Why Psalm 104:35a needs to be included in the reading for Pentecost Sunday

by Ken Sehested

The lectionary psalm for Pentecost Sunday (104:24-34, 35b) omits the wrathful premise (35a) of the final verse, which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Only then does the latter half of the verse return to proprietous devotion: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!”

I’m guessing the lectioners omitted that appeal for fear of inciting unruly discontent within the temple of pious obeisance and prudent civility.

Yet there is authoritative precedent for such editing. Did not Jesus, in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth’s temple, drop the first part of Isaiah’s closing line in chapter 61:1-2? After reciting “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (vv. 1:-2b),” he stopped short of saying “. . . and the day of vengeance of our God.”

The assembled crowd was impressed at the erudition of its local boy: “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. . . .”

So far, so good. But then Jesus (as is said) stopped preachin’ and got to meddlin’, as he expounded on the text, indicating that Israel’s deity was not bound by tribal prejudice, saying that the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, ignoring domestic needs, were sent to minister to members of Israel’s enemies (vv. 24-27). The crowd’s rave turned to rage.

Sacralizing vengeance—giving divine authority to human bloodlust—is repeatedly forbidden for those whose feet are shod with the Gospel of Peace.

So what are we to make of these texts, including the admonition of St. Paul: “Be angry, but sin not” (Ephesians 4:26)?

Anger over injustice is always—always—appropriate. Becoming inured, acclimated, to the presence of oppression and subjugation is the very definition of being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), to the ascendance of the Deceiver’s disordering of Creation’s intention. That one thrives on the blood of recrimination, with its ever-escalating spiral of violence.

Recall the pledge of Lamech, great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—making a vengeful vow that echoes to this day: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23).

But for people of faith, wrath’s clamor requires temperance; namely, fidelity to Heaven’s repeated injunction: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:17-19).

To be sure, the psalmist’s imprecatory rage is processed in lament before God—and is no sanction for lethal vengeance, however just our intent. But as long as the assaults now raining in the streets of the meek never raise an ache in our bodies nor a bruise on our hearts, we will never know the urgency of the Advocate’s liberating word.

Intercession implies a certain interposition. Faithfulness to the Way of Jesus implies risk to our own reputation, our own security, even our own body.

To pray intemperate prayers is to acknowledge the outrage; it is to be shaken from indifference; it is to confess that God is not neutral in the affairs of the earth. To issue such pestilent petitions, there in the very sanctuary of praise, is to proclaim the violation an affront not just to human decency but to the Holy One whose name’s sake is at stake: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker” (Proverbs 14:31).

Spiritual life begins in processing pain, as Richard Rohr notes; and pain not transformed will surely be passed along. Offering our inflamed impulses to God—parking them at Heaven’s doorstep—expresses an act of trust that, in the end, the Beloved will make the crooked straight, will humble the heights and exalt every hollow (Isaiah 40:3-4, Luke 3:5).

To bring grief to speech is itself a sign we have not given up on the Promise of a new heaven and a new earth—a Promise that metabolizes sorrow into joy: joy more sturdy than glee, joy that creates buoyancy in the midst of tumultuous storms, joy which converts the miserly into the magnanimous.

Blessed are you who entrust your rage to the Advocate for redress. Blessed are you who mourn in the midst of deprivation—for neighbors near or afar, acknowledging that your own sake is also at stake—for your Comforter hears and hurries toward the age when all tears will be dried and death itself comes undone (Revelation 21:4).

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A musical playlist for commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth anniversary (with a preface)

Ken Sehested


As I write, the fifth day of Eastertide (which began on Easter eve ending 50 days later on Pentecost Sunday) draws close. As does the moment in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing just outside his Lorraine Hotel’s second floor room in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was 6:01 p.m. CST. The fourth of April. Barely a half-century ago. He was 39 years old.

Just before a bullet found his jaw, he called out to one of his associates in the parking lot below, saying “make sure we sing Precious Lord tonight.”

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Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. . . .

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He had come to Memphis to support the city’s majority-black sanitation workers strike for better pay and working conditions. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff and advisors opposed his decision, saying he needed to focus on the upcoming Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. King’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war was a public relations nightmare for him and the SCLC. His public disapproval rating had risen to 75%.

A week before he participated in a workers’ march in Memphis which, dismally, ended in violence. Then, returning on 3 April, a bomb threat targeted King’s plane in Atlanta before it departed. He was so exhausted when he reached Memphis, he decided to skip that night’s mass meeting in support of the strikers, at the massive 7,500-seat sanctuary at Mason Temple Church of God In Christ.

Despite a massive thunderstorm that evening, the church house was crowded. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, his closest confidant and traveling companion, called King, saying the people needed to hear from him. Reluctantly, he went. And subsequently spoke extemporaneously for 40 minutes, in what we now remember as his soaring “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which was eerily foreboding (“I may not get there with you”) but also electrifying for the assembled crowd.

[Here’s a brief (2:37 video) excerpt of the speech’s key lines. The full version, and longer excerpts, are easy to find online. For more background, see “An ‘Exhausted’ Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final 31 Hours,” NPR.]

He nearly fainted when he finished. Abernathy and others had to help him into his chair on the podium.

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I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. . . .

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In the days following his assassination, riots broke out in 100 cities across the U.S. The historic Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have largely been gutted in this century by the U.S. Supreme Court. Only 11 years ago, with the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, we as a nation have been confronted with, and confounded by, the ways in which the “I Have a Dream” moment has been repeatedly delayed, diminished, and sometimes ruthlessly opposed.

In an interview with NBC in May 1967, King admitted that the “dream” of his historic 1963 speech had in some ways “turned into a nightmare.”

The reckoning still menaces.

In 2017 civil rights advocate Marian Wright Edelman wrote that earlier in the day King was shot, he phoned his mother to give her his coming Sunday’s sermon title at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, where he co-pastored with his father: “Why America May Go to Hell,” summarizing that “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.”

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Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. . . .

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I’ve long been fascinated by the enormous discoveries neuroscientists have made in recent decades about how the human brain works. Recently I came across this article, “Where Imagination Lives In Your Brain?” subtitled “The ability to conjure up possible futures or alternative realities is the flip side of memory. Both faculties cohabit in the brain region called the hippocampus.”

Or, more lyrically, as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote in the last century, “If you want to change people’s obedience then you must change their imagination.”

These findings corroborate Hebrew Scripture’s insistence that the worst sin is amnesia. The “Ten Commandments” are delivered with this authorizing premise, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, therefore. . . . “ (Deut. 20:2).

It’s the therefore premise which should occupy people of faith. Worship is the work of deciding and maintaining an orientation to worthiness, clarifying why we do what we do, illuminated by immersion in our texts alongside the voices of those with no claim to the table of bounty. The how—the roadmap to the Beloved Community—must be negotiated in the public arena with other people of faith and conscience. The Little Flock of Jesus has no privileged information on policy prescriptions.

Memory is the precursor to obedience (whose root word means “to pay attention”). And imagination, for a faithful future of flourishing, is directly tied to memory.

Listen. Pay attention. Remember who you are. “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) is part of the Christian Eucharistic mandate.

Arguably, the most important book on the modern Civil Right Movement is Vincent Hardings’ Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement. That’s the motivating spirit behind this (obviously subjective) compilation of musical selections remembering Dr. King.

Not him simply as a solitary hero, but as one whose name is a shorthand way of memorializing a mass movement that included a host of other luminaries and (this is especially important) a countless list of other individuals—threatened and bullied, arrested or lynched, or in some large or small way inconvenienced for the sake of the Beloved Community—whose names and stories are largely lost to history. But are no less cherished in the heart of God.

As preface to these suggestions: If you listen to only one recording, make it the first one, which isn’t a song (but is a melodic offering). It’s a recording of Dr. King’s account of his “kitchen table conversion.” While the urgency of a heavy lift for new social policies is real, at root there must also involve a conversion of the “heart,” both to embolden the policy demands and sustain them once approved—and refined, as needed, in every new season.

In the ungrammatical but theologically profound words of Mother Pollard, who faithfully participated in the 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, when asked how she was holding up having to walk to work, responded: “My feets is tired but my soul is rested.”

Allow these soul-resting tunes to sustain your weary feet.

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Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
—Thomas A. Dorsey

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¶ “The kitchen prayer of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” (4:26) —Poignant account of how he came close to giving up under the pressure of threats to him, his wife, and infant daughter

“Early morning, April four / Shot rings out in the Memphis sky. / Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride. / In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2 

The Ballad of Martin Luther King.” —Brother Kirk, Pete Seeger and Sesame Street kids.

“I got a dream / We gonna work it out . . . / I got a dream / That one day / I’m a look deep within myself, I gotta find a way.” —“A Dream,” Common

“Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King / and recognize that there are ties between us, / all men and women living on the Earth. / Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, / that we are bound together / in our desire to see the world become / a place in which our children can grow free and strong. / We are bound together by the task that stands before us / and the road that lies ahead. / We are bound and we are bound.” —James Taylor, “Shed a Little Light

¶ “Sleep, sleep tonight / And may your dreams be realized. / If the thunder cloud passes rain / So let it rain, rain down on he. / So let it be. / So let it. “ —“MLK,” U2’s song in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., performed by Darrell Adams

One Day.” —Bakermat (I Have A Dream REMIX)

Oh Freedom.” —The Golden Gospel Singers

Ken Medema. —13-minuted performance for a Martin Luther King commemorative service at Marble Collegiate Church, New York City

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” —Freedom Singers perform at the White House. Bernice Johnson Reagon, looking directly at President Barack and Michelle Obama, says to them and the gathered guests “you have to actually sing [not just listen to] this song.”

We Shall Overcome.” —Morehouse College Glee Club

Sing About Martin.” —kids’ song

¶ “Now the war is not over, victory isn’t won / And we’ll fight on to the finish, then when it’s all done / We’ll cry glory, oh glory.” Glory,” John Legend

¶ “I’d rather stand tall / Than live on my knees / ‘Cause I’m a conqueror / And I won’t accept defeat / Try telling me no / One thing about me / Is I’m a conqueror.” — “I Am a ‘Conqueror,” Estelle Pays Tribute To Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

¶ “Soon I will be done / With the troubles of the world . . . / I’m going home to live with God.” —“Soon I Will Be Done,” Arkansas Gospel Music Heritage, featuring Bethany  (Which is not, as some would say, a resignation or abdication from history, but the essential assurance of a Presence and a Promise that sustains in the midst of tribulation on the rugged, bandit-threatened road to the Beloved Community.)


“Queen of Gospel” singer Mahalia Jackson often traveled with King using her powerful music on the civil rights circuit. Sitting near King during his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, she prompted him to drop his prepared manuscript, saying “tell them about the dream Martin.” Which he did. Jackson, therefore, should be partially credited for prompting what is now considered the top American speech of the 20th century and, arguably, “the greatest in the English language of all time.”  Here’s her rendition of “Precious Lord.”

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Happy birthday to St. Patrick and saintly Bayard Rustin

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (traditional chain gang song),” One Voice Mixed Chorus in remembrance of Bayard Rustin, the least-known-most-important civil rights leader.

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I was delighted today that the children’s storyteller in our worship service told (with costumed and animated assistance of our teens) of both St. Patrick and Bayard Rustin on the occasion of their shared birth anniversary

Patrick gets all the public attention every year on this date. Even in my small West Texas town, you got pinched at school if you didn’t have some item of green attire. Though there was no drunken revelry, since Scurry County was “dry.”

St. Patrick (5th century CE) wasn’t Irish, didn’t expel snakes from Ireland, has no “miracle” attributed to him (which now is required for sainthood), and didn’t write the poem “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Ironically, though, his fame was sufficiently established in his lifetime that different groups of his followers fought for custody of his body. Relatively little is known for certain about his life, but this much is documented: He was likely the first early church leaders to speak out against the abuse of women.

What is rarely told about Irish history, though, occurred centuries later. The “Great [Potato] Famine” in Ireland (1845-1852) claimed the lives of a million people and prompted the migration of another million, reducing the country’s population by nearly 25%.

And it wasn’t merely a natural disaster—it was also a very human one; indeed, one of modern history’s most cruel political escapades. During the famine, British landowners in Ireland exported £17 million worth of foodstuffs of all sort. The Irish starved, or fled to other countries, because of British-sponsored colonial choices. (“Free market” and all that.) The potato blight (which happened across Europe) was an historic disaster; but what made the period catastrophic were very human financial policies.

For more on that, see Bill Bigelow’s The Real Irish-American Story Not Taught in Schools.”

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Bayard Rustin, born on 17 March 1912, is among the least well-known key leaders of the modern US Civil Rights Movement. Mostly because he was an out gay Black man.

It didn’t help that he was a pacifist—before, during and after World War II—and served 28 months in a federal penitentiary, beginning in 1943, for his refusal of military service.

It also didn’t help that for a few years, before Joseph Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union, Rustin was a member of the Communist Party in the US. He never looked back on that affiliation; in fact, he later became an outspoken critic of Soviet aggression. But he always considered himself a socialist.

At various times Rustin (a lifelong Quaker) was a brilliant strategic planner for the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the War Resisters’ League. Many would say his signature accomplishment was as the organizing strategist for the 1963 March on Washington.

Rustin also recorded a number of Negro spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Here are some media sources on Rustin’s life for more information:

“I remembered Bayard Rustin, a conscientious objector who had served time in prison during the Second World War and then became a leader in the civil rights movement, saying that being a pacifist is one-tenth conscientious objection and nine-tenths working to do away with the things that make for war. —David Hartsough with Joyce Hollyday, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist

“My activism did not spring from my being gay, or for that matter, from my being black. Rather it is rooted, fundamentally, in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me.” —Bayard Rustin, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, edited by Michael G. Long

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For more than a decade my wife played the song below first thing after entering her chaplain’s office at the Marion Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison for me. She did so to center herself, metaphorically putting on “the whole armor of God” in preparation for the days demeaning behavior, conflict, and occasional violence.

Benediction. “I arise today / Through God’s strength to pilot me / God’s eye to look before me / God’s wisdom to guide me / God’s way to lie before me / God’s shield to protect me / From all who shall wish me ill / Afar and anear / Alone and in a multitude / Against every cruel / Merciless power / That may oppose my body and soul.” —“The Deer’s Cry,” (aka “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”), Rita Connolly, with the Curtlestown Choir

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The approach Palm Sunday-Holy Week-Easter season is a good time to ask you to provide financial support for Voluntary gifts from readers are our only source of budget support. We earn about $166.6666667 per month for a 3/4ths time job as author, editor, designer, IT support, and bookkeeper. (Though it is odd, though, that many of the wealthiest companies in the US actually get a tax rebate from the IRS.)

Thanks to our talented guest artist, Kenn Comptom—creator many years ago of prayerandpolitiks’ guardian angel—Gabriel has gotten a needed much needed makeover. (See above.) Gabriel advised me to raise funds by sponsoring a contest with readers suggesting a last name for him. I had to tell him that . . . well . . . we just don’t do that sort of thing.

“OK THEN!” he said, his pride a little stung, “JUST TELL’EM ‘TIS MORE BLESSED TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE.” So there it is. Your cards and letters are also much appreciated.

This link has instructed on various ways to do this.

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Horses, houses, and human hearts

Giving your heart to Jesus will make you odd

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Give Me a Clean Heart.” —James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir

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Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope now you leave it alone.”
—Greg Brown, performed by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky

This coming Sunday’s lections include two verses with recognizable Lenten notes: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” from Psalm 51 and the promise of the Almighty, in Jeremiah 31, of a mandate not just carved in stone tablets but actually written on the human heart, so indelibly that no one will ever again need to proclaim “Know the Lord” for all, from the least to the greatest, already have this inscribed on their hearts.

No more sermons, books, devotionals, or even hymns—save the everlasting anthems of praise that inevitably rise like moist, salted flour with the addition of yeast.

“Religion of the heart” has a decidedly evangelical Protestant ring to it, evoking the perorations of revivalism, with emotionally fraught, closing hymns of “invitation,” the come-to-Jesus rite. (In commerce, the concluding bargaining includes emotional manipulation called “sealing the deal.” While watching television with my then-four-year-old, after a used car commercial she innocently asked, “Daddy, was that a preacher?”)

Though soaked in this religious environment from children through adolescence, I’ve jettisoned most vestiges of “evangelical” culture, which now has become almost synonymous with White/Christian nationalism. Even when this cancerous growth has not appeared, evangelical piety has turned in on itself. The truth of that traditional spiritual holds: “I want Jesus to walk with me” is a powerful invocation. But often the comfort provided is little more than that of a favorite teddy bear to a small child. Hearts are severed from hands and feet. The circuitry of this piety has largely failed. There is no consideration of Jesus’ response in kind, “Come walk with me.”

As Clarence Jordan said in his inimitable way, “We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus and never do anything he says.”

Besides enduring love for some of the old hymns of my rearing, there’s this compelling disclosure of life lived in the Spirit: Faith is indeed a matter of the heart; that a transformation “from within” is essential, a conversion which cannot be affected by creedal conformity, emotional intensity, or even moral rectitude.

One of my favorite lines from contemporary music comes from the Greg Brown: “Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope now you leave it alone.” In most of what passes for spirituality in our time—whether it’s the old-fashioned type of piety or the newer-age variety (and there are some stunning similarities)—there is a radical disconnect between religion of the heart and life in the flesh. A lot of people—when they talk about “giving your heart to Jesus” (a phrase found nowhere in Scripture)—what they mean is having a religious experience tinged with certain kinds of emotion and articulated with certain formulaic language.

As Robert McAfee Brown has written, attempts to separate personal faith from public policy “have been front and center ever since Pharaoh unsuccessfully tried to persuade Moses that religion had nothing to do with Egypt’s domestic policy on the status of nonindentured servants.”

In times past, the evangelical impulse in multiple Christian traditions was a reaction against stifling liturgical protocol, constrictive dogma and calcified creedalism, narrowly restrictive moralism, or despotic church hierarchy.

That impulse functioned, for a time (long since passed), in a way not unlike what New Testament scholar Walter Wink articulated nearly 50 years ago in “How I Have Been Snagged by the Seat of My Pants While Reading the Bible.” That short essay was the opening salvo of his debate with the scholarly biblical guild’s overconfidence in the historical-critical method of study because of the way it completely objectified the text and did not allow “the exegesis [study] of the exegete [student].”

His two major complaints were about “objectivism” and “the ideology of individualism, the flawed humanism of the Enlightenment, and an interpretation of Christianity which resolutely avoids addressing the principalities and powers” [the transpersonal forces that shape the way we see in the world in ways of which we are not conscious].

Interrogating the text is needed; but we also must allow ourselves to be interrogated by the text. The question of faith—or no—demands a concrete response from us. The choice of faith involves being “snagged by the seat of our pants.”

One of the unfortunate aftershocks of the Enlightenment has been the assignment of the human heart as the metaphor of emotion, so that the heart is now the fickle organ, susceptible to mood changes: frivolous, irresolute, pliable. Sentimental faith is like cotton candy. Coming at you, it looks huge; but it’s most air, and what substance there is will rot your teeth.

Truth is, that older evangelical impulse was on to something important. The walk of faith entails a profound rearrangement of how the world (and our place in it) is perceived. It requires metanoia, a significant directional change—not just of emotions or cognitive assent to doctrinal formulation or pious posture, but a retooling of the desires and convictions that shape and drive patterns of behavior.

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Hymn of aspiration.Give Me a Clean Heart.” —Merlon Devine, saxophone jazz instrumental, inspired by Psalm 51

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In the Bible, the provenance of the “heart” is that capacity to make determinative and sustainable decisions. The heart is actually the Supreme Court of an individual’s character. It receives data and opinion from all the senses and cognitive activity, then makes a binding decision. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said “You must be born again” (born from “above,” not from the place beyond the sky but from a radically different frame of reference and valuation). The Apostle Paul was pointing to this same truth when he urged “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind. . .” (Romans 12:2).

People with little or no religious sensibility understand this requirement. Angela Davis, the Marxist and feminist political activist and author, wrote: “We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society.” In contemporary terms, this “renewing of the mind” process as deconstruction. The “world” (which is not the same as the Earth) is a complex web of warped and destructive desires that distort Creation’s intent for flourishing life of both adam (humanity) and adamah (soil, land). But something has gone terribly wrong. As the early Genesis text declares, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (6:11).

Spiritual corruption and physical violence are mirror images. Professed faith that does not address the disordering of material life is a sham, a show, a masquerade, yet one more way to evade life lived in the Spirit. The devil, as has been said, does some of his best work in the halls of peppy religious piety.

To further illustrate the point of reference of transformed hearts to corporeal conditions, consider these three key metaphors in Scripture.

The Bible has two different pivotal images or metaphors for material reality, horses and houses.

For ancient Israel, “horses” represented military might and prowess. One could even say that horses were as strategically important in ancient times as tanks were in World War II. Time after time Israel was seduced away from trust in Yahweh God to a national policy of “peace through strength.” Listen to a few of the relevant texts:

Isaiah warns: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel” (31:1). (See also Psalm 20:7 and 33:16-17; and Hosea 1:7.)

Here’s a paraphrase for modern ears: “I will not deliver them by Trident submarines, nor by Cruise or Pershing missiles, not by strategic defense initiatives or covert operations, not even by doctrines of full-spectrum dominance.”*

Where “horses” for Israel represented military readiness, “houses” on the other hand was the metaphor for economic strength, for an expanding foreign market and resource extraction, for increased productivity and consumer purchasing power, Wall Street gains, and a larger Gross National Product.

Isaiah pronounces this verdict: “. . . the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land” (5:7-8). (See also Amos 5:11; Matthew 23:14; and Acts 4:34.)

In Hebrew thinking, the heart is the deepest level of a human personality, representing the true picture of the person. The Latin word credo, from which we get the word “creed,” comes from two words which together mean “I give my heart to.” Listen to these texts:

Ezekiel gives voice to God’s word: “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances” (11:19-20). (See also Psalm 112:5-9; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 6:21; Acts 4:32.)

The point of comparing these three biblical metaphors is to illustrate the fact that decisions about horses and houses are made in the human heart. The Reign of God is rightly said to be about human hearts, because it is in the human heart that choices are made about ultimate trust and security.

Jesus’ concise statement in Matthew, on the relation between hearts and treasures, is stark: The heart’s GPS is tracked relative to treasure (where we typically reverse such ordering!). Flesh’s positioning determines the heart’s location: its loyalties, presumptions, and fields of vision.

If other words, treasury decisions are not merely social or political choices. They are, at bottom, spiritual conclusions. Whether of a single household, a local congregation, or a nation-state, budgets are moral documents.

In biblical terms, therefore, giving one’s “heart” to Jesus is in fact the most subversive, world-threatening thing that can happen to a person in a world configured in such a way that might makes right; that only the strong survive; that you make what you earn and keep what you can.

As has been said, you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.

The 5th century BCE Greek historian Thuycydides sums up such worldly assumptions on a larger scale when he wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War: “. . . the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Contrary to what we are taught by the world’s sway, the garment of faith is woven with intertwined fibers: hearts open to the portal of God’s mercy, formed and informed by eyes and ears compassionately attuned to human misery. According to Jeremiah, the occasion of praise “to the Lord” is triggered by the delivery of the needy from the hands of evildoers (20:13).

The longing for a clean heart is our Lenten overture. Cleaning requires some scrubbing. None of our hearts are spared the clutter and grime of a world where the arrogant heedlessly pursue their exploitation of the meek. According to the gospel of the market, there are “makers” and there are “takers.” The former are to be privileged in public policy; the latter, left to benign neglect.

This is why Lent has its scouring agents: prayer, the intensive quieting of the body and mind in order to hear the Word that transcends the world’s cacophony; fasting, a conscious check on the intrusion of destructive habits and twisted desires; and almsgiving, testifying to the conviction that mutual security—especially in regard to the vulnerable neighbor—is the only lasting security.

Lent’s scouring, its deconstruction and decolonizing scrubbing, is not an undertaking to prove ourselves worthy in God’s eyes, nor a ransom to secure Heaven’s endorsement amid Earth’s rivalries. Rather, scouring stems from the recognition that our hearts have grown cold to the Affection which has pledged to make all things new.

Pilgrim, neither hide nor despise your oddness. Jesus is not going to leave your heart alone. Though sorrow now marks our days, though tears linger through the night, Joy is coming in the morning (Psalm 30:5), when mourning’s sigh will be silenced.

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Benediction. Miserere Mei Deus” (God have mercy on me), Psalm 51 set to music in 1630 by Gregorio Allegri, performed her by The Sixteen.

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*Full-spectrum dominance is the official defense policy of the United States. It includes dominance in space-based weaponry in addition to land, sea and sky, as well as cyber warfare. As early as April 2001 the United States Department of Defense defined “full-spectrum superiority” as: “The cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment, which includes cyberspace, that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.”


On the proximity of International Women’s Day and the start of Ramadan

Ken Sehested

Introduction: On the proximity of the International Women’s Day (8 March 2024) and the cusp of Ramadan (10 March 2024 sundown, a month-long ascetically devotional observance commemorating the initial revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 CE, later named the Noble Qur’an)

Little is known about the 8th century CE Islamic poet and mystic often named simply as Rabia of Basri (a city/region in what is now southern Iraq). But her stature as one of the first saints in Islam is unquestioned, especially among Muslims who identify with the more mystical tradition of Sufism. The quote below which addresses (without naming) Allah (the Arabic word for God) as “eternal beauty” is a striking feature of mystical traditions of all sorts:

“If I adore You out of fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I adore You out of desire for paradise, lock me out of paradise. / But if I adore You alone, do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.”

The suggestion that beauty and truth are interrelated is ancient. The Latin phrase pulchritudo splendor varitatis (“beauty is the splendor of truth”) is thousands of years old. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” British poet John Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The interrelation between beauty and truth is puzzling to Western ears. The “beauty” referenced here is not that of fashion runways, high brow classical music, or museum worthy art in general.

Truth is more than naked fact. Truth is more than conclusive, demonstrable science, or even the “beauty” of mathematical coherence.

Truth is beautiful because it is compelling and captivating. It moves the feet, not just the brain. This is why a beatific vision—not relentless resolve—is essential to redemptively engage a world predicated on enmity and violence. Moral heroism is impressive; but grit and determination are insufficient capacities to be sustained over the long hall.

Beauty, rather than duty, is the fertile ground from which right-relatedness flowers, nourishes, and endures. Beauty’s offspring is mercy, which is more than charity, but also does the demanding work of mediating the demands of justice with the prerequisites of peace.

Tellingly, the Arabic root of the word Ramadan can be translated as “burning, blazing, or glowing”—not unlike the dazzling, glowing scene of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels.

Sustainable work for justice, the pursuit of peace, the advocacy for civil rights, is inherently grounded in doxology (praise): Those enraptured by the vision of a New Heaven and New Earth (though our performance never completed), of a New Jerusalem (James Baldwin’s preferred metaphor), of the Beloved Community (a phrase Dr. King employed to great effect), of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming “Kingdom of God” (the consistent premise of his words and deeds) do not engage in this risky work in order to afford a later reward.

There is no divine lay-away plan at work, whereby we make incremental payments toward an eventual, greater pay-off in the bye-and-bye. We undertake our perilous calling because we have been saturated with the assurance of Heaven’s claim on history’s consummation.

In short, there is no getting “right” with God. There’s only getting soaked.

The psalmist declares that Heaven’s affirmation is for Earth’s reclamation, predicting that “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” (85:10-12).

It’s a bet-your-assets kind of affair.

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9 March 2024

Days of hysteria (madness), promise of hilaria (rejoicing)

On maintaining the heart’s composure
amid electoral mania

Ken Sehested

There is a certain pathology in our current season,
electoral follies punctuated by fresh tales of human
fury and nature’s duress—the combination exaggerated
if not unique. All the more reason to be reminded:

There is a life beneath, above, on the other side of this
present madness, a brightness excelling all expectation,
but not necessarily the one imagined, a surprise ending
beyond the sadness, a gladness for which we can only

wait in vigilant stillness—stillness, not inertia—where
the stilling is an ascetic centering and concentration
of the heart’s innermost desire reaching past the
boundaries of skin and kin, beyond stingy

care-fullness to generous care-lessness, where hope
eclipses fear’s gravitational pull, freeing hands to
practice the things that make for peace, releasing feet
to comport the good news of earth’s impending

reclamation and renewal. Despite much evidence,
those with eyes on the prize of a different, deeper
calling arise to confess that terror’s bedeviling will
not last. Creation’s aria and Redemption’s descant

may yet be heard above the dissonance, bolstered by
a chorus of witnesses, some as recent as yesterday,
sometimes even the stones themselves, in simple
melodies and complex harmonies. God’s orchestration

is not yet done. The finale is assured. Those with ears
to hear, persevere. Adagio. Be still. Hysteria’s reign is
in recession. Hilaria’s days of rejoicing approach.
Maranatha. Come quickly!

# # #
5 March 2024

We live in a fretful land

A litany for worship regarding the plight of immigrants

Gracious One, who jealously guards the lives of those at every edge, we lift our heavy hearts to your Mercy. Corrosive leaders claim that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

We live in a fretful land, anxious over the ebbing away of privilege, fearful that strangers are stealing our birthright.

Loud, insistent voices demand a return to “the rule of law.”

Speak to us of the Rule of your law, the terms of your Reign. Incline our hearts to your command.

“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deut. 27:19)

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you” (Exod. 12:49).

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien” (Lev. 19:33).

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against . . . those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 3:5)

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

[Speaking to those destined for paradise, Jesus explained:] “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt. 25:35)

All the people shall say, “Amen!”

For we, who were formerly illegal aliens and undocumented workers in Creation’s midst, “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19)

Truly. Verily. Surely. Amen!

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—Ken Sehested (29 February 2024)

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”