Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon: A Weary World Rejoices

Christmas Eve, 2014
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church of Exeter

A Weary World Rejoices on a Holy Night

Christmas Eve preaching is tricky. Churches swell with visiting family members and friends who are not accustomed to the voice of the preacher and the preacher on this particular night is often unfamiliar with his audience. Plus, it’s late and some of us are a little tired. It’s night. We attend church services at night, well, almost never. Worshipping at night is different.

I have simple goals for a Christmas Eve sermon. First, I want us to engage the story. Second, I want us to make it our story. And third, I want us to hear the message of salvation, hope and peace that is core of why Christians around the world are celebrating tonight. I would of course agree with Dr. Seuss and his Grinch who finally realized, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!” 

The story of Jesus birth is imprinted upon our imaginations and hearts each time we hear it. The census that gave rise to Joseph and Mary traveling from their home in Galilee to Bethlehem. The lasting image is of the newborn child wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, a simple animal’s feeding trough, for there was no room for them in the inn. The announcement of Jesus’ birth shared first with humble shepherds tending their flocks. This seeming ordinary birth was anything but. The child born in humble surroundings would in time compete with the Roman Emperor and King Herod for the hearts and loyalties of the people. The innocence of the newborn baby was God’s answer to the powers and principalities of this world. 

Christmas is many churches is all about the pageant. They invite and involve children to take their role in the story, becoming the shepherds, angels, Wise Men, animals, and Mary and Joseph. Only at Christ Church do we introduce Roman soldiers because who doesn’t like wearing a helmet and carrying a plastic sword when your ten years old! Pageants draw us in. The only downside of pageants is if they were to give the impression that the story of the birth of Christ is to be viewed, attended and applauded – and not fully experienced and lived. 

The Christian faith begins to unravel pretty quickly when it becomes a tradition or a production or seen as the flawed institution it undoubtedly is -- when it becomes something to watch unfold from afar with its many rituals, prayers and communities. This is as good of a night as any to ask ourselves: what do I believe? 

I have long been aware that Christmas Eve is an emotionally charged night. Our memories of the past are ever-so present. When we sing “Silent Night” it is the one time all evening I finally catch my breadth. This beloved song causes me to remember those who are no longer part of my Christmases. 

Another song I treasure is the anthem sung by the choir night is Oh Holy Night, which comes from a hymn setting of a French poem. (John Sullivan Dwight’s hymn setting of Frenchman Placide Cappeau’s poem) Oh holy night! The stars are brightly shining It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees Oh hear the angel voices Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born Oh night divine Oh night divine The phrase that stands out for me is this: A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices. 

We know how it can be easy to become weary from the unintended consecrations of the holidays: the rush, travel, expectations, over-consumption and excess. They are a part of the season as much as the pageants, tree trimming and decorations. Many of us accept this is a time of joy and pain, blessing and loss, thankfulness and longing. We live in a weary world. Too much war – in Syria the unfolding tragedy is numbing. Winding down combat in Afghanistan yet still impacted by terrorist attacks that are rewriting the book on what could be considered as senseless slaughter and cruelty. Ebola grips parts of West Africa, having caused fear of those who risk caring for the dying. Civil unrest and protests in the streets of this country. 

Thinking about others is part of Christmas, making it the right thing to do to use tonight’s offering to do some good in our local community and larger world. It is a timely reminder that all is not right in God’s eyes until we all live into the promise of the fullness of life. Jesus said, (John 10:10) “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

Whether we are ready or not, Christmas comes each year. During times of war and peace, mourning and rejoicing, recessions and prosperity, loneliness and company. The baby born in Bethlehem and laid in the manger had a name. The name Jesus means “God saves.” 

May God save us this year from being too weary and discouraged by events largely beyond our control. May God save us from only watching the story unfold and not taking our place in it. 

Fall on your knees Oh hear the angel voices Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

NH1 Interview from December 12 Response to change in Cuba

Click on link to watch interview:

Waiting with Mary for Christmas in Havana

December 21, 2014
4 Advent, Year B
Christ Church of Exeter
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton

Waiting with Mary for Christmas in Havana

Recently as an icebreaker exercise in a meeting I attended we were asked to say our names and share the story behind our names. What does our name mean, if we knew? Why had our parents chosen that particular name for us? I came up empty with Mark. It was not a family name and I’m pretty sure my mom and dad were not thinking about St. Mark for inspiration. In terms of meaning, I didn’t know what it meant.  I did discover that it must have been a wildly popular boy name in 1963, as I met seven other Marks on the same floor of my dorm on the first day of college.

The most popular boy names this year so far are Liam, Noah, Ethan and Mason.  Girl names: Sophia, followed by Emma, Olivia and Isabella.  Though she fell out of the top ten this year, the most popular female name over the last century is Mary.

The mother of Jesus.  She, along with an angel named Gabriel, takes center stage on this forth Sunday of Advent.  From the gospel account we learn that she lived in Galilee in a town called Nazareth, she was a virgin and engaged to Joseph.  And her name was Mary.

Who is Mary to you?  Well… it depends. For those of you who grew up Roman Catholic, Mary was likely prominent in your prayers and in your penance. Her statue graced many homes. She was the go-between between a believer and Christ. If you wanted to talk to the son, you had to go through the mother. Mary was pure, courageous, faithful, innocent, and loyal. And she was a virgin when the angel Gabriel arrived with his unexpected message. That Mary was to conceive a child and she would name him Jesus.  And the rest is history.

For those who did not grow up in a Roman Catholic family or culture, Mary is a bit of a mystery.  She’s like a distant aunt we’ve heard a lot about  -- how nice she is -- but she moved away years ago and hasn’t visited us in a while. Or she only visits once a year at Christmas.

We might feel like we don’t know Mary as well as our Catholic friends.  To be clear, Episcopalians and Anglicans do believe in the Virgin Birth, yet we do not hold the belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception at her own birth, or her Assumption into heaven upon her death.  Nevertheless, for many us, Mary’s place in the story of salvation is clear and treasured. In a moment of great fear and shame, her answer was: Here I am. She was fearless, and drawing from her strength, so can we.

I admit that there is much that a cynic or doubter could have a field day with in today’s account of the Annunciation.  It does seem otherworldly and hard to imagine in the way we experience life and faith today. Yet to me this story is not about biology, genetics and supernatural reproduction. It is not about proving or disproving how a baby could have been born this way in ancient times.  It is about God and what God can do.  

The well-known writer and scholar Marcus Borg reminds us of the long line of unexpected and irregular pregnancies in Biblical history. (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary). Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, married to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, where the story of Israel as a people began, were all barren before God acted. Sarah was 90 until she gave birth. Samson with his long hair and the prophet Samuel: born to barren women. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, was unable to have a child until old age when God intervened.

The pattern is not a holy coincidence.  When it came time for God to become human, the fact that Mary was young and not yet a mother was not novel and new. The angel said to Mary in verse 37. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And that is the message. With God anything is possible.

How do you and I play out this wonderful truth in our lives? First, we need to separate out the essential with the accidental and superficial. This theological statement about the power of God should not be used or misused to cash in our paycheck each week and buy lotto tickets because with God nothing is impossible. The Powerball could be ours! Or we could be the next American Idol, President of the United States, the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or the starting quarterback for the Patriots, or a supermodel, who by the way is married to the quarterback of the Patriots.  Yes we can strive, work hard, and dream, but winning it big, standing out, making a name for ourselves and achieving is not God’s primary desire for us.  God does not desire our success or wealth by how the world around us defines it, but yearns for our hearts. God desires that we are reconciled to God through Christ, and reconciled one with another.

For nothing is impossible with God. There can be… peace in Jerusalem. Former enemies can become friends and even allies. Hurt feelings and bruised egos can heal. Broken relationships can be mended. People across cultural divides and political leanings can work together for the common good. Family members can forgive and be forgiven after decades long grudges and old arguments can seem very small indeed when life is held in the balance and people we love get sick or suffer tragedy.  Those who have not darkened the doors of a church in decades can find their way back to learn that though it may have seemed that they left the church or the church had left them: God was always with them and rejoices at their return.

Nothing is impossible with God.

In March eleven of us from Christ Church will travel to Cuba to bring filtration systems for clean water for several churches. Cuba has certainly been in the news this past week. Having lived there for a year in the 1980’s, traveled there many times, and having seen my son just return from his year in Cuba in July, my reaction to the plan to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba is that it may be the beginning of a long process of lasting change. In this season of Advent waiting, expectation and hope, many of us have been waiting and hoping for this news for many years. 
 This island nation, oppressed by its leaders, has been isolated for too long. Many have fled and lost their lives in the waters off the coast of Florida waiting for change. In 1996 I made a surreal trip to a small crop of rock islands off of the Bahamas to help retrieve the dead bodies of the two young daughters of my good friend, who had fled with 15 others on a small boat that was not fit for the sea voyage.  Five died on that journey. My friend, his wife, and my goddaughter and her sister survived, but are forever scarred by the experience. 

In March our plan is to build relationships and make new friendships with members of the Episcopal Church in Cuba who have long suffered. To bring a tangible sign that people here care about people there – regardless of politics and ideology. We will pray for real and lasting change.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” To make this statement more than a feel-good bumper sticker we need to dig deep and plant ourselves in the story that God wants to tell us.  To make something possible in the face of what the world deems as impossible, Mary is the ultimate role model.  She is the proto-Christian. She simply says: yes. Here I am: God’s servant.

Mary’s life and story provide us with an essential answer to many of life’s questions.  And it starts simply: believe. Trust. Step out in faith. Know that someone has walked this road before and that we are never truly alone. And with God with us – Jesus Emmanuel – may we be fearless.

Here we are Lord. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cold War Over in Cuba? Let's Hope

For those of you who know me, you know that Cuba has been in my heart for nearly 30 years. I first traveled there in 1985 during my last year of college and spent a year at the seminary in Matanzas (two hours east of Havana) from 1986-87. My son Will was a YASC volunteer for the Episcopal Church for a year in 2013-14. I led a group last January for the Episcopal Church Foundation and will lead 17 from New Hampshire in March. We received a grant from Diocese of New Hampshire to bring water filtrations systems to the Cuban church that will provide safe drinking water for the people. 

The news yesterday that the U.S. plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba is long overdue. I thank God for this development. Our five decades long policy of isolation, in my opinion, has not worked. If we can trade with China and Vietnam, we should trade with Cuba. We should be able to travel to Cuba freely. The Episcopal Church at its General Conventions has repeatedly called for the end of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba for humanitarian reasons. 

I believe closer ties with Cuba will slowly bring the Cuban people into the larger world community. Yet this will not happen overnight. There are risks in change that comes too quickly -- many people without power or resources in Cuba could quickly be left behind. Post-Soviet Russia is a case in point. 

My hope is that closer ties will also lift the faithful witness of so many Cuban Christians. I have high regard for many of my Cuban clergy colleagues who have had multiple opportunities to flee the island over the years but who have remained to tend the flock. The church is a powerful witness for hope on the island. 

Please continue to pray for the Cuban people during this time of transition. Blessings to Pope Francis for doing what he could to further this reconciliation of nations. Thank you President Obama for taking this political risk. 

Christmas in Havana: may it be truly bright and filled with hope this year!


Worshipping in a small Cuban church January, 2014 (Leslie Pendleton on the left) The faithful worship in the one-time sacristy of the church. The church collapsed in a hurricane decades ago) 
Coventry's Cross of Nails in the Episcopal Cathedral in Havana. Many prayers for reconciliation have been offered over the years.  (I started the CCN chapter in Havana in 1986) 
Pendleton family on famous Varadero Beach, Cuba January 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Approaches

This Advent I made a promise to myself: enjoy the season. That should be a given, right? Yet clergy can get pulled into the pre-holiday haze like everyone else. 

I did better at paying attention to small things. I actually listened to Christmas music on the radio driving into church each  morning. Most of it is so nostalgic and overly sappy that it transports us back to the 1940's and 50's of our pasts and imaginations. I sang along -- which I never do! -- and allowed myself to get almost misty (almost) about those who have passed away and shaped my Christmas experiences as a child. My parents. My grandparents, including my beloved crusty, chain smoking foul mouthed, extremely generous, potato pancake making grandmother who died on Christmas morning in 1988. I miss them and try to carry on some of the family traditions during these days: setting up the creche, serving Polish kielbasa and coffee cake on Christmas morning. 

I joined others at the Christmas tree lighting in Exeter this year. I had not known last year what a big deal it was. I waited with others to see Santa and Mrs. Claus ride in by train and sang along as the lights came on. Nice full moon night in Exeter where I saw many from Christ Church and became even more thankful for this community. 

Caroling. Sarah Watts and I gathered 30+ people to carol last Friday to sing to some folks we don't get to see in church as much as they would like. For some of the children with us it was their first time caroling -- outside of people's homes with snow falling -- in their lives. I hope it becomes a lasting memory.

I won't mention the butter cookies and the eggnog: seems like I never fail to enjoy that annual feast in my home. The New Year with my self imposed self-righeous austerity will come soon enough!

We are again living in a weary world with much to bring us down that is broadcast to us each hour and minute. Yet as the darkest day of the year approaches this week, the light is the object of our hope. 

Continue to wait. And enjoy this season before it rushes by.  I am. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sermon for 2 Advent: Apperances Matter

December 7, 2014
2 Advent, Year B
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church of Exeter

Appearances Matter

 John the Baptist is the main character on the second Sunday in Advent. Mark offers a rare detailed physical description of what is often left out of Biblical accounts: we certainly lack the same kind of detail for the disciples and Jesus for that matter. Mark 1: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” 

Appearances matter. That is what we are told from a young age on. How we look, speak and behave shapes what others think of us and even whether doors open or close as we approach.  Yet “looking the part” is complicated.  It’s hard to cut through our pre-conceived notions of what a person should look like or how they should act, isn’t it?

Think about how we expect people in authority to look or carry themselves.  Take the president for example. When it comes to presidents did you know that the taller candidate almost always wins the election?  Would you vote for a presidential candidate with a mustache or beard? No president with facial hair has been in the White House for 100 years.  In terms of how presidents carry themselves: everything they do or say is scrutinized and analyzed whether or not they are “presidential”. Bill Clinton was roundly criticized for jogging in sweatpants. 

Appearances impact our immediate response to trust or doubt another person. 

A doctor or nurse enters a hospital room and the patient will instinctively make a split decision on whether she/or he looks the part. For many, the age of the doctor is jarring if they are deemed “too young”.  I have heard patients say: “she looks so young? How could she know what she’s doing?”

Does this person look or act like a priest, minister or pastor?  Well, it depends: what should a minister or priest act like.  Holy? Pious? Patient and kind? Wise?

Dress codes are rules, unwritten or clearly stated, about how we are expected to dress at work, school and sometimes, but not so much today, church.  The expression Sunday best defined what, for a time, was clothing fit for going to church. Today we have a dress code that includes street wear, casual, business casual, smart casual, business informal, black-tie/semi-formal.  I would say Christ Church is a “casual or business informal” kind of community.  We of course know that convenient store sign: no shirt, no shoes… no service. 

My point is this: if we can agree that appearances and behavior matter, I ask you: what does a prophet look like? Is there a prophet dress code? Is there a way a prophet speaks, looks or carries themselves? 

If so, then John the Baptist both looks the part and he lives the part of a prophet in the Bible.  John is a spitting image of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament who was described as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” 2 Kings 1:8.

The gospel accounts are written in a way to make it clear that John’s role was that of messenger – not message.  “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me” John made clear. John decreased so that Jesus could increase. His work was to prepare the way for all who had ears to listen that there was another way to live their lives.  He was extremely successful: we read that people from the whole countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him. All the people of Jerusalem was quite a success rate.   

John the Baptist is known mainly for two things: baptizing Jesus and the cruel way that he lost his life.  Long before the world knew the butchery and cruelty of the so-called Islamic State and their beheading of innocent hostages and uploading their deeds online, John’s life ended in a similarly ruthless way -- his head placed on a platter. John the Baptist lost his life because he clashed with King Herod and spoke out about the immoral way the king lived and behaved. 

Are you familiar with the phrase? “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is attributed to Lord Acton in 19th century England. 

An important recurring feature of the Bible leading up to the time of Jesus is how kings -- those in power -- had to contend with God’s prophets. Kings had power but they had to deal with God’s direct messengers.  Saul had Samuel; King David had Nathan, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel clashed with the great prophet Elijah. King Herod in Jesus’ day had John the Baptist.  Herod feared John, for John was loved by the people in ways that the puppet King Herod would never know.

To put it simply: prophets speak for God and tell us things we need to hear – often at times when we would rather ignore. 

So what is it that you and I need to hear?

John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which means, he called on people to change the way they lived, thought and believed, make a 180 degree turn – and in so doing they were released from what had held them down and was weighing so heavily upon their souls.  

If last Sunday’s message was all about keeping awake and alert, today’s message is equally straight forward: turn and change; and let go of what is holding you down and keeping you from knowing the hope, peace, joy and love of this season.   

So on this second Sunday in Advent. Look at your life. Where you’ve been, where you find yourself today and where you are headed.  Think of those who shaped you, the decision you made a long time ago that have brought you to this moment in time. Any regrets? Any second thoughts?

We can’t re-live the past. The words of the New Zealand prayer book always speak to me at the end of the day.

It is night after a long day, what has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.   

That is what forgiveness is to me.  God is saying: “let it be.” I can only imagine that those who came out of the woodwork to hear John’s message wanted to hear that they too could reset their lives and relationships in a new direction. They and we get a clean slate, a new day and a new beginning. 

And that is what John the Baptist wanted to communicate to so many of the people who came out to hear him. They, like us, were finding something missing in their lives that only God could fill. 

Last week I said that though Exeter, New Hampshire may seem like a long way from Ferguson, Missouri that we should care when people are protesting in our nations streets. I spoke about the need to listen to those yelling the loudest and imagine what it’s like to live in another people’s shoes. Isn’t that the basis of the Golden Rule we teach children: Luke 6:31 “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.”  This rule is found in nearly all world religions and philosophies. 

A week latter, the protests in many cities are getting larger.  Apparently appearances do matter when it comes to who is respected and trusted and who is often feared and profiled.  Repentance, turning from old ways towards new life, is not only for individuals to confess personal shortcomings and failures, but also for whole societies to put things right and making life better. 

Advent is a time to wait for the coming of God in human form. We believe that Jesus, born of Bethlehem and raised by Joseph and Mary in Nazareth was the incarnate God: God in the flesh. God made human lives holy and valued for eternity. 

All this means that our faith demands that we respect humanity even more. In the face of every human being there are traces of the One who made us all.

These are the days to prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives and into our world. Listen, turn and let go. 

Sermon: Color in Advent

November 30, 2014
Advent 1, Year B
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church of Exeter

 Color in Advent

There is a lot to like about the Advent season.  As the days shorten and darkness invades our lives, this time of year draws us in through messages of hope, peace, joy and love. The children in Sunday School today made Advent wreaths and will light candles to mark these days. There is a nice counter-culture go against the flow rhythm to these four weeks: its messages run counter to so much of what hear and see in the world around us.  During a time of the year that can seem especially fast-paced and hectic, where it can be easy to get a little stressed while wearing a pre-holiday smile, Advent urges us to show down and wait.  In a culture that begins to play Christmas music in stores at Halloween, Advent reminds us each year: not yet. There is work to be done. 

At the same time, Advent is tricky and edgy. We have turned back from the church’s past practice of making these weeks a mini-penitential Lent, but like expecting parents waiting for a baby to be born, there is hope-filled uncertainty in the air. Add into the mix that Episcopal clergy cannot help ourselves in not failing to mention the liturgical color change of the seasons: we of course do church in Technicolor: green, purple, white, red, and for these four weeks before Christmas: blue.

From an early age, “what is your favorite color” is one of those questions asked of us to draw out our unique identity. It is not unusual to find children dedicated almost exclusively to one color as their own signature style. I remember filling an entire living room in pink bunting and streamers and napkins for a particular 5 year old’s birthday tea party with her friends – that same girl not so little anymore driving as we speak back to college after her holiday break.  Time marches on.

There are times when we even speak in the language of color.  I for one stayed away from the stores on the so-called Black Friday – the all important shopping day after Thanksgiving – yet what I know from reading spreadsheets that at the bottom of columns its better to see black numbers than red.  Dr. Isaac H. Godlove was a color scientist who worked in the early 20th century and died in the 1950’s. His take on American’s views on color still resonate as he wrote about the period after tough economic times.

"In recent years, these troublous times have made some of us chronically blue. Our business was in the red. We were going home with a dark brown taste in the mouth. We were unable to look through the old rose-tinted glasses to see the yellow-golden flood again flowing our way. The purple depression had us contemplating black mourning for dying business, departed bank accounts and profits. But we took a hitch in our belts and carried on, waiting for the rosy dawn, for we lacked the yellow streak. We toned up our product, gave it a more healthy complexion, made it more attractive; put more color spice into our sales appeal."

In our Bible study last Sunday, we tackled today’s dense passage from Mark’s gospel.  We joked how David mentioned in his sermon last week that after a year of living with Matthew’s gospel, he was a bit tired of Matthew and ready for Mark’s turn. Yet after today’s lesson, I’m wondering if David is having second thoughts?  I am!   

Chapter 13 of Mark is called the Little Apocalypse -- apocalypse being a very ominous sounding word that basically means lifting of the veil or revealing something was hidden.  It is not the end of days, but rather a turning point. The images of suffering, suns darkening, moons not giving light and stars falling from heaven are clear and undeniable. Old Testament prophets spoke about the Son of Man -- a super human being -- coming in clouds to save the people from oppression. What is the lesson behind these many images and warnings – for those who first heard them and us today?

Jesus was telling those who were willing to hear that soon, very soon, something was going to happen in their lives that would usher in a new way of living and looking at the world.  What they had once known was to change forever.

For faithful Jews who heard these words, in a mere 40 years before they would see their Temple destroyed and Jerusalem laid waste by the Romans. People used to hearing preachers preach may ask why mention the destruction of the Temple as often as we do.  It is cited as often as it is because the event looms over the Gospels themselves.  It is hard for you and I to imagine how bad that moment was in history: it was 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the battle of Gettysburg, the Siege of Stalingrad all rolled into one. Jesus was preparing the people for something almost otherworldly bad.  And at the same time, what would be so very bad would not be the end.  It was the beginning of something new. And God would continue to be at the center even when all is different and changed and even damaged beyond recognition. So they should not lose hope, even when it seems like the world is collapsing around them. 

There is no shortage of life events that cause us to feel, think and believe that our lives are changed forever.  They happen more often than we might like. And this is not always a bad thing.  Buddist nun Pema Chodon writes in When Things Fall Apart “that the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. They use these situations either to wake themselves up or put themselves to sleep.” That is the risk of these days when it all seems “too much” – so we shut down or turn off.

Worldly and cosmic events to make us believe that the end is near.  Have you noticed how the nightly nations news shows more weather than hard news these days? Droughts and forest fires, torrential rain and mudslides, tornados and storm chasers, 24/7 hurricane coverage. The pictures from the snow south of Buffalo were eye-popping. Some called the storm: snow-maggedon, borrowing the Biblical term Armageddon to make the point.  Nothing like natural events to get our attention!

How can we know when a moment in time is a turning point – an ushering in of something new?  Surely terrible weather is not the only sign?

Jesus pretty much tells his followers that it’s no use trying to guess when the time will come.  Which leads to the main message of today: beware, keep alert, keep awake.  Look and see what God is calling you to do -- now.  Listen to those who are bringing messages that we most need to hear. 

For some, what they have been called to do is to speak out and protest.  This past week our nation and the world have again seen rioting, protests, and looting in the streets of a suburban St. Louis.

There is no shortage of opinions or commentaries about what happened in that fateful day in August with the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.  Ferguson has become both a Rorschach and litmus test on the issue of race in America.  It is a symbol, right or wrong, of something larger than the individuals or the actual event that began the protests. Many clergy and churches have been at the center of the aftermath on the ground: holding candlelight vigils, marching in peaceful protests and speaking out for justice.  I shared some of my thoughts about Ferguson on my blog which you can access on the website. 

For you and me this morning, the events unfolding in Missouri can seem light years away from Exeter and New Hampshire’s Seacoast.  Yet when people are protesting in the streets somewhere, I believe we should take note. If ever we might be tempted to dismiss the grievances of those who shout the loudest, maybe that is the time to lean in and listen more.  What is it like to walk in another person’s shoes?  How are their struggles ours, their fears, likely our own? Their hopes should be our hopes. 

Christians have been waiting for 2000 years for Christ to return and my hunch is that we will have to wait some more. We do not know the hour or the time.

The message of Christ – the one we wait for – is a message that is universal and enduring. The good news is that our lives will not collapse around us when we set them in the center of God’s eye.  Now is the time -- not later or soon -- to really open our eyes to our beautiful and conflicted world. To reach out, give, connect, lift up, speak out, encourage, and to love and be loved. 


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Correcting bad theology of death and heaven from Richard Rohr

Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation

Death and Heaven

Do Not Be Afraid

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Kathleen Dowling Singh, an inspired author and hospice worker, says that many times those who, in the last hours of life, fight death the most are very religious people. Fear of God and fear of death are the same thing. When it’s all a matter of counting, earning, meriting, and achieving by various performance principles, you’re afraid of death and also afraid of God. Why wouldn’t you be? Until we clear away the idea of hell, it is not a benevolent universe, but a hostile and dangerous universe where an angry god does not follow his own commandment about love of enemies.
In his book, Inventing Hell, Jon Sweeney blames the modern Christian view of hell on Dante. The imagery that has influenced the Western psyche for 800 years is not the imagery of the Bible, but of Dante’sDivine Comedy. It’s great Italian poetry, but not always excellent theology. It portrays a threatening God, not an inviting, alluring, or revealing God. We’ve been preconditioned by an unbiblical story line. The word “hell” is not mentioned in the Pentateuch. Paul and John never once use the word “hell.” It is not a part of their theology.
This has created a schizophrenic religion in which we have two different gods—one before we die, and another one after we die. The god before we die tells us to love our neighbor as our self, but apparently God doesn’t. Jesus teaches us to forgive seventy-times-seven (Matthew18:22), but apparently God has a cut-off point. This is theologically unworkable and untenable.
You can’t be more loving than God; it’s not possible! If you understand God as Trinity—the fountain fullness of outflowing love, relationship itself—there is no possibility of any hatred in God. Finally, God—who is Love—wins. And we're all saved by mercy. Knowing this ahead of time gives us courage, so we don’t need to live out of fear, but from love. To the degree you have experienced intimacy with God, you won’t be afraid of death because you’re experiencing the first tastes and promises of heaven in this world.
Adapted from Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 9
(CDMP3 download);
and In the Beginning... Six hours with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr on reclaiming
the original Christian narrative, disc 1 (Available soon from
Gateway to Silence:
Falling forever into the deathless depths of God.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Will there be Peace in Ferguson?

With the Grand Jury in St. Louis deciding not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown after a brief but deadly encounter back in August, we should not be surprised that the streets of this small inner suburb city of Ferguson are in flames.  Or should we? Was the violent response by some a foregone conclusion? Is this the new normal?  Clergy and others are calling for peace in the streets before the damage escalates even further. 

As I prepare for Thanksgiving Day on the beautiful Seacoast of New Hampshire this year, in many ways I am a world away from the events unfolding on the television screen.   What I see and read is being shaped by the media sources bringing me the news, and I also see and hear through the prism of my life and experiences.  I do not live in Ferguson.  As a white male, I have not had the experiences of some people of color of acts discrimination or profiling.  Sales clerks buzz me into their stores without hesitation and I am never shadowed by staff.  Taxi drivers stop to pick me up at night in the streets of New York City.  I never had “The Talk” with my son about how he should act or carry himself out in the world and especially when and if he were to encounter the police. 

On the day in question in Ferguson, Missouri there were no dash cameras to record what happened between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Eyewitnesses came forward with their accounts of those few tragic seconds.

When I served as dean of the cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut I was asked weeks into my tenure to join other clergy protesting the actions of the Hartford Police Department in another race-tinged investigation. I chose not to sign the petition at the time because I wanted to learn more about the city and the people involved. I began to see how the Hartford Police would daily go into crime drenched neighborhoods to enforce the law and break up all kinds of domestic disputes, often putting their own lives at risk. My thinking was: I did not  want to make their jobs more difficult by making them second guess themselves if and when they as police officers are threatened in the moment. All the while, I hoped and prayed that there were no bad apples in the barrel of the department who might be racist, corrupt or using their authority to oppress at will. In all honesty: I wanted to have it both ways. Support the good cops and drive out the bad ones. Protect the law abiding citizens from those who might prey on their vulnerability. 

The family of Michael Brown can rightly cry out: “Where is justice?” Officer Wilson can also believe that he was simply doing his job and felt that his life was threatened.

We should all ask ourselves if we as a people could do better than the climate and structure of disparity that often leads to such encounters of hostility and fear. Police departments are stronger when they reflect the racial and ethnic mix of the population they serve. Elected leaders can show leadership in moments of unrest to calm fears. From an outsider’s view, Ferguson failed on many fronts. In my opinion, we as a society have failed on many fronts to confront racism.  

Society’s version of justice pales in comparison with God’s sense of justice -- where all of the God’s people can live into the fullness of their lives. Biblical justice implies a certain way of behaving.  We read in Isaiah 1:17  “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Biblical justice requires us to be willing to take sides. That is not always easy when the expectation is for justice to be blind. 

As the ashes of events on the ground in Ferguson still simmer, I hope that we will learn something from this tragedy.  And do something.  We should not be blind or turn away to the inequality of our world, from corruption, discrimination the list of –isms that dehumanize.

Pray and work for peace, justice and compassion. 

The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving in the Air

Thanksgiving, if I were honest, is a more enjoyable family holiday than Christmas for me. The over-consumption of Christmas has just chipped away at its seasonal magic. Grown children turned adults also have altered the day.  But, Thanksgiving is still special and valued.  
The Eucharist we share on Sundays is thanksgiving. Literally. It is what the word eucharist means. 
On this national holiday that unifies people of many faiths or no faith, savor the day and its meaning. If you are reading this post and live near Exeter, NH and do not have a place to gather, come to Christ Church where a meal is being planned. 
I include a reflection from my second favorite Jesuit, Pope Francis still number one, James Martin.
Gratitude is hot these days. That's true in both the secular and religious worlds. A friend who is a psychologist (no, not my therapist) recently told me that the psychological community is paying more and more attention to thankfulness. While psychologists and psychiatrists have long examined what might be called the more painful emotional states, the school of "positive psychology" considers not only happiness but, more specifically, gratitude as a doorway to mental health. An even more specific topic is "savoring," spending time being consciously grateful for what one has.
None of this would have surprised the great religious figures from almost any tradition who, across the board, emphasized being grateful for the gifts that God (or gods, depending on which tradition you're talking about) has given you. Examples are almost too numerous to mention. Just look at the psalms, for example, a whole category of which are called by Scripture scholars "psalms of praise." Basically they're saying to God, "Thanks." Psalm 139 praises God just for the gift of being created: "I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
The psalmist is savoring his existence.
"Savoring" would not have surprised St. Ignatius Loyola either, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, who frequently used the words savor or relish (depending on the translation) to describe dwelling with a powerful experience in prayer. You return to a special time in prayer, and savor it, like you would a delicious meal.
Gratitude is hot in spiritual circles today as well. Several contemporary books point to gratitude as an essential element of a healthy relationship with God. Mary Jo Leddy's book Radical Gratitude strives to move readers from the "perpetual dissatisfaction" fostered by Madison Avenue to an appreciative awareness of what we already possess. One of the most compelling stories in her book recounts a conversation with a refugee who had just moved in with Leddy at the Romero Center, a community center in Toronto.
"Who lives in that house in the backyard?" asked the refugee. "What house?" said Leddy. "There's no one living in the backyard." "That house," said the refugee, and pointed to the garage.
For the first time in her life Leddy "saw" her garage, and realized in what an affluent society she lived--where she had, in essence, a house for her car.
And just this year Charles Shelton, a Jesuit priest and psychologist who teaches at Regis University in Denver, describes the virtue in The Gratitude Factor as a quality that brings a myriad of benefits to those who practice it: enriching love, contributing to both the individual and the community, fighting negativity, relieving stress and limiting our selfish desires. It is not only the doorway to a healthy emotional life but spiritual one as well.
Gratitude is also necessary to counteract our normal human tendency to accentuate the negative, to problem-solve relentlessly, to be hypervigilant about our troubles. This habit, behavior psychologists say, is simply part of our prehistoric brains, which naturally evolved to help us be alert to danger. In other words, while it would have been pleasant for the cave-dweller to enjoy his (or her) meal, it was far more important for him (or her) to be on the lookout for a predator. Thus, we naturally focus on the negative, thanks to evolution.
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with evolution." But while our brain's hard-wiring is good for pointing out signs of danger, it's not so good at letting us enjoy what we have. So gratitude takes work.
Thanksgiving Day is a good time to revisit the virtue of, well, thanksgiving. But are there reasons to be thankful? Sometimes it would seem not. In the wake of persistent unemployment and endless financial woes, after a national election in which the country seems more divided than ever, in the midst of continuing violence in Afghanistan, in view of terrorist threats here and abroad, gratitude may seem not only inaccessible, but a ridiculous thing to suggest. To put it plainly, how can you be grateful if you don't have a job?
Yet in times of struggle gratitude is critical, lest we move into despair. And we need not deny the dark to see the light. Indeed, the darkness can make the light spots more evident.
For most of us, the causes for gratitude are highly personal. Even in difficult times we can be thankful for our families, friends and co-workers. For believers in general, the cause of the greatest gratitude may be the hardest to describe: our personal relationships with God. For those who participate in organized religion, we can relish the bonds of community, and the challenges that our religions call us to, when they are at their best: love, charity and hope All these gifts can be relished, too.
Savoring is an antidote to our increasingly rushed lives. We live in a busy world, with an emphasis on speed, efficiency and productivity, and we often find ourselves always moving on to the next task at hand. Life becomes an endless series of tasks, and our day becomes a compendium of to-do lists. We become "human doings" instead of "human beings." Savoring slows us down.
Thanksgiving Day is the perfect time to recall our blessings, not simply to add them to a list of things that we've seen or done; but to savor them as if they were a wonderful meal. We pause to enjoy what has happened. We stop to enjoy what we have. Deepening our gratitude to God reveals the hidden joys of our days. As the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, noted, "You sanctify whatever you are grateful for."
As we savor the turkey (or turducken) and stuffing (or filling) and enjoy the cranberry sauce (homemade or in a can), believers are also called to relish the gifts that God gives us every day, and to savor the sparks of divine light that illumine the darkness.
Savor it all.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and the author.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Potential Project for Us

I must admit that I am always on the lookout for a book or a resource that I can share in community that draws us closer to God and one another.  I believe We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren does this. Looking ahead, I think this book would be a good project for the entire congregation to engage in next year. There is not right way to start, but the outline of the book invites a beginning point in late summer/early fall.  Order a copy. Start reading it with me and let me know your thoughts about the benefit of walking this road together. 


From critically acclaimed author Brian McLaren comes a brilliant retelling of the biblical story and a thrilling reintroduction to Christian faith.

This book offers everything you need to explore what a difference an honest, living, growing faith can make in our world today. It also puts tools in your hands to create a life-changing learning community in any home, restaurant, or other welcoming space.

The fifty-two (plus a few) weekly readings can each be read aloud in 10 to 12 minutes and offer a simple curriculum of insightful reflections and transformative practices. Organized around the traditional church year, these readings give an overview of the whole Bible and guide an individual or a group of friends through a year of rich study, interactive learning, and personal growth.

Perfect for home churches, congregations, classes, or individual study, each reading invites you to
  • Cultivate an honest, intelligent understanding of the Bible and of Christian faith in 21st century
  • Engage with discussion questions designed to challenge, stimulate, and encourage
  • Reimagine what it means to live joyfully and responsibly in today's world as agents of God's justice, creativity, and peace
If you're seeking a fresh way to experience and practice your faith, if you're a long-term Christian seeking new vitality, or if you feel out of place in traditional church circles, this book will inspire and activate you in your spiritual journey.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A good mediation for today: Trust

Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation


Peace of Mind?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

To be trapped inside of your own small ego is always to be afraid, seeking some kind of control to settle the dust. To not have Someone that you can trust deeply is necessarily to be a control freak. Thus, great religion tries to free individuals from the tyranny of their small and fragile selves and introduce them to Someone-They-Can-Trust. Only if you trust such a “Someone” will you eventually know that you do not have to create all the patterns nor do you have to solve all the problems. You are in fact being guided.
Also, you do not have to explain the failures or take responsibility for the fixing. Finally you know you are part of “the general dance,” as Merton calls it. What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you’ve got to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understand everything, you will never be a peaceful person. These things largely happen by endless ruminating and commentaries in the mind, which are usually negative.
The Enneagram taught many of us that “fearful people” are actually “head people,” which was a great surprise to most folks, as we would have located the fear in the gut. The common phrase “peace of mind” is a complete misnomer. When you are in your mind, you are never at peace, and when you are at peace, you are never in your mind, but in a much larger, unified field that includes body, mind, soul, and others all at once! We called it the “communion of saints.”