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