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.