January 25, 2017
Phillips Exeter Academy Chapel
The Rev. Mark Pendleton
There is the response in physiology referred to as ‘fight or flight.’ It describes how animals react to attack or threat. Hormones such as adrenalin are released, blood rushes through the body, and the heart rate quickens. The animal decides that it is time for battle or time to run to safety—stress is regulated.
Key moments in my life have involved making the choice of flight over fight —taking leave, running away, heading for the exit. My fleeing was eventually exposed and cornered by a faith-calling and years later, the beginning of a generous family life.
People have been known to adopt different emotional roles within family systems that can impact relationships well into adulthood. The ‘hero child’ is known to be hyper-responsible and peacemaker; this is often the oldest sibling. The ‘scapegoat’ is the so-called “problem child,” carrying the sins of the family and drawing attention to themselves. The ‘lost child’ can become almost invisible and escape into his own needs. The ‘mascot’ is often the youngest: Powerless to impact the whole, she becomes the clown, court jester and comic, using laughter as diversion or tonic.
The middle child in my family—born and raised in Ohio—I was the ‘hero child’, like many in my line of work, with a little mascot thrown in when things got super uncomfortable and serious. When it became clear to my parents that their marriage was over—it had been pretty obvious to the hero child, the scapegoat and the lost child living in their home that the better years of the marriage had ended years before—I found myself with a painful decision to make. I was turning sixteen and loyal to the needs of my mother, but also unknowing of the depths of her cycling depression, which was finally diagnosed and treated—sadly— only two years before she died decades later. I should have stayed, but had to leave.
I took flight and fled the divorce and the dividing conflict in its wake, escaped the self-imposed demands of being the hero child when all I wanted to do was to find my way. Rather than hitchhike at the edge of town, or become a runaway drawn to the lights of the Big City, I exited by a much easier route. A year as a high school foreign exchange student in New Zealand was an honorable temporary discharge from the stress and mess swirling around home.
New Zealand: I guess I really wanted to get far away. I wasn’t even sure where New Zealand was on a map when I applied to the exchange program. It’s far away—bottom of the world, another hemisphere, different stars in the night sky far way. Phone calls home over the course of the year were rare and expensive. In 1980 the cheapest way to communicate back home was through writing and sending those whisper thin light blue all-in-one letter/envelopes called aerograms.
What an adventure I had in my escape destination! Dropped into the very British South Island city of Christ Church, I wore a school uniform for the first time -- shorts, tie, and blazer. New Wave and Punk Rock music were the rage, allowing me to see the Police and the B52’s in concert when they were still new bands. I learned to play rugby, the national sport and religion of the Kiwis. Though not that good at the game, I was apparently good enough to join our high school team as we toured the east coast of Australia playing local teams, including an all-aboriginal side on a dusty dry pitch in the Outback.
The year away opened my eyes to a wide and diverse world. And it was hard. There were long stretches of self-doubt, loneliness, mishaps, and a tinge of lingering guilt for leaving home. Friendships were easily made at first, yet hard to deepen as the year wore on. I came to know what it feels like to be the foreigner, the outsider, in a school where most friendships were established long before I arrived. Everyone knew that I would return home at the end of the year and I suspected that some of my classmates withheld a bit of themselves knowing that this visitor would return home.
When I did return home, I was different yet not changed, now seventeen and soon off to college—Miami University of Ohio. The new expanded world I had experienced had offered up to me a clear career goal: the Foreign Service. Political science, history, French and Russian were logical courses to take.
Soon enough, like clockwork, I began to feel boxed in and out of sorts with those around me. How could I ever make a mark in a sea of sameness? Everywhere I looked there were white, preppy, Greek-fraternity-life centered, upper middle class offspring of the 4 C’s -- Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland and Columbus. Fight or flight? I took leave, headed for the exits. Again.
My gap year came mid-way through college. Selling my used Buick gave me enough cash to pay for another year overseas with a different organization that I had learned about in the back of a New Republic magazine. My destination was Colombia, South America for a year of language, cultural immersion and volunteer work.
The first night in Bogota, the sprawling capital high up on a mountain plateau, I was dropped off to my host family. I could do this, I thought —professional exchange student that I was becoming. The Guzman Lamprea family was middle class by Colombia standards, but to my frame of reference they were poor. A small bedroom I would share with three brothers with a skylight at the edge of room. Not a real skylight, rather a gaping hole in the ceiling that allowed the cold mountain rain to filter in and dampen the air as we slept. We ate soup for the main meal each and every day, flavored with meat and held together by potatoes.
Not long into my stay, I caught a severe case of amoebic dysentery that led to the shedding of twenty-five pounds far too quickly—the hard way. As sick as I felt, I was absorbing everything around me. As I rode the crowded buses of the city, with the loud and pounding Cumbia music pulsing everywhere, my daily backdrop was the hillsides that surrounded the city, crowded with makeshift shacks. Street kids, called gamines, stood on most every corner—abandoned, dirty, addicted and high from sniffing glue and paint. Colombia in the early 1980’s was not a safe place to live or visit; the ad in the back of the New Republic failed to disclose that reality. Every week I would be pulled off of buses by the military and police, and like other adult males, asked to stand, legs spread apart and arms-raised, to lean up against nearby walls to be searched. Stop and frisk Colombia style. It was normal.
God was just starting to show up in my story. The first entrance began each time my host family would take me to their neighborhood Roman Catholic church. I had attended some Catholic churches as a child—snuck away by my lapsed Catholic mother who had married my Baptist “not a fan of the Catholics” father. The churches I visited in Bogota were large and barn-like, dark and light, full of weary and hopeful voices, singing the prayers of a people caught up in a hard life in a gritty section of the city.
Midway through the year I took off for a month to backpack down the Pacific coast of South America with some friends from Europe who were in Colombia with the same program. We were keen and motivated to survive on the $20 a day that would cover our food, drink and lodging. Our traveling band discovered an almost deserted stretch of beach on the northern coast of Ecuador to settle in and celebrate Christmas and New Year’s.
A friend from Austria then shared with me a book she had just finished reading, a non-fiction book entitled Cry of the People written by Penny Lernoux, a journalist and former nun.
This was no easy or steamy beach read. It was an honest and in depth account of the centuries of poverty, oppression and social inequality in Latin America—a history in which the church, the Roman Catholic Church, played a founding and preserving role. The journalist author pulled no punches: she took on Popes, Presidents, the C.I.A. and anyone who violated human rights or looked the other way. She told stories of courageous people—nuns, priests, mayors, lay leaders, teachers, bishops—who heard the call of justice and the cry of the people and chose to live alongside the poor and oppressed to give them comfort and voice.
Those who spoke out against the authorities became targets: They were hunted down, harassed and tortured and sometimes killed by the authorities that feared losing control. A Honduran priest named Hector Gallego was thrown into the ocean from a helicopter by the Panamanian police. Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed by the military as he was saying Mass in El Salvador. Nuns were shot in the head and their bodies thrown into ditches. A deadly game was on in a world I knew nothing about.
The early Christian father Tertullian once wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The blood was flowing in the 1980’s in Latin America, as a new movement, called liberation theology, was being preached and practiced in crowded barrios and favelas.
That was all it took—a random, dog-eared paperback book loaned to me by a fellow backpacker on a beach. I experienced then and there, a moment of clarity, peace, and what Christians calls grace. It was my unexpected ‘St. Paul on the road to Damascus’ disruption and conversion experience. God broke through to me in the person of a Jesus I had never known. My heart raced, but this time, instead of running away from a potential threat or stressful event, I turned. I opened up to light, love and a welcome I had never known.
Right then I connected this Jesus, who had just crashed our really good extended beach party, with the ordinary people I had been reading about. He was the one who gave them courage, purpose, passion, and strength to stand up and speak out, face down evil, to claw their way through life with a hope of dignity. In his name they became heroes, saints and martyrs. I saw the face of God and everything changed.
You may know the Yiddish proverb “man plans and God laughs.” My plans for my life were changed on that day and in an instant. I said, “yes” to God on beach in Ecuador at age 20. My newly found faith, however, came with a conditional clause. What I was hearing was that I should also change my career aspirations and study to be a priest—like the ones who were being killed in that paperback I had just devoured in one sitting. “Really? Are you sure? Can we talk this through?”
The next stop was to return to the U.S. and transfer to Florida State University to finish my undergraduate studies. I quickly landed on the doorstop of a local Catholic church in Tallahassee, eager to announce my arrival and exciting news. The priest advised me that if I were to take this new calling seriously, I should begin to imagine and practice a celibate lifestyle. Celibacy. I had not thought through that part of God’s plan. Pulse quickening, I took flight again, but only across town, to find the campus Episcopal ministry—close enough to the Catholics and the final stop for
who felt called to be priest, but also husband and father.
Hoops would have to be jumped through, of course, later on. Sitting across from a middle-aged rector of a large parish in Jacksonville, I was asked: “Do you have a savior complex?” “What do you mean?” I responded, moving uncomfortably in my chair. “Do you feel compelled to save or rescue other people?” ‘Of course I do. I’m the hero child, you fool’, I thought to myself.
“Why are you here? “Tell us about your childhood, your family. I see from your application that your parents are divorced. Are you trying to save or redeem your family, your past, yourself?” On and on he droned.
Discernment, a highly valued faith word, involves testing, questioning, listening, learning, and waiting. The task is one of unmasking, shedding, peering within ourselves to take stock and own the baggage and the blessing we carry, to ask who we are in spite of and because of our childhoods and youth, mistakes and choices made along the way.
There would be other leave takings in my life, but these were more optional than reactive. Given the chance to spend a year in seminary in Cuba in 1986 I jumped at the chance. Living in Havana thirty years ago, when the island remained in the firm grip of Fidel and the Soviet Union and had not yet welcomed Popes, Presidents, cruise ships and spring breakers, Cuba was a bizarrely magical place. It was a Police State caught in a nostalgic time warp filled with American cars from 1950’s, and also the desperation of the hopeless many who risked their lives in flimsy rafts to float to freedom. Beautiful, repressed, paranoid, and always hopeful Cuba.
The gospel of Luke tells a foundational story of a prodigal son leaving his dutiful brother home so that he could run off and live a life of excess then led to his ruin. When he had lost everything, this son turns back home to reclaim the love of the Father he had left behind. Greeted by an overjoyed and loving father who ran towards his lost son, all was set right again in the universe. The lost had been found and the party began.
It is a long way from the liberation theology of Latin America in the 1980’s to Exeter, New Hampshire. Today I am no revolutionary. I am a member of the Rotary Club. When knee-deep in the more mundane duties of running a parish, there are moments when the wellspring of inspiration runs dry and I almost forget how and why it all happened. And then I remember.
Eventually the running stopped.
The Greek word for conversion is metanoia, which means to turn or to have a change of heart. I turned, and never turned back. No fight. No flight.
If there are books that inform, touch and move us, these are the books not to keep, but to give away to someone you know or just met. We never know, do we? A book can change a life.
Let me end with the words of the hymn by Frederick William Faber that I have I asked Bruce to play.
There's a wideness in God's mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in his blood.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man's mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
We should take him at his word;
And our life would be thanksgiving
For the goodness of the Lord.