most sacred places for all Muslims.

The city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges River.  Both the temple-filled city and the river are considered sacred to the Hindus.

Machu Pikchu or Machu Picchu, built by the Incas, located in Peru, is another place many people would call a sacred.

The Vatican, home to the Pope and center of Catholicism, might make some people’s list of sacred places to visit.

The poet, Mary Oliver would say an ocean beach, a stone in a river, a grassy meadow, a leaf on a tree in a forest, all are sacred places.   Many would agree with her.

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story 
    and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends
Mary Oliver; What Can I Say; Swan

One place that I am most certain that has never ever made any list of holy places is Study Hall.   I must confess, as a Presbyterian minister working in this new role as Study Hall Supervisor there were many days I thought I had descended into Hell!  All forms of academic endeavors seem to have been absent from the minds of the students assembled.  There was a lot of Euchre and video games being played, food being consumed, highly caffeinated beverages being drank, Youtube videos being watched, music blaring from earphones, things being thrown, and swear words shouted, but no where was homework being done!

The most energy expended by the students was when the bell would ring!  This moment always brought a rush of students, pushing off from their tables, chairs falling over, food and half-completed homework assignments left indifferently behind, as they hurried, pushing and shoving out the door and down the hall to get to their next class on time.  A few stragglers, seeking to avoid the awaiting test, would beg me for a pass excusing them from their date with destiny.

Biblically speaking, I might suggest renaming Study Hall, “Sheol.”  Sheol being the Hebrew word to describe the ancient underworld; a place where God did not dwell.  Study Hall is a place where angels and teachers fear to tread, so who would blame God for avoiding it?  Not me!   Yet, here I was, a pastor, who was use to offering compassionate counsel, grace, mercy and forgiveness to my church members, being transformed into the Pharisee-like-Study Hall Teacher, laying down the “righteous law” as commanded by the administration handbook, writing referrals, condemning students to after school Detention!  I felt like Inspector Javert  (Cue the music for “Stars” from Les Miserables!)

Sister Joan Chittister writes:  “To be enlightened is to see behind all the forms life takes to the God who holds them in being. Enlightenment sees...beyond our parochialisms to the presence of God everywhere, in everyone, in the universe.” Source: New Designs

I love Sister Joan, but I have to say, there were many days it was hard to see God “everywhere, in everyone, in the universe,” especially in Study Hall!   Yet, beneath the surface of their teenage acne and angst, behind the goofiness and sometimes daily, emotional, teen drama, something sacred was bubbling up and trying to bloom within them.  For me, this was God trying to shine in and through them, even as God had done once before in a bush.  What most of the students wanted (besides someone else to do their homework) was to be appreciated, accepted, and loved for who they were and who they were becoming as human beings, even though they were not aware of it themselves.  Study Hall is to be a place of learning, and perhaps, this was the real taking place?

I use to joke that study hall was life and life was a study hall.  I believe there is truth in that statement.  Aren’t we all on a journey, a spiritual quest, seeking to discover who we are and who we are in the midst of the people around us; hoping each day to discover something new within us, by paying attention to the larger world around us?  If we do so, we might discover more fully the Sacred One in whom we all live, and move, and have our being?

Forrest Gump’s mamma once said:  “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never no what you’re gonna get.”  Study Hall is like that.  You never know in a days time what you are gonna get when the students arrive.  What I understand now, after surviving 2 1/2 years as the Study Hall teacher, is that Study Hall and the students who inhabit it, are as much a sacred place as the ground on which Moses once stood. 

So I urge you to be like Moses and take off your shoes when you step into a study hall, or any other part of a school, because you are standing on holy ground and God is present.

On second thought, you need to put your shoes back on.  It is against school policy to go barefoot in school!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hunger in Schools

"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat...”    Matthew 25:35

"Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”
(To Kill A Mockingbird; Harper Lee, Chapter 2)

With the arrival of August, summer vacation from school is ending.  Each Monday seems to bring a whole new round of Facebook posts from parents, who like me, share pictures of their kids heading back to school.  I love looking at all the bright, smiling faces of these young scholars dressed in new outfits, backpacks slung across their shoulders, and lunch boxes held tightly in their hands, posing for that annual family photo.

Yet, there is another picture we all need to see as we send our nation’s children back to school.  However, this one you will probably not find posted on Facebook.  It is the face of Hunger.  It’s presence in our schools and in each classroom of every grade is growing at an alarming, some would say, epidemic rate, that is threatening our nation’s future!

According to No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength website:

  • more than 48.8 million Americans—including 16.2 million children— live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year.  That is 1 out of 5 kids in America.  
  • 22% of kids under the age of 18 (16 million) live in poverty.  
  • Nearly half of all people who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) are kids.
  • On an average day - 9.8 million students receive a free or reduced priced breakfast.
  • Another 10.6 million eligible kids go without such a meal.   

You do not need to tell teachers or lunchroom staff about the face of hunger in our schools.  They see it every day in their classrooms and in the school lunchroom.  They know hunger has a major impact on a student’s ability to learn as well as effecting classroom behavior.    I know from my own experience working in a school, many educators and lunchroom staff, quietly spend their own money to buy students food during the school day.  According to one report: “Fifty-three percent of teachers spend an average $26 of their own money each month providing snacks for their students.” (Ava Wallace, August 24, 2012 - 

Sadly, there is also a stigma attached to hunger in our schools.  Many students do not want to let their peers or even their teachers to know they are going without food.  In Harper Lee’s classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s new teacher, Ms. Caroline, asks the students for a show of hands of those who go home for lunch and those who have brought their lunch.  Every student did so, save for one, Walter Cunningham.  When Ms. Caroline asks if he forgot his lunch, he hesitates.  She asks again.  A bit embarrassed, Walter answers: “Yeb’m.”  Ms. Caroline offers him money so he can buy some lunch, but he declines her offer.  Harper Lee writes:  "Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn't forget his lunch, he didn't have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”  The Cunningham’s were dirt poor and they were a proud.  They did not want to take a hand-out, even if it meant they went hungry.  There are still far too many “Walter Cunningham’s” in our schools.

As a pastor, I have been aware of hunger, or thought I was aware of it.  I have helped collect food for local food pantries.  I have served meals at soup kitchens.  I have shared money with people looking for a meal.  Yet, until I started working in a school, I had not come face-to-face with hunger on a daily basis.  Teachers, support staff, kitchen  crew, and school administrators know the face of Hunger.  A growing number of students know its face as well.  They see it each time they look in a mirror.  Tragically, there are a growing number of students each year who see the image of Hunger reflected back to them.

There many organizations, community groups, and individuals, who having seen the increasing need in our schools, are working to find a solution.  There are a few that I am aware of:

  • Breakfast in the Classroom initiative,; 
  • No Kid Hungry: Share Our Strength program,, 
  • First Presbyterian Church in Sydney, Ohio - Munch Bunch Backpack Weekend Food Program for school children,

(I would be interested in hearing about other programs in your schools and communities that are working to address the issue of hunger.)

So the next time you see the face of a student walking to school, or waiting at the bus stop, or studying in the public library, or playing on the play ground, or bagging your groceries, or passing you on the street, or in a picture posted on Facebook, I would invite you to look beyond the face - and see if you can see something more - the Face of Hunger.  And if you do, tell me if you can catch a glimpse of one more thing - the face of Christ.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Matthew 25:44-45

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Name is...

“Call me Ishmael..."  Henry Melville, Moby Dick

To borrow Melville's famous opening lines:  “Call me M-Dubs.”  Adapting his opening lines a bit further, I would say:  “Some years ago - never mind how long precisely, (actually, it was in the spring of 2010) having little or no money in my bank account, and nothing of particular to interest me on the shores of Lake Waubesa in the Madison area, I thought I would set sail in the waters of public education, and become a Substitute Teacher.”

Okay, maybe my venture back into a high school was not as glamourous as Melville made it sound for his narrator and protagonist, Ishmael, when he went set sail with Captain Ahab aboard the ship, Pequod, but it certainly has been an adventure.

William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, said:  "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."   I was born, Scott Thomas Wheeler.  While my mom and a couple of college roommates called me "Scotty,” most people simply called me - Scott.  When my wife, Staci, and I married, we choose to hyphenate our last names.  We became the Marrese-Wheeler's.  As an ordained Presbyterian minister, people would call me “Reverend Marrese-Wheeler” or “Pastor Scott.”  The youth in the congregation I served in Monroe, Wisconsin started calling me “P Scott.”  I assumed this was a shortened version of "Pastor Scott".  They might say it had something to do with the frequency of the bathroom breaks we took on our trips to youth conferences.   However, on the first day of my work as a substitute teacher at McFarland High School, I received a new name, and one that I have been called ever since.  I was asked to sub for a teacher who like me, had a hyphenated last name.  Since I was not familiar to the students, I wrote my name - "Mr. Marrese-Wheeler" - on the board.  One student noted that like their teacher, I had a hyphenated name.  He then added that with the teacher’s permission, they called her "Ms. D-W" or more informally, "D-Dubs."  Continuing, he asked if the class might refer to me as “Mr. M-W” or "M-Dubs"?  That seemed a reasonable request, and a way to connect with the students, so I said, yes.  The name has stuck.

Names are important to all of us, be they our given name or an affectionate “nickname” we inherited.  Some of us are named after a beloved family member or friend.  Some of us have been named after a famous person.  Others of us have names that our parents loved for their own reasons.  Most of us would say we are comfortable living with our name or nickname, while a few might not and have made the decision to change their name.  What is your name?  What is the story behind it?

Whether serving as the pastor of a church or working as an educator in the McFarland Schools, I have found it important to know as many people’s names as possible.  Because my work at the school was in study hall and the lunchroom, I have had daily contact with most of the students.  I worked hard to get to know as many of their first names as possible, and last names if I was able.   It was easier to get to know some students names, especially when they were constantly calling attention to themselves with their behavior (good and bad).  The real trick was to get to know the name of the student who hid in a book, blended in at a table with their friends, or sat off to the side by their self.  Students, like all of us, appreciate it when you know their name.  I believe when you get to know a student’s name, you are reminded that they, like us, are a human being, a child of God, in whom dwells the divine spark that reflects the image of the Creator.  In getting to know their individual name, you are also reminded that they not just a statistic in a data report generated for the purpose judging a teacher or a school’s ability to educate.

There are many names of students I would like to tell you about in this blog post, however, there is one in particular I feel I need to do so, though she is not a student at McFarland High School.  Her name is Anna. (Not her real name).  She is a registered nurse, an educator and a professional church musician.  She was a high school classmate of mine.  I remember her being smart, funny, and attractive.  I also remember a name several of my friends and I like to call her, and it was not her first name nor was it an affectionate “nickname.”  It was a cruel name, one we used to make fun of her.  Each day during lunch, my friends and I would sit on the steps near the water fountain (Bubbler, for all you Wisconsinites).   Each day, Anna would walk by, we would tease her, calling her by our “special” name.  She hated it and reacted to it, yelling at us to stop.  We didn’t stop. We pushed things even further and had tee-shirts made that said:  “We Hate (Cruel Name Here)!”    We thought we were being so clever and “cool” wearing those shirts.  Little did I know the negative impact our name calling was having on her.

I am not sure who is the source of the words:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”   Whoever came up with that expression is wrong.  If you work in a school, you are aware of the pain caused by a text message or post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter by teenagers.  As a pastor, I have preached sermons on the topic of labeling other people.  I have spent time with the youth in the churches I have served, talking with them about how the words we use can edifiy or demonlish another person.   I have helped co-advise the Gay-Straight Alliance,, a group whose purpose is to create a safe space in school for students to support each other, learn about homophobia, transphobia, and other oppressions, and fight discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools.   I felt I was being a good educator and pastor.  It seems I had one more lesson, and this one a painful one, to learn.

A few years ago, when I signed up for Facebook, I started sending “Friend” requests to my high school classmates.  I sent one to Anna.  She responded, wondering why I would want to be her “friend” after all the pain I had caused her in high school.  She told me about the lingering effects my “name-calling” had on her life.  How she had considered leaving our school because our cruelty.  At the end of her very pointed note, she asked me to consider how I would feel if I had a daughter who was treated the way my friends and I had treated her?

It would be too easy to beg her forgiveness saying, I was just a teenager who did not know how much power there is in a name, especially in a name used to tease a young high school girl.  Maybe I thought of my actions as just harmless teasing, but they were not.  They had caused Anna great pain.  So let me say publicly, what I have said to her privately.  Anna, I am sorry.  I know my words of apology can never be enough to make up for all the emotional even spiritual pain my part in the name-calling caused you.  No, I would not want anyone to treat my child or any child, the way I treated you.  I promised you I would tell this story, sharing it in a way that might help others realize the pain we can inflict on others by our words, especially the names we use to tease, taunt, trash-talk, put down, ridicule, or bully others.   These names can do great harm to another’s self-worth.  They can also help to destory the sense of the sacred in the person who we are ridiculing.   Our abuse of another’s name has one more consquence, it can demolish the Holy in us, making it difficult for others to see God in us, and even more so, for us to see the Divine Light within ourselves.

In Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials, the character, John Proctor, is wrestling with his conscience about signing his name to a confession that he is a “witch.”  If he does, his soul will be saved, but his good name and reputation will be destroyed.  He begs the church officials, crying out, “...How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"

Her name is Anna.  My name is Scott or if you perfer, M-Dubs.  Your name is ________.   Our names are important to us.  We are known by those names.  By whatever name we are known by to our family, friends, classmates, or co-workers, there is one name we all are called, and that name is - Child of God.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."    (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No, God, Anywhere Else, But Please, Not Study Hall or the High School Cafeteria!

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
― Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

Abraham was the first to hear the "voice" calling him to leave behind his home, his extended family and friends and "go" on an adventure of that would impact global events still today.  Noah heard it as well, telling him to build a rather larger cargo ship and he did!  The boy, Samuel, heard the "voice" calling him in the middle of the night, though he was not sure at first if he was dreaming.  The prophet Jeremiah heard it as well, though he tried to get out of his "calling" because he was still just a "youth."  Simon Peter, the Apostle Paul, and many others have heard and responded to the call from God to "follow" and faithfully, they did.

I heard the call as well, though it does not seem as "biblical" in proportion to the likes of Abraham or Peter.  Unlike Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, in Field of Dreams, who heard a "voice" in a cornfield,  I am sure I first heard it calling to me around the campfire.  I was a youth attending PYOCA, a church camp in southern Indiana.  My dad was a Presbyterian minister, and the director of this particular week of camp. Each night we had a camp fire and devotions.  The last night of camp was always very special as we were invited to offer our lives to God.  Staring into the embers of the fire, I felt some inkling of a passion burning in my heart.  Was it God?  Maybe.  It also could have been the summer camp crush I had on the young girl sitting across the circle.  As time passed, I continued to feel a "calling" from God to enter the ministry.   After graduating from Indiana State University with a degree in Education: Social Studies (grades 9-12),  I headed off to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  In the spring of 1985, I graduated with a Masters in Divinity, and was "called" to become the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Peotone, Illinois.  From there my new "calls" would take me to Indianapolis, Indiana to Wisconsin where I served congregations in Monroe, Marshfield, and now, Madison.

Yet for all the "calls" I received from God that took me to new and exciting churches, introducing me to wonderful people, the most interesting one came via a late evening phone call from Jackie Hickey, the Substitute Teacher coordinator for McFarland School District.  Actually, while her call was about a sub job for the following day, it was her husband, Jim Hickey, the high school principal, that seem to be speaking for God, though I did not know it at the time.  Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, at the beginning of the movie, Field of Dreams, after explaining how he had moved to a farm in Iowa, says:  "But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life."  That line is exactly how I felt after hearing Jim Hickey's voice on the other end of the phone, asking me to become the study hall teacher and lunch room supervisor at McFarland High School.

In church, we sing the hymn, "Here I Am, Lord" with the refrain "Here I am, Lord.  Is it I, Lord?  I have heard You calling in the night.  I will go, Lord, if You lead me.  I will hold Your people in my heart."  Was it God's voice speaking to me in the night via that phone call?  One the pastoral skills I believe I have is the gift of "spiritual hospitality".   A mantra that has guided my ministry is "Receive the person before you as if they were the Christ".    I have worked with high school students throughout my almost 30 years of ministry and I had been enjoying my work as a Substitute Teacher.  After a brief discussion with my wife, I answered the "call" and followed it through the doors of McFarland High School and into study hall in the cafeteria!

"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" or should I say, "Scott, I don't think we are in church anymore!"  One of my first days in the lunch room, as the bell rang for students to return to their classes, a student had left his tray on the table.  I asked him if he would mind returning it to the window where students were to take their dirty trays.  Without looking at me, he simply walked away, leaving his tray on the table.  When I called after him, he continued to walk away from me, and this time, offered me "the finger!"  I can't say I ever had that experience with a parishioner, though I imagine some might have wanted to do so after a sermon.

My new "calling" was going to be a challenge, especially if I was to follow my mantra about receiving the Christ in the person before me, especially the ones who left a mess in the lunchroom!  School is a place where learning takes place, and for me, my education was about to begin.  What new things would I learn about myself, as I sought to understand the students who I encountered each day?

Most of the prophets were killed, some stoned, others beheaded, some crucified, for following God's calling.  Me, I only had to endure student antics in the lunchroom and misbehaviors in study hall.  And so I have.  In doing so, I have come to discover God's presence in of all places study hall, the lunchroom and the people I encountered there.  If I am honest, I must say, I have also come to a new understanding of the Divine within me.  I hope you will join me as I reflect in this blog, on my discovery of the sacred places we all encounter, even in study hall.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have to clean up the table.