Conflicting memorials

The Lord’s Table of remembrance vs. the nation’s vow of preeminence

Violence is evangelism for the Devil

by Ken Sehested

My earliest memory of Memorial Day is of my Dad, puttering in his garage shop (he was a mechanic and jack-of-all-trades fixer-upper) on a rare day off from work, listing to the Indianapolis 500 car race on a portable radio. On one of those occasions I remember using a hammer, and the concrete garage floor, helping him straighten nails for reuse.

Both my parents were children of the Depression. Thrift was a primal virtue even when it was no longer a necessity.

I have no doubt Dad would silently recall some of his war-time experience while enduring the monotony of listening to race cars doing 200 laps around an oval track at speeds in excess of 200 mph. He managed to survive being in the first wave of troops landing at Omaha Beach in the 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe, though I can remember only once in my life when he talked about those days. I was an adult before I knew he carried a bit of 88mm German artillery shrapnel, bone-embedded, behind his right ear.

There’s no doubt he suffered what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. Though an uncommonly kind, generous man, I grew up learning to anticipate circumstances that could provoke inexplicable outbursts of rage.

I inherited two memorable treasures from Dad’s days as a combat engineer. One is a “Shield” New Testament—which literally has a metal front cover engraved with the phrase “May this keep your life from harm,” given to him by one of his sisters before he shipped overseas. The other was a P-38 German officer’s pistol, which looks very much like the more famous “Lugar” model. I sold the latter to a gun dealer to help fund a mission project in Cuba.

Along with the Indy car race, no Memorial Day weekend would be complete without a glut of retail sales, car excursions (over 39 million will drive at least 50 miles this year), and grilled meat (60 million pounds, according to one estimate) to accompany patriotic parades and flower adorning of graves of those who died in our nation’s wars.

The latter moves further from the spotlight each year. Not because the casualties have ceased but because the makeup of our nation’s military is drawn from an increasingly smaller percentage of the population—the majority being refugees from a market economy which siphons wealth from the bottom to the top. Given this circumstance, the reliable pay of military service looks more attractive.

Maybe it gets harder to maintain a Memorial Day focus simply because we have so many of such occasions. Altogether each year we have 14 commemorations which reference our nation’s military prowess.[1]

Nevertheless, with all our fellow citizens, we stand in honor of such sacrifice and in acknowledgment of the grief borne by many.

At the same time, though, the believing community needs to ponder the conflicting memorials which roll around nearly as often as the church gathers around The Lord’s Table, many of which bear the carved inscription featuring King James’ rendition: “This do in remembrance of me.”

Whose remembrance takes center stage?

§  §  §

“Greater love has none than this,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13).

Yet with Jesus’ “greater love” affirmation, this question lingers: To what end is life righteously surrendered for the common good? Indeed, there are countless causes powerful enough to inspire martyrdom. Creating mayhem is a popular goal.

We should be forever suspicious of those who praise the greater good and studiously avoid consideration of the common good—and by extension, for people of faith, of the Commonwealth of God.

§  §  §

Among the many locales that lay claim to Memorial Day’s origins[2] is Columbus, Mississippi, where on 25 April 1866 four women processed from the city to Friendship Cemetery. One of them suggested that flowers be laid on the graves of all Civil War veterans—Confederate and Union alike—of which there were plenty, since the city had been a hospital town to which trainloads of the wounded and dead from both armies were transported after the massively brutal Battle of Shiloh in western Tennessee.[3]

This, I dare say, is the only proper function of memorial days: to mark the grievous tragedy and squander of war, rather than to glorify its victims, exalt its agents, and indemnify its ongoing execution.

The enduring scandal of the Gospel—even in a land like ours, purportedly “under God” and crowded with spires and steeples—is Jesus’ rejection of redemptive violence. As if God needs a little bloody shove to guarantee Heaven’s saving purpose. The arrogance of such a claim, disguised by the assertion of holy justice, is breathtaking in its design and pursuit.

The community of faith’s claim is not to a higher moral purity than the soldier. In fact, the church should be jealous of the military’s ability to inspire young men and women to be trained for the day when going into harm’s way, for the sake of something larger than personal safety and private profit, is called for.

The claim made by those rejecting sanctified violence is to a different mandate flowing from an alternative theological vision. Everyone wants peace, of course; none but a minuscule number of sociopaths gleefully promote war. But our dilemma is this: We also want what we cannot get without war.

§  §  §

People of the Way remain committed to a peculiar allegiance and a distinctive conviction: that all violence, of every sort, is a form of evangelism for the Devil. Those who stand by this claim get no extra cookies nor receive special privilege. Pride is excluded from the armor of faith, and boasting is limited to the promise that loving enemies is the only fruitful way to lasting peace, in imitation of the one who refused the option of a militarized angelic rescue from the crucifier’s grisly work. (cf. Matthew 26:53)

We make this profession of our faith even knowing that we ourselves are not immune from the lust for vengeance. As César Chávez, the great practitioner of nonviolent struggle for justice, said: “I am a violent man learning to be nonviolent.” Indeed, we are given the grace to confess our bloodlust precisely because we stand in merciful submission to the promise of life that is to come.

The meek are getting ready. And they welcome the company of any with eyes to see and ears to hear Christ’s arising, arousing, and disruptive invitation to join Pentecost’s Resurrection Movement. Now, as much as ever, we are in a “fear not” moment. Wait a week—Pentecostal power, with its assault on earth’s beleaguered condition and seemingly endless walls of hostility, is coming. Babel’s confused tongues, nationalist claims, conflicting cultures, and racial enmity are being reversed.

Lord, send the old-time pow’r.[4]

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[1] Ken Sehested, “Patriotic holidays in the US: The nation’s liturgical calendar celebrating our militarized history,” prayer&politiks.

[2] For more historical background, see Ken Sehested, “Memorial Day: A historical summary,” prayer&politiks.

[3] See Campbell Robertson, “Birthplace of memorial Day? That Depends Where You’re From,” New York Times.

[4] From the hymn’s refrain, “Pentecostal Power,” by Charles H. Gabriel.

©ken sehested @

Reversal of fortunes

What if schools enjoyed pork-barrel largesse and the military depended on corporate charity?

by Ken Sehested

     One recent slow morning, in late August, the grocery stores’ circulars in the newspaper caught my attention. I began to wonder how things might be different if certain fortunes were reversed. Instead of “back-to-school” it’s “back-to-basic-training” discount offers.

     Imagine, if you will:

      •At Ingles, earn $1,000 for mops for the Navy, boots for the Army, when you use your Advantage™ Card. And keep your eyes out for our “Box Tops for Top Guns” special deals to ensure cockpit decal maintenance.

      •Harris Teeter’s brand purchases maintain a steady supply of camouflage face grease for our special forces. Don’t forget to re-link for special deals at Lockheed Martin. Soldiers count!

      •Bi-Lo offers tools for troops. Every one of the more than 800 U.S. military bases outside the U.S. have benefited from this unique program, netting more than $9 million in free equipment for every branch of the service.

      Meanwhile, back in Washington, these headlines from major media outlets:

      •Fox News: “Whining base commanders grousing again about the amount of personal money they have to spend decorating barracks.”

   •NBC: “Congressional leaders unable to round up votes necessary to defeat another multi-million dollar ‘supplemental’ educational appropriation. The Speaker of the House claims Department of Education budget already ‘bloated’ with unnecessary pork.”

      •ABC: “Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee hearings underway for alleged corruption in ‘no-bid’ contracts to fulfill ‘No Child Left Behind’ spending.”

Right: Artwork by Dan Trabue.

      •CBS: “Pentagon brass say ‘bake sales no way to adequately fund quality national defense.’”

      •Associated Press: “Investigative reporter uncovers widespread complaints by Marine officers that merit pay is tied to low combat injury reports and exaggerated readiness testing.”

§  §  §

Written with thanksgiving for the teachers and educational administrators who know that knowledge is more than information, that character is not subject to cost analysis, and that learning potential exceeds the boundaries of test results. Don’t just thank a teacher. Argue for a different definition of national security.

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• “The emotional stress teachers are dealing with seems to be at an all-time high. In fact, a national survey shows that 58 percent of classroom teachers describe their mental health as ‘not good.’ And another survey confirms that nearly two-thirds feel their jobs are ‘always’ or ‘often’ stressful—roughly double the rates of stress experienced by the general workforce.” —Elizabeth Mulvahill, “Why Teachers Quit

• “Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession, according to official figures that have prompted further concerns about the pressures on the profession. Of those who qualified in 2011 alone, 31% had quit within five years of becoming teachers, the figures show.” Michael Savage, Guardian

• A 2018 Gallup poll revealed “that almost half of teachers (48%) in the U.S. say they are actively looking for a different job now or watching for opportunities.” Shane McFeely, “Why Your Best Teachers Are Leaving and 4 Ways to Keep Them”

 • "Public School Teachers Quitting at Record Rate: ‘I Had to Quit for My Sanity.’” Daniel Moritz-Rabson, Newsweek

 • “94 Percent of U.S. Teachers Spend Their Own Money on School Supplies, Survey Finds.” Niraj Chokshi, New York Times

©Ken Sehested @

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  8 August 2019 •  No. 199

Processional. “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Kyoto Tachibana High School Marching Band. (Thanks Connie.)

Invocation. “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears. . . . Restore us, O God of hosts, let your face shine, that we may be saved.” —Psalm 80:4-5, 7

Call to worship. “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. . . . Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them.” —Toni Morrison (18 February 1931 – 5 August 2019) Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, rest in peace. Read the entire quote from “Beloved.”

Hymn of praise. “I was dead in the water, nobody wanted me / I was old news, I went cold as cold could be / but I kept throwing on coal try'na make that fire burn / sometimes you gotta get scars to get what you deserve / I kept moving on and now I'm moving up / damn, I'm feeling blessed with all this love / I think I finally found my hallelujah.” —Andy Grammer, and the choir of PS 22 Chorus, “Good to Be Alive

Good news. “This evening, a group of nearly 20 Baptists [from Kentucky churches, see photo at right] took church to the railroad tracks in Harlan County. We sang, we prayed, and we encouraged the miners [who were blocking a coal train in their bid to get back pay from the bankrupt coal company] to keep pressing for justice." Rev. Zach Bay, First Baptist Church of Middlesboro, Kentucky. For more info see “Blackjewel Miners Block Railroad To demand Pay From Bankrupt Coal Company,” Sydney Boles.

Hymn of intercession.  “There's a hole in this mountain and it's dark and it's deep / And God only knows all the secrets it keeps / There's a chill in the air only miners can feel / There're ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed.” —Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band, “The Mountain” (Thanks Sam.)

Confession. “The Mass Shooting Tracker project defines a mass shooting as ‘an incident where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree. This may include the gunman himself, or police shootings of civilians around the gunman.’

        As of July 31, 2019, 248 mass shootings have occurred in 2019 that fit the inclusion criteria of this article. This averages out to 1.2 shootings per day. In these shootings, 979 people were shot; of those people, 246 have died.” There have been 9 additional mass shootings from 1-5 August.

Hymn of supplication. “No, no, no, enough praying / many things are needed / to achieve peace.” — English translation of “No Basta Rezar” ("Praying It Not Enough”), Los Guaraguao (Thanks Doug.)

Left: "The Black Madonna of Sacred Activism" by William Hart McNichols

¶ “The word ‘terrorist’ doesn't have a single, universally-accepted definition. The most commonly accepted definition is ‘a person who uses violence to achieve a political end,’ but that label is enormously problematic; by that definition, any people who engage in a war could be accurately described as terrorists.” —“Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters,”

Professing our faith. “People of faith need to understand that life lived according to the demands of justice and the prerequisites of peace—the two of which are mediated by the ministration of mercy—is not merely an ethical calculation but is adoration, is our true and proper worship, of which we need constant reminding.” —continue reading "Calling terrorism by its true name: blasphemy"

The gunman who massacred 22 people, wounding two dozen more, in El Paso, Texas, published a vile manifesto on the internet shortly before he entered the Walmart with his assault-style rifle. In his manifesto, he spoke of a “Hispanic invasion.” And he also identified with the man who murdered dozens in mosques in New Zealand in March.

        “Since January, Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign has posted more than 2,000 ads on Facebook that include the word ‘invasion’ — part of a barrage of advertising focused on immigration, a dominant theme of his re-election messaging.” Thomas Kaplan, New York Times

The shooter in Dayton, armed with an assault-style rifle with a 100-round magazine (like the one at right), was able to fire 41 bullets in 30 seconds, killing nine people and injuring 26.

Hymn of assurance. “We could be the healin' / When you're feeling all alone / We could be the reason / To find the strength to carry on / In a world that's so divided / We shall overcome / We could be the healing / We can be the flower in the gun.” —Michael Franti & Victoria Canal, “The Flower

Short story. “Many years ago, when she was a young associate pastor and I was a younger intern, I watched Nancy Hastings Sehested cry in her sermon. After the sermon someone confronted her saying that she shouldn’t be crying in the pulpit. A few weeks later in another sermon, Nancy said, ‘There are some things worth crying over.’ Indeed there are and mass shootings are at the top of the list. Unlike the line in the movie A League of Their Own, ‘There’s no crying in baseball,’ there is crying in church. At least there should be. So what do we do? We cry, we lament, we weep with those who weep. And we get mad. . . .” Then “we organize.” —Kyle Childress, “What Do We Say?” Alliance of Baptists

Word. “No other nation on earth comes close to experiences the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed country tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. . . . We are not helpless here. And until all of us stand up and insist on holding public officials accountable for change our gun laws, these tragedies will keep happening.” Barack Obama, response to the mass murders in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio

Hymn of resolution. “Some holy ghost keeps me hangin on, hangin on / I feel the hands, but I don't see anyone, anyone / I feel the hands, but I don't see anyone, it's there and gone / Feeds my passion for transcendence / Turns my water into wine / Makes me wish I was empty.” —Mavis Staples, "Holy Ghost"

¶ “If one of the perpetrators of this weekend’s two mass shootings had adhered to the ideology of radical Islam, the resources of the American government and its international allies would mobilize without delay. . . . No American would settle for ‘thoughts and prayers’ as a counterterrorism strategy.” New York Times editorial

Terrorism as blasphemy

        • “The problem with the person who drove a lorry into a crowded market of Christmas shoppers wasn’t that he was too religious, but that he wasn’t religious enough. It was the action of a half-believer, the sort of thing done by someone who doesn’t so much believe in God—but rather believes in the efficacy of human power exercised on God’s behalf, as if God needed his help.” —Giles Fraser, Anglican priest and journalist in Britain, “How to defeat terrorists? True extremism,” Guardian

        • “For the person who resorts to random killing in order to promote the honour of God, it is clear that God is not to be trusted. God is too weak to look after his own honour and we are the strong ones who must step in to help him. Such is the underlying blasphemy at work.” —former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams

        • “The point of religious terrorism is to purify the world of corrupting influences. But what lies beneath these views? Over time, I began to see that these grievances mask a deeper kind of angst and a deeper kind of fear. Fear of a godless universe.” —Jessica Stern in "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill"

        • “The war on terror is the outgrowth of a deeply problematic theology of imperial violence which is a terrible perversion of true Christianity and which is adding to a global cycle of violence.” —Michael Northcott

Preach it. Arguably, the most articulate, passionate, incisive prophetic challenge in the history of US cable news. Every US citizen ought to be required to hear this 2:58 commentary. Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American Studies and the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, on MSNBC, Tuesday 6 August 2019

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “On a momentous day for Tribal Nations, Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-WY), the House Republican Conference Chairwoman, stated that the successful litigation by tribes and environmentalists to return the grizzly bear in Greater Yellowstone to the Endangered Species Act ‘was not based on science or facts’ but motivated by plaintiffs ‘intent on destroying our Western way of life.’” —  (Thanks Jimmy.)

Call to the table. “Come and remember who you are here  / Do this to remember who I am  / Come and remember you belong here  / All belong here.” —The Many, “All Belong Here

The state of our disunion. President Trump, laughing after . —Guardian (0:38 video)

Best one-liner. “What a society does to its children, its children will do to society,” a Roman sage once said. —Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, The Nonviolent Moment: Spirituality for the 21st Century

For the beauty of the earth. For years, these massive underwater sandcastles have been a mystery. Meet their unexpected architect. —Brut (2:06 video.)

Altar call. Watch this brief video (0:22) of an 11-year-old child pleading for her father’s return after ICE arrested some 680 workers at food processing plants in Mississippi.

        “Children finished their first day of school with no parents to go home to tonight. Babies and toddlers remained at daycare with no guardian to pick them up. A child vainly searched a workplace parking lot for missing parents.”Ashton Pittman, Jackson Free Press

Consider these conclusions about ICE deportations:

        • Cheap migrant labor (authorized or not) is why your chicken is cheap, your produce fresh and affordable, your home and office and hotel inexpensively cleaned.

        • Employers have no excuse for hiring those not authorized to work in the US since the federal government has an E-Verify program to assess a worker’s status.

        • If ICE were serious about enforcement, legislation would be in place to imprison business executives and corporate board members for hiring violations.

        • “Without immigrants, the US economy would be a 'disaster,' experts say.” Avianne Tan & Serena Marshall, ABC News

        • If every undocumented worker were deported overnight, there would be massive crop losses, because over half of the farm labor force have no authorization to work in the US. One-fourth of all domestic and cleaning workers are undocumented, as is 15% of construction labor. —, Quora

¶ “Don't name the shooter, name the gun. The shooter wants the attention, the gun doesn't want the blame. Name the gun, and the bullets. Make and model. Manufacturer, address, CEO, board of directors, stock symbol, annual profits, lobbyists.” —Chris Sanders on Facebook

Left: The "Loldiers of Odin" formed in Finland to counter a [white nationalist] citizen patrol called Soldiers of Odin. The clowns danced around the streets the same nights that the patrols went out in the community, bringing acrobat hoops and a hobby horse.

Creative resistance. “Why Nazis are so afraid of these clowns. Clowns have an impressive track record of subverting Nazi ideology, de-escalating rallies and bringing communities together in creative resistance.” Sarah Freeman-Woolpet, Waging Nonviolence 

Listen to the David Lamotte's "White Flour," recording of an illustrated story of confronting the Ku Klux Klan with humor. (5:42)

Benediction. “Take hope in Christ crucified and resurrected. It is in the resurrection which is the terror of God to all who believe that death should have the final word. It is the promise of the resurrection which renders null and void the victories of all who shed blood.” —Lee Griffith, “The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God”

Recessional.Amazing Grace,” President Barack Obama, at Mother Emanuel Baptist Church, Charleston, SC, after the 2015 mass shooting.

Lectionary for this Sunday. “Faith is contagious,” a litany for worship inspired by Hebrews 11

Lectionary for Sunday next. For the Lord of hosts “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteous, but heard a cry!” —Isaiah 5:7

Just for fun. Rockin’ nuns. (Thanks Guilherme.)

SPECIAL NOTE. If you have not added your signature to the “Christians Against Christian Nationalism,” I urge you to do so.

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Thoughts and prayers, shots and tears: A meditation on mass shootings,” a short meditation

• “We tolerate no scruples: A summary history of 20th century bombing of civilian populations,” a new short essay

• “Calling terrorism by its true name: blasphemy,” a theological meditation

• “Faith is contagious,” a litany for worship inspired by Hebrews 11

©Ken Sehested @ 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 “” 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


Calling terrorism by its true name: blasphemy

A theological meditation

by Ken Sehested

        In my mind, missing from the public conversation among mass shootings—about the clash between hatred and neighborliness of every sort—is the failure to acknowledge that behavior is always rooted in and propelled by a moral vision. That vision may be formally articulated and reasoned or merely be gut instinct and unreflected rage.

        That moral universe may be as simple as sheer anarchy, the struggle of each against all, but it does have a certain coherence. Our deepest convictions shape our behaviors, which then refine and reinforce (or rearrange or undermine) those core beliefs.

        All moral visions assume conclusions about the nature, intent, and purpose of power and, at least implicitly, the character of life’s destiny itself. Namely, who ultimately will endure; by what provisions; and aligned according to what design?

        I believe that every question of power is, in the end, a question about God: In a treacherous world, whose promises are sturdier? In Babel’s wake, whose words are trustworthy? In a world brimming with claims to authority—where significant commitments presume an outcome which cannot be verified ahead of time—whose covenant terms will endure?

        As St. Augustine said so very long ago, “We imitate whom we adore.”

        The inhabitants of terror’s province believe that death will have the last word. People of the Way, however, believe that the last word will be resurrection, where mourning and tears and pain will be no more; where death itself will be vanquished (Revelation 21:4).

        Therefore, people of faith need to understand that life lived according to the demands of justice and the prerequisites of peace—the two of which are mediated by the ministration of mercy—is not merely an ethical calculation but is adoration, is our true and proper worship, of which we need constant reminding. (Which is why we gather for worship.)

        As the Westminster Confession puts it: (Q) What is the chief end of humankind? (A) To glorify God. Yet all the church's historic creeds typically skip from cradle to cross to “crown of glory” with little reference to the actual mission and mandate of Jesus. When this occurs, redemption is separated from liberation; salvation becomes a divine bookkeeping transaction; and, in the words of Clarence Jordan, admiring Jesus is substituted for following him. Private souls are segregated from history; the Reign of God becomes an ephemeral, disembodied affair; and the Incarnation is emptied of all meaning.

        Adoration of God is not the result of heroic virtue, vigorous piety, or doctrinal rigor. Adoration is the result of being immersed in a beatific vision (and we all require lengthy soaking), a vision which takes concrete shape in the manner of Jesus, sustained and nurtured and interceded by the Holy Spirit. Doxology happens “when righteousness and peace embrace” (Psalm 85:10-13), when the commendation of Heaven is reflected in the restoration of Creation, human and humus alike.

        Adoration, doxology, is manifest in joy which, in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Such presence blossoms into the waging of peace. As the promise in Isaiah discloses, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace” (85:12), at which time the hills burst forth in song, the trees in applause. A new heaven and a new earth are joined as one.

        Given these things, it is proper to call terrorism by its true name: blasphemy. It is to call into question the integrity of God’s promise and provision. Even worse, it is denial of the very existence of One capable of either creation or redemption. Given that void (which Scripture personifies as "the Devil"), we are told that we are on our own. Take what you can; keep what you can defend. Violence, thereby, is evangelism for the Devil.

            The vocation of faith is the ongoing work of exorcism.

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©ken sehested @

Thoughts and prayers, shots and tears

A meditation on mass shootings

by Ken Sehested

Our nation, averaging one mass shooting per day, now has suffered two in the span of 13 hours. Thoughts and prayers. Shots and tears.

Has there ever been a time when the practice of “prayer” has been so debased and its announcement greeted with such cynicism?

Maybe when Jesus compared the piety of the religious establishment to white washed tombs, radiant in the full light of day, yet full of rot and canker (Matthew 23:27).

Maybe when Isaiah scoffed at the priestly class of his day, who make a show of sanctimony and “delight to draw near to God,” yet deliver mischief and oppression and “strike with wicked fists” (58:2-4)?

Is it any wonder that the general public is so disenchanted with, even sickened by, religious ardor?

One could only wish that being swathed in sackcloth and smeared with ashes were enough. It is not.

Kyrie eleison.

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©ken sehested @

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  31 July 2019 •  No. 198

Processional. “Old Time Medley: Down to the River to Pray,” “Modeh Ani,” and “Hallelujah,” Nefesh Mountain.

Above: Photo by Doug Lowry.

Invocation. “Thus says Yahweh, author and anchor of creation,  / to the people of Promise whose memory has failed. . . / From Pharaoh’s deadly bargain I purchased your release.  / Why have you grown tired of my attention? / My heart recoils at the thought of plundering you / in order to pardon you. / Instead, I will woo you. I will wait you out.” —continue reading “Cheek to cheek,” a litany for worship inspired by Hosea 11 & Matthew 7:7–8.

Call to worship. “The Kingdom of God has no flag, no walls, no cages, and one official language: Mercy.” —author unknown

Hymn of praise. “Bless The Lord, O My Soul,” S. Rachmaninoff "All-Night Vigil" / Vespers, op. 37.

Good news. “Irish teenager wins global science award for removing microplastics from water.” —

Confession. “The Death of Emmett Till,” Bob Dylan.

¶ In August 1955 two white men in rural Mississippi kidnapped, tortured, and murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till, then dumped his body, weighed down by a cotton gill fan, into the Black Bayou near the Tallahatchie River. Till’s murderers were acquitted. This incident is often identified as a pivotal moment in the launching of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

        In 2007 a memorial marker sign (at right) was placed on the bank of the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found. It has been vandalized repeatedly. Just this past week three University of Mississippi students were pictured in front the memorial sign, two of them holding weapons.

¶ “[I]t is possible to understand why vandalism sometimes registers as terror. The vandalism is in effect (if not in intent) a forcible reclamation of white space. It turns markers of the black experience into reminders of white supremacy. Much like the burning crosses of the Klan, the bullet-riddled markers visibly announce white supremacy and foreshadow the violence that maintains it.” Dave Tell, Chicago Tribune

Hymn of lament. “Wayfaring Stranger,” Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra.

 ¶ Centennial marker. “America in the summer of 1919 ran red with blood from racial violence, and yet today, 100 years later, not many people know it even happened.

        “It flowed in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas, in medium-size places such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, and in big cities like Washington and Chicago. Hundreds of African American men, women and children were burned alive, shot, hanged or beaten to death by white mobs. Thousands saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground and were driven out, many never to return.

Left: White children cheer after setting fire to an African American home in Chicago during the 1919 “Red Summer” of racial unrest that swept the nation from May through October. Although riots occurred in more than thirty cities throughout the U.S., the bloodiest events were in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas. For more see Femi Lewis, ThoughtCo.

        “It was branded “Red Summer” because of the bloodshed and amounted to some of the worst white-on-black violence in U.S. history. . . .

        “There are no national observances marking Red Summer. History textbooks ignore it, and most museums don’t acknowledge it. The reason: Red Summer contradicts the post-World War I-era notion that America was making the world safe for democracy, historians say. ‘It doesn’t fit into the neat stories we tell ourselves,’ said David Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back." Jesse J. Holland, PBS

Four hundredth anniversary. “While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently called human slavery America’s ‘original sin,’ he dismissed calls for the federal government to pay financial reparations to descendants of slaves. It has been 400 years since ‘20, odd Negroes’ in chains arrived aboard the English ship ‘The White Lion’ in Point Comfort, Virginia, in August 1619. A short time later, a second ship, ‘The Treasurer,’ brought more Africans to be sold to the white Virginia settlers who had arrived in Jamestown a dozen years earlier. . . ." A. James Rudin, Religion News

Street level courage. “Residents in a suburban Nashville neighborhood (see photo at right) came together to protect an undocumented man as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers attempted to arrest him. After a four-hour attempted arrest — during which time the undocumented man and his young son barricaded themselves inside a van parked in front of their home — ICE agents left, and neighbors and activists on the scene created a human chain to allow the family to get indoors.” Jasmine Aguilera, Time

Words of assurance. “You are not hidden / There's never been a moment / You were forgotten / You are not hopeless / Though you have been broken / Your innocence stolen / I will send out an army to find you / In the middle of the darkest night / It's true, I will rescue you.” Lauren Daigle, “Rescue” (Thanks Tami.)

Professing our faith. “What a society does to its children, its children will do to society,” a Roman sage once said. —Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, The Nonviolent Moment: Spirituality for the 21st Century

Hymn of resolution. “Your labor is not in vain / though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained / Your planting and reaping are never the same / But your labor is not in vain. / For I am with you, I am with you.” —The Porter’s Gate, “Your Labor Is Not in Vain

¶ “How Border-Crossing Became a Crime in the United States.” —,

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union told a federal judge Tuesday that the Trump administration has taken nearly 1,000 migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border since the judge ordered the United States government to curtail the practice more than a year ago.” Maria Sacchetti, Washington Post

Hymn of intercession. “I Behold You, Beautiful One.” —Acapellaboratory and Choral Conspiracy

Word. “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.” —Charles M. Blow

In September 2017 the New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services conducted a study, at President Trump’s request, estimating the long-term costs of the US Refugee Admissions Program.

        The internal study, which was completed in late July but never publicly released, found that refugees “contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government” between 2005 and 2014 through the payment of federal, state and local taxes. “Overall, this report estimated that the net fiscal impact of refugees was positive over the 10-year period, at $63 billion.” —read more of David Emery’s reporting at Snopes

¶ “New York children read the words of their peers held in US Border Patrol facilities.” —video by Leah Varjacques and Taige Jensen, New York Times (3:29)

The Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children gathered over 200 individuals within the Catholic faith, representing 20 national organizations.

        “I was one of 71 Catholics arrested . . . for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” while praying the rosary. My prayer was — and is — to end the warehousing of immigrant children in cages — 63,624 of whom have been apprehended by border patrol at the southwestern border between October 2018 and June 2019 and seven of whom have died after being in federal custody since September. More than a dozen Catholic orders and organizations sponsored the event. Rose Berger, “A Cross of Human Bodies,” Sojourners

All God’s children got shoes: Two very different stories

        • When Carrie Jernigan of Alma, Arkansas took her daughter to get a new pair of shoes at the Payless store (which was going out of business), her fourth-grade daughter, Harper, asked if they could get a pair for one of her friends who needed a new pair. Turns out, Carrie ended up buying that store’s entire inventory, 1,500 pairs of shoes, for kids in need. Ben Kesslen, NBC (Thanks Loren.)

        • New record for most expensive sneakers. “A pair of 1972 Nike running shoes became the most expensive sneakers ever sold at auction, fetching $475,500 at Sotheby’s.” CNBC

Preach it. “Interesting how ‘I’d kill for my kids’ is a widely accepted and agreed upon idea among Americans, but somehow ‘I’d illegally cross a border for my kids’ is a big no no.” —author unknown

Can’t makes this sh*t up.

       •“US authorities revoked International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's entry visa to the United States, her office and the US State Department confirmed Friday.” Jennifer Hansler, CNN

       • Article II of the US Constitution says “I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.” —President Trump, speaking in July at the Teen Student Action Summit

Call to the table. “Some holy ghost keeps me hangin on, hangin on / I feel the hands, but I don't see anyone, anyone / I feel the hands, but I don't see anyone, it's there and gone / Feeds my passion for transcendence / Turns my water into wine / Makes me wish I was empty.” —Mavis Staples, Holy Ghost

The state of our disunion. “The Trump administration went to court last week to argue that migrant children detained at the United States-Mexico border do not require basic hygiene products like soap and toothbrushes in order to be in held in ‘safe and sanitary’ conditions.”

Watch this short (3:55) video of Dr. Warren Binford describing the horrid conditions at a immigrant child detention facility in Texas. (Thanks Karen.)

Creative resistance. “Two California professors installed pink seesaws (see photo at left) at the U.S.-Mexico border to allow children in both countries to play with each other. Ronald Rael, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an assistant professor at San José State University in California, came up with the idea for a ‘Teetertotter Wall’ in 2009.

        “Their idea finally came to life at an event Monday in Sunland Park, New Mexico, when three bright pink seesaws were installed across the giant steel border wall, stretching into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

        “‘The wall became a literal fulcrum for U.S.-Mexico relations and children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side,’ Rael wrote on Instagram.” NBC News  (You can also watch a brief (0:19) video.)

Best one-liner. “I keep waiting for someone to tell me, ‘yeah, I was a fruit picker until those illegal immigrants arrived.’” —from the internet (Thanks Glenn.)

For the beauty of the earth. Drone footage of a blue whale and her calf swimming off the coast of San Diego, California. (2:53. Thanks John.)

Altar call. “Be forewarned, you nation of frivolous piety: You who turn the Most High God into a mascot for your charade of innocence while deceitfully invoking the Sovereign’s blessings on your affairs. Let there be no more God bless America, for your hands are full of blood.” —continue reading “Nation of frivolous piety,” a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 1:15 & Psalm 99

Right: Mother of God: Protectress of the Oppressed, icon by Kelly Latimore

Benediction. “Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence. Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences. / We catch it by surrounding ourselves with a cloud of witnesses, with the stories of faithful people, both from distant memory and direct experience.” —continue reading “Faith is contagious,” a litany for worship inspired by Hebrews 11

Recessional. “Psalm 23” (“Surely Goodness, Surely Mercy”), Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. (Thanks Roy.)

Lectionary for this Sunday

• “Cheek to cheek,” a litany for worship inspired by Hosea 11 & Matthew 7:7–8

• “Let gladness swell your heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 107

• “Faith is contagious,” a litany for worship inspired by Hebrews 11

Lectionary for Sunday next. On the importance of unfiltered prayer: “I will accept no bull in my house.” —a play on the words of Psalm 50:9

Just for fun. Attack of the cute puppies. (1:00 video)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Nation of frivolous piety,” a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 1:15 & Psalm 99

• “Cheek to cheek,” a litany for worship inspired by Hosea 11 & Matthew 7:7–8

• “Let gladness swell your heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 107

©Ken Sehested @ 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.

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In the Shadow of a Steeple

Time for a post-national church?

by Ken Sehested
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12, Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

      This coming week I’ll be applying to start early retirement Social Security benefits. Those of you who’ve already past that marker know what a milestone it is. It’s intimidating, and can make you anxious. The good thing it does is make you focus your attention. That’s why I relinquished more than half my pastoral job description. I want to give significantly more time to analyzing the reality in which we live, both as citizens of the United States and as followers of Jesus.

      In preparation for today I’ve scoured my electronic and print files for how we in the Circle have broached the topic of “empire.” I was surprised. I’d forgotten how many times sermons from this podium have addressed the question of empire. It’s a conversation that’s come up fairly frequently in our meetings and gatherings and retreats, as well as here in our worship services. It’s not a new topic.

      The issue of “empire” is prominent in two major statements we’ve made as a congregation in recent years—our “peace church” statement in 2012 and our 2007 open letter, titled “We Say No” to a proposed attack on Iran.

      The topic isn’t new to us. But our responses have been piecemeal and occasional. So the question I want to put on the table today is whether this might be the time to do something more comprehensive.

      This is one of those Sundays when the lectionary texts each deserve a month of Sunday sermons and Sunday school studies. You’ve already heard the Gospel text read, as the call to worship. I’ll not read the entirety of the other texts, but it’s worth summarizing key points.

      Today’s Psalm, #15, has language that is echoed in the Beatitudes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Interestingly, though, the text gets a lot more specific at points, including the culminating admonition: “do not lend money at interest” (v. 5). Can you imagine the response if, in a fit of religious piety, Janet Yellon, our new Chair of the Federal Reserve, were to announce such a fiscal policy?

      The text from the Prophet Micah ends with that familiar trilogy which is often referenced in our Circle: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). That statement is what inspired our congregational motto of  “seeking justice, pursuing peace, following Jesus.”

      Today’s reading from the Newer Testament Epistles returns to that odd logic in the Apostle Paul’s thinking, where he talks about the “foolishness” of the cross, about God’s habit of choosing what is “foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the work to shame the strong” (I Cor. 1:18-31).

      Both the Beatitudes and this teaching from Paul call to mind the “upside down” character of the coming Reign of God. Together with the instructions from Micah and the psalmist these texts point to the way God’s work of salvation is not something we get beyond history and in a heavenly, disembodied land far, far away. Rather this salvation is also liberation which breaks out in the midst of fleshly life.

      But to arrive at this beatific vision involves a new orientation that begins with a process of disorientation. Getting confused is the first step in getting saved.

      You get a sense of this confusion when you first look at the map I’ve brought for display, with the north and south poles reversed so that everything looks upside down. Have you ever wondered by “up” is always north? It’s just a habit, one that began with the Greeco-Roman scientist Claudius Ptolemy in the second century.

      When I was in high school, I was driving and turned down one of the major thoroughfares in the town where we lived . . . and instantaneously, momentarily, felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone. I had driven down this street hundreds of times, but suddenly I felt like I was lost. The really confusing part was that all the signs and shops were familiar, but somehow disordered. It was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

      It took me about 10 seconds to realize the reason I felt so confused was because the street I was on used to be a one-way street; and for the first time I was traveling it in reverse. It had become so familiar, with the pattern of store and shop signs following one after the other in a particular direction. Now those signs were reversed. Familiar but unfamiliar at the same time.

      Disorientating: Blessed are those who mourn?

      Confusing: The meek will inherit the earth?

      Confounding: Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you?

      Perplexing: God is choosing what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are?

      Unsettling: Is the Gospel foolishness?

        As citizens of the US we are schooled from birth to join the chant: We’re #1! We’re #1. And the “we’re #1” symbol—index finger pointed to the sky—is simultaneously a theological presumption that God, the real and true Number One, is on our side, is our sponsor. As recently as his May 2012 commencement address at the US Air Force Academy, President Obama reasserted the judgment that the US is “the one indispensable nation.” The claim about being the only indispensable nation was previously used by President Bill Clinton. But this isn’t just a “guy thing.” Before Clinton said it, his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the claim and went on to add, in reference to enforcing an embargo on Iraq in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”[1]

      How many times in recent years have you heard a political realist make this sarcastic remark about some far-fetched solution to a problem: “So, you think we should just circle up, hold hands and sing Kumbaya!?” Or, remember when former Republican Senate Majority leader Trent Lott was asked in a news conference about the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq? His response? “This isn’t Sunday school.”

      We are indeed #1 in gross domestic product and in military spending—it’s still stunning to me to think the US has over 800 military bases in foreign countries, on top of more than 5,000 bases here at home. Or that the number of musicians in US military bands is greater than the total number of professional diplomats in the US State Department. A professional baseball player just signed a contract to make over $30 million per year; a superbowl TV ad now costs $150,000 per second; 85 of the world’s richest people now control more wealth than half the globe’s population. There’s something terribly, terribly wrong with this picture.

      Among the world’s top 20 wealthiest nations, the US is also #1 in poverty rate, rates of incarceration, greatest inequality of incomes, highest social immobility, highest infant mortality and obesity rates, highest percentage of the population that lack health insurance, highest amount of guns at home and weapons sales abroad. The list goes on and on. On top of all this, we still live under the shadow of President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy Doctrine which declares, for the first time in our nation’s history, that the US reserves the right to preemptive war. That is to say that the President of the United States is authorized to take hostile action against any party, any where in the world, simply by chanting the mantra “war on terror.”

      We are, in short, on the precipice of a permanent state of war[2], for there are no measurable criteria for when a war on “terror” can be considered complete.

      This condition of unimpeachable authority to prosecute war when and where we wish is only recently codified into law; but the condition has been with us from the beginning. Listen to the statement of Pilgrim leader William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony in precolonial America in the mid-17th century. After attaching a Pequot Indian village on the Mystic River, killing approximately 400 Pequot men, women and children, Bradford wrote in his journal:

      “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God.” This from those who claimed to be God’s new Israel, a “city set upon a high as a light to the nations.” This from others who would later announce our country’s manifest destiny.

      Among the most naked statements of raw imperial motive comes from an historic policy planning study written by George Kennan, then with the US State Department and later ambassador to the Soviet Union. Kennan, a Democrat and later critic of President Bush’s war in Iraq, wrote the following:

      “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. . . .

     “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.”

      The title for my sermon, “In the Shadow of a Steeple,” comes from the so-called “lost” verse to Woody Guthrie’s song we sang a few minutes ago. I say the verse was “lost,” not because it was unrecoverable but because it disappeared from singing. It’s kind of like that line Dr. King used, late in his life, when he forcefully came out against the war in Vietnam and then had the audacity to say that the US was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” That quote isn’t on the new monument to Dr. King in our nation’s capital. And rarely do you hear the final verse to Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”:

      In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple
      By the relief office, I’ve seen my people
      As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking:
      Is this land made for you and me?

      That visual image of the poor standing in soup lines under the shadow of church steeples, steeples built early on in our nation’s life in the center of city squares—that is to say, at the center of political and economic power, providing ecclesial authorization for the hoarding of resources and the division between the “makers” and the “takers”—that image disturbs me greatly.

      Contemporary use of “freedom” language disturbs me greatly—freedom language being so essential to the biblical story, a story which orbits around the Hebrew prison break from Pharaoh’s slave quarters—a story that continues into the Newer Testament’s account of Jesus’ execution and resurrection coming as it did during Passover observance, the ritual remembrance of that earlier Hebrew freedom movement. Nowadays, freedom has come to mean something altogether different. Economically, freedom means the capacity of corporate capitalism to penetrate and control the economies of other nations. Politically, freedom is defined by the 2010 US Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision which opens the floodgates of corporation funding of electoral politics. Militarily, freedom reflects the US National Security Strategy’s authorization of preemptive war.

      And in the church, “freedom” has come to mean “don’t ask me to make commitments,” don’t talk much about money, and don’t say much about risk. This reminds me of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Susan, one of the children who are lead characters, asks Mr. Beaver whether Aslan is a safe lion. “Course he isn’t safe,” replies Mr. Beaver. “But he’s good.” The God with whose purposes we align is not safe. God will not always keep us out of harm’s way—in fact, that’s exactly where the Spirit could end up leading us. But our story says, yes, God is good.

      Hiding behind the claim to be “exceptional” is becoming increasingly popular among political leaders in our nation’s life. And the implication of the church in such affairs is unmistakable. The “shadow of the steeple” falls again every time one of our elected leaders end their comments by demanding “God bless America.” I find it deeply alarming to hear the escalating calls for “Christian nationalism,” and believe it to be a stench in God’s nostrils.

      The question I want to put on the table for you is whether it’s time that we undertake an ambitious congregational conversation about whether we should declare ourselves to be a “post-national” church. What might it look like to declare that while we are irrevocably in love with our country, we are deeply distraught over and alienated from our nation?  For “America” has come to mean something we can no longer silently abide and thus we must, clearly and unmistakably, announce our opposition.

      There are many implications for such a stand; and I can think of several reasons why we shouldn’t do this, particularly because of the temptation to arrogance that happens when people of faith try to distinguish themselves from the larger culture; and also because we have the habit of thinking that making statements is enough, when in fact identity statements should actually flow from the concrete shape of our common life.

      Anyway  . . . there it is. I don’t plan to foster or organize such a conversation. I don’t want such a statement to be my statement or our pastoral leaders’ statement. If this conversation is desired, the request needs to come from within these assembled chairs.

      In the meantime, the beatific vision continues washing over us, announcing the coming New Heaven and New Earth. Our common prayer is that it soaks in, that it does it disorienting, confounding work on the way we have been taught to think and act. And that slowly but surely it remakes our life from the ground up.

      In the meantime, the meek are getting ready.

      In the meantime, Gospel foolishness keeps breaking out in unexpected places.

      In the meantime, rock on, you beatitudes. Turn the shadow of that steeple into a resting place for people who know the Beloved Community is on its way.

Circle of Mercy Congregation, Sunday 2 February 2014

©Ken Sehested @

[1] Journalist John L. O’Sullivan first used the phrase “manifest destiny” in an 1845 article for the Democratic Review arguing for the annexation of the Republic of Texas. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first terms the US “the indispensable nation” in justifying the US-led embargo on Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. Her boss, President Bill Clinton, used the phrase in his Second Inaugural Address in 1997. Then, in a 2012 commencement address to the Air Force Academy, President Barack Obama asserted that the US is “the one indispensable nation.” The French political theorist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the US as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840, in Democracy in America. But the more common reference began with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in criticizing the American Communist Party leaders for their belief that the US was above Marxist doctrine of the laws of history.

[2] Significantly, President Obama admitted this in his 28 January 2014 State of the Union speech: “America must move off a permanent war footing.”

In praise of Ordinary Days

A meditation on Ordinary Time on the church's liturgical calendar

by Ken Sehested

“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.”
—William Blake

§  §  §

When people of faith speak of God, and how the love of God leads to the flourishing of souls and soil alike, such language appears on the surface as something being done to us, as from the outside.

Merely being acted upon—being objectified—hints at coercion, manipulation, feeble dependency, indignity. As if we are to be kept in chains and, moreover, taught to love those chains—lovely as they may appear, but chains, nonetheless. As if we are merely utensils in a cosmic drama. As if we are chess pieces on a divine board game.

Such is not the case. Think of a time lapse video of a flower blooming, first in one layer, then another, then another, and yet another—as if from out of thin air. Prior to this there was merely a tiny bud. Pleasant enough, but without the slightest indication of what was to come—as if from nowhere, as if from outside and beyond and super-natural. As if being infused with what, originally, was not there.

Human life thrives only when surrounded by fertile humus, enriched soil generating life from decomposition. The fallen leaf does not regret its demise.

§  §  §

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole,
one can live fully in it only my living responsibly in some small part of it.”
—Wendell Berry

§  §  §

The Blessed One is not the author and enforcer of transcendent patterns of creaturely co-dependency. The Gracious Host is not a giant Self, demanding subservience from petitioners. The Merciful One is not obsessive and in need of constant homage and ovation as a guarantee of kindly attention.

Rather, as mystics write, creaturely blooming is a growing into God and God into all.

Apotheosis—a growing into God—is the word used in Eastern Christian traditions. Frequently in Paul’s writing, the Apostle speaks of growing into Christ and being “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). Or as Peter wrote, we are called to “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Such language is fragile and risky and easily manipulated, because it hints that creatures may thereby strap on the glory of the Creator and be freed to wield power to reorder the world in self-aggrandizing ways.

Right: Linocut art by Julie Lonneman

Does a self/soul even survive the Spirit’s transforming fire? Yes, and no.

Yes, understood developmentally, in history’s time and space, the self that is in Christ expands, step by gradual step, to include ever-larger circles of communion with others—even, potentially, with enemies. It’s not so much a matter of denying the self but a relaxing and uncoiling of the self. The self-forgetfulness that grows is not a self-debasement. Rather, it is like the bud’s tilt toward the sun’s radiance; like the arousal of the loved to the Lover.

No, however, if the self means the continued existence of a sniveling, whining ego needing constant assurance and reinforcement of its own value and performance. Such a self demands that if I’m special, you must be less so. Being self-possessed is, by definition, being separated from the Love that binds each to all without definition, degree, merit, or measure.

§  §  §

“Hope is the ordinary things you stubbornly do every day!”
—Mitri Raheb, Palestinian pastor

§  §  §

Because we humans, at least occasionally, require reassurance, comfort, and encouragement, we assume the same for the Beloved, creation’s author. And thus our worship becomes a form of commerce, offering bribes in exchange for blessing, compliments in return for security safeguards. And when God’s honor is at stake, we assume retribution, including bloodletting, is a sacred duty.

The annulment of such duty was accomplished in the cross, confirmed in the resurrection, and kindled at Pentecost. For people of The Way, swords have become plowshares in preparation for the bountiful harvest of peace, sown in justice, and ripened in mercy.

§  §  §

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty
to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble.”
—Helen Keller

§  §  §

It is in these days after Pentecost, Ordinary Time in the church’s calendar, that dreams are molded into deeds, that vision is mirrored in befriending habits, that yeast is unleashed, that struggle is ensued and peace is waged. The daily duties of covenant-keeping, the menial acts of fidelity, the chaste response to aggravating speech, the refusal of silence in the face of abuse, the encouraging word to the forlorn and offended—these are among the beads of your rosary. Pray it even on faltering days and throughout restless nights.

Notice the unnoticed. Choose the less lovely for a dance partner. Keep your eyes shielded from shiny baubles, your ears from the marketer’s lure. Proclaim honor in the land of disrepute. Approach all your quotidian duties in the knowledge that future blossoms begin as dirt-covered seedlings jostling amid the mire.

Live the unvarnished life, susceptible neither to flattery nor mockery.

Remember: there is no secular space or time; only sacred or desecrated. Train your eyes to spot reverential clues among sullied clutter.

Acclaim the unadorned season. Give praise to Ordinary Days.

§  §  §

“A saint is simply a human being whose soul has . . . grown up to its full stature,
by full and generous response to its environment, God.”
—Evelyn Underhill

#  #  #

Initial inspiration for this meditation came by way of watching a short (3:24) time lapse video of flowers blooming, from National Geographic.

©ken sehested @

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  11 July 2019 •  No. 197

Processional. “Listen, smith [crafter] of the heavens, / what the poet asks. / May softly come unto me / your mercy. / So I call on thee, / for you have created me.” —“Heyr himna smiður,” English-translated lyrics of a 13th century Icelandic hymn, performed by Ellen Kristjándsóttir

Above: Halitrephes Maasi jellyfish, photographed at a depth of over 4,000 feet of water off Baja California by the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. Watch this brief (1:17) video.

Special edition


        By the time I finished my cum laude undergraduate work and with distinction seminary degree, my analytical powers were sharply honed. I was capable of researching, selecting, and presenting large troves of factual material; which I immediately put to work as an advocate for justice, peace, and human rights shaped by a passionate theological ethos.

        It didn’t take long, however, to discover that people may be convinced (about what should happen) without being convicted (to make something happen). Insight does not come with its own legs. Knowing much does not of its own momentum lead to vigorous doing. —continue reading “We don’t have anything if we don’t have stories

 ¶ “Creation,” a delightful retelling of the Genesis story of creation, produced by Will Vinton Studio, based on a poem by James Weldon Johnson, narrated by James Earl Jones, animated by Joan C. Gratz. (7:36 video. Thanks Tom.)

Chris Funk, of the music group The Decemberists, has a passion for finding “the most surprising and most extraordinary people in music.” He recently met and jammed with Gaelynn Lea, who was born with brittle bone disease, confining her to a wheel chair, but writes and performs ballads by playing a violin upright, like a cello. (3:53 video. Thanks Amanda.)

Kids making stuff happen. It started with 11-year-old Ruby Chitsey’s simple question to nursing home residents: “If you could have any three things, what would they be?” Now, it’s turned into a national movement. CBS NEWS (2:46 video. Thanks Donna.)

¶ “Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time. . . .” —Jonathan Gottschall

Good news. “Earlier this week, legendary Pink Floyd guitarist and songwriter David Gilmour auctioned off dozens of his guitars—and he sold them all so he could donate the proceeds to charity. In total, Gilmour auctioned off 126 of his guitars at Christie’s, raking in a whopping total of $21 million.” McKinley Corbley, Good News Network

Extraordinary short story (and startling pictures, including the one at left) of the death and resurrection of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Fifty years ago, 22 June 1969, the river was so polluted it actually caught fire. It had happened before, several times, but this time the tragedy provoked the nation to do something about environmental degradation. The next year President Richard Nixon backed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. —Hilary Brueck, Business Insider  (Thanks Anita.)

¶ Watch this short (2:48) video profile of Wangari Maathai, a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for her work founding the Green Belt Movement.

Random act of kindness. My cousin Rustin, a welder in Oklahoma, wrote up an interesting lunch time experience.
    Me: [To the lunch lady at Morello’s] One red chili pork, please.
        Her: [Staring at me, saying something fast and in Spanish to the woman next to her]
    Me: I’m so sorry, I don’t under-
        Her #1: [smiling] She say you move her car.
    Me: [Glancing around to confirm she’s got the right fellow] Pardon?
        Her #1: [Still speaking very quickly, still in Spanish…]
    Me: [Kind of frozen…]
        Guy in Line Next To Me: She said you push her car? She was in the road?
    Me: OOOOOOOOOHHHH! Right! Wow, yeah, sorry I didn’t recognize her!
        [The ladies go to work on my food]
    Guy in Line Next To Me: They
    are very thankful you stop.
    She does not speak English
    and she was afraid. She
    said you are very, umm,
So THIS [picture showing a plate piled with food] is what my one plain taco became.

This puts some things in perspective. “Earth’s history on a football field,” visualizing earth’s timeline—and humanity’s tiny presence. (Thanks John.)

More good news. “With the signing of House Bill 307 [in April], Maryland made history by becoming the first state in the Union to establish a state-wide commission dedicated to investigating racial terror lynchings in the United States. The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides an opportunity for the state to take a significant step in making peace with its African American communities.” Nicholas Creary, Baltimore Sun

¶ “I regularly see young children separated from their parents. It is one of the hardest parts of working in a surgical environment. We go to great lengths to make it less traumatic for them, including medications, transitional objects, putting the parents in head to toe covering so they can stay with their child, showing the kids exactly where Mommy will be waiting for them, and forming relationships with the kids days in advance so they have someone that they trust to carry them in. Even so, it is always difficult and frequently terrifying for the children. . . .

        “I can't stop thinking about those children at border who can't find their parents and the parents who can't find their children. . . . I am realizing that, yes, this is truly evil, and yes, it's being done by my country and my tax dollars. . . .” —read the story by Hania Thomas-Adams, pediatric pre-op Child Life Specialist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland, Ca., in a Facebook post

Hard question. “Most of what gets shared as heartwarming stories are usually temporary, small-scale responses to systemic failures. I wish we found it just as inspirational to make structural changes to unjust systems, but I don’t know if our culture knows how to tell those stories.” —Anil Dash

¶ “As the oldest career National Park Service ranger, 97-year-old Betty Soskin (pictured at left, photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis) is unabashed about revealing all of America's history—and her optimism about our future.” Faral Chideya, Glamour

¶ “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step. . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.” —Ivan Illich

Old hymn, persevering power. “We've a story to tell to the nations, / That shall lift their hearts to the Lord, / A song that shall conquer evil, / And shatter the spear and sword, / And shatter the spear and sword. / For the darkness shall turn to the dawning, / And the dawning to noonday bright, / And Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth, / The kingdom of love and light.” —H. Ernest Nichol (1862-1926), lyrics to “We've a story to Tell”

“Tame Geese,” a story by Soren Kierkegaard. “Every seventh day these geese paraded to a corner of the yard, and their most eloquent orator got up on the fence and spoke of the wonders of geese. He told of the exploits of their ancestors who dared to mount up on wings and fly all over the sky. He spoke of the mercy of the creator, who had given geese wings and the instinct to fly. This deeply impressed the geese who nodded their heads solemnly. All this they did. One thing they did not do. They did not fly, for the corn was good and the barnyard was secure.”

The vocation of a writer “is to rescue from the shadows people who are genuinely heroic but unknown and unnoticed.” —Alan Gurganus (Thanks Guy.)

¶ “By the time Angela was brought to Jamestown’s muddy shores in 1619, she had survived war and capture in West Africa, a forced march of more than 100 miles to the sea, a miserable Portuguese slave ship packed with 350 other Africans and an attack by pirates during the journey to the Americas. . . .

        “Now, as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those first slaves, historians are trying to find out as much as possible about Angela, the first African woman documented in Virginia.” DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post

¶ “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.” —Anthony de Mello

Facing the truth. In 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma mayor G.T. Bynum announced that the city was to reopen an investigation of the May 1921 race riot when a white mob descended on Greenwood, a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street. The mob set fire to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes, killing more than 300 black people and leaving more than 10,000 homeless. Survivors recounted bodies tossed into mass graves. (For background, see DeNeed L. Brown, Washington Post.) The first meeting of the Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee was held on 27 June. —, Tulsa World

¶ “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America.” —Bryan Stephenson, Equal Justice Initiative

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

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

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

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

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

¶ “Storytelling has but two separate but interdependent functions: To sit with the onslaught of grief and prepare for the upsurge of hope. To refuse the first is to reduce hope to pleasantry; to refuse the second is complicity with despair.” —Ken Sehested

Scripture reading depends in part on living the text. “I was converted again to this conviction one night in northern Uganda. The Lord’s Resistance Army was still at its evil games and children slept in ‘night commuter’ camps to try to stay alive and tortured into becoming a child soldier. Only one adult was stationed [at the school]—a middle-aged woman available to help. She explained that she came each night as a volunteer. She talked about the children’s need and her desire to do what she could. . . .

        “Still wanting to know more, I pressed, ‘But what motivates you to care?’ She looked me up and down and finally said, ‘Well, I am what you call a Christian. I read my Bible, go to church where we eat something called the Lord’s Supper. I can’t read the Bible every day and share in that meal and not come here at night.’” —Mark Labberton, “The plain sense? Scripture may be clear, but it’s not easy,” Christian Century 12 April 2017

Just for fun. Gospel of John (Cana’s water into wine story) alternative rendering from Rowan Atkinson. (4:43 video. Thanks David.)

Recessional. Bailey Mountain Cloggers (Mars Hill University, Mars Hill, NC), an award-winning dance troupe.

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “We don’t have anything if we don’t have stories,” a new essay

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We don’t have anything if we don’t have stories

Preface to 11 July 2019 special edition of Signs of the Times devoted to brief stories

by Ken Sehested

"If you want to change people's obedience then you must change their imagination."
—philosopher Paul Ricoeur

By the time I finished my cum laude undergraduate work and with distinction seminary degree, my analytical powers were sharply honed. I was capable of researching, selecting, and presenting large troves of factual material; which I immediately put to work as an advocate for justice, peace, and human rights shaped by a passionate theological ethos.

It didn’t take long, however, to discover that people can be convinced (about what should happen) without being convicted (to make something happen). Insight does not come with its own legs.

Knowing does not of its own momentum lead to vigorous doing.

Clarence Jordan, one of the great modern storytellers of the Christian community, said that there’s a difference between admiring Jesus and following Jesus, and that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount was not so much to provoke inspiration as perspiration.

Insightful data does not necessarily lead to the incitement of transformed behavior. The lament over this maddening state of human affairs is at least as old as the Apostle Paul, who famously complained, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Thus began the second, informal stage of my education (which continues even now), trying to grasp what it is that moves people from being convinced to being convicted. For the over-schooled, there is such a thing as the paralysis of analysis.

When one thinks, separately from engagement with actual history, that the facts will of themselves generate not just light but also heat, the end result is almost always a smoldering wick. In truth, what we need cannot be had apart from a community of conviction, where insight is communally brought to bear on actual circumstances. And nothing holds communities of conviction together more than their shared stories.

In Jewish scripture, the worst sin is amnesia—forgetfulness, of who we are, by whom we are called, and for what purpose. The heart of Torah consciousness, the so-called Ten Commandments featured most prominently in Exodus 20, begins with this preface: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .” 

Instruction is tied to drama, performed—and memorialized—on a flesh and blood stage. The sole purpose of religious ritual is to refresh our memories in imaginative ways that lead to new acts of faith. Each new season, each new generation, add additional layers to the stories illustrating how faith overcomes fear, how enemies might be loved, how strangers might become friends, how the least, the lost, and the last might be restored to creation’s table of bounty.

Such practices are not detailed in a grand architectural diagram, to be precisely fabricated. Rather, they are embedded in a beatific vision—strong enough to withstand history’s brutal storms—of a coming age when mercy will trump vengeance, when tears will be dried, when death will be no more.

Incarnational faith is a storied faith. Which stories are told—and the purposes and people they serve—determine whose voices are remembered; and whose, forgotten.

“I will tell you something about stories
they aren’t just entertainment
they are all we have to fight off illness and death
we don’t have anything if we don’t have the stories
their evil is mighty, but it can’t stand up to our stories
so they try to make us confused or forget them
they would like that
because then we would become defenseless.”
—Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko

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