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Lenten excavation

Welcome to Lent’s invitation to wild foraging, bushwhacking adventure, deep excavation

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Psalm 51,” Choir of St. Simon the Leper, Republic of Georgia (sung in Aramaic)

§  §  §

In the first year of my career as a stonemason, most of my work was of the grunt variety: hauling rock and sand, lugging 200 pounds of mixed mortar in a wheelbarrow from the mixer to the work site, and digging footers for stone walls of various functions.

The latter included lots of shovel work, then even harder pickaxe labor once you reached the hard clay strata, sometimes mixed with rock-hard mica. Or wielding a five-foot-long, 20-pound pry bar to dislodge rocks; occasionally, a hatchet to cut stubborn roots.

My boss took mostly smaller jobs and couldn’t afford to rent a backhoe; or work in crowded or steep slope areas where it wasn’t practical to use machinery.

Footers have to be deeper than the frost line, so the rock structure isn’t subject to the ground’s heaving freeze-thaw cycles that can tumble a structure. Here in Western North Carolina, the frost line is 18 inches.

The hardest single job I did was cutting a 100 foot-long trench, from the edge of a driveway up a steep slope around to the side of the house. Then lugging 30-60 pound granite riprap up the hill to set in place. Then muscling five-gallon buckets of mortar up the slope. More than once, a rock slipped out of my hands and rolled down the hill. Maintaining my footing while clearing vegetation and digging the trench was a constant, and exhausting, challenge.

That labor became for me a metaphor for the strenuous excavating work of Lent. In the rough and tumble of life, baneful habits harden; or spread like kudzu, killing everything it covers. The roots of our spiritual growth (and their mitochondria “fingers” that process nutrition from fertile soil) get blocked by hard clay, stunting growth. Sometimes the seeds needed to enhance growth get too little water, or too much; too little sun, or too much. A late frost can kill new buds. Sometimes rocks have to be disgorged.

Would that spiritual growth was more like a day at the spa, hot tub with flute of champagne in hand! A masseuse on call; a manicurist for nails; a stylist for coiffure. Sure, throw in some weight training, some treadmill time, maybe a Pilates class and a few laps around the pool. All of these things are good. Most bring health benefits.

But this is not the labor of Lent, which is more feral in nature, more daunting and risky, undertaken outside sterile confines amid undomesticated circumstances. Heaven’s repeated “fear not” exhortation throughout Scripture presupposes tremulous encounters. Divine light is promised to those who sit in darkness.

§  §  §

Hymn of praise. “I want to be ready when joy comes back to me.” —Ruthie Foster, “Joy Comes Back

§  §  §

Forgive me if I sound like all is muscle and brawn. It is not. Spiritual formation will also involve being still when your every urge is to be busy. Savoring life, not just saving it. It may require the enduring resolve of a woman in labor; maintaining composure with a fretful child; speaking tenderly in the midst of brash encounters.

Patience, yes; but not when patience means throttling the demands of justice. Wisdom in taming a thrashing tongue is required; exercising gentleness in prickly circumstances; vigilance, when all around you have been lulled to sleep by the Deceiver’s charms and the Market’s allure.

All of these traits, and more, are practiced and refined on turbulent testing grounds where success is not assured but bruises are.

There are two essential virtues that sustain the faithful in the face of history’s ruinous momentum.

The first is the capacity for beauty, which is far more resilient than moral heroism. It entails beatific vision, a prescient horizon beyond rational calculation. It involves being baptized into a transcendent conviction about the Age to Come when all shall sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree, when tears will be dried and death comes undone.

The second is faithful perseverance, arguably the highest virtue in Scripture. It represents the acknowledgment that it is not our job to assure earth’s deliverance. There is an efficacious Power and a flourishing Presence beyond our control, beyond our management, beyond our sustenance. Surely this Companion invites our collaboration; but we, individually or collectively, are not history’s guarantor. Our works of mercy and pursuit of justice are performed not as obligations of a servant to a master, but acts of delight from a lover to the Beloved.

Welcome to Lent’s invitation to wild foraging, bushwhacking adventure, deep excavation to uncover blocked streams of bounty and delight. Buckle up with the promise of a balm in Gilead, manna in the desert, water from sheer rock. The Beloved has pledged to “restore the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25).

As martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero noted, there are many things can only be seen with eyes that have cried. But Heaven’s injunction to the sorrowful is this: Take heart, for ours is an insurrectionary summons. Despite much evidence to the contrary, fear not.

Though trenched by sadness, know that you are tracked by joy. Another world is not only possible; it is, even now, hastening on its way. Hold close Resurrection’s pledge that Death’s thaw will dislodge the tomb’s sealing stone. Offer prayers as flares to mark the rendezvous.

Be assured, pilgrim: Love will find a Way in the wilderness; will reclaim desolate land; will restore marginalized people. Keep your eyes on the Prize. Hold on.

§  §  §

Benediction. “Eyes on the Prize,” Mavis Staples

# # #

For more on this them see this poem, “Blistering Hope: A stonemason’s meditation on perseverance.”

Memorial Day: Conflicted memories, clarifying reverence

by Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Why do we build the wall,” written by Anaïs Mitchell, sung by Greg Brown

§  §  §

If, in the end, I did not believe that grace will ultimately
rob the grave of its triumph—that mercy will finally trump
vengeance—then I would opt for any and every form of
resistance to imperial sovereignty, including any and every
form of “terrorism” (whose designation is always assigned

by those currently in control, as if imperious rule is not
itself the most definitive expression of terror’s sway).
The reign of brutality must be challenged, to the death if
need be. But the nature of that challenge, its form and shape
and character, is patterned by one’s vision of the future:

to whom it belongs, by what means it is secured, and by
what authority it is granted. If strength of arm and guile of
heart form the matrix of abiding power, then only the strong
survive; and Jesus would have fared better by calling on those
twelve legions of special-op angels (cf. Matthew 26:53), standing

at the ready to intervene in Rome’s judicial conclusion and the
Jerusalem elite’s connivance over the Nazarene’s fate. The
insurgency of divine Forbearance operates on a different
frequency, its anointed agents advancing on roads unknown
to current mapmakers, their plowshared swords and pruning

hook weapons turned from human enmity toward fertile
fields of bounty and abundance, each to rest ’neath vine and
fig tree, with none no more forever to fear. How do you know,
for certain, that the Jesus Road is the one that leads Home?
You don’t . . . or you do. Up to you. The Spirit blows where it

will, confounding all contempt, untamed by proselytizers and
profiteers alike, jail-breaking, debt-revoking, fraud-annulling
at every turn, consigning every malice-maker to their damnable
ends. Every invitation to memory’s recovery simultaneously
requires a choice between conflicting claims of reverence:

Whose promise is trustworthy? Whose power, steadfast?
Whose purpose mediates the demands of justice with the
prerequisites of peace? Whose provision yields abundant harvest,
secured dwelling for the least, the lost, the languished, and the
sorrowed whose grief turns to rejoicing, the hills bursting

in song, the trees in applause, the seas roaring the Beloved’s
acclaim? Refuse bending the knee to consecrated belligerence,
you little flock of Jesus, and return to your anchoring memorial,
to the Eucharistic table of remembrance: More than
reminiscence, more than a recounting of history; rather, an

anamnesis, a re-membering, a reanimation, aspired life shaped
by the same Spirit as Jesus, led through a similar wilderness of
confusion, sustained by the continuing Outlay of healing and
revealing despite the counsel of hoarding and despair, praise
unfolding as courage in the face of fearmongering, featured

as solidarity with the world’s belittled ones, clarifying proper
reverence in contradiction to the world’s criers of scarcity
and courtesans of deceit, announcing the incendiary news of
the rolled-stone resurrection from death’s dark eclipse. Spirit-
troubling water is available, children, to all willing to wade.

But don’t just wade.
Let yourself be immersed in that riveting flood,
covering twinkling toes to your tippy-top head.
There’s no getting right with God;
there’s only getting soaked.

§  §  §

 

Benediction. “Day is done, gone the sun, / From the lake, from the hills, from the sky; / All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” “Taps(full version) performed by Melissa Venema with the Metropole orchestra in Amsterdam. The original version of “Taps” was called “Last Post,” and was written by Daniel Butterfield in 1801. It was rather lengthy and formal. In 1862 it was shortened to 24 notes and given its present name.

For more background and complete lyrics, see Wikipedia.

Epiphany’s provocation

Ken Sehested

We, of the majority caste, are largely innocents. By innocent
I mean clueless about the way history has privileged some
and impoverished others. If we are to move toward a future
beyond the fatal consequence of our transgressions, we
must lose our innocence, which includes much unlearning.
We have hard work to do, patient work, risky work, but
worthy, inspiring, hopeful work.

Take a hand. Make your vow. Gird your loins. Declare an
allegiance beyond the tip of your nose. Step over your
contented threshold and out of your comfort zone.
Prepare for turbulence, maybe threat. Make alliances
across racial and class and cultural boundaries.
Cultivate the kind of imagination needed to resist
cultural conformity and nationalist fervor.

Nurture a faith rooted deeply enough to withstand
inevitable seasons of drought and tempest. Brace yourself
for Epiphany’s provocation, confounding the coronation
of mammon protected by praetorian guards and backed
by courts of infamy. Refuse seating at tables Jesus flipped.
The Spirit’s manifest upends the assumptions of destiny
into which we have been nursed and versed.

Be a conscientious objector to the rule of the market. Set
your eyes on a horizon beyond every prognosticating
fate. Never forget that “history belongs to the intercessors.”*
Wielding the hammer of hope and the anvil of conviction,
the Spirit’s fire forges impossibility into re-possibility.
Devote yourself to habits prophesying the age when mercy
trumps vengeance.

These are our disciplines, and sometimes they are
arduous. But they are not imposed by a divine
taskmaster. They are the overflow of joy, the product of
ecstatic vision capable of tracing Creation’s promise, to
Resurrection’s assurance, recollecting the Prophet’s
assertion that wolf and lamb will lie shorn of threat and
the Revelator’s conclusion that, one day, death will be
no more.

#  #  #

*cf. Walter Wink, “History Belongs to the Intercessors” in
“Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a
World of Domination”

Advent’s summons

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “The First Noel,” Leslie Odom Jr. ft. PS22 Chorus

§  §  §

Implausibly, and over the decades, my consistent experience is that when I dare venture into war zones and places of serious social conflict, I find people you would think should just give in, give out, give over their futures to those with greedy hearts and malevolent hands.

In fact, the opposite is true. The most hopeful people I know make their home in such circumstances.

Hope breaks out in the most unlikely places. Yet again we are reminded of Scripture’s repeated insistence that light breaks out amongst those “who walk in darkness . . . amid the shadow of death.” There is, I think, a correlation, not merely a coincidence (cf. Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16).

Advent’s invitation encourages such risky advent-ures:

  • To journey with the Magi into unguarded land, under the cover of darkness, with nothing but starlight as a guide; then returning home “by another way” to elude Herod’s operatives.
  • To ramble with startled shepherds, uncultured peasants who welcome Heaven’s amazement more readily that the royally-titled who assume all history is safely, irreversibly secured.
  • To linger with Elizabeth in her childless shame, soon to be reversed with the Baptizer’s birth and vocation to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
  • To exult with Mary’s concordance with Incarnation’s disclosure and its glad news to the lowly, its ominous threat to the privileged.
  • To accompaniment with Bethlehem’s postpartum grief of unnamed mothers over the slaughter of their infants, bearing the brunt of Herod’s rage against Messiah’s threat to every coercive regime.
  • To come alongside Joseph in his willing forfeiture of progeny’s claim, soon receding in Nativity’s wake, eclipsed in this divine drama but not forgotten in the prayers of abandoned children and all who disappear from history.

Finally, kindred, be clear about this: Heaven’s advent-urous invitation is not dependent on ethical rigor or moral heroism. The Spirit’s summons to be present among the unaccounted and the discarded is the opportunity to behold beatific light erupting from dire circumstance. Only amid this locus are eyes opened and ears unstopped to messianic purpose.

Therefore put away your shiny baubles, your market forecasts, and every assumption of entitlement. Bet everything as if you hold a royal flush. The tables are turning to a new and flourishing future rid of the casino’s rule.

Seeing history from below is precisely the location from which we see ourselves, in relationship with our discounted neighbors, through the eyes of the One who promises to Make All Things New, for a secured future where all sit beneath their own vines and fig trees and none are made to fear.

§  §  §

Benediction. “Noel,” Lauren Daigle

20 December 2023

 

For the forlorn

Every lit and lively season (Christmas, especially) comes, for some, with heartache, usually over the absence of a beloved whose remembrance still cuts to the quick and pickles the heart. In addition, Nativity’s season unfolded with ancient Palestine’s writhing under the oppressive heel of Rome’s imperial boot. The poem below is set in these parallel moods.

§  §  §

Do not fear grief. She comes, unbidden, with a word hard
but essential. The rocks beneath your feet are bruising and
unrelenting. The wind, sharp as a razor. The moon casts
threatening shadows, each a hissing dragon or fearsome
reaper’s scythe.

The dark throws its spell and bids you to bow and shiver.
Neither bow nor quake. Let every weak knee be steeled; every
back, steadied; every mind, restored; every tongue, loosed;
every arm declaring its strength. Say to the rocks: Do you best!
Speak to the dark: Take me, if you dare. Say to the moon:

Your light is for lovers, not thieves. To the meadows and
mounts that witness this interrogation, say: Speak the truth.
To the streams and rivers who run, say: Your wet wonder
precedes all living. To the friends who scatter, say: Be gone.
To those who linger, say: Give me your blessing. For under grief’s

skirt are angels who say: You are enough. Who say: You have
what is needed. Who say: The years lost to the locusts will be
restored. Who say: Weeping endures for the night, but joy
comes in the morning. The Promise and Presence of such joy,
sustained by the One who can neither be named nor tamed,

runs deeper, farther, surer than every sorrow-sullied current
or casting wave. Give yourself to the bewildering news of Earth’s
upside-down, inside-out future and the begetting power of the
bewilding Spirit, alternately comforting and afflicting in
accordance to the terms of the reconfiguring covenant uplifting

the lowly and toppling the pretentious. Stake your life in this
Promise. Abide in this Presence. Align your attention with this
Purpose. Join the caroling community whose anthems of praise
—in the face of threat—disclaim every tear’s stain and death’s
reign, world without end. Amen.

# # #

10 December 2023

Linocut art © Julie Lonneman

 

 

Jubilate Deo

Poem for the third Sunday of Advent: JOY

Ken Sehested

The portal to Earth’s agony is the same for Heaven’s ecstasy. Both take us to that bewilding place beyond the world’s rule masquerading as reality, as natural, as divinely appointed. Here in this wild space free of rationed provision, hidden pain can be exposed; silenced voices, heard; shame, named and untangled. Here the disappeared marshal the festal parade of ascension to Glory’s reception.

Jubilate Deo!

Here, manna is provided beyond merit, profligate and extravagant. Here, water flows from sheer rock. The last, the least, the lost are gathered in the welcoming arms of the Beloved, whose might is manifest in mercy. With every such announcement, a multitude of heavenly hosts burst into boisterous acclaim and exuberant voice even as joyful refrains eclipse Earth’s fleshly grief and history’s consternation.

Jubilate Deo!

Here, every grave is robbed of its victory; every death forfeits its sting. Come every meadow and mountain, you raven and redwood, every plankton, every whale. Human and humus alike—adam and adamah—exult together. All put asunder are joined and rejoiced; the cast off, restored; the forgotten, remembered. The One who has bottled every tear now hosts a bounteous banquet, cups overflowing. Raise all praise for harvest home.

Alleluia, alleluia, in laetitia! Alleluia, alleluia, joy to ev’ry heart!

#  #  #

14 December 2023

 

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany calls to worship

by Ken Sehested

First Sunday advent

Blessed be your name, Beloved, who makes a way out of no way. Draw near unto us, for we live in a season of darkened sun, veiled moon, scattered stars, embattled news. Heaven itself shudders. Our bread is kneaded with sighs, and tears fill our cup. Let the light of your countenance return, with the grain and the grape, communion’s feast whereby we remember your purpose, your promise, your provision, and we again rejoice in your illuminating presence and resplendent glory.

 

Second Sunday of Advent

Blessed be your name, Holy Comforter, who enters every desolation to make straight a highway to Heaven’s abode. Command every depth to ascend, every height to plummet, every rough way willowed. Bring us again to that encounter with the Baptizer’s honey-smeared beard and Jordan’s penitential wake. Supple every hardened heart. Relax every clinched hand. Tune our ears to the rustle of angels’ feet hastening to declare glad tidings in a land of fretful recoil.

 

Third Sunday of Advent

Blessed are you, Anointed One, maker of gladness in a season of gloom, release to every captive, defender of the desperate, drier of every tear. Renew the barren land with your streams of pardon. May every sorrowed voice be turned again to joyful exultation. May the sound of Mother Mary’s Magnificat echo the shout of praise that lifts the indigent and subverts the builders of endless barns. Strengthen our weak knees, and still our restless hands. Unleash speech in the silenced and restore sight for the obscured. Let the hills break forth in song, the trees in applause.

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Blessed be your name, Mighty One, whose light is promised only to those who sit in darkness, whose providence rests among the humiliated, whose promise breaks forth from history’s shambles and every dispirited corner, announcing deliverance to the least, the lost, the disappeared; and threat to gangsters, banksters, and all who barter justice to the highest bidder. Fear not, the season of fraud shall be eclipsed by Glad Tidings of earth’s reclamation amid Heaven’s rejoicing.

 

Christmas Day

Blessed be your name, Mystery of the Ages, smuggled into a backwater province of imperial vanity, incarnating history in the womb of a peasant, threat to each lordly regent and every claim of privilege, star-guiding those considered alien to the Covenant’s boundary, announcing Heaven’s alert to lowborn hirelings, reversing antiquity’s logic of predestined rule. Grant us the power of assent to Mary’s rebellious submission.

 

Epiphany (centering the Magi)

Blessed be your name, O Ancient of Days, brooder over Creation’s bud, blossomed in delight, enduring history’s blight, reaching into the cosmos to anoint a star of brilliant light to alert supplicants in distant land, beyond Sinai’s boundary and Hebrew lineage, to bear witness to the Promised One of God’s favor and threat to Herod’s imperial sway. We give thanks for the Magi of every age who transgress the borders of tribe and clan, the barriers of every imperious claim to divine fame and favor. May Mary’s welcome be our own.

#  #  #

These prayers are reprinted with permission from “Sacred Seasons: Advent – Christmastide,” worship resource 2023-04, published by Seeds of Hope Publishers, Katie Cook, ed.

God’ on earth and all hell’s broken loose

The incendiary prospect of proclaiming the Incarnation

Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy, 26 November 2023

Invocation. “Not Dark Yet,” Bob Dylan

I’ve selected a number of texts that use the word “world” or “flesh.” If you are able, please stand for this reading of Scripture.

• On the one hand, 1st John’s epistle, we are admonished toLove not the things of this world. If any love the world, love of the Abba is not in them” (2:15).

• But on the other hand, says John’s Gospel:God so loved the world that he gave God’s only begotten child.” (3:16).

• One the one hand, God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:13).

• But on the other hand, Isaiah wrote, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:5).

• On the one hand, John wrote, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you. . . . [B]ut I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

• But on the other hand, says the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (24:1)

• On the one hand, God declares in Genesis, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh (6:3).

• But on the other hand, Luke declares “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6) and Revelation announces in the end that “the home of God is among mortals” (21:3).

• On the one hand, Jesus, while being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

• But on the other hand, in his vision of the end of days, John the Revelator writes, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15)

§  §  §

Hymn of lament. “Broken bottles, broken plates, / Broken switches, broken gates, / Broken dishes, broken parts, / Streets are filled with broken hearts. / Broken words never meant to be spoken, / Everything is broken.” —“Everything Is Broken,” performed by R.L. Burnside

§  §  §

I could go on much longer with these examples, but I think you my meaning.

To understand the cascade of brutal circumstances in which we live, we need to dig deep into our texts. And in digging into our texts, we need to interrogate how they have been interpreted.

When Scripture speaks of the “world” or “flesh,” sometime it is speaking of creation; but sometimes it is alluding to the corruption infecting God’s good creation.

The distinction the “world” and the “earth” is subtle but crucial. In fact, “the world”—in the pejorative sense—means that complex system of animus, corruption, and violence that confronts us at every turn.

There is a major flaw in English translations of what is meant by the words “world” and “flesh.” In the formation work most of us have experienced, disregard for “worldly” or “fleshly” things has been drilled into our imaginations, which has pushed behavioral implications toward an orientation to the afterlife.

As James McClendon puts it so succinctly in the first volume of his systematic theology, “We do not believe that the God we know will have to do with THINGS. Yet this biblical materialism is the very fiber of which the first strand of Christian ethics is formed.”

The greatest failure in the history of Christian thought is the separation of souls from bodies, spirit from soil, the wrenching of hearts from habitation—all representing the abdication of the realm of Earth from the rule of Heaven. It is the great anthropomorphic heresy: that redemption is for humans alone, and then only for some ethereal essence in the realm beyond the sky: no bodies, no biology, no hills or dales, neither minnows nor whales.

I have a story to tell, but first let’s do a quick opinion poll. I want you to raise your hand if you have ever taken part in “Baptist Training Union.” [allow time]

Ah, the rest of you don’t know what you missed! (And just as well!!)

Training union was the Sunday evening educational event parallel to the morning’s Sunday School. Instead of Bible study, it was when we learned about everything from Baptist history and theology all the way over to warnings about the slippery moral slope of drinking, dancing, smoking, cussing, and communism.

In my Training Union class, we started with singing. We had our own youth hymnal with a lot of up-tempo tunes. One of favorites was a lively song called “This World Is Not My Home.” Our choir is going to offer you a flavor.

[choir sings]
“This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

That sentiment is behind much of the church’s vision and mission. And it is an apostasy.

The believing community’s message has been something like this: Believe in Jesus, do the right things on earth, be overtly pious, be nice (unless it’s inconvenient), then you will be rewarded in heaven. The thrust of this message is that fleshly life is at best a prelude to the real thing; at worst, breathly life is a testing-ground filled with temptations; we grit our teeth and make down payments on our heavenly mansion to come. [summarizing John Douglas Hall in “Christian Mission: The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death”]

I have six brief conclusions drawn from my own spiritual journey, for your consideration and correction.

1. Early in my post-adolescent faith journey, I came to realize this core truth: God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven. And that’s what the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is all about—a topic we will focus on starting next Sunday with the beginning of Advent.

2. Heaven and earth are not spatially segregated realms of existence, with heaven “up there” and the earth “down here”; rather, heaven and earth are relational and intersecting realities. Ours is a bodified faith. Living “in the Spirit” results in the flourishing of both human and ecological life.

3. The Holy Spirit always traffics in human affairs. But the tidings she announces are not disclosed in the seats of legislative power, in corporate boardrooms, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or in celebrity ballrooms. She always moves to the margins, to the refugee camps, to the wrong side of the tracks, wherever the disposable are gathered.

4. A few decades ago I realized that there actually is a truth in the old hymn “This World Is Not My Home,” when you understand that “home” is not a welcoming place when you live on the street; when you lack food, clean water, and health care; when your voice is silenced in public policy councils, and your zip code predicts your family income and educational opportunities; when you realize the world is segregated between makers and takers, when the rules of the game mean “eat or be eaten.”

Oppressed people have—and do—speak and sing of “heaven” not as pie-in-the sky but as a coded act of resistance to repressive rule. Doing so keeps alive the memory, and the anticipation, of freedom. Such memories are like banked fireplaces, hot coals buried and kept alive within the ash, awaiting the opportune moment of new kindling.

5. Figuring out ways to accompany those with no access to earth’s table of bounty, in a multitude of ways, is a core part of our mission. But another core part is more important: Living in compassionate proximity to the least, the last, and the unloved is where we clarify who we are and what we are to do. In other words, there is a geography of faith, because what we see depends on where we stand.

6. Finally, as he often does, Clarence Jordan says it with brevity and imagination: “God is not in the heavens and all’s well on the earth. [God] is on this earth and all hell’s broke loose!” Incarnation unleashed, igniting Gospel goodness in the oddest of places: Our job is to spot those times and places and people, and join in.

May it be so with us—here and now—as we continue leaning toward the time when all Heaven’s gonna break out: growing in God’s disarming grace, in the Spirit’s disruptive and reconstructive Incarnation, in joining the incendiary walk with Jesus.

§  §  §

Benediction. “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing; / Fill our hearts with joy and peace. / Let us each, thy love possessing, / Triumph in redeeming grace. / Oh, refresh us, oh, refresh us, / Trav’ling thru this wilderness.” —“Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing,” performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

# # #

Is there a hierarchy of pain?

Further reflections on the war in Gaza

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Tango,” featuring jazz songstress Dianne Reeves. When the Spirit transcends human language, and faith, hope, and love join in a brawl with all who would foreclose history’s predicted demise.

§  §  §

War—whether declared or merely pursuant—carries within its logic the capacity to feed off its own momentum, like a perpetual motion machine. It’s never merely an eye for an eye. It’s two eyes for one eye. Lose a limb? Here’s a quadriplegic response. Thousands dead? Tens of thousands in requite. It’s never only compensatory; it’s also punitive, an ever-deepening escalation.

This is why Hebrew scripture’s lex talionus ethical standard—eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Lev. 24:20)—was designed to limit retaliation. But the impulse of revenge often ignores that restriction.

Recall the pledge of Lamech, great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—making a vengeful vow that echoes to this day. With his two wives, Adah and Zillah, as his witness, he pledges “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23).

I’ll call your carnage and raise you an annihilation. “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist,” declared Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council. “There is no other option for ensuring the security of the State of Israel.”

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An achingly tender hymn of lament. “Wishing tonight that tomorrow will never come / Countless dreams and loves and losses, I cry and cry and cry as though beaten down by rain / Don’t display me, not like this / I need something to keep on living / If I can’t even believe in myself, what can I believe in? / The answer is so close I can’t even see it / Shedding black tears / I am nothing. Filled with sorrow, / Unable to say a word / The pain is welling up inside me, and / I can’t bear this alone.” —“Kuroi Namida” (Black Tears), Shavnabada and Gori Women’s Chorus

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• You can read about Eiland’s chilling “Lets not be intimidated by the world” op-ed here.

• For more cogent commentary, see Brian Kaylor, “A Call for ’Biblical’ Genocide” https://wordandway.org/2023/10/31/a-call-for-biblical-genocide/

• See “A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians,” 21 October 2023

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From Valerie Kaur

“Our most powerful response to the horror in Israel and Palestine is to refuse to surrender our humanity.

“You will be told by some: The deaths of Israeli children are unfortunate but inevitable, because Israel’s occupation of Palestine is brutal and wrong.

“You will be told by others: The deaths of Palestinian children are unfortunate but inevitable, because it is the only way to keep Israel safe from terror, and Hamas brought this on its own people.

“Both will say: Our aggression is the only response to their aggression, our fear more justified than their fear, our grief more devastating than theirs ever will be.

“But oh my love, the hierarchy of pain is the old way. The moment we allow our hearts to go numb is the moment we shut down our humanity.

“I don’t know the solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine, but I do know the starting point: To grieve ‘their’ children as our children.” —9 October 2023 Facebook post

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Benediction. “History is what it is / Scars we inflict on each other don’t die / But slowly soak into the DNA / Of us all / Us all / I pray we not fear to love. / I pray we be free of judgment and shame / Open the vein, let kindness reign / O’er us all / Us all.” —Bruce Cockburn, “Us All

Above art: Mary & Jesus – Palestinian artist Wadei Khaled

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23 November 2023

The ambiguous history of Thanksgiving

Invocation. “Give Thanks,” Abyssinian Baptist Church choir, New York City.

The cultivation of gratitude and the practice of thanksgiving
From a 2018 article

        The topic of gratitude has become a marketing trend in publishing over the past decade—confirmed, most recently, in Diana Butler Bass’ best-selling Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, not to mention a score of books written by and for the “positive psychology” school of authors and readers.

Scientists continue to provide confirmation of things mystics have promoted for eons: that singing is good for personal and communal health; that a cultivated devotional life tends to extend life expectancy; that wealth is not neutral but actually diminishes the capacity for empathy; that even the spiritual hunch that everything-is-connected is being confirmed by ecologists, cosmologists, and quantum physicists.

—continue reading “The cultivation of gratitude and the practice of thanksgiving

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“Come ye fearful people come / Cast your sighs to highest heav’n / Yet—though terror’s harvest spread, / Casting sorrow in its stead— / Still the Promise doth endure / Life abounding to secure / Come, ye thankful hearts, confess / Mercy’s lien o’er earth’s distress.” —Ken Sehested, new verse to “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”

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Why is it hard to say thanks?

• Often, just because we’re not paying attention.

• The barrage of demands on our time and energy creates “tunnel vision,” making it difficult to see anything that’s not directly in front of our noses.

• The world owes me! Why should I say thanks for the things I deserve?

• Saying thanks means I will be in someone’s debt—I’ll have to return the favor later on—and I’ve already gone beyond my credit limit.

• Saying thank you is a form of weakness—and there are many predators out there looking to exploit such weakness.

• My Momma taught me to say please-and-thank-you, but she doesn’t know how the world really works.

• To thank someone is to admit they are your equal. And if you are equal, then I’m not special.

• If you’re going to succeed in this life, you’ve got to have an edge. Saying thanks dulls the edge.

• Saying thanks is admitting I’m not self-sufficient. I don’t do dependency. Only the strong survive.

• I work hard. I earned what I got. I’m the captain of my own ship, and I don’t take on passengers.

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Familiar hymn, new arrangement. “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” —Leigh Nash

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The disremembered history of the
Thanksgiving holiday in the United States of America

The first official declaration of a Thanksgiving Day did not come in 1621, when the Plymouth Puritans sharing a 3-day feast with the local Wampanoag natives, who had taught the undocumented immigrants how to fish, farm, and generally fend for themselves.

Rather, it wasn’t until 1637 that Plymouth colony Governor William Bradford officially declared an annual day of thanks. And he did so in direct response to the Pilgrims’ massacre of some 500 men, women and children of the Pequot tribe (survivors were sold into slavery) along the Mystic River.

He wrote, “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

He then went on to record details of the event occasion that was to be annually commemorated.

“It was a fearful sight to see [the Pequot] thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and [we] gave the praise thereof to God.”

Many know better than to believe the mythology behind the US Thanksgiving holiday, of peace-loving Pilgrims and generous Native Americans setting down to feast. But barely a generation after that encounter, English settler authorities were issuing bounties on the heads of native peoples—the scalps of men, women, and children. Such as Massachusetts Bay Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips’ edict declaring the Penobscot people a target of extermination and commanding “his Majesty’s Subjects of this Province to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing, and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians”. —Dawn Neptune Adams, Maulian Dana with Adam Mazo, Guardian

President George Washington, in his first terms of office, declared a “day of thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789, months after the US Constitution was formally approved. But the observance did not become an annual event until October 1863, declared by President Abraham Lincoln who announced an annual observance of the holiday weeks after the Union pivotal victory at Gettysburg during the Civil War.

Unfortunately, the history of thanksgiving observance in the US is tied to violent conflict.

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Benediction. “Psalm 117: Give Thanks to the Lord” (Arabic).

17 November 2023