Letting Pharaoh go

A Maundy Thursday meditation

by Ken Sehested

Maundy Thursday, a key observance in Christian Holy Week calendar, is often associated with the Gospel of John’s account of the “Last Supper,” when the central plot is not the meal but the shocking narrative of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples.

The dramatic climax comes when Peter objects to having his feet washed by Jesus—likely because of his notion of reverence: Jesus is to be served (honorifically attended), as is the custom in the every culture of privilege.

Recall for a moment that the Gospels record the disciples’ argument over who among them would be greatest in the coming Kingdom—once at the very table Luke mentions as the final their final meal together. I can only imagine Jesus’ heartbreak that even now, shortly before his final showdown with imperial authorities, his closest friends were still clueless about the counter cultural nature of his mission.

It is indeed an “other” world; but not one evacuated to the high reaches of heaven, but bursting out in the very stuff of history’s creaturely life.

The scholarly debate over whether this final meal was formally a Passover observance is maddeningly complex. There’s no question, however, that this narrative was happening on the cusp of that pivotal Jewish remembrance of the Exodus, that dramatic escape from Egyptian clutches, following by the desert wandering, the Sinai instructions, and the entry into a “promised land.”

The Exodus march was not like a Marti Gras parade, however. The text says that less than two months into the trek, “the whole congregation of the Israelites” began complaining to Moses, even suggesting maybe they should go back to their dependent status in a company-store economy. Life may have been hard in Egyptland, but at least they had enough to eat.

Evidently, God did not take offense at this bickering (Exodus 16:2-3) but instructed Moses to tell them that provisions would be made, both morning and evening—and that these provisions would disclose “the glory of the Lord.”

Then come detailed instructions on the morning gathering of manna. Each household would gather only enough to satisfy its members: Those who gathered much had nothing left over; those who gathered little had enough (16:17-18). The harvesting was aligned with sufficiency: gather too much, the stuff will rot and be worm infested.

Furthermore, the gathering on the sixth day should include enough for the seventh, allowing for a day not just for leisure but weekly reorientation and recommitment to a vision of equity and a rejection of the relentless striving for more, and yet more, that characterizes the impulse of every assertion of “manifest destiny” and imperial modes of empire.

Neither Israel, nor America, can lay claim to being “first.”

The “glory of the Lord” means no more surfeiting: no more restless, never-ending accumulation; no more gorging; no more coveting neighbors. Or as the Book of James would later interrogate: Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? Your cravings! You want and cannot obtain; therefore you commit murder.

Even worse, by “befriending” such behaviors, you become “an enemy of God”! (4:1-4)

God’s “glory” is displayed in neighborliness. God’s “enemies” are those who hoard.

No doubt Jesus had this narrative in mind when, in John’s Gospel, he scandalously breached the logic of what is commonly viewed as power. He, the “master,” assumed the kneeling posture of a washer woman to clean his subordinates’ feet as a symbolic representation of the new pattern of redemptive community.

To be aligned with this alternative community, everything you recognize as to how the world “works” is rejected: No more would the strong take what they can, no more the weak suffer what they must.

From here on, as Hebrew scripture repeatedly affirms, special attention is to be given to the widow, the orphan, the migrant—the most vulnerable and all judged unworthy to be seated at the banquet of plenty.

This assertion is clearly reinforced in Jesus’ utterly incongruous claim that the only road to heaven included compassionate partnering with the hungry, the evacuee, the inadequately clothed, the feverous and frail, the massively incarcerated. That is to say, the debris field in every communized and capitalized culture.

This is Passover’s preface to Sinai’s covenant imperatives. This is the paschal signifier of the sacrifice and posture worthy of God’s glory. Holy Week’s mandatum (mandate) is to align with the posture by whose terms alone will vanquish death’s greatest threat.

The baptismal vows of those on the Way of Jesus center around the ongoing struggle to let Pharaoh go.

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Maundy Thursday, 6 April 2023

Easter’s threat, King’s dream, and national pretension

by Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Hatred had me bound, had me tied down / Had me turned around, couldn’t find my way / Then you walked with me and You set my spirit free / To me and my family down that long highway / Free at last, free at last / Free from the world and all it’s sins / Free at last, free at last / I’ve been to the top of the mountain.” —Joan Baez, “Free At Last

§  §  §

Given the lunar calculus of setting Easter’s date, the occasion moves around on our solar calendar, landing anywhere between late March to late April. Every year, therefore, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on 4 April 1968 occurs within that span. This coincidence is an interpretive matrix in my faith formation.

Among our stubborn human tendencies is to create sentimental memories of times past that actually were turbulent, conflicted, even dangerous. Nowadays, Easter bunnies substitute for Jerusalem’s colonizing Roman soldiers. Clothiers and chocolate makers alike look forward to the day as much as any cleric.

Choirs perform new jubilant anthems. Well appointed sanctuaries feature brass ensembles. (And I confess, I do love such music.)

The Sunday leading up to Easter, children process with palms, ancient symbol of peace and prosperity, historically associated with military prowess. These days you can purchase plastic Easter eggs painted in military patterned camouflage, each with a toy soldier inside.

Jesus overturns no tables in modern Holy Week reenactments. Few feet are washed.

You would think that Jesus was executed for preaching the Golden Rule.

Our recollections of Dr. King and the troublesome movement he represented have also been acclimatized. Military bands are often featured in Atlanta’s ML King Day parade. His “I Have a Dream” speech gets a little dreamier each passing year. Alabama and Mississippi’s ML King birthday holiday is a “King-Lee” day, splicing the occasion to also remember Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the “Lost Cause” mythology.

A few years ago the makers of Dodge Ram pickups ponied up $5 million for a Super Bowl ad—an homage to patriotism and “service”—featuring a brief line from one of Dr. King’s sermons.

We forgot long ago how polarizing Dr. King was. The Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to him as “the most dangerous Negro” in the country. They along with two other intelligence agencies (we have 17 of them, in case you were curious) illegally spied not only on Dr. King but numerous other activists.

King’s favorability ratings plummeted after his historic 4 April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City (exactly one year prior to his assassination), where he vigorously condemned the war in Vietnam and referred to the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

He had long since understood the Beloved Community went well beyond bus seating, water fountains, and lunch counters. Less than a month after his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, he was presiding at the funerals of the girls killed by a terrorist bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Nowadays, a number of state legislatures have approved, or are considering, laws making it illegal for teachers to present material that might make a student feel uncomfortable. Even after a “war on poverty,” the median wealth of white households is ten times that of African Americans.

But of course, I never heard that when our country’s Declaration of Independence insisted that “all men are created equal,” it literally meant men. Not just men. White men. And not just white men but property-owning white men. It would take nearly three-and-a-half centuries between the first arrival of chattel slaves from Africa and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And those rights are now eroding in many parts of the country.

It’s not the case that we are, merely as individuals, suffering memory loss as to Easter’s threat and Dr. King’s critique. There are potent economic, cultural and political interests collaborating in the work of dis-remembering and sugar-coating our history.

There are also powerful forces at work disguising the ambiguous character of our nation’s aspirations regarding foreign policy.

In my high school senior year. the last six weeks of our world history class was devoted to studying J. Edgar Hoover’s book, Masters of Deceit, that propagandizing screed which encouraged citizens to see a communist behind every bush. And if you didn’t pass that one six-week period of one course, you could not graduate.

There is, to be sure, a legacy of foreign policy—not to mention a host of foreign service personnel—nobly championing the pursuit of human dignity and democratic aspirations. What we fail to see over the course of our history is that when human rights and economic gain are in conflict, the latter are more likely to govern our action.

One document in particular, written in the years after World War II gave way to the Cold War, that articulates the “political realism” of this principle.

George Kennan, then US ambassador to the Soviet Union (later named “the most influential diplomat of the 20th century”), wrote a lengthy secret memo, later declassified, advocating for a bare-knuckled game plan for our nation’s foreign policy. This long excerpt is worth needed attention:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. . . .

“We should dispense with the aspiration to ‘be liked’ or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brother’s keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” (You can read the full proposal here.)

Among our most urgent tasks as people of The Way is recovery of memory. Beginning with comprehending the threat that saturated the first Holy Week.

In his book The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, Lee Griffith wrote, “It is the resurrection which is the terror of God to all who believe that death should have the final word.”

Add to that, regarding the legacy not just of Dr. King but of the countless others, a few named, most unnamed, who put their security on the line in service to the Beloved Community. The urgent question for us is: How has it become so common to respect the man but relinquish the mission? To revere the dreamer but renege on the dream?

Movements have a tendency to become museums.

Finally, it is imperative that we do the excavation needed for an honest reading of our nation’s history.

In commentary on a news channel, Dr. Eddie Glaude, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, commented: “America is not unique in its sins as a country. We’re not unique in our evils. . . . Where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness, to hide and cover and conceal, so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.”

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, to expose our pretension, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

§  §  §

Benediction. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech—“I’ve been to the mountaintop”—on 3 April 1968, the night before his assassination. Here’s is a brief (1:13) excerpt. You can view the entire speech (43:14 video) here.

        Background to the speech. There was a terrible storm that night in Memphis. King was tired. The initial march in support of sanitation workers had attracted provocateurs who smashed windows along the march route. King was deeply discouraged. His staff was very unhappy that he chose to be in Memphis when so much work was needed on the upcoming “Poor Peoples’ March” in Washington, DC. Memphis seemed like a distraction.

Given the bad weather the night of the rally, given his tired and disappointed disposition, he didn’t want to go. “Ralph, you can take care of it.” But an overflow crowd showed up. And they wanted to hear King. So Abernathy called him and said “Martin, the people want to hear from you.” So he went and spoke extemporaneously, going on that famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” riff, but then going on to say “I may not get there with you.” Almost a premonition of what happened the next day. He was 39 years old when the sniper’s bullet arrived.


Lent’s labor in light of Easter’s conclusion

A series of short meditations on the season’s tragicomedy

by Ken Sehested

Listen, smith [artisan] of the heavens, / what the poet asks. /
May softly come unto me / your mercy. / So I call on thee, /
for you have created me. . . . / Most we need thee. / Drive out, O king of suns, /
generous and great, / every human sorrow / from the city of the heart.
—“Heyr himna smiður” (“Hear, Heavenly Creator”), 12th century Icelandic poem,
put to music by Thorkell Sigurbjornsson, performed by Eivør Pálsdóttir
(click the “show more” button to see all the lyrics)

The traditional emphases of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are intensely personal but never merely private. The depths of our hearts are connected with the depths of the world. The brokenness of our personal lives is intimately bound up with the rupture of the world itself. The joy we experience and the beauty we encounter reflects Creation’s original intent and promised fulfillment.

The logic of focused attention to personal repentance is not segregated holiness but public healing, of “the earth and all that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

Such disciplines represent strategic interventions designed to confront gluttonous appetites—appetites that are seeded and cultivated in ways even the most kindly fail to see. The deadliest thing about privilege in the midst of privation is that we often are not even aware of it. Lent’s aim is to disabuse us of such innocence. Not to molest us (discomforting as it may be) but to befriend and amend us according to the Beloved Community’s covenant terms.

Though they require different strategies, the disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are organically connected.

Why have you forsaken us?
–“Forsaken,” The Many: Lament for Black Lives Lost”

Some years ago the Brazilian pastor-theologian Odja Barros was our guest preacher. One of the things we encouraged her to speak about was where she sees God at work in the world.

“I have to confess,” she said in her sermon, “that the first thing that comes to mind is to say where I see God’s absence,” going on to name just a few of the places, in concrete detail, where breaking and bruising and battering dominate the landscape.

Deus absconditus. At the close of Holy Week’s Tenebrae service, we chant Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani! My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!

With trepidation, we ask, has God gone AWOL?

Lent is the liturgical season where this seizure rises to the surface, and we—people of privilege—are asked to enter the wilderness from which, apparently, God has absconded: where things don’t work out, where movies lack happy endings, where minor-keyed hymns are sung, where the faces of children are not cherry-cheeked, downy-soft, delightfully adorable.

Mama put my guns in the ground / I can’t shoot them anymore /
That long black cloud is comin’ down / I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
—“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan

Two years ago gun violence in the US became the leading cause of death among children and teens. Moreover, compared to other wealthy countries, the US accounts for 97% of such deaths, though our share of the population of such nations is 46%. “Combined, the eleven other peer countries account for only 153 of the total 4,510 firearm deaths for children ages 1-19 years in these nations in 2020, and the U.S. accounts for the remainder.”

The buyers, sellers and makers of AR-15s (in particular) are practitioners of child sacrifice to an gun-crazed idol—and should be named as such.

Part of Lent’s work is to break through our feigned innocence. As has been said, you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free; but first it may make you miserable. Any credible statement about God’s passionate love for the world must be spoken fully cognizant of the world’s passionate misery.

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
—Psalm 126:5

Arguably, the church’s greatest liturgical weakness lies in its failure to provide space for lament. Often, when that happens, exclamations of adulation have all the authenticity of a singing television commercial.

“Keep on the sunny side of life” is a worthy reminder to lean into gratitude often taken for granted. Yet, sorrow is a constituent part of breathly life. When lament is ignored, its pain festers. When sorrow is silenced, we end up bleeding on those who did not hurt us.

The work of Lent is to privilege and affirm this neglected theological assertion: The purpose of God is framed, and the passion of God is fired, in the wounds of the world. That is to say, God bleeds. The recognition of God’s solidarity in life’s ache is essential if we are to endure the many shapes and shades of loss.

Intimacy with God implies and shapes non-conformed intimacy with the world, causing us to ask: who bleeds? And, whose profit depends on whose suffering?

Likewise, Lent’s discipling instruction is this: Instead of speaking for the silenced, it is more important to dig and dredge and excavate (and, sometimes, just get out of the way of) the voices of the silenced so they can speak for themselves.

Thus, Lent’s question for every congregation is this: How can we structure our worship to make space for lament?

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
—Archbishop Óscar Romero, assassinated in March 1980
by members of El Salvador’s military for outspoken
opposition to that country’s oppression of the poor

Scripture has a pronounced bias favoring “light” and opposing “darkness.” But there’s a minority report as well, where the Holy One is encountered in darkness.

The opening chapter of Genesis affirms that creation begins in darkness: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5). The promise to Abram, of descendants outnumbering the stars and of land (read security) is made only after a “deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (15:12). Isaac’s son, Jacob, has his name changed (read destiny) to “Israel” following an all-night wrestling match with an “angel” (32:24-32).

The Hebrew slaves’ escape from Pharaoh’s prison camp occurred at night; a little later, their covenant-making encounter with God comes from “the voice out of the darkness” (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 5:22). Indeed, “The LORD has said that he would reside in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8;12; 2 Chr. 6:1), and God “made darkness his covering around him” (Ps. 18:11). The repeated promise of good news is “to those who sat in darkness . . . for those who sat in the region and shadow of death” (Isa. 9:2; Mt. 4:16). To these faithful ones “the treasures of darkness” are promised (Isa. 45:3).

The Jesus story begins with angels appearing in the dead of night to roughneck shepherds. Royal astrologers from the East are alerted to divine announcement by stars visible only in darkness. Joseph and Mary, toting baby Jesus, flee the wrath of political authorities under cover of night.

On more than one occasion Jesus’ imprisoned followers received nighttime angelic visitation, either to free them (Act 5:19) or to bolster their courage for a coming trial (18:9). And the Apostle Paul’s initiation of his historic mission to Gentiles came on the heels of another night vision, of a “man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9).

As modern seer Wendell Berry has written, “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, / and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, / and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: /
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. / Pay attention, all people,
and look at my sorrow: / if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.”
—Tomas Luis de Victoria, “Tenebrae Responsories – 14 – O vos omnes,”
performed by “The Sixteen”

There are several words from the oldest manuscripts of the Bible translated as “sin” in English, each with a nuanced meaning. If I were translating, my choice would be the word “cluelessness” in many of those renderings.

While there are some who willfully, menacingly commit fraud or violence, most of our sinning is unintentional: most often we are clueless, of the “they-know-not-what-they-do” variety. That’s why the work of repentance involves setting aside a measure of our privilege to experience the world through the eyes of those on the margins. This is where our most reliable theological education begins.

It has been rightly said: What you see depends on where you stand. Lent is the season when we consciously examine where we are standing to see if we may need to relocate.

Isn’t there anything you understand?
It’s from the ash heap God is seen.
Always! Always from the ashes.
—Archibald MacLeish in “J.B.,” a play based on the Book of Job

The relinquishment God asks of us—the desert into which Jesus guides us—is not a kind of spiritual immolation. Nor is the bent-kneed posture of Lent a form of groveling, as a beggar to a patron. The flame of the Spirit’s igniting presence does not scorch us. It makes us radiant. The ascetic practices of spiritual discipline are training for life lived unleashed from our shriveled little egos.

Lent’s labor may be disconcerting but it is never demeaning.

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
—Zechariah 4:6

Lenten labor entails seeking whose presence we must foster, which whereabouts we must locate, and what constellation will be our guide through dark nights of the soul, wandering trackless terrain, parched lands, and soggy bogs. This journey’s purpose is reeducation about the nature of power, key to learning about the character of love.

Love, of course, is more than a kindly feeling or a cordial acquaintance. Love involves an expenditure of assets: time; attention; inconvenience; affection that endures even through turbulence; material sustenance; a willingness to risk one’s own security, reputation, or social standing for those excluded from the table of plenty.

This is why saying we “love everybody” is an illusion, because our assets—time and attention and material capacity, etc.—are finite. There are only so many hours in the day. And the actual practice of compassion is more than mutual aid (worthy as that is). The distinction of loving relations, over against bartering, is generosity to those whose capacity to repay is in doubt (cf. Luke 6:32).

Lent’s labor is designed to train us in discerning questions of security. The world’s insistent claim is that you can never have enough: enough wealth, enough firepower, enough recognition, etc. Long before Karl Marx posited economics as the principal influence on human decision making, Jesus warned “You cannot love God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24), the latter being the word for wealth and power.

Those who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
—19th century British poet and painter William Blake

The opportunities for love’s bond, shaping the building blocks of the Beloved Community, come not by heroic relocation to some exotic other place. It begins close at hand, as paths cross in ordinary circumstances and physical proximity: within families (among the most severe testing ground), neighborhoods, workplaces and classrooms, places of worship. It’s possible, of course, a close encounter could lead to distant and strange places, maybe even highly public engagement with dramatic consequences. Those faithful in large things have surely been faithful in small ones.

Love’s aim, of course, is mutuality. Be wary of the charitable impulse that leads (however unintentionally) to dependency; or which requires public recognition; or demands gratitude from recipients. Indeed, those who lack material resources are often the ones who know more about the gratuitous work of the Spirit. Let them teach.

I only ask of God /
That I am not indifferent to the pain, /
That the dry death won’t find me /
Empty and alone without having done enough.
—English translation, “Solo le Pido a Dios,” performed by Mercedes
Sosa. Originally written and performed by Argentinian musician Leon
Gieco in 1978, this song is an anthem that was widely used throughout
the social and political hardships and civil wars across Latin America,
particularly in Argentina and Chile.

One group of characters in Thomas Klise’s futuristic novel, The Last Western, is a roving band of people with the quirky name of the “Servant Society of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed Up.” They function, I think, as a vivid metaphor of what the church’s mandate. Klise puts this self-description on their lips:

“The Servants will always choose the way of serving the poor, the lonely, the despised, the outcast, the miserable and the misfit. The mission of the servants is to prove to the unloved that they are not abandoned, not finally left alone. Hence, the natural home of the Servants is strife, misfortune, crisis, the falling apart of things. The Society cherishes failure, for it is in failure, in trouble, in the general breaking up of classes, stations, usual conditions, normal routines that human hearts are open to the light of God’s mercy.”

If someone asks you What would Jesus do? remind them that flipping over
tables and chasing them with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.
—author unknown

A commitment to kindliness, cordiality, and civility as the default position in all our encounters is virtuous. This should be a priority in the formation of our young. But they also should learn there are times when the peaceable are called upon to be troublers, when what passes for “peace” is actually a cover for villainy of every sort. Some tables, as Jesus demonstrated, need overturning.

Civility does not mean passivity in the face of injury. Bearing the servant’s towel to wash soiled feet (cf. John 13) does not mean being a doormat on which any may wipe their feet. Lent’s labor includes learning the difference between washing and wiping.

This is what we hope Lenten practices will do: Create “a creeping
discomfort about my confidence in the way I’ve always viewed the world.”
—Rick Steves, popular travel reporter, in
“Travel As a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind”

Some years ago our congregation’s theme for Lent was “Set your plow deeper,” suggested by one of our members, a retired farmer. In years past, Marvin noted, most farmers plowed at the same depth every year. “The bottom of the plow compacts the soil beneath it, so that, over time, a thick crust forms, separating the plant roots from essential nutrients. To prevent this from happening, occasionally you need to set your plow deeper.”

This is the resolve of Lent, of allowing our lottery-winning fantasies to be altered, of facing a mortally-diseased world and proclaiming Heaven’s nevertheless, affirming that we are not, finally, left to the consequences of our calamitous choices. Another world is not only possible, it is promised, and its scouting party is already showing up in a neighborhood near you.

In the end, the fruition of Lent’s labor has less to do with what you give up than with what you take up* in the aftermath of Easter’s incendiary announcement. May the promise of the season’s eventual delight be sufficient to endure its demands.

I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the
greedy, anxious anti-neighborliness of our economy, a great departure
from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure
from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an
arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a
gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.
—Walter Brueggemann, “A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent”

Knowing friends who were in harm’s way, I followed news of the 2020 Mexico City earthquake with alarm. One photo that caught my attention was of a man holding high a large sign that read “¡silencio!” Silence—calling onlookers to be quiet so the workers could hear the sound of any who might still be alive under the debris.

“¡Silencio!” is our Lenten watchword. The silence to which we are called is not that of candlelit hot tubs, champagne flutes in hand, Coltrane playing in the background—as delightful as that may be. Rather, silencio is practiced amid history’s rubble, as we listen for the faint cry of survivors from earth’s trauma and human atrocity.

Lent’s listening posture aligns us with God’s hearing, for the groans of the enslaved above the clamor of imperial pursuit, and the remembrance of covenant ties.

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,” Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti,
and the East London Gospel Choir

The Gospel account of Jesus “being led by the Spirit” into his wilderness ordeal, then sorely tempted by the Deceiver, thereafter ministered to by the angels, is the narrative point of departure for Lent’s observance. It’s important to note that Jesus did not undertake this severe trek without the blessing “from above” (i.e., from beyond human calculation and control) upon immersion in the Jordan River.

By the way, Lent’s penitential work is not a transaction: X amount of repentance for Y amount of forgiveness. There’s no getting right with God. There’s only getting soaked.

Never forget that desert excursions—where sustenance is scarce and threats are plentiful—must begin with a blessing. The ancient Hebrews’ trek from Egypt’s fleshpots began with a promise and was sustained by manna and water from a rock. The church’s Eucharistic elements are similar, and they, too, represent a warrant that the tomb’s claim will not be sustained.

Lent’s ashen imposition is prelude to Easter’s emancipation. But it is, to be sure, a bet-your-assets proposition which no investment banker would recommend.

In another play on Jesus’ admonition, You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.**

Wana Baraka” (“They have blessings”)
—traditional Swahili hymn from Kenya, Capetown Youth Choir

The Lent-Easter drama is more than a happy ending to a sad story. Easter’s exclamation is not simply the conclusion of Lent’s premises. Easter is a threat to the sponsors of repression and violence (along with their clientele). Easter is God’s insurgency against a world predicated on enmity and promulgated by fear. It is comedic, not because it’s funny but because it is astonishing, arriving seemingly out of nowhere.

Lent’s labor entails becoming conscious of the grandiosity of such fear; being drawn into a beatific vision powerful enough to undermine fear’s myth of redemptive violence; and enlistment in God’s insurrection, cheating death of its threat.

The rolled stone is our animation; the empty tomb, our mandate.

#  #  #

*Insight from Terrance Moran on Facebook.

**Author unknown, often misattributed to Flannery O’Connor.


The birth of Aya – Harbinger of Lent’s staggering promise

Reflecting on the implausible news of finding an infant—alive, literally born amid the earthquake’s rubble

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “When in the dark orchard at night / The God Creator kneeled and prayed / Life was praying with the One / Who gave life hope and prayer.” —English translation of lyrics from “Wa Habibi” (performed by Fairuz), a Christian hymn of the Syriac/Maronite rite. Also known as the Mother’s Lament, the hymn has been performed every year on Good Friday.

§  §  §

It is staggering news: The birth of a baby girl, born as her mother, father, and four siblings lay crushed among the earthquake rubble of a five-story apartment building in northern Syria. When rescuers found her, they had to cut the umbilical cord attaching her to her mother, who died sometime in the 10 hours between the building collapse and the rescue.

(See this brief video.)

Aya, Arabic for “sign of God,” is the name this infant has been given.

Aya, a mother’s last determination when all prospects of breath seemed futile.

Aya, reminder of the slave child, Ismael, first born son of Abraham, sower of Semitic seed, by way of Hagar, cast-off, weeping in the desert—the first mention of weeping in the Torah, and thus in human history.

Ismael, meaning “God has heard,” also wailed. The text says “And God heard the boy crying” (Genesis 21:17).

The same God who, later, attended the misery (cries) of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, for they were “afflicted,” the same word used to describe Hagar’s plight (Exodus 3:7).

Aya, whose life was inscrutably spared, not unlike that of Moses, by the innocent kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter and the bold action of Miriam, Moses’ sister. An imperial princess and a slave girl—who but the Sovereign of Heaven could script such a drama!

Miriam, named in Torah and the Talmud as a prophetess, leader of the exodus from Egypt’s brick yard, along with her brothers: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). Could there be a more dazzling, dumbfounding spectacle?

Miriam, whose name (in Hebrew) was taken up by Mary, mother of Jesus, whose Magnificat foretold terror among Herod’s minions, Caesar’s census, and all who followed in their deceit and despotism.

And also of another Mary, “Magdalene,” the Jesus Movement’s first evangelist, whose memory was suppressed by the church for the better part of two millennia, now commemorated with a feast day and designated Apostle to the Apostles.

Aya, in the ancient lineage of Hagar, also known (in Islam) as a daughter of Egypt’s king, gifted to Sarah, and considered a matriarch of monotheism.

It is from the rubble of earth’s erupting tragedy and human enmity that a cry for deliverance arises. Those attuned to the homing signal of Heaven will also hear.

But first, the cacophony of the world’s clamor must be submitted to the silence of Lent’s tutoring. Gluttonous habits must be interrogated. Penitential posture must be sharpened; hands emptied to be receptive; knees bent in reverential awe; arms raised in urgent petition.

Only by means of a renewing of the mind and a decolonizing of the heart can we be prepared to receive the enchanted news, tidings of great joy, the death-defying, stone-rolled shout of resurrection.

The harbinger of Lent’s staggering promise is this: the coming ashen smear is not a mark of retribution. Instead of a tomb, it is the womb from which you—amid all creation—will be born.

The meek are getting ready. Let us join them.

§  §  §

“From the true Light there arises for us the light which illumines our darkened eyes. / His glory shines upon the world and enlightens the very depths of the abyss. / Death is annihilated, night has vanished, and the gates of Sheol are broken. / Creatures lying in darkness from ancient times are clothed in light.” —English translation of one verse from “The Coming Light: Hymns of St. Ephrem the Syrian,” 4th century CE 

# # #

Backpacking, and getting by with a little help from our friends

Ken Sehested

Porch Story night, 6 February 2023

Introduction: The story below is from a recent Porch Story night, a monthly gathering (similar to The Moth Radio Hour) here in Asheville, NC, mixing five storytellers with three musical offerings by a local artist. If you’re a fan of good stories, you should check out The Porch Magazine. The editors also sponsor a variety of festivals and retreats, both here and in Northern Ireland.

We haven’t done it for more than a decade—winter hikes on the Appalachian Trail. The limitations of age caught up. Unreliable backs, cranky hips, joints that complain loudly from sleeping on the bumpy ground or hardwood platforms.

There were four of us—sometimes five—who would rendezvous at Sunny Inn Retreat Center in Hot Springs, a rambling, two-story house with many bedrooms, each with a menagerie of beds and thrift store furniture. It was usually about this time of year.

We liked winter hikes because the bugs were scarce and, with deciduous trees having lost their leaves, we had breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and hollows.

We kept a moderate pace. Sometimes we walked bunched up, chatting away. Other times we strung out along the trail, keeping solitude with our thoughts.

All of these friends are wonderful storytellers. Once we stopped for a lunch break and got so caught up in stories that, before we knew it, it was mid-afternoon, and we had to pick up the pace to make it to the next shelter.

We always arrived in Hot Springs late afternoon on a Tuesday or Wednesday, shortly before dinner. Elmer, The Sunny Inn proprietor, had an earlier career as a gourmet vegetarian chef, so our meal was exquisite.

After everyone finished, Elmer would pose a question to initiate an extended table conversation. I remember one of those: If you could have a leisurely meal with three figures in human history—current or past—who would they be, and what would you ask?

After dinner our group would lay all our provisions on a bed and divvy them up, so each of us would carry approximately the same weight.

After breakfast the next morning, one of Elmer’s crew would drive us north or south to a trail head, and we spent the next 3-4 days hiking back to Hot Springs for a welcomed shower and a lunch bowl of beans and rice before heading home.

To this day, a number of memories from those hikes remain vivid. Here are three.

§  §  §

      On one of those years, when I arrived I immediately called home to check in with my wife. Our youngest daughter and her fiancé had set a June wedding date. But the previous week, Alayna’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, Kathy, had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.

It was worse than we hoped. Kathy’s doctor told her that here life expectancy would be measured in days—weeks at best.

I said a reluctant goodbye to my hiking buddies and headed back to Asheville. Everything speeded up. We were going to attempt a wedding ceremony the next afternoon in the Shelby County Hospital oncology ward.

What happened over the next 24 hours was extraordinary. The hospital gave permission to use a conference room. Kathy’s surgeon volunteered to play a wedding march on a borrowed electric piano. (He had never before played in public.) One of the nurses managed to find two candelabras; another found strands of plastic English Ivy for decorations. A member of Kathy’s church arranged punch and cookies for a brief reception after the wedding.

Alayna had already picked out a wedding gown, and the store owner agreed to make the necessary alterations overnight. Kathy’s pastor cleared his schedule to conduct the ceremony.

The nursing staff gave Kathy a boost of pain medication, then rolled her hospital bed into the room, adjusting it to a reclining position so she could take everything in.

I recalled the line from an old hymn: “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?” None of us escaped leaky eyes.

§  §  §

      Fast forward a couple years. Nancy and I were on a month long stay in Mexico to learn Spanish. Near the end of the first week, my sister called to say that Dad’s health was deteriorating quickly. We immediately flew back.

We arrived in late afternoon at my parents’ house along the bayous south of New Orleans. I drove to the hospital to spell my sister keeping vigil at Dad’s bedside. He was unconscious.

I spent the night sitting next to his bed, reading half-way through the Book of Psalms, then singing all the old gospel hymns I could recall, most of whose verses were still burned into my brain. Dad never awoke. Every breath he took was a struggle. I told him several times it was OK for him to let go.

At dawn my sister came to take my place, so I could get some sleep. She called mid-morning. Dad had passed.

As it happened, the start of our annual winter hike came two days after we returned home from Dad’s funeral. I had previously told my friends that I wouldn’t make the hike this year. But Nancy said, “Well, maybe this was just the thing you need.”

So I decided to go. (Nancy’s often right about such things.)

At the conclusion of our first day on the trail—after eating, then building a campfire—my friends told me they wanted to hear stories about my Dad. So I began digging into memories.

I had brought a 12-ounce plastic water bottle filled with bourbon. After each story, I took a sip and passed the bottle around. After a few rounds, my friends begged off, so I had the rest to myself. The result allowed me to access some painful memories. And I told those, too.

I will never be able to adequately thank those friends for that opportunity to publicly grieve. Leaky eyes and all.

§  §  §

      Preparing for another year’s hike, I decided to take my light sleeping bag. The previous year my heavy bag was too heavy. Not long after dozing off, I would wake up sweating, unzipped it and tossed it back, only to wake up freezing a while later.

The winter weather was always plenty chilly. But when you’re walking most of the day, carrying 30-40 pounds on your back, and then sleeping in a decent bag, the cold wasn’t a problem.

Until it was.

We awoke our first morning to four inches of snow on the ground. But we had waterproof boots (or, at least I thought I did). The main problem we faced, due to the snow cover, was staying on the trail. We had to backtrack a few times. And it was harder to see protruding rocks and tree roots.

As it happened, that day’s hike included going through several rhododendron forests, whose branches were bowed low with wet snow. The tops of our backpacks frequently struck these branches, showering snow down out backsides.

By the time we stopped for the night, my clothes were pretty wet. The snowfall was the leading edge of a cold front, so temperatures plunged after the sun went down.

I had a tough decision to make: take off my wet clothes and have them freeze solid over night. (You don’t take much spare clothing on a short hike.) Or wear everything to bed. I chose the latter.

After an hour or so, I woke up shivering. I thought to myself, well, my body heat will eventually warm up my sleeping bag.

But it didn’t.

Before long, my teeth started to chatter uncontrollably. Maybe I could just tough it out and finally get back to sleep.

I didn’t.

I began fearing the onset of hypothermia.

It was.

In desperation, I reluctantly woke up Mark, the friend sleeping to one side, quickly explaining my dilemma, asking him to scoot over next to me. Then, the same thing with Mahan, my friend on the other side.

Squeezed between them, I couldn’t move much; but the borrowed heat finally began taking effect. I don’t recall sleeping at all after that, but next morning my friends assured me that I’d snored on and off.

That night we shared the shelter with two other hikers. In the hour before dawn, they began to stir. One of them put on his headlamp, looked at his watch, and announced in a groggy voice, “Friends, it’s 9 degrees!”

Regardless of my fatigue, I had never been so happy to scarf down hot oatmeal, sip some instant coffee, and get up and get moving.

Nary a year goes by that my heater friends and I retell that story and laugh and laugh, giggling like school boys who had successfully pulled a prank.

Thank you.

# # #


One congregation’s sweaty spiritual practice

by Ken Sehested

Just this past week one of my congregation’s mission groups, MercyMovers, completed its forty-third moving job, helping members (and a few other special cases) lug their stuff to a truck or other vehicles, then travel to their new home for unloading. (A few times only loading, as a tangible blessing for those moving elsewhere.)

We—Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC—have been at this for most of our 21-year history. So we average about two per year. Sometimes it was a small group of us—four-to-five, using a pickup and several cars. One involved 16 volunteers and took most of the day loading and unloading a 26-foot rental truck and ten or so cars carrying fragile things and miscellaneous other items too odd-shaped to box up.

What we discovered is that this is a profound form of pastoral accompaniment. You probably know from experience what an emotionally and physically exhausting experience this has been in your own life. It always—always—takes long than it should to sort through accumulated stuff. (We almost always fill up our living space to its maximum capacity.) Then decide what we need to get rid of. Find suitable boxes. Suffer though the dust that gets kicked up. (Dust aggregates, especially in unseen surfaces.)

The work generates far more anxiety than it should, not to mention the bone-tiredness and emotional disorientation. It’s a timely occasion to have friends willing to get sweaty and risk sore muscles on your behalf. It is a significant (often overlooked) form of pastoral care.

Our volunteer movers have been as old as 84 and as young as six. Everyone is cautioned to know and honor their strength and energy limits, to stay hydrated, and rest as needed, or call it quits if a back begins to ache. The group may vary on each occasion, some coming for a short time, others staying the course. It’s not a competition.

The idea for this mission group probably emerged during a church potluck dinner. Someone grumbles about needing to move. “ I may be able to help with that, says a person across the table. “When are you moving? I’ll help if I can,” says another.

The next occasion—and maybe the next—was probably the same, all very informal. By now, word was getting out about this very corporeal form of the Apostle’s admonition: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Can you grasp here the insistent affirmation of biblical materialism? Tangible care (which might involve sweat and muscle strain, not to mention inconvenience and imposition) as the embodiment of prayer? Yet for the spiritually formed, neither sweat nor strain, neither inconvenience nor imposition, are obstacles to the sweet joy of bearing one another’s burdens. The costs, compared to covenant delight, are incomparable. Under such terms, the yoke becomes easy; the burden, light.

I had some experience doing such moves while in seminary. One of the many part-times jobs I had to fund my education was doing moving jobs, renting a truck and, along with a friend, hiring out our labor. Good spatial vision enabled me to put many things in small places.

At some point I volunteered myself to be the coordinator for actively enlisting and coordinating volunteers for this MercyMover mission. Our congregation is not poor; but the cost of professional movers would be a stretch for most of our folk. Though cost-saving was not the core of our vision. It is a kind of spiritual practice—and, often, sweaty.

One of my favorite memories from this work occurred while helping Kelsey and Jordan, a young couple, move into a new home. Besides the 8-9 members of the Circle, there were two from the couple’s county-league volleyball team. Near the end of the move, one of them said to Kelsey and Jordan, “I had no idea you had so many friends that love you like we do.”

After reading the draft of this article one of our regular volunteers said “make sure you say how much laughter breaks out during these events. And then stand around telling stories while eating pizza after we’re done.”

You might say, well, this is a ministry, not a mission. I’m aware of that distinction—the former, care within the congregation; the latter, ministry beyond our walls— though I’m not fond of it. It is useful for some kinds of strategic planning. But the fact is, these two qualities are fluid. In doing our mission, we learn about our ministry; in pursuing our ministry, we sharpen our attention to our mission.

If each of these two intersections of where the Spirit traffics in human affairs—if the one point of attention does not inform and sharpen and invigorate the other—our vision is out of focus.

Over the years, we have developed a fair bit of expertise in helping people think through all that needs to happen before and during a move. Several years ago, when my friend Karl assumed the MercyMover coordinator role, he and I collected what we’ve learned into a five-page document titled “Getting ready to move: Things to think about.”

Sustaining congregational vigor entails finding a wide assortment of occasions for members to gather—formally or informally, in small groups or as a whole, often with a specific purpose, especially when it is member-initiated and doesn’t add an additional responsibility to a pastor’s crowded schedule. Such occasions provide space for knowing and being known, time for laughter and storytelling, building on the bonds that bring the community together for worship and prayer and study. (It’s why “fellowship halls” were invented.)

Sharing the burden of relocating one’s residence is one way to create “the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.”

#   #   #

The posture of prayer in light of Ukraine’s misery

Responding to a friend’s report on the harrowing violence in Ukraine

by Ken Sehested

Composed after fumbling for worthy words, over several hours and much soul-shaking.

Invocation. “When You’re Broken Open.” —from Dance: 1, Anna Clyne, cello soloist, with Inbal Segev & London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop

§  §  §

We, from this distance and in our negligent comfort and

delinquent affluence, lack the ability to stretch our hands to

yours to feel your shivers; to enlarge our hearts so that they

beat in rhythm with your sobs; to train our eyes so that they

rise above the frivolous, paltry distractions, immune to grief,

comforted in our colonized minds, asking only

      what more is there to drink?

      what more, to eat?

      what more, to abduct our attention from the brutal fate

            of distant, disposable victims of imperial lust

            and bloated arrogance?


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


Who indeed—as the Apostle beseeched—can save from this

body of death? In our weakness we pray, all the while

recognizing that our own spiritual pittance, rooted in our

insulating wealth, renders us complicit in a world governed by

bloated avarice, administered by relentless corruption,

subjugated by callous threat.


We, too, have received our 30 pieces of silver to turn a blind

eye to a rapacious economy, propped up by legislative infamy,

and enforced by judicial villainy.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


May our prayers for mercy embolden our hearts and hands,

put us on alert, to the moments and whereabouts of the Spirit’s



Blessed One, tutor us in the practice of praise that provokes

treason against every hard-hearted arrangement.


Only embodied reverence can tame leviathan’s violence. Only

disarmed hearts can contend with the beast without making us

beastly. Only such praise can leverage the earth’s maddening

orbit back to its Rightful Tender.


Then, no longer shall the beggarly be auctioned to satisfy

ravenous demand. They shall find refuge, deliverance, in

secured, Promised Land—all under their own vine and fig tree

where none shall be afraid. For the Beloved has vowed a

ransomed release from misery’s increase: healing the lamed,

gathering the shamed, transforming their weeping to a torrent

of praise.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


So, dear sister, be assured that intercessions are being

launched on behalf of all under assault in your region,

accompanied by our material support. Human words are too

frail to express what is needed; but we trust the Spirit to fortify

our meager supplications.


And we ask to receive yours, for us, in return.

§  §  §

Benediction. “Benedictus.—by Karl Jenkins from “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” featuring Croatian cellist Hauser with the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir Zvjezdice, Zagreb, Croatia

# # #

Artwork below: “Madonna,” painting by Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, Republic of Georgia


The Last Word

A wedding blessing for Caitlin Hope Wood & Zack Neel

by Ken Sehested

May you store up patience, for life is not always kind, and you need to persevere.

Remember that regret is not the last word.

Despite life’s disregard, the last word is this:

One day every cup will overflow.

May you store up affection, for sometimes the heart grows cold, and you need to persevere.

Remember that bitterness is not the last word.

Despite every cold-hearted season, the last word is this:

One day the sun’s warm embrace will thaw every brittle grimace.

May you store up mercy, for life is not always gentle, and you need to persevere.

Remember that enmity is not the last word.

Despite life’s brutal stain, the last word is this:

One day pardon will trump vengeance.

May you store up forgiveness, for life is not always charitable.

Remember that judgment is not the last word.

Despite all cruel reproach, the last word is this:

One day grace will have its way.

May you store up hope, for life is not always buoyant, and you need to persevere.

Remember that despair is not the last word.

Despite all dismay, the last word is this:

One day the meek will inherit the earth.

May you store up faith, for life is not always devout, and you need to persevere.

Remember that infidelity is not the last word.

Despite life’s treacherous grip, the last word is this:

One day creation itself will shed its decay.

May you store up praise, for life is not always jubilant, and you need to persevere.

Remember that lament shall not have the last word.

Despite every mother’s grief, every father’s sorrow, the last word is this:

One day those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.

#  #  #

What a great time to be alive

On the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 assault on the US capitol

by Ken Sehested

We are not so much brave as desperate;

to hear a Word above the noise;

a Song beyond the clatter;

a Hope beyond the cheeriness;

a Faith beyond the infamy.

Our body politic is under assault from those possessed of fear gone feral;

whose rage has erupted, threatening carnage;

whose lies have become dogma;

whose hearts have been wrapped in concertina wire.

The verity of virtuous life is scorned;

the moralists embrace lewd vainglory;

empathy, consigned to the gallows;

mercy, judged as weakness.

Liberty has become a warrant for licentiousness;

freedom, a cover for insolence and ethical harlotry;

privilege, practiced as impunity and arrogance.

These things are on display as rarely before in public life.

These are the gaping tears in our national fabric.

Two things are abundantly clear:

We are, as a nation, in deep doo-doo; and

what a great time to be alive!

#  # #


Summon your nerve

A call to the Table on Pentecost Sunday

by Ken Sehested

I would love to think approaching

this table conferred visions of

leisurely picnics in green meadows

beside gentle bubbling streams,

with cooling breeze matched by

warm sunshine and birdsong in

nearby long leaf pine and hemlock.


Truth is, it’s more like unleavened

bread, hastily prepared under dark

skies when death angels rout the

countryside, on the eve of betrayal

and the cusp of terror, in a land on

the brink of ecological collapse and

lead-lined water pipes poisoning

the young and an infestation of

woolly adelgid leaching the life

from majestic forests.


You will be disappointed if you come

here anticipating ease and distraction—

and, if so, consider making a quick exit

now. If not, if you brave the danger

circling this table, I can promise that

you will find sustenance, and persevering

power, Pentecostal power, for the living

of these days, come what may.


When he left, Jesus said something like

this to his friends, “I didn’t say it would

be easy. I said it would be worth it.”


Come, friends of Jesus, summon your

nerve. You’ve nothing to lose but your

fears. And the Beloved Community to gain.

#  #  #