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.