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Signs of the Times  •  20 December 2018 •  No. 179

Processional. Flash Flash – Jerusalem during the Christmas Tree Lighting party.” (Thanks Dick.)

Above: A face-on view of spiral galaxy NGC 4911, located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, 320 million light-years away, lined with long clouds of dust and gas. These are seen in silhouette against glowing newborn star clusters and iridescent pink clouds of hydrogen, the existence of which indicates ongoing star formation. Hubble also captured the fainter outer spiral arms of NGC 4911, along with thousands of other galaxies of varying sizes in the background.
        Each day from 1-25 December an extraordinary Hubble Space Telescope photo will be posted at The Atlantic. (Thanks Mandy.)

Introduction to this issue of Signs of the Times

In light of the Prophet Isaiah’s placement of a child as marshal in the Age to Come’s inaugural parade
(see 11:1-9), and Jesus’ privileging of a child’s faith posture (see Mark 9:33-37 and 10:14, with
parallel stories in Matthew 18 and Luke 18), the bulk of this issue is devoted to recent
hopeful upsurges among the young, especially as earth advocates.

Invocation. In the Bleak Midwinter,” Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason – Holst (with apologies to those in the southern hemisphere).

Call to worship for Advent.

        “The breakthrough of God is happening. It is happening in the midst of the dark night of the soul, when no one can see clearly, and our fears are magnified. God is creating in the darkness of the womb of this world.

        “We are Zechariah, saying our prayers in the congregation, carrying our own disappointments in prayers unanswered. We are stunned into silence by God’s promise of new life.

        “We are Elizabeth, having given up our dreams to our own barrenness. We are shocked that we are not too old or too forgotten for God to remember us with new life.

        “We are Mary, not prepared for big assignments with our too-young selves. We are surprised that we have been chosen to carry in our wombs the hope of peace. We burst forth in song, of the peculiar submission that leads to revolt, a longing for the tables to turn, for a world safe and merciful and just for our baby.” —continue reading “The breakthrough of God is happening: An Advent call to worship,” Nancy Hastings Sehested

Hymn of praise.The First Noel,” performed by the children of Public School 22 Chorus, Staten Island, NY, and Leslie Odom Jr. (Especially for those who enjoy watching singers as well as listening.)

Confession. “The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.” —Soong-Chan Rah

Hymn of supplication. “O why should I wander, an alien from Thee, / Or cry in the desert Thy face to see? / My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight, / O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.” —Richar Zielinski Singers, “My Song In the Night

Listen to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s (age 15) dramatic and outspoken denunciation of climate change apathy has been much in the news. Here are two short video clips of her commentary.

         • A Democracy Now short report on Greta Thunberg at the UN climate summit in Poland (5:25).

         • Also at COP 24 climate conference in Katowice, Poland (2:15).

¶ “A group of young people (left) can sue the federal government over its climate change policies, the Supreme Court said Friday. Since it was first filed in 2015, the government has requested several times that Juliana v. United States be dismissed.” The climate change lawsuit inspired this rally in Seattle, along with ones in Portland and Eugene, Ore. (photo by Elaine Thompson / AP) —Jacob Pinter, National Public Radio

More good news. “Patagonia’s CEO is donating company’s entire $10M Trump tax cut to fight climate change.” —Leo Shvedsky, upworthy

¶ “On a chilly fall day several weeks ago, volunteers from five Maryland congregations [part of a five-year old organization, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake] came together in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore to plant 90 trees. The planting was unique for two reasons: It drew a team of Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and Conservative Jews. And in the space of three hours, they managed to get all the saplings into the ground and hold an interfaith service, too.” This project is one component of a larger watershed regeneration effort. —Yonat Shimron, Religion News

Words of assurance. “The trumpet child will blow his horn / Will blast the sky till it's reborn / With Gabriel's power and Satchmo's grace / He will surprise the human race.” —Over the Rhine, “The Trumpet Child” (Thanks Greg.)

Professing our faith. “At first glance, through modernity’s eyes, Mary’s encounter with the angel’s natal announcement—and her annunciating response—appears to be a form of self-subjugation.

       Is Luke’s story a case of a colonized mind? Did she actively concede to her own binding and bonding? Should we insist on a more assertive, individuated figure to front the Christmas story? “I, for one, think not.” —continue reading “The renewing significance of Mary’s Magnificat

¶ Beginning Tuesday, 20 November, the youth-led Sunrise Movement (photo at right) began a series of 350 meetings with sitting and incoming House Democrats seeking support for the “Green New Deal,” a bold set of proposals aimed at investing in green infrastructure, technology, and jobs to both curb the fossil fuel emissions fueling the climate crisis and strengthen the U.S. economy. —Julia Conley, CommonDreams

        Also: Listen to this brief (2:09) admonition, by 18-year-old Jeremy Ornstein, a leader of the “Sunrise Movement” supporting the “Green New Deal” agenda to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

For more information about the “Green New Deal,” see Osita Nwanevu, “Creating a Road Map for a ‘Green New Deal,’” New Yorker

Hymn of resolution. “We are Christmas, we are God’s hands  / To care for one another in these war torn lands  / We are Christmas, the love that we share  / Will carry one another ‘til we understand  / We are Christmas.” —Spellman College Glee Club, “We Are Christmas

Short story. “I am fed up . . . and fired up!” That's Moral Monday arrestee and Civil Rights Veteran Rosanell Eaton (left, at age 92) speaking at the 11th Wave Moral Monday rally at the North Carolina General Assembly. Watch to this short (6:13) video of her remarks. Eaton died this past Saturday at age 97. Read more about this unsung hero in Robert D. McFadden’s “Rosanell Eaton, Fierce Voting Rights Advocate, Dies at 97” (New York Times). Also, watch this short (5:07) video tribute to Eaton.

Word. “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.” —Barbara Brown Taylor

Short take. “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” —Gus Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Preach it. “[T]he political landscape of Luke’s gospel demonstrates the fact that the evangelist locates Jesus firmly within the context of contested territory, temporal powers, political machinations, despotic leadership and disputes about the rightful kings. That the gospel progresses in a political vein, moving towards the execution of Jesus as a pretender to the throne (23:2–5, 38) confirm to us that political reality is at the heart of the gospel of Luke, not a mere backdrop.” —Pádraig Ó Tuama, “The Political Reality at the Heart of the Gospel,” Radical Discipleship

¶ On Friday, 30 November, “Canadian youth occupy MP [Member of Parliament] offices across the country calling for climate action.” (See photo at right) National Observer

Can’t makes this sh*t up.

        • Heather Nauert is President Trump’s nominee for the US Ambassador to the UN. Recently, as spokeswoman for the US State Department, she referenced the US’ “strong relationship with the German government.” The two examples she mentioned: the Marshall Plan and the D-Day invasion. Nauert’s previous job? Reporter for Trump’s favorite news program, Fox’s “Fox & Friends.” —MSNBC

        • “Iowa is granting permits to acquire or carry guns in public to people who are legally or completely blind. No one questions the legality of the permits. State law does not allow sheriffs to deny an Iowan the right to carry a weapon based on physical ability.” —Jason Clayworth, USAToday

¶ “This is a group art project (see art at left) from my church [Jeff Street Community at Liberty, Louisville, KY] several years ago . . . the Star of Christmas, created using a collage of Christmas season/Black Friday advertisements encouraging people to buy more junk they don't need. Subverting commercialism for a remembrance of the story of poor immigrants being guided to a safe sanctuary in the midst of dodging a government out to harass and kill them. Happy Subversive Holy Days, all you subverts!” —Dan Trabue

Call to the table.Mary, Did You Know?” from Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”

The state of our disunion.

        • “Sears execs to split $25 mil in bonuses after telling workers no severance because of bankruptcy.” —Walter Einenkel, Daily Kos

        • “The Trump administration’s top environmental official for the Southeast [Trey Glenn] was arrested Thursday on criminal ethics charges in Alabama reported to be related to a scheme to help a coal company avoid paying for a costly toxic waste cleanup.” —Michael Biesecker, Associated Press

        • In the midst of reporting on the devastating fires in California, you may have heard that one famous couple, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, in the Southern California ritzy neighborhood threatened by the fires paid for private firefighters to protect their $60 million home. That’s not as uncommon as you might think. Insurance companies such as AIG provide wildfire mitigation services. —“Rich People Pay for Private Firefighters While the Rest of Us Burn,” Motherboard

Testify. Renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, “What is so important is hope,” short excerpt (1:04 video) from her 2017 at the UN on International Day of Peace. (Thanks Linda.)

Best one-liner. “Pessimism born of cynicism is a luxurious avoidance of engagement.” —John Paul Lederach

New essay. “Righteousness—whether conceived in religious or secular terms—cannot be had short of a commitment to truth telling. The habit of severing personal kindness from public justice is a delusion.

        “There’s no way around the fact that truth telling will be impolite. Our history as a nation contains both humane and heinous impulses. 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, we simply must take seriously the whole story.” —continue reading “The contentious legacy of George H.W. Bush as mirror of our conflicted national soul

For the beauty of the earth. Human divers record close encounters with humpback whales. (2:47 video. Thanks Javoslav.)

Altar call. “A private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all.” —William Wilberforce (1759-1833), British politician, philanthropist and evangelical Christian who led the fight for the abolition of slavery

Benediction. “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.” —"Uncommon Gratitude," Joan Chittister & Rowan Williams

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

Lectionary for this Sunday. “Your power is sufficient to baffle the aims of the arrogant. Imperial might trembles at the sound of your approach; but the prison yards and the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses erupt in jubilation! With your arrival, the bailout bounty will flow to the hourly wage-earners; the stock-optioned executives will apply for food stamps.” —continue reading “My soul magnifies you,” a contemporary midrash on the Magnificat, inspired by Luke 1:46-55

Lectionary for Christmas Eve and Day. “Then an angel stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around, and they were terrified. As are we, in the face of torturing headlines and threatening news.” —continue reading “Keeping watch,” a litany for worship inspired by Luke 2:8-15 and Lamentations 21:8-9, 14-1

Lectionary for Sunday next.

        • “Friends, of all the things we believe or disbelieve, only this is sure: We are a delight to the One who crowns the earth with sky. . . . Because of this jubilant news, clothe yourselves with royal attire.” —continue reading “Only this is sure,” a litany for worship inspired by Colossians 3:12-17

        • “Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17,” from Feasting on the Word.

Just for fun. "TXTMAS 2018: Nativity Scene,” by txtstories.

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “The contentious legacy of George H.W. Bush as mirror of our conflicted national soul,a new essay

•  “The breakthrough of God is happening: An Advent call to worship,” by Nancy Hastings Sehested

• “The renewing significance of Mary’s Magnificat

• “The treasures of darkness,” a poem for Advent

• “Only this is sure,” a litany for worship inspired by Colossians 3:12-17
 
Other features

• “Advent & Christmas resources for worship: Litanies, poems, sermons and new lyrics to old hymns

• “Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&politiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

Commentary on Colossians 3:12-17

1st Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

by Ken Sehested

 

        Mohandas Gandhi is popularly known as one who confronted empires. Yet those who knew him, or have studied him since, acknowledge the Mahatma spoke often of a more complex struggle against tyranny. The conflict is not only with the British, he would say, but also within our own communities and “with myself.”  The Pauline vision generally, and the specific pastoral advice in this text, is rooted in just such a multidimensional understanding of reconciliation. There’s a seamlessness to the task which communities of faith are forever separating and assigning graded priority.

        Empires do dominate, then as now. But such domination has its claws in us, too. Which is why the struggle is not merely against “flesh and blood”—against particular personalities or ideologies which guide the beastly ravaging of governing regimes. The struggle is also against what Paul elsewhere spoke of as “principalities and powers,” the spirit of those regimes whose cunning capacity transcends political structures. We, too, who claim allegiance to God’s Reign, are standing in the need of prayer.

While it’s true that this epistle to the church at Colossæ is a deeply felt entreaty, it’s a mistake to read these admonitions as a first century call to civility. As something like, “y’all play nice.” The Colossian correspondent is not saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

        This tutorial is more than tactical instruction for an orderly march into the mission. Rather, the mission itself entails a disciplined pattern of redemptive life together.[1] There’s more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bearing with one another (especially with the inevitable knuckleheads), forgiving each other, binding us to each other—such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict avoidance advice. Forget putting on a happy face and accentuating the positive. This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.

        Our common experience is that the most blistering disputes are among intimates, with people we know well. Rarely is anger and the impulse to vengeance so ravenous as between those who spend a lot of time together, have shared memory and coherent purpose. Maybe it’s precisely because of our proximity that our familial disagreements get so prickly.

        Years ago and late one night, while packing for an early-morning trip, my spouse and I got into a disagreement that escalated beyond a difference of opinion. Somehow it got personal. (The definition of conflict is difference plus tension.)

        Too tired to carry on, we simply ditched the conversation and cut the lights. And it was still rumbling in my gut the next morning as I sat in the airport lounge waiting for a predawn flight. I finally worked up the resolve to put a quarter in the payphone, dial our home number, and mumble a brief “I’m sorry about last night.” “Me, too,” came the blessed response. We didn’t attempt in that moment to resolve the difference—I don’t even remember what it was about. What I remember is that simple exchange drained the poison from the moment; and the initiative[2] took more resolve than any of my trips into conflict zones as a professional peacemaker.

        Let’s face it: We live in a culture that faintly praises kindness, humility, meekness and patience. But these qualities are neither honed by nor honored among perceived history-makers. Such qualities are upheld as a kind of etiquette for the personal sphere but ignored (even scoffed) by real-life decision makers. Being “tough on crime” and “strong on national defense” are coveted reputations among electoral candidates; but such perceptions typically translate well in all leadership circles, often in the church.

        Among the most promising direction in Christian discipleship training is that of “conflict transformation” theory and practice.[3] Among the key insights are these:

        1. Conflict is a given in our personal and public lives. The question is what we do when, not if, it erupts.

        2. Fear is the quality that makes conflict so explosive. And Scripture has a lot to say about the struggle between faithfulness and fearfulness.

        3. You don’t have to be a saint, or a rocket scientist, to develop the skills in handling conflict. Everyone can learn to analyze the dynamics of conflict and develop habits of redemptive response.

        4. The traditional responses to conflict are: fight or flight. But there is a third option, which Jesus taught and Paul reinforced (most eloquently in his letter to the Roman church).

        5. Conflict is an opportunity to deepen relationships. Think of your nearest, dearest relationships. Chances are good you’ve been endured turbulence together.

        6. Practicing nonviolence within the family of faith may be the best training ground for the work of reconciliation in the larger world. Dealing with conflict—like what the Colossians were facing—is itself part of our spiritual formation, and not simply a nuisance to be managed or resolved with the least amount of energy and time.

        Practicing nonviolence is, in fact, another way of talking about forbearance and forgiveness, notions which frame this set of pastoral recommendations. Reconciliation is not the suppression of conflict than peace is the absence of violence. Ditching the conversation and cutting the lights is actually a form of apostasy—a denial of the holy, beloved calling which has gripped us.

        The practice of forgiveness is neither simple nor easy. It certainly doesn’t mean “forgive and forget”—at least, not in the way that sentiment is commonly used as a cover for subservience in the face of injustice. Our ability to forgive others is reflective of our lived experience of being forgiven by God. This is our distinctive insight.

        As with any insight, however, an imperative is implied. And with this imperative, a discipline, which involves tutoring and training. Practice leads to habits; “memory muscle” is formed. So that the word of Christ comes not just to visit but to dwell (v.16). And inch by inch, step by step, our words and deeds become consonant with that Name.

        That’s worth singing about.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is the modern classic on this subject.

[2] Glen Stassen coined the wonderful phrase, “transforming initiative,” indicating the small but significant steps (risky ones) that individuals and groups can take—both interpersonally and publicly—to reduce violence and allow for negotiation, as the first steps toward reconciliation, justice and the peace it engenders. See Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).

[3] Building on earlier theories of conflict mediation and conflict resolution, conflict transformation also factors in the question of justice. An excellent resource is Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Lawrence Ressler, eds., Making Peace With Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation (Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ONT: Herald Press, 1999).

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Reprinted from Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009

The breakthrough of God is happening

An Advent call to worship

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

The breakthrough of God is happening. It is happening in the midst of the dark night of the soul, when no one can see clearly, and our fears are magnified. God is creating in the darkness of the womb of this world.

We are Zechariah, saying our prayers in the congregation, carrying our own disappointments in prayers unanswered. We are stunned into silence by God’s promise of new life.

We are Elizabeth, having given up our dreams to our own barrenness. We are shocked that we are not too old or too forgotten for God to remember us with new life.

We are Mary, not prepared for big assignments with our too-young selves. We are surprised that we have been chosen to carry in our wombs the hope of peace. We burst forth in song, of the peculiar submission that leads to revolt, a longing for the tables to turn, for a world safe and merciful and just for our baby.

We are Joseph, deciphering our dreams and wondering if the messages can be trusted. We are stepping out in spite of the dangers, striking out with every refugee’s desperate hope, willing to be led by God’s angelic forces into an uncertain future.

We are the innkeeper, overwhelmed by strangers with too many needs and too few resources at our door.

We are the shepherds on a hillside, seeing in the night sky an odd brightness, ushering in an uncommon peace, and beckoning us to join angels singing.

We are the magi, journeying in the night guided by a star of wonder, offering tribute amid tribulation, beguiled by craven rulers, forced to find another way home.

We are the dreamers, the hope-bearers, the wanderers, the kneelers, the singers. We are the old ones and the young ones. We are the ones who have seen the breakthrough of God out of the dark night.

Sisters and brothers, the self-same concourse of angels who hovered over Bethlehem in days of yore now circle above us, announcing anew the prospect of a new creation. If you dare, say with the Blessed Mother Mary, “let it be with me according to your Word.”

Above: "Concourse of angels attend the newborn Christ child" by Brian Kershisnik.

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Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC, Third Sunday of Advent, 16 December 2018
©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  7 December 2018  •  No. 178

IN THIS ISSUE: a poem, and a litany for worship, focused on John the Baptist. Below that, a large collection of Advent and Christmas resources for personal reflection and public worship. —Ken Sehested

The baptizer’s bargain
A poem based on John the Baptist

John.
Such a tame name for a man
     born to inhabit the wild side
    of heaven’s incursion.
    You startle children with
    your leather-girdled, camel-haired attire,
    hot breath bidding the devout
    into Jordan’s penitential wake,
    the same waters that marked
    the boundary of beneficence: of the Hebrew
    slaves’ long march from Pharaoh’s provision
        (the latter hard, to be sure, but also secure)
    to Providence of another, riskier kind,
    though laced with promise of milk and honey.
What drove you to this scorched abode,
    abounding in wild beasts, hostile foes
    and scarce sustenance?
—continue reading “The baptizer’s bargain

§  §  §

John the baptizer
A litany for worship based on Luke’s story
of John the Baptist

Such a tame name for a man born to inhabit

the wild side of heaven’s incursion into

earth’s contempt.

You startle children with your leather-girdled,

camel-haired attire, hot breath calling the

devout into Jordan’s penitential wake.

Witness to the Spirit-dove’s descent,

confirming Elizabeth’s praise and Mary’s assent.

What brings you and

your honey-smeared beard

into such a barren land?

Wade in the water. Don’t mind the mud.

A certain drowning is required as Breath

from above is delivered on the wings of a dove.

The baptizer’s bargain is this:

There’s no getting right with God.

There’s only getting soaked.

Inspired by Mark 1:4–11. Adapted from a longer poem, “The Baptizer’s Bargain.”

§  §  §

Advent & Christmas resources for worship
Litanies, poems, sermons, essays, and new lyrics to old hymns

Poems

• “Silent night,” an Advent poem

• “Annunciation

• “Advent longing

• “All flesh is destined for glory

• “Behold the Lamb

• “Boundary to Benedictus: A meditation on Zechariah

• “Joseph

• “The Singing of angels

• “The baptizer’s bargain

• “Portal of praise: Praise as presage to Advent’s treason

• “The quelling word: Emancipation is (still) coming," a poem inspired by Revelation 21:1-6a”

• “The manger’s reach

• “Venite Adoremus (Come and Adore)

Litanies

• “John the baptizer,” a litany for worship based on the Gospel of Luke’s introduction to John the Baptist

• “My soul magnifies you,” inspired by Luke 1: 46-55

• “Keeping watch: The angels appearance to the shepherds," Inspired by Luke 2:8-15 and Lamentations 21:8-9, 14-15

• “Big band or bluegrass,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 98

Old hymns, new lyrics

Songs for Advent and Christmas: Old hymns, new lyrics

Articles

• “Undo the folded life: Notes on the reckless folly of our season

• “The faux fight for Christmas: Backdrop on the annual year-end culture war

• “Watch night history: Awaiting the quelling word

• “Longing from below: An Advent meditation

Sermons

• “Watching and Waiting in a Half-Spent Night,” a sermon based on Matthew 24:36-44

• “The Baptizer’s Bargain,” a sermon based on Luke 3:7-18; Zeph. 3:14-20; Phil. 4:4-7

• “The manger’s revolt: Mary’s Magnificat

• “Same question, different outcomes: A meditation on Zechariah

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Permission is granted for non-commercial use of the above resources by communities of faith.

The treasures of darkness

A poem for Advent

by Ken Sehested

It has been said:
You shall know the truth,
and the truth will set you free;
but first it will make you miserable.

The pilgrimage to mercy
necessarily passes through
valleys of misery, for the far Horizon
of hope’s disclosure can only be seen

with tear-smeared eyes.
Forlornly days endure,
yet do not define the minds
or shrivel the hearts of those

grasped by beatific
vision of the Promise
ahead, to which we are
guided by belligerent light

against the dark’s deep
sweep.  Carpe noctem, y’all.
Seize the night. Be like the dark-
buried seed burrowed beyond every

sunny disposition’s reach, a
twilight “richer than the light
and more blessed, provided we
stay brave enough to keep going in.”*

Despite the night
shivers and the apparent
reign of treachery and ruin,
seek “the treasures of darkness . . .

hidden in secret places”
by the Beloved who knows
you by name.** Fear not, child,
though the shadows o’ertake and

ominous voices emerge from
the murk. The eclipse, too, has
its revelatory power, and angelic
heralds whose advent password is

“Fear not.”

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*Wendell Berry, in The Country of Marriage    ** Isaiah 45:3-4
©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

The Baptizer’s Bargain

A sermon based on Luke's story of John the Baptist

by Ken Sehested,
Texts: Luke 3:7-18; Zeph. 3:14-20; Phil. 4:4-7

            The text and sermon for this week is a continuation of the story from Luke, and Joyce’s commentary last week: the story John the Baptist. Or, more properly, John the Baptizer. (John really wasn’t a Baptist—although, one summer during college I worked as a youth minister in a church whose pastor believed that Baptists can trace their history back to John. If that were true, that means there were Baptists before there were Christians!)

            Before I read the second part of the text from Luke 3, let’s review the first part.

            •Luke begins with the most improbable political scenario: The word of God bypassed the president, the governors, and the pope to rest on a hillbilly preacher stuck out in the wilderness of the farthest backwaters of the empire. At the edge of the known universe. John was a wild one. The other Gospel writers describe him as someone who lives on locust and wild honey, dressed in a camel-hair tunic and leather belt. Respectable people probably thought of him as a nutcase. And the same of those who tromped out into the wilderness around the Jordan River to hear him preach. Some of those—which later would include Jesus—waded out into the river when John performed what the text calls “a baptism of repentance.” (He probably would have had more volunteers if he offered to just sprinkle their heads with water. But I’m just speculating here.)

            The crux of his sermon was drawn from Isaiah, where the prophet said “prepare the way, make straight the paths, predicting that a great transformation was on its way, when valleys will be filled and mountains brought low . . . and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

            Truth is, these initial chapters of Luke’s Gospel are filled with some of the most explosive texts and most improbable predictions in biblical history:

            •a pair of humble women—one described as “barren,” the other as “virgin”—giving birth to key actors in the New Testament’s drama;

            •of angels crowding the skies—it was a busy season—appearing in succession to Zechariah, John’s father; to the shepherds in the fields; and to Mary, the mother of Jesus;

            •of Mary’s song of praise—a song that also includes some of the most politically subversive language anywhere in the Bible;

            •of Anna, described in the text as a “prophet” herself, an 84-year old woman who virtually lived in the Temple.

            With this review, let’s pick up the story from Luke 3 (7-18). [read story]

John’s baptism was not simply a ritual act of cleansing of the soul; it simultaneously indicated a socially-transformed life. Not just an act of obedience to God, but also a commitment to justice.

            Bear fruits worthy of repentance, John told his listeners. Repentance is not sorrow; it’s not feeling guilty; it’s not an immersion in self-abasement. It is a transformation of character.

            Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Or, to put it in another way, in the immortal words of Tammy Wynette: “Don’t come home a’drinking with lovin’ on your mind.”

            It was the call for repentance that got Roger Williams expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Williams, founder of the very first Baptist congregation in this hemisphere, was found guilty of four charges by the Massachusetts Bay Colony courts, the last of which was Williams’ contention "that we have not our land by patent from the king, but that the natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving of it by patent."

            Repentance was not just saying to God: “Sorry!” Repentance involves commitments that transform the body politic. Repentance involves a spiritual encounter that reorders and reframes the way we engage the world of flesh and blood.

            Our notions of repentance have largely lost their teeth. I intentionally chose the artwork on today’s bulletin for this reason. At some time or another most of you have seen a “get right with God” sign along the highway; and chances are you thought to yourself, “what biscuit-sopping lowbrow put that up?” But the bulletin cover art shows a line of civil rights marchers in the background. The context is what gives significance to “getting right with God.” During the Civil Rights Movement, repentance meant that people who benefited from racial discrimination needed to relinquish their fears and forfeit their privilege. It comes at a cost.

            And it also meant that people who suffered oppression needed to relinquish their settled second-class status and march to freedom’s disrupting tune. This, also, comes at a cost.

            All of us here in this Circle sometimes experience oppression, and sometimes act as oppressors. A key job of this community of faith is to help each other figure out which is what; and then encourage each other to the risky job of doing the kind of relinquishing that needs to happen so that the social fabric can be repaired.

            Some of you probably noticed the news on Thursday that a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. congressional leaders went for high-level talks with Cuban authorities. It’s the most significant such initiative since the start of the embargo of Cuba in 1960.

            There’s been very little communication between the U.S. and Cuba since the embargo started. And what little we hear comes from the right-wing Cuban American community who left after the revolution.

            On my first trip to Cuba, in 1990, I preached one evening at a special service in a Havana church. There were several Cuban media present to cover the event. And the next day, someone on the street recognized me. I found out I’d been on TV the night before. But when I came back and told that story, one listener called me a liar. “There’s no freedom of religion in Cuba.” When I asked that same person where the Guantanamo U.S. Marine military base was located, he had no idea it was on Cuban soil. Or that the U.S. essentially wrote the Cuba constitution following the Spanish-American War in 1898, inserting a clause stipulating that the U.S. had the right to intervene militarily.

            To be sure, there was repression of religious communities after the Revolution. The dominant church of the time was the Roman Catholic Church, and they were thoroughly aligned with the wealthy classes. But during the last 15 years the churches in Cuba have experienced extraordinary growth.

            Let me tell you one of my most unusual story from my trip back to Cuba in October. One evening I attended the 50th anniversary service of the William Carey Baptist Church in Havana—the same church where I preached in 1990 in front of a Cuban TV camera. The place was packed and the crowd spilled out into the adjoining lobby and hallway.

            The same pastor is there—Rev. Estella Hernandez, though her co-pastor husband died several years ago. Because of our friendship, she had me sit down front, on the second row, and found someone to translate for me. Sitting across from me, on the first row, were three ranking members of the Communist Party in Cuba. They didn’t have a role in the service—they were just there to pay their respects.

            But what makes this story really odd is that just a few feet away from where they were sitting, just around the corner in the lobby, is a prominent plaque, in English, thanking the Women’s Missionary Union of North Carolina for their assistance in constructing the church building. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

            My principal reason for going was to participate in a conference for progressive Baptist theologians in the Caribbean region. Some of you know I spent the previous 18 months raising money for the conference, which 38 registrants, from 8 different countries. Many of them didn’t previously know each other. We were meeting in the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, founded in 1987 by Rev. Raúl Suarez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is next door to the King Center. (By the way, Raúl was the first Christian admitted into the Communist Party, and the first Christian elected to the Cuban National Parliament, in 1992. Raúl, a pacifist, was wounded at the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion by the U.S. He was a volunteer ambulance driver for the Cuban army sent to repulse that invasion.)

            Anyway…what transpired at the conference was far more significant than the formal presentations, the Bible studies, the singing (and there was lots of singing). I’ve seen it happen before, when people who feel like they’re illegitimate children suddenly discover they have all these aunts and uncles and cousins! Most of the people there are renegades in their own communities in Nicaragua, in Panama, in Brazil and Mexico and Costa Rica. In fact, the sponsors of the conference—the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas—the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba—began in 1989 when one of the Baptist conventions in Cuba expelled three churches, for much of the same reasons churches here get kicked out of their denominations.

            Jonathan Pimentel, president of the Baptist Seminary in Costa Rica, summed things up nicely when he said:“Life in the Spirit and life in the world are intimately connected.” In other words, to refer back to the prophet Zephaniah in our opening litany, the fruits of repentance will aim at canceling the shame felt by the lame and replacing it with joy. The fruits of repentance will gather the outcast and make them welcome. This is what it means, in biblical terms, to get right with God.

            After the conference my friend Paco (Francisco Rodés)—former pastor of the Baptist church in Matanzas and now a professor at the Evangelical Seminary—took me on a long car journey about two-thirds of the length of the island to the city of Camagüey, where our sister church, Iglesia Getsemani is located. Along the way we stopped for short visits at several other churches—most of them small, meeting in someone’s living room, and most pastored by women. Kiran, Joy, Greg Yost, Will—you remember the itinerary we took last year. This trip was very similar.

            (By the way, I did get a job offer while I was in Cuba. When Paco found out I could drive his 20-year-old car, he was happy to do so and begged me to come back to work as his chauffeur.)

            Finally, we reached Camagüey and the open arms of our friends at Iglesia Getsemani. It was as if it were last week when we were there, instead of last week. One woman in the congregation told me she could remember my sermon from May of 2005. I chuckled, thinking she was simply being polite. But then she began to summarize the story I told about Elisha and how his house was surrounded by the King of Aram’s army, and how Elisa prayed and the whole army went blind, and then how Elisa led them directly into the walled city where the King of Israel wanted to kill them all; but Elisa said, NO, but instead, bring out tables because we’re going to have a banquet!

            The logic of repentance is driven by a kind of transformation that converts us away from the way the world normally does its business—through intimidation and deceit, through exploitation and hoarding, through violence and the force of arms. And repentance directs us to a whole new set of values and priorities and strategies that foster what the Jewish Talmud calls “tikkun olam,” the repair of the world. To repent means to be immersed in a different social vision; bound to different political loyalties; committed to different economic values.

            I know it’s a little odd to do an Advent sermon and tell stories about Cuba. But the fact is, the whole country of Cuba is experiencing Advent. Will there be political chaos? Will the U.S. decide it’s a good time to invade? The threat of violence and the prospect of redemption are all bound up together.

            Let me close with a poem I’ve just written about John, entitled “The baptizer’s bargain.”

John.
Such a tame name for a man
born to inhabit the wild side
of heaven’s incursion.
You startle children with
your leather-girdled, camel-haired attire,
hot breath bidding the devout
into Jordan’s penitential wake,
the same waters that marked
the boundary of beneficence: of the Hebrew
slaves’ long march from Pharaoh’s provision
(hard, to be sure, but also secure)
to Providence of another, riskier kind,
though laced with promise of milk and honey
What drove you to this scorched abode,
abounding in wild beasts, hostile foes
and scarce sustenance?

John.
The shape of your profile
was cockeyed from conception:
born to parents long since impotent and barren;
your father stunned speechless by
the angel’s approach;
your future yoked with that of Elijah,
ancient antagonist to royal deceit.
(And you paid with your head.)
What was it in Mary’s voice that prompted
your recoil in Elizabeth’s womb
And why the abandonment of familial legacy
in the choice of your name
What incredulous politics is this that the
Word of God would bypass
lordly Tiberius and Pilate,
princely Philip and Lysanias,
priestly Annas and Caiaphas,
to locate you, of honey-smeared beard,
amid such remote and wayward landscape?

John.
Spirit-drenched baptizer of repentant flesh,
exposing shameful inheritance to the Advent
of mercy and an anthem of praise.
Lonely minstrel of pledged Betrothal,
announcing dawn’s infiltration
of destiny’s dark corner,
scattering death’s shadow with
the footfalls of peace.
Witness to dove’s descent, reversing heaven’s
flooding threat with lauded applause
to Mary’s assent and Messiah’s demand
for hills’ prostration and valleys’ upheaval.
Speak, John: Roar the Complaint against every
crooked and cragged thoroughfare.
Should the elect resist, the stones themselves
will produce heirs worthy of Abram’s fealty.
Echo the insistent Refrain: revive, return, repair.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The baptizer’s bargain is this: Enter these
waters at the risk of self-absorbed survival.
A certain drowning is needed for lungs to receive 
Breath From Above on wings of the dove.

 Vipers, beware! The baptized prepare.

Circle of Mercy Congregation, 17 December 2006
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

The baptizer’s bargain

A poem on John the Baptist

John.
Such a tame name for a man
     born to inhabit the wild side
     of heaven’s incursion.
You startle children with
     your leather-girdled, camel-haired attire,
     hot breath bidding the devout
     into Jordan’s penitential wake,
     the same waters that marked
     the boundary of beneficence: of the Hebrew
     slaves’ long march from Pharaoh’s provision
          (the latter hard, to be sure, but also secure)
     to Providence of another, riskier kind,
     though laced with promise of milk and honey.
What drove you to this scorched abode,
     abounding in wild beasts, hostile foes
     and scarce sustenance?

John.
The shape of your profile
     was cockeyed from conception:
     born to parents long since impotent and barren;
     your father stunned speechless by
     the angel’s approach;
     your future yoked with that of Elijah,
     ancient antagonist to royal deceit.
           (And you paid with your head.)
What was it in Mary’s voice that prompted
     your recoil in Elizabeth’s womb?
And why the abandonment of familial legacy
     in the choice of your name?
What incredulous politics is this that the
     Word of God would bypass
          lordly Tiberius and Pilate,
          princely Philip and Lysanias,
          priestly Annas and Caiaphas,
     to locate you, of honey-smeared beard,
     amid such remote and wayward landscape?

John.
Spirit-drenched baptizer of repentant flesh,
     exposing shameful inheritance to the Advent
     of mercy and an anthem of praise.
Lonely minstrel of pledged Betrothal,
     announcing dawn’s infiltration
     of destiny’s dark corner,
     scattering death’s shadow with
     the footfalls of peace.
Witness to dove’s descent, reversing heaven’s
     flooding threat with lauded applause
     to Mary’s assent and Messiah’s demand
     for hills’ prostration and valleys’ upheaval.
Speak, John: Roar the Complaint against every
     crooked and cragged thoroughfare.
Should the elect resist, the stones themselves
     will produce heirs worthy of Abram’s fealty.
Echo the insistent Refrain: revive, return, repair.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The baptizer’s bargain is this: Enter these
     waters at the risk of self-absorbed survival.
A certain drowning is needed for lungs to receive
     Breath From Above on wings of the dove.

Vipers, beware! The baptized prepare.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Advent 2006.
Right: Depiction of Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist – I Yesus Church – Axum (Aksum) – Ethiopia

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  15 November 2018 •  No. 177

Processional. "Pie Jesu" (“Merciful Jesus”) by Sarah Brightman, Paul Miles-Kingston. The music accompanies actual film footage (3:34) from World War I’s “Battle of The Somme,” when French and British allies took the offensive against German troops in France, 1 July-18 November 1916. The British suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day of the offensive. All totaled, more than 1 million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history. 

Above: Wild poppies (Papaver rhoeas, known variously as the Flanders poppy, corn poppy, red poppy and corn rose) grow in the "Trench of Death," a preserved Belgian World War I trench system on July 14, 2017, in Diksmuide, Belgium.

Special issue
THE BACKDROP OF VETERANS DAY
The “Great War,” the armistice, and the commemorative red poppy

Invocation. "Look into your own heart and discover your own pain and determine not to visit it upon others." —Karen Armstrong paraphrasing Confucius at the recent Parliament of the World’s Religions conference

Listen to Leonard Cohen recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” one of the most recognized literary pieces of the 20th century, written after McCrae presided over the burial of one of his best friends in the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. McCrae’s poem led to the custom of wearing red poppies as a memorial of World War I, the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” the “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

¶ “The World War I Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol.” —history.com

Call to worship. “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.” Jeanette Rankin, first female elected to federal office (in 1916, to the US House of Representatives, before women were allowed to vote) and dissenting voter on US declarations of war in both world wars

The march of folly. About the Great War, British novelist H.G. Wells wrote on August 14, 1914, “This is already the vastest war in history. . . . For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!”

Hymn of praise.135 Psalam: Slavite Gospoda” (“Praise the Lord), Vila, Serbian Orthodox Singing Society.

Good news. All 19 of these African American candidates (at right) for judicial positions in Harris Country, Texas (encompassing most of Houston) were elected in last week’s mid-term election. Photo by Harris Black Girl Magic.

Confession. Among the things we must do to be at home in a place, according to Martin Prechtel, is “we’ve got to begin to grieve. Now, grief doesn’t mean sitting around weeping every day. Rather, grief means using the gifts you’ve been given by the spirits to make beauty. Grief that’s not expressed this way becomes a kind of toxic waste inside a person’s body. This locked-up grief has to be metabolized.” Derrick Jensen interview with Prechtel, “Saving the Indigenous Soul,” The Sun, excerpt printed in “Radical Discipleship  (Thanks Lydia & Tommy)

World War I created unprecedented carnage. The first day alone of the Battle of the Somme resulted in over 70,000 casualties. By war's end on 11 November 1918, the final tally of vengeance for one assassination had claimed the lives of nearly 40 million combatants and civilians, many times over wounded.

Hymn of supplication. “So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia / The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla / And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be / And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.” —Eric Bogle, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” representing an Australian soldier fighting Turkish soldiers during World War I

In 1954, Armistice Day was replaced with Veterans Day, and so our public celebration of peace and an end to war became a rally to “support the troops,” a state and federal day off, and a platform for military recruitment.

¶ “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not,” wrote novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a World War II veteran and POW. “So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

Words of assurance. “The Resurrection is the Beloved’s own / Armistice, intimate seal on ancient covenant, / when the rain’s own bow arches in the flood’s / aftermath as divine reminder, animus receding / by act of divine contrition: / Never again. Never again.” —continue reading “Aftermath of the Great War’s Armistice: On the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, 11 November 2018

Eight million horses, donkeys and mules were killed in World War I.

Hymn of remembrance.In Remembrance,” piper Andy Cant, of the 1916 naval Battle of Jutland.

¶ “‘Today on the Western Front,’ the German sociologist Max Weber wrote in September 1917, there ‘stands a dross of African and Asiatic savages and all the world’s rabble of thieves and lumpens.’ Weber was referring to the millions of Indian, African, Arab, Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers and labourers, who were then fighting with British and French forces in Europe, as well as in several ancillary theatres of the first world war.

        “Faced with manpower shortages, British imperialists had recruited up to 1.4 million Indian soldiers. France enlisted nearly 500,000 troops from its colonies in Africa and Indochina. Nearly 400,000 African Americans were also inducted into US forces. The first world war’s truly unknown soldiers are these non-white combatants.”v—Pankaj Mishra, “How colonial violence came home: the ugly truth of the first world war,” Guardian

Hymn of intercession. “Merely the whim or intuition of an elected politician / Makes a melee without conditions as the monster quits the cage / It's a machine that knows no quarter, dealing death and sowing slaughter / Raping mothers, wives and daughters in an all-consuming rage / We may well decide we need it and we'll pay to arm and feed it / Can you tell me who will lead it when a decision must be made?” —Andy Irvine, “When the Boys Are On Parade

Chemical weapons. In World War I, the French were the first to use chemical weapons, tear gas, which is not lethal except in concentrated form. Germany was the first to use large-scale, lethal chemical weapons, in 1915, followed shortly after by the British. In 1917 the US manufactured a new form of poison gas but the war’s end occurred before it could be used.

Left: Pallets of US 155mm mustard gas artillery shells at Pueblo Depot storage facility in Colorado.

Short story. During World War I, two conscientious objectors—Joseph and Michael Hofer—were tortured to death while in a US prison. Wikipedia

Word. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.” —French President Emmanuel Macron, remarks during the 11 November 2018 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I

¶ “In the aftermath of Veterans Day, four things are important to remember.” —continue reading “The backdrop of Veterans Day: Remembering red poppies and the Great War’s armistice

Hymn of lament. Sgt. MacKenzie,” a lament written and sung by Joseph Kilna Mackenzie, in memory of his great-grandfather who was killed in combat during World War I.

Short take. A reported conversation following World War I between Woodrow Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd-George of Great Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France speak well to the situation under consideration.

        Among them it was asked, "Do we want peace?" Their agreed answer was, "Yes."

        Then it was asked, more probingly, "Are we willing to abandon colonialism?" And the British answered, "No, of course not." It was further asked, "Are we willing to forego any claims for reparation against the Germans?" This time it was the French and the Americans who said, "No."

Right: Photo of African American troops of the 369th Infantry, formerly the 15th Regiment New York Guard, who were among the most highly decorated upon its return home in 1918. They were also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Getty Images.

     Then, within that influential threesome, the perceptive insight was voiced, "What we really want is not peace, but only quiet while we enjoy the spoils of our victory in war."

     Such pretense of peace only sets the stage for more war, as the history of Europe in the thirties and forties so clearly proved.

¶ “After the 'war to end war' they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris [drafting the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I] at making a 'Peace to end Peace.” ―British Field Marshal (and military historian) Archibald Percival Wavell

Hymn of resolution. “Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong / Until all tyrants perish, our work shall not be done / Let not our memories fail us, the lost year shall be found / Let slavery's chains be broken the whole wide world around.” —Peter, Paul, & Mary, “The Whole Wide World Around” (aka “Because All Men Are Brothers”)

Preach it. “The apostasy of violence lies in its denial of God’s ability to accomplish anything without the trigger that is about to be pulled, without the missile that is about to be fired. Violence is inevitably a renunciation rather than an affirmation of the will and freedom of God.” —Lee Griffith, "The War On Terrorism and the Terror of God"

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “When I can, I tell the truth.” President Donald J. Trump

Call to the table. “Divine love is not an attitude that one puts on like a cloak. It is rather the right way to respond to reality. It is the right relationship to being, including our own being. And that relationship is primarily one of receiving. . . . An important part of the response to divine love, once it has been received, is to pass it on to our neighbor in a way that is appropriate in the present moment.” —Thomas Keating OCSO (1923–2018), Cistertian monk known for developing “centering prayer” as a spiritual practice

The state of our disunion. American PCs are attacked by 25-30 million damaging malware files per day on average. —reported in USAToday

Best one-liner. "Things take time: You don’t get a pickle by squirting vinegar on a cucumber." —author unknown

¶ For those interested in literary history, see “How World War I Changed Literature,” Amanda Onion, history.com.

For the beauty of the earth. Stunning photos of “The Fading Battlefields of World War I,” 32 images from tortured European landscapes, see Alan Taylor, The Atlantic

Altar call. “I don’t want thoughts. I don’t want prayers. I want gun control. . . .” Susan Orfanos, after the shooting of her son and 11 others in Thousand Oaks, California (0:37 video)

During his Court Martial in 1918, British journalist and poet Max Plowman said: “I am resigning my [military] commission because I no longer believe that war can end war. War is a disorder, and disorder cannot breed order. Doing evil that good may come is apparent folly.”

Left: Stone crosses marking the World War I graves of German soldiers are overtaken by time and the growing trunk of a tree in Hooglede German Military Cemetery on August 4, 2014, in Hooglede, Belgium. Christopher Furlong-Getty Images.

Benediction.The facts of life,” spoken word by poet Pádraig Ó Tuama (2:01 audio).

Recessional.Hymn to the Fallen,” Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra.

Lectionary for this Sunday. “Prior to his lynching at the hand of Roman rage, and to the cheers of Caiaphas’ temple tyranny, Pilate asks Jesus, ‘So, are you to be king?’ ‘So say you, Brother Pontius,’ Jesus replies. (Which is to say, I am but not as you think.) ‘My reign is not planted in the world you imagine. If it were, all who claim me as lord would bloody the sword.’” —continue reading “King Jesus and Brother Pontius,” a litany for worship inspired by John 18:33

Lectionary for Sunday next. “And what do we mean when we speak of the Lordship of Christ? Is this to say that the Holy One is the ultimate author of vengeance and retribution? Of demeaning power and humiliation?

        “No, a thousand times, NO! The Lordship of Christ speaks of the coming end of all lording, of the day when the cords of subjugation will unravel.” —continue reading “Christ as Lord?” a litany for worship

Just for fun.Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “King Jesus and Brother Pontius,” a litany for worship inspired by John 18:33

• “Aftermath of the Great War’s Armistice: On the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, 11 November 2018,” a poem

• “The backdrop of Veterans Day: Remembering red poppies and the Great War’s armistice,” an essay

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&politiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

The taunt of Lamech’s revenge

Authorization for Use of Military Force: 60 words that bring the US to the edge of a permanent state of war

by Ken Sehested

        Fifteen years ago today, 14 September 2001, the US Congress approved a 60-word joint resolution—with only one dissenting vote, by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)—named The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It grants the president sweeping latitude for authorizing military action. The implications it carries have become so commonplace they no longer raise public attention. Not unlike the lyrics to some popular children’s songs, the AUMF’s assumptions are repeated so often we are numbed to their significance.

        This is unfortunate, for the AUMF, approved amid the trauma and rage of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, has brought us to the edge of a permanent state of war.

§ § §

"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment. We'll get better as we do it more often."
—Larry Di Rita, special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding in an
18 July 2003 news conference to reports of low morale of US troops stationed in Iraq, for whom
combat had not ceased despite President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech two months prior

§  §  §

        Many parents shudder when paying attention to the lyrics of some traditional childhood lullaby and rhyming songs. You got an old man who died after bumping his head. Three blind mice having their tails cut off. An old lady who may die because she swallowed a fly. Bridges falling. A lamb’s eye being picked out. Ashes! Ashes! they all fall down.

        Or my favorite, “Rock-a-bye Baby,” a broken bough, with cradle and child tumbling from the tree.

        There are many folklorist theories, but little hard evidence, about the origins of such songs or explanations as to why they endured. The genesis of some may have been disguised political satire, particularly “Rock-a-bye Baby,” sometimes associated with the overthrow of England’s King James II. (The first known publication of this song came with this footnote: "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they may generally fall at last.") But the fact remains that mystery abounds and collateral damage endures.

        The cause for shuddering in the adult world mirrors and compounds, in exponential fashion, the foreboding lines amid children’s verse.

§  §  §

“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face.”
—U. S. General Stanley A. McCrystal in his inaugural speech as
NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander in June 2009

§  §  §

        My vote for the most heinous euphemism of the 20th century is the phrase “collateral damage.” First used by Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and national security expert, collateral damage, in short, is the oops response to unintended damage in battle. So sorry. (See my “Sorry, sorry, sorry” poem.)

        Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Hans-Christof von Sponeck—one of a slew of ranking UN officials who resigned in protest to the US sanctions against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War—made this assessment of collateral damage.

        “The 21st century has seen a loss of innocent life at an unprecedented scale, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he wrote in 2011. “Nobody should even dare to ask the question whether it was worth it!” [1]

        Like beauty, however, the calculation of worth is in the eyes of the beholder. A US Department of Defense document puts it this way. “Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack."  Notice the blurry boundaries created by the words “excessive” and “anticipated.”

        Who can forget when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed in May 1996 on the "CBS 60 Minutes" news program. Reporter Leslie Stahl asked:

        "We have heard that a half million children have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq, documented by UNICEF]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

        To which Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it." A bough broken.

§  §  §

“Having a war on terror is like having a war on dandruff.”
—Gore Vidal

§  §  §

        One has to wonder whose violence is driving whom? We forget that Osama bin Laden was once on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) payroll, as a member of the Afghan mujahideen resistance fighting the occupying Soviet military—as, in all likelihood, was Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath party came into power in 1963 when the CIA engaged in an earlier regime change in Iraq. The US then supported Hussein’s war with Iran starting in 1980, including providing some of the ingredients for Iraq’s chemical weapons.

        We forget that bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in his outrage over Saudi Arabia’s allowing the US to use Saudi bases as a staging area for the 1991 Gulf War. Though he was an archenemy of Hussein, bin Laden considered US troops on his home country’s soil an abomination and vowed to take revenge. A bough broken.

        We forget that on 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda was a force of a few thousand in Afghanistan with scattered supporters elsewhere. Now the spin-off groups and emulators are thriving throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. [2] And we’ve not yet come to terms with the substantial evidence that ISIS, our current Public Enemy No. 1, was spawned from Iraq’s killing fields.

        It would appear, as the bumper sticker says, we are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.

§ § §

“[T]here is enough evidence that a substantial part of terrorism is engendered by
military, intelligence, and economic intervention of the very same countries that consequently
make use of the pretext of terror to politically legitimize their military and geo-strategic expeditions.”
—Jens Wagner [3]

§ § §

        Among the most notorious incidents of creating a terror pretext to justify intervention was “Operation Northwoods,” originating in a 1962 collaboration between the US Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to covertly instigate violence in Cuba—bombing and hijacking were specifically mentioned in the document—sufficient to warrant military response. Here’s a quote from that recommendation, titled "Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba”:

        “The desired resultant (sic) from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.”

        Luckily President John F. Kennedy quashed the top-secret plan that only came to light in 1997 when Kennedy’s records were released.

§ § §

"I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq"
—US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a 21 July 2003 news conference in Baghdad

§ § §

        Fifteen years ago today Rep. Barbara Lee rose, alone, to speak against the AUMF. This past week she said:

        "I voted against that resolution 15 years ago because it was so broad that I knew it was setting the stage and the foundation for perpetual war. And that is exactly what it has done," Lee notes. "It’s been used over 37 times everywhere in the world," including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. (Listen to Rep. Lee’s original 2001 statement (2:19) on the floor of the House of Representatives and a recent Democracy Now interview with Lee.)

§  §  §

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,
‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

§  §  §

        Among the things learned by those of us required to take a high school civics course was that only Congress has the power to declare war. The US hasn’t declared war on anyone since World War II. Vietnam, Korea, and 14 US military incursions in Muslim-majority countries since 1980, are not “wars” at all. That mechanism is now irrelevant as an instrument of international law. Its modern incarnation is a congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force. And the one approved in September 2001 has no expiration date.

        In a mere 60 words Congress granted a virtual carte blanche credit card (and most of our wars since 9/11 have been funded by borrowing) to the President, for “he (sic) determines” when and where to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, aided” . . .  or “harbored” the 9/11 attackers in order to “prevent any future acts of terrorism.”

        The latter phrase in the AUMF—“prevent future acts”—echoes President Bush Jr.’s “National Security Strategy Paper” of September 2002 which, for the first time in US history, lays the legal groundwork for “preventative” war.

        The right to engage in preemptive war—to initiate hostilities when there is clear evidence that an enemy is on the verge of attack—is acknowledged in international law. Preventative war is not. Though the Obama Administration’s annual “National Security Strategy” doesn’t include “preventative” language, the precedent has effectively been set.

        Now, powered by the open-ended AUMF, the President simply has to declare that something bad might happen, sometime, somewhere, and the troops saddle up. Shout 9/11 and the drones are launched to anywhere in the world.

        This same preventative impulse emerges in the spate of domestic “stand your ground” state laws and the frequent exoneration of police shootings of unarmed black men. A perceived threat equals actual peril justifying acting with extreme prejudice.

        So many boughs broken.

§  §  §

"We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable,
or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter."
—former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

§  §  §

        A single photo (below) has haunted me, by day and by night, all this past week, with our nation’s 9/11 remembrances prior to the infamous date’s fifteen anniversary. [4] Look at it closely. You see an unidentified Syrian man holding his dead son. Take in the background. Notice the torn jeans. The blood stains. The boy’s shirt ripped away. The utter grief on the father’s face. The boy’s limp body. The immediate association my mind made was to name this photo “The Final Cradling.” Bough broken, baby fallen.

        Now bring up the most vivid image in your memory from 9/11. The Twin Towers on fire, and falling. The people who jumped to their deaths. The dust-choked, panicked survivors. The first responders digging through rubble, some in tears.

        Can you make a connection between these images?

        It’s almost certain that as many non-combatants died in the first few weeks after the 2003 “Shock and Awe” attack on Baghdad as died on 9/11. Wouldn’t that have satisfied an “eye for an eye” standard of justice?

        It hasn’t. Current estimates of fatalities just from our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria now stand at 1.3 million.[5]

        Lamech’s threat, in the earliest pages of Genesis, is with us still. Lamech—great-great-great-great grandson of Adam and Eve—makes a vengeful vow that echoes to this day. With his two wives, Adah and Zillah, as his witness, he pledges “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23).

        9/11 has now been avenged 433 times, and the meter’s still running.

§  §  §

“If we have to use force it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.
We stand tall. We see farther into the future.”
—Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 19 February 1998

        Really? If true, I shudder over that future.

§  §  §

        The use of US military might is far more common than most of us think. In the 20th century there are but a handful of years when our troops were not actively engaged outside our borders. (See Wikipedia’s “Timeline of United States Military Operations.”) Now, however, with a preventative war precedent and the current AUMF in place—along with numerous national leaders speaking of the “long war” we face in the war on terror, I grieve.

        Nevertheless—and Scripture is full of neverthelesses—there is a saying from the Hasidic tradition, “If you want to find a spark, sift through the ashes.”

        Sisters and brothers, we have some sifting to do.

        And at the same time we must ask and act on a series of questions: What would it require to catch some of those cradles? Arrange for sufficiently sturdy boughs? Support arborists to treat weakened boughs? Work diligently at preserving more forest land, along with the ecosystem needed for all life to thrive?

        Lamech’s taunt awaits our response. There’s no better time than now to get started.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

[1] “Preface” to Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility, p. 6-7.

[2] Tom Engelhardt, A 9/11 Retrospective: Washington’s 15-Year Air War.”

[3] “Introduction” to Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility,” p. 14.

[4] See additional photos at “What Is Aleppo? This is Aleppo.”

[5] Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility, p. 15.

 

King Jesus and Brother Pontius

A litany for worship, "Christ the King/Reign of Christ" Sunday

by Ken Sehested

Prior to his lynching at the hand of Roman rage, and to the cheers of Caiaphas’ temple tyranny, Pilate asks Jesus, “So, are you to be king?”

“So say you, Brother Pontius,” Jesus replies. (Which is to say, I am but not as you think.) “My reign is not planted in the world you imagine. If it were, all who claim me as lord would bloody the sword.”

So tell us King Jesus, of what realm shall you rule, for what world do you long?

From what throne do you spring? By what power are you strong?

It has been said, “Do not be enticed by the things of the world. For the love of the Abba is not in those who profit from the ways things are. Truly, the error of this era is passing away.”

Right: Artwork by Julie Lonneman.

Yet it is also said that in the beginning, God bequeathed the world its light and rejoiced in the earth’s delight. So loved was the world that Heaven unfurled the Only Begotten’s star bright.

So graced was the earth, Mother Mary gave birth to a Promise rejoined through the ages. ‘Twas Christ that was sent to annul terror’s threat, to ransom hostility’s wages.

So crown him King Jesus, the one come to free us from rule by all threat and throne. Though once chained in capture, rejoice now, earth’s rapture shall fully and finally atone.

When the angel descends with trumpet in hand, loud voices in heaven declare: the world’s sovereign claim to the world’s destined shame, gives way now to Provident Care.

Ever seized in Thy Mercy, ever crowned in Thy Welcome, wash all of our bloodthirst away. To the table of bounty—the feast of sure plenty—guide our feet, hold our hand, now we pray.

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Inspired by John 18:33-37; 1 John 2:15-17; Genesis 1; Revelation 11:15, for “Christ the King/Reign of Christ” Sunday.
©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org.