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.

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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)

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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”

• 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

All Saints Day observance

Quotes and notes about saints

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “The Beatitudes, “Glenstal Abbey, Ireland

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¶ “The key question that every school of spirituality must answer is how to reconcile presence to the world with presence to God, or however you prefer to formulate it. How are we to overcome the duality and interrelate the two presences? This question runs through the history of spirituality.” —J.C. Guy, Saint Ignace de Loyola

¶ “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” —Dorothy Day

¶ “The world is waiting for new saints, ecstatic men and women who are so deeply rooted in the love of God that they are free to imagine a new international order. . . . Most people despair that [it] is possible. They cling to old ways and prefer the security of their misery to the insecurity of their joy. But the few who dare to sing a new song of peace are the new St. Francises of our time, offering a glimpse of a new order that is being born out of the ruin of the old.” —Henri Nouwen

¶ “When I give people food, they call me a saint. When I ask why there is no food, they call me a communist.” —Dom Helder Camara, former archbishop of Recife, Brazil

¶ “Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved away in immediate sense experience, and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” —Rubem Alves, Tomorrow’s Child

¶ “In truth, all human beings are called to be saints, but that just means called to be fully human, to be perfect—that is, whole, mature, fulfilled. The saints are simply those men and women who relish the event of life as a gift and who realize that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away.” —William Stringfellow

¶ “From somber, serious, sullen saints, save us O Lord.” —Teresa of Avila

¶ “So the great Church of Christ came into being by ignoring the life of Christ…. The Fathers of the Church were good men, often saintly men, sometimes men who cared enough for Christ to die for him, but they did not trust him. They could not trust the safety of his church to his way of doing things. So they set out to make the church safe in their own way. Creeds and theologies protected it from individual vagaries; riches and power protected it against outside attacks. The church was safe. But one thing its ardent builders and defenders failed to see. Nothing that lives can be safe. Life means danger. The more the church was hedged about with confessions of faith and defended by the mighty of the earth, the feebler its life grew.” —Edith Hamilton

¶ “Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full.” —Frederick Buechner

¶ “In a church where holy people were supposed to be perfect, austere, and forbidding, she prayed to be delivered from sour saints. An admirer once remarked on her voracious appetite: “For such a holy woman, you sure pack it in.” “Listen,” Teresa shot back, ‘when I pray, I pray; when I eat, I eat!’” —Mary Luti, writing about Teresa of Ávila, a prominent 16th century Spanish mystic, Carmelite nun and Roman Catholic saint

¶ “There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.” —St. Augustine

¶ “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” —Frederick Buechner

¶ “Truly! Truly! By God! Be as sure of it as you are that God lives: at the least good deed done here in this world, the least bit of good will, the least good desire, all the saints in heaven and on earth rejoice, and together with the angels their joy is such that all the joy in this world can’t be compared. But the joy of them all together amounts to as little as a bean when compared to the joy of God over good deeds. For truly, God laughs and plays.” –Meister Eckhart

¶ “What humility does for one is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come but who may be here and needs me.” —Maya Angelou

¶ “The whole case for Christianity is that [one] who is dependent upon the luxuries of life is corrupt, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck.” —G.K. Chesterton

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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.” —English translation of lyrics to “Kuroi Namida” (Black Tears), Shavnabada and Gori Women’s Chorus

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Word: Saintliness breaks out at the beauty parlor. “I arrived for a cut at the very end of their workday and witnessed them provide a warm and very human circle of care for the only other client. This was a woman past my age who had called in a panic when her long wavy hair started coming out in handfuls as a result of her cancer treatment regimen.

“Now this was not my first time here, and in the past I’ve heard these women pass on some vicious gossip and fling barbed zingers at one another with glee. There was none of that this evening. Neither was there saccharine sentiments nor empty platitudes.

“Instead, they lovingly washed her hair and efficiently shaved off what remained, completely following the woman’s lead in conversation topics, which ranged from family doings to treatment experiences and side effects to the best way to fashionize her new look. Perhaps she would wear black lipstick and go Goth or maybe wear only one of her large hoop earrings for more of a pirate statement. They cut some stretchy black silky material into a headscarf and tied it into some beautiful stylish knots.

“And they held steady when she teared up as she faced her self in the mirror without her hair.

“It was beautiful. They were beautiful. She was beautiful.” —Amy Smith

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Benediction. “The Beatitudes (Adagio),” New College Choir, Oxford

4 November 2023

A bold testimony to interfaith conciliation

Peace Cathedral, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Ken Sehested

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

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Among the most important practices in the life of faith is lifting up and celebrating hopeful stories—however small or localized—where flourishing life pushes back the boundaries of grief’s shadow. This work is particularly important in the context of erupting racial-ethnic-religious hostilities.

As Richard Rohr has said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Among the least known amazing stories of this past week was a milestone accomplishment of the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, a country located on the eastern edge of the Black Sea in the Caucasus region where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia, on Russia’s southern border where, as in Ukraine, Russia has since 2008 occupied two Georgian provinces.

Some years ago Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, recipient of numerous human rights awards, had a vision of expanding the cathedral’s parameters to make space for a synagogue and a mosque, after riots against various minorities in Georgia in 2013 spurred him to show how the different faiths can unite against prejudice.

Part of that expansion was celebrated this past week when the Beit Knesset HaShalom synagogue was formally dedicated. Included in the occasion was the inaugural Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture, which is expected to occur annually at the synagogue. The initial address was delivered by Dr. Roland Stolte of the House of One in Berlin, Germany, which espouses a similar vision for Interreligious community.

Above: Holy Ark housing the Torah scroll in the Beit Knesset Ha Shalom synagogue, one of three sanctuaries in the Peace Cathedral interfaith compound.

A delegation of US and Canadian citizens led by Rev. Paul Hayes was present for the celebration. Hayes offered this comment:

“Against the backdrop of current wars and hostility, the Peace Project is a small, yet prophetic, claim that building relationships of trust and mutual care are possible and, indeed, preferable and necessary if peace is ever to be realized. To witness firsthand the depth of feeling and concern expressed between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists at a time like this provides the hope and assurance I need to counter the cynicism that too often leaves me in despair.”

The Peace Cathedral’s space also houses a chapel for use by other faith groups, including, most recently, by Buddhists, Yazidis, and Hindus.

Songulashvili, along with Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, the only female bishop in Georgia, have been highly public in their support of a variety of human rights concerns, opposing religious discrimination against minority peoples in the region, supporting interfaith dialogue, gender equality, and the LGBTQ community. In 2014 Gotsiridze was recipient of the International Women of Courage Award by the US Department of State.

What will be surprising to many is that the Peace Cathedral is a Baptist congregation, the “mother church” of the Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia, though the congregation’s liturgical style and architecture is deeply influenced by Georgian culture and its Orthodox history.

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Hymn of petition. “The Lord’s Prayer” sung in the Georgian language

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For further reading:

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Benediction. “O, Lord, Our God,” Georgian Orthodox chant in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

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Art below: A litany for worship, written by Ken Sehested, in honor of the Tbilisi Peace Cathedral bold vision of interfaith cooperation.

‘Long term capital decisions’ are the root cause of the US epidemic of gun violence

by Ken Sehested

Now that the search for the mass shooter in Maine is completed (though the trauma of Lewiston’s citizens will carry on for who-knows-how-long), this is a timely moment to turn public attention to the culprits that escalate the capacity for such carnage.

Two weeks ago the New York Times ran a review of a new book by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson, “American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15.”

Here are two key paragraphs:

“After the [assault rife ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1995] ended, in 2004, the door burst open [for its expanded manufacture and sale]. A gun enthusiast of a private equity firm entered the market, and, with a company called Freedom Group, flooded the country with AR-15-style guns. McWhirter and Elinson obtained internal documents from Freedom Group, including a ‘confidential’ memo by the marketing team arguing for allowing the company’s guns to be featured in violent video games as a way to help ‘create brand preference among the next generation who experience these games.’ In an email, a company executive marveled at how well this strategy seemed to work. . . .

“The day that Sandy Hook [Elementary School mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults on 14 December 2012] funerals began, Freedom Group’s board of directors held an emergency meeting, voting to acquire a gun barrel manufacturer that would make the company’s AR-15-style rifles even more profitable. Sandy Hook ‘was an awful horrific huge tragedy,’ Freedom Group’s chief executive later remarked in a disposition, ‘but its impact on the long-term capital decisions of the business were not a factor.’” —review by Mike Spies, New York Times Book Review, 15 October 2023, pp. 14-15

 Two takeaways:

  • Notice how the language of “freedom” is associated with a weapon whose sole purpose is to kill humans with great efficiency.
  • Notice how “awful horrific huge tragedy” cannot override the priority of “capital decisions.”

Three references documenting the fact that just economic relations are a consistent thread throughout Scripture and indicator of spiritual health:

  • For a long essay on this topic, see Ched Myers’ “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.”
  • For a book length study, see Walter Brueggemann’s “Money and Possessions.”
  • For additional other resources, see the Faith and Money Network site.

One conclusion:

Gun manufacturers in the US, significantly aided and abetted by their public relations firm, the National Rifle Association, are indirectly responsible for more fatalities and injuries than all the illicit drug manufacturers (everywhere in the world) combined.

§  §  §


After posting my recent “Trenched by sorrow” prose poem, I found myself compiling a collection of my favorite musical requiems and laments. That list is now posted here.

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A collection of musical requiem and lament

After posting my “Trenched by sorrow” prose poem, I found myself recalling favorite musical requiems and laments. And minutes turned to hours as I compiled an expansive list of those available for online listening. (I found short excerpts from some of the longer classical requiems.) The list below is limited by my own subjectivity, of course; but it does include wide variety of musical genres.

What are yours? I encourage you to make your own list. Pull one or more up to guide your prayers when hope gets hard to come by.

Our capacity to grieve is directly related to our capacity for hope, much like the circumference of a tree’s canopy is proportionate to its root system. The work of lament contains in its very performance the generative power of assurance that siphons away the rule of fear. (For more on this see “The labor of lament“) —Ken Sehested

§ “Come Holy Spirit / And stay with me always / Within You I’ll remain / For in You I’m sustained.” —Isaac Cates and the Ordained gospel rendition of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa: Requiem D Minor

§ “Pie Jesu” (“Merciful Jesus”) by Sarah Brightman, Paul Miles-Kingston. The music accompanies actual film footage from World War I’s “Battle of The Somme,” 1 July-18 November 1916, where more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.

§ “Waters of Babylon (where we sat down and wept).” —Sweet Honey in the Rock, lyrics drawn from Psalm 137

§ “Requiem,” Orthodox Christian Chant by the Choir of the Great Kiev Lavra

§ “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark! / And may there be no sadness of farewell / When I embark; / For, though from out our bourne of time and place / The flood may bear me far, / I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar.” —“Crossing the Bar,” Alfred Tennyson, performed by Laudate Mennonite Ensemble

§ “David, the king, was grieved and moved, / He went to his chamber, his chamber, and wept; / And as he went he wept, and said, / “O my son! O my son! / Would to God I had died, / Would to God I had died, / For thee, O Absalom, my son, my son.” —“268 David’s Lamentation,” Second Ireland Sacred Harp Convention 2012

§ “Strong wind, strong wind / Many dead, tonight it could be you / And we are homeless, homeless / Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.” —English translation, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Homeless

§ “Requiem for 3 Cellos and Piano” by David Popper performed by “Three Sisters Trio”

§ “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” —“How long, Lord?” translated lyrics from “Eela Mata Ya Rabbou,” hymn adapted from Psalm 13 of lament over the Israeli massacres of Palestinian protestors in the Gaza Strip, performed by Fairouz

§ “When I am laid, am laid in earth, / May my wrongs create / No trouble, no trouble in thy breast. / Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate. / Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” —Alison Moyet, Dido’s Lament from “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell

§ “Kaddish” from “Deux Melodies Hebraiques,” Maurice Ravel, featuring Olivia Da Costa

§ “Let me weep for my cruel fate / And sigh after freedom! / And let me sigh / Sigh after freedom! / May sorrow, out of pity, break the ropes of my sufferings, / of my sufferings, out of pity. / And let me sigh after freedom!” —English translation of lyrics to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”), performed by Aksel Rykkvin

§ “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Odetta.

§ “Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,” Thomas Weelkes, a eulogy on the death of Thomas Morley in 1602, performed by Vox Luminis

§ “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the / world, have mercy on us, who takes away the / sins of the world, grant us peace.” —translated lyrics to “Lament for the Valley,” one song in Karl Jenkins’ “For the Children” cantata, written to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Aberfan disaster in Wales, where a mountainside coal slurry damn broke sending the sludge down the mountain into Aberfan, crushing a school and nearby houses. One hundred sixteen children were killed, along with 26 adults.

§ “Holy Mother, where are you? / Tonight I feel broken in two. / I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. / Holy mother, can’t keep from crying. / Oh I need your help this time, / Get me through this lonely night. / Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.” —“Holy Mother” by Eric Claption, Luciano Pavarotti, and the East London Gospel Choir

§ “Mournful that day. / When from the ashes shall rise / a guilty man to be judged. / Lord, have mercy on him. / Gentle Lord Jesus, / grant them eternal rest. / Amen.” —English translation of lyrics to “Lacrimosa,” part of the Dies Irae sequence in the Requiem mass, performed by Elżbieta Towarnicka

§ “Precious Lord,” Fannie Lou Hamer. This was the last hymn Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. requested—for that evening’s mass meeting in Memphis—shortly before he was assassinated.

§ “Eies irae” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem”

§ “Wayfaring Stranger,” Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra

§ “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” Brahms Requiem, Taylor Festival Choir

§ “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord Have Mercy”), from Mozart’s Requiem Mass, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic

§ “Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken. / All our homes are gone, our loved ones taken. / Taken by the sea – / Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy. / Drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy. / Hear our mournful plea. / Our world has been shaken, / we wander our homelands, forsaken.” —Eliza Gilykson, “Requiem,” performed by Age to Age. The piece was written after the 26 December 2004 earthquake in the Indian ocean, creating a tsunami which struck Indonesia, killing over 260,000.

§ “May the angels lead you into paradise / May the martyrs receive you / In your coming / And may they guide you / Into the holy city, Jerusalem / May the chorus of angels receive you / And with Lazarus once poor / May you have eternal rest.” —Gabriel Fauré, “Requiem: In Paradisum

§ “Largo in D Flat” (“Going Home”), Antonin Dvorak, New World Symphony

§ “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger: / nor chasten me in thy displeasure. / Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak: / O Lord, heal me, / for my bones are troubled. / My soul also is troubled: / but, Lord, how long?” —English translation of Domine ne in furore tuo” (“O Lord, Rebuke Me Not”) by Claudio Monteverdi, performed by The Sixteen

§ “I raised my head and set myself / In the eye of the storm, in the belly of a whale / My spirit stood on solid ground / I’ll be at peace when they lay me down.” —Loretta Lynn & Willie Nelson, “Lay Me Down

§ Officium Defunctorum: Missa pro defunctis: I. Introitus,” Collegum Vocale Gent

§ “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” Henryk Górecki (1st movement, second part).

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Trenched by sorrow, tracked by joy

Is assurance believable in the face of trauma?

by Ken Sehested

How is it that the heart, trenched by sorrow, can be, at the same
time, enlarged in its capacity for empathy and compassion: the
qualities that trigger the work benevolence and the labor
of advocacy?

Grief can be lethal, of course. Survival typically requires the
tender stroke of many comforters: hands in hands, around
shoulders, full embrace, skin on skin; whispered
encouragement in the face of grief’s wake; assurance of the
sun’s resolve to arise despite the fright of darkest night.

Grief does not always transmit to grace, and grace to
generosity. But it can, if proper care is taken. Such care, of
course, is the assurance that misery is not the last word, is
not terminal, is not irreducible fate, is not beyond proper
requiem, proper remembrance, proper reverence. The
hallowing of grief can, like composted organic matter,
create the kind of fertile humus essential for life’s

Even beyond death, there is a Lamb’s Book of Life, with
names inscribed by One whose benevolence o’erpowers
all wrath, whose remembrance scoops up the abandoned,
the forsaken, the forgotten. There is a cherishing more
resolute than death’s grip. On this side of the sepulcher,
it can even be true that the ability to open one’s heart to
a neighbor’s pain is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is this assurance, this trustworthy covenant, that, in
the last appraisal, joy will transcend and amend grief’s
injury. The heart will be enlarged, enough to faithfully
abide in the midst of tragedy, sufficient to provide solace,
fierce advocacy, lavish assistance, resolute companionship
in the face of mortal threat.

Certainly, none of us can take it all in. It is not our job to ensure
history turns out right. We each sing in a chorused cloud of
witnesses—whether living, dead, or yet-to-be-born
accompanied by an orchestra of angels, directed by a Maestro
whose might is manifest in mercy, whose strength is
sufficient to defeat and dispel death’s dominion.

Such are the terms of our calling. Lean into this insurrectionary
summons. Fear not. Be of good cheer, despite the travail.
Compose requiems that mock the powers of vengeance. Linger
in the soul’s stilled point in the midst of howling storm. Nothing’s to
be lost save our shackling dismay, fear’s unbinding, sorrow’s
confounding. Though trenched by sorrow, know that you are
tracked by joy. Another world is not only possible; it is, even
now, hastening on its way. Offer prayers as flares to mark
the rendezvous.

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26 October 2023

Gaza, Israel, history

Commentary on yet another savage war in a war weary land

Ken Sehested
10 October 2023

Psalm 135: Arabic Orthodox Chant,”
from St. George Church, Aleppo, Syria.

Above: “Mother’s Embrace,” painting by Palestinian artist Nabil Anoni

Only the most ruthless will applaud, or even rationalize, Hama’s attack on Israel. It is heinous. Saturday’s attack began with an massacre of concertgoers at a venue near the Gaza border. It’s estimated that at least 260 Israelis were killed and an unknown number taken hostage.

Before you begin culling the goats from the sheep, however, you need to take into account some important history—which most US citizens do not know—of the decades of humiliation dished out on the Palestinian population.

What follows is a very partial summary for use as a starting point in understanding this history. It is a complicated history, to be sure. But saying that does not mean no conclusions can be drawn.

1. The rise of British imperialism directly shapes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Near the end of World War I, British authorities literally drew lines in the sand to create what are now considered nation states of the Middle East. This was in anticipation of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to these new “nations,” the regions were ruled by an assortment of potentates of various tribes, clans, and families. Britain’s map-making (initially with French support) artificially divided large people groups. The fractious legacy of those fabricated boundaries linger still.

2. The nation of Israel was created as a refuge for Jews escaping Europe’s holocaust ovens (on top of millennia of persecution), an episode unparalleled in the history of human savagery—in its systematic intention and implementation if not in sheer magnitude. Indeed, the brutal legacy of anti-Semitism (in which the Christian community shares significant responsibility) in many parts of the world is well-documented, including in the US.

3. Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948 was preceded by a decade of underground Jewish terrorist organizations operating in Palestine in resistance to British rule (and sometimes with each other). Those attacks, including bombings and targeted assassinations, escalated considerably near the end of World War II.

4. The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal which recommended a partition at the end of the British Mandate. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the Plan as Resolution 181, calling for two separate states, one Arab, one Jewish, with Jerusalem to be governed by a special international regime.

Hymn of petition
“There are people who want to live in peace / Don’t give up,
keep dreaming / Of peace and prosperity / When will the
walls of fear melt / When will I return from exile / And my
gates will open / To what is truly good.”
—English translation of Yael Deckelbaum &
Prayer of the Mothers, ensemble of Jewish, Arab
and Christian women “Prayer of the Mothers

5. Nevertheless, the Jewish safe-haven that is Israel was built on the backs of an indigenous population, one that is also Semitic, 726,000 of whom were displaced from their homes and ancestral lands when Israel declared its independence. Palestinians refer to it as al-Nakba (“The Catastrophe”). Those refugees, most living in camps—cauldrons of discontent—in Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, now total more than five million.

6. It’s true that Hamas, the political party governing Gaza, does not recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a nation state. It’s also true that the Likud Party now governing Israel is opposed in principle to the formation of a Palestinian state.

7. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Hamas “will pay a price it has never known,” likely including a ground invasion of Gaza. To get a sense of what he means, consider the last time Israel’s army entered that enclave, from 8 July until 26 August 2014. During that period, 2,251 Palestinians were killed; 1,462 of them are believed to be civilians, including 551 children and 299 women. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five civilians, including one child, were also killed. A half million Gazans were left homeless.

8. This past January the Times of Israel reported that “Since 2015, the [United Nations] General Assembly has adopted 140 resolutions criticizing Israel, mainly over its treatment of the Palestinians, its relationships with neighboring countries and other alleged wrongdoings. Over the same period, it has passed 68 resolutions against all other countries.”

9. Israel’s policy of settling its civilians in occupied Palestinian territory and displacing the local population, which has escalated in recent years, violates fundamental rules of international law.

10. On the West Bank, Palestinians can be arrested and indefinitely detained based on undisclosed “secret evidence.” Two in every five Palestinian men have been arrested. Since 2000, more than 12,000 children have been detained. For the last 15 years Gaza has been in virtual lock down, an open air prison.

11. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two of the world’s most respected human rights organized, consider Israel an apartheid state in their dealings with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In his best-selling 2006 book, “Palestine: Not Apartheid,” former President Jimmy Carter said the same.

Hymn of intercession
“Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Lilies [or Roses])” by
Yuval Ron Ensemble. This song, a love song well known
throughout the Middle East, is dedicated to the children of
Jerusalem, the vision of peace between Jews and Arabs,
and peace around the world.

12. Is Israel a democracy? Well, yeah, in the same way the US was a democracy when we nearly exterminated the indigenous population, endured a civil war whose body count was greater than all our other wars combined, lived with a century of Jim Crow laws and social norms, and are now threatened with massive racial and class divides along with the threat of Trumphoolery. Elections do not a democracy make. According to the Israeli 2018 “Nation-State” law, all citizens have human rights, but only Jews have “national rights.”

13. The so-called “Oslo Accords” (1993, 1995), which affirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” is utterly inadequate in its projected division of land. The proposed map of the Palestinian nation is more like a patchwork of reservations, each encircled by, and thus controlled by, Israel. Jewish human rights activist Jeff Halper has noted that 95% of the Occupied West Bank would be part of the new Palestinian nation is a grossly misleading statement. Inmates occupy some 95% of a prison. It’s what happens with the other 5% that matters

14. The violence of Palestinian terrorists doesn’t occur in a vacuum. “The first and worst violence,” according to Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli Knesset, “is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” Virtually every major human rights organization (including B’tselem, the leading Israeli human rights body) insist that Israeli demands for Palestinians to “stop the violence” actually turns reality on its head. If both sides were to immediately cease all hostilities, the resulting “peace” would leave Israel in an overwhelmingly dominant position. Any peace agreement that refuses to acknowledge the imbalance of power is destined to harden the realities of injustice and thereby sow the seeds for the next war.

15. It is certainly true that Arab “terror networks” exist and must be opposed—just as there have been Ku Klux Klan and other terror networks in the US for much of our history. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the greatest terrorist threat to US national security is currently the homegrown variety.

Hymn of consolation
Nami, Nami” (Arabic Lullaby), by Azam Ali

16. Theological claims that the land of ancient Palestine was promised to the Jews by God may be emotionally satisfying but cannot be privileged in a world where gods of every stripe and contour are around every corner, each claiming birthright for the few and scorn for every other. Palestinians (Christian, Muslim, and Druze) and Jews each have legitimate claims to the land, which if not shared could become a perpetual killing field. We need reminding that God’s call on Abram to forsake his home and travel to an unknown destination included this promise: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, emphasis added).

Israeli commentator Orly Noy, editor of the Hebrew-language news magazine “Local Call,” writes:

“It is important not to minimise or condone the heinous crimes committed by Hamas. But it is also important to remind ourselves that everything it is inflicting on us now, we have been inflicting on the Palestinians for years. . . .[V]iolence devoid of any context leads to only one possible response: revenge. And I don’t want revenge from anyone. Because revenge is the opposite of security. . . . [W]e have not only brought Gaza to the brink of starvation, we have brought it to a state of collapse. Always in the name of security. How much security did we get?”

Create In Me a Clean Heart (Psalm 51),”
Thingamakid children’s choir, Jacobs Jewish Summer Camp

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For more see “al-Nakba: Meditation on Israel, Palestine and the calculus of power” and “House to house, field to field: Reflections on a peace mission to the West Bank