Bewildering Word

When Jesus began his ministry, Rome was the sole superpower, governed by Tiberius, adoptive son of Caesar Augustus, whose praises were carved in stone.

From untamed territory a voice resounds: Prepare the Way! Unlock the gate! Make straight the reach of Love renowned.

Caesar was the “redeemer” who brought “salvation,” establishing “peace and security for the world,” the only true “Lord” in whom all should have “faith.”

Rise up you valleys! Recline you mountains! The Word breaks, unleashed, from every empire’s rule, every temple’s sway.

Not even Caiaphas, cipher of sanctity and broker of pardon, can corral the bewilding of heaven.

Repent and confess you creatures of flesh. Linger and hear, for mercy draws near, bewildering fear in its wake. Sinew and tear, every sword, every spear, shall yield to the triumph of Grace.

©Ken Sehested @ Inspired by Luke 3:1-6.

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  9 May 2018 •  No. 161

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

Above: April the giraffe’s new calf, born in 2017 at Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y. Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images. Watch this short (2:56) video of mom washing her newborn.

Special Edition

Invocation. “. . . and his arms were made agile . . . by El-Shaddai [“the Almighty”] who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb.” —Genesis 49:24-25

El Shaddai (feminine noun), literally “the God of the mountains” and translated “God Almighty” can also be translated “God of the breast,” conveying the quality of nourishing, satisfying and supplying needs. Used seven times in Scripture (see Genesis 17:1). The English translation of “El Shaddai” as “God Almighty” is misleading, because “almighty” suggests omnipotence, the capacity to overpower or destroy. Whereas “Shaddai” infers sufficiency and nourishment (i.e., “blessings of the breasts and of the womb”) and has a certain fecudity. —for a detailed, scholarly exposition of this word, see Roger Good, “El Shadday: It’s Meaning and Implications

Call to worship.Women: Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! / Men: Speak up, that all may hear! / W: Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. / M: Say it loud, say it proud!  / W: Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. / M: Oh, brothers, can you hear? / W: Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” —continue reading “Mother’s Day: A litany for worship, drawn from the words of Julia Ward Howe

Hymn of praise. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need, / She makes me lie down in green meadows, / Beside the still waters, She will lead. / She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, / She leads me in a path of good things, / And fills my heart with songs. —“Psalm 23,” Bobby McFerrin, using feminine imagery for God

Anne Jarvis is often credited as the organizer for our existing Mother’s Day cultural observances. However, “As soon as Mother’s Day became truly popular, Jarvis hated it. After it received official recognition, Mother’s Day quickly became commercialized as retailers focused on selling flowers, candy and greeting cards to those wishing to shower their mothers with love. Jarvis tried to control the holiday and boycotted events and threatened lawsuits.” —for more see Abigail Abrams, “Mother’s Day History And Traditions: 5 Surprising Facts You May Not Know About The Holiday’s Dark Origins,” International Business Times

Although others are given credit for founding the observance, Julia Ward Howe led in establishing what some believe to be the first observance of Mother’s Day in the U.S. (2 June 1872) after witnessing the carnage of the U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe. Howe’s concept of Mother’s Day was considerably different from today’s celebration. Her idea was to mobilize women as agents of resistance against the policies that led to injustice and war. In her Reminiscences she wrote: “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of human life which they alone bear and know the cost?” —continue reading “A brief history of Mother’s Day

More background to Mother’s Day.Mother’s Day Traditions Around the World,”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has always played a large part in the lives of many Christians. Life magazine once estimated the prayer “Hail Mary” is said two billion times every day. Mary’s “Magnificat” (Latin for “[My soul] magnifies”), also known as Mary’s Song, is the powerful canticle she speaks when visiting her cousin Elizabeth, recorded in Luke 1:46-55.

        That prophetic speech has been deemed subversive by national governments. It was banned in the mid 1970s in Argentina after the Mothers of the Disappeared used it to call for nonviolent resistance to the military junta. In the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation. After Chilean General Augustine Pinochet came to power in a 1973 military coup, he likewise banned the Magnificat as a public prayer.

        During the British rule in India, the singing of the Magnificat in church was prohibited because of its incendiary lyrics. So, on the final day of British rule in India, Gandhi, who was not a Christian, requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered.

Left: Art ©Julie Lonneman

Confession. “There'll be icicles and birthday clothes / And sometimes there'll be sorrow.” Mother’s Day is not always happy. In 1964 at age 21, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s boyfriend left her, pregnant. She kept it a secret from her family and gave her daughter up for adoption. Her 1970 song “Little Green” speaks to that experience. This grief is also behind her song “River”: “Oh, I wish I had a river so long / I would teach my feet to fly / I made my baby say goodbye.” She and her daughter reunited in 1997. Sometimes joy catches up from behind.

Words of assurance. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.” —Julian of Norwich, 14th century English anchoress, Christian mystic and theologian

¶ “In the early years of our congregation’s life, we pastoral leaders put special effort in planning Mother’s (and Father’s) Day—though without the sentimental trappings—to highlight and honor the work of parenting. . . . But afterwards, to our genuine surprise, we got more than a little pushback.” —continue reading “The pastoral dilemmas of observing Mother’s Day

Hymn of supplication. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Short story. “I remember the first time I encountered the image of God as a laboring woman. I was reading Isaiah” for a seminary class. When I got to the “middle of chapter 42, I was stopped cold: ‘For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant’ (v. 14). What came to mind was an old photograph, “grainy, black-and-white” of “a woman in a hospital bed . . . her face knotted in agony. . . . You could practically hear a low, loud groan emerging from her throat.

            “So there I was sitting on my sofa, reading Isaiah picturing . . . God’s face contorted in struggle; God groaning the way that a laboring woman groaned . . . and I felt profoundly uncomfortable. I felt disturbed.” (In addition to depicting God as a laboring woman, Isaiah also likens God to a midwife and a nursing mother.)

        These images “compel me in their suggestion of a divine body that suffers, changes, swells, and leaks. For me, a divine body that leaks is also a divine body that discomfits.” —Lauren F. Winner, “Divine contractions,” The Christian Century

Hymn of intercession. “From the north to the south / from the west to the east / hear the prayer of the mothers / bring them peace / bring them peace.” —Yael Deckelbaum & Prayer of the Mothers, “This Land”( English translation of Hebrew and Egyptian Arabic lyrics), a 14-member ensemble of Jewish, Arab and Christian women

Preach it. “When Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe in the Nile, she hears the cries of the infant, is filled with compassion, and seizes the moment to act. Some verses later, when Moses is already grown and God reveals God’s self to Moses, God uses the same words: ‘I heard the cries of my people.” So what we have here is not imitatio Dei. Here we have a story where God imitates us, a woman, no less, and an Egyptian daughter of a tyrant.” —Rabbi Naamah Kelman, in “The holy work of dialogue,” Changing the Present, Dreaming the Future: A Critical Movement in Interreligious Dialogue, Hans Ucko, editor

In honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, see “Reversal of fortunes,” 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.

Hymn of resolve. “All the weary mothers of the earth will finally rest; / We will take their babies in our arms, and do our best. / When the sun is low upon the field, / To love and music they will yield, / And the weary mothers of the earth will rest.” —Joan Baez, “All the Weary Mothers of the Earth

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry says he thinks using fossil fuels can help prevent sexual assault. . . . Speaking at an event sponsored by Axios and NBC News, Perry said electricity also was important ‘from the standpoint of sexual assault. When the lights are on, when you have light that shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts.’” PBS News Hour

Call to the table. “My sweet Lord . . . are you not my mother and more than my mother? . . . For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross . . . and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you gave birth to the whole world. . . . Ah! sweet Lord Jesus—who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth?—Marguerite d’Oingt, thirteenth-century French nun

In 2018, spending on Mother’s Day is expected to top $23 billion, an average of $180 per person. The 2018 breakdown includes spending of $4.6 billion on jewelry, $4.4 billion on dinner or brunch, $2.6 billion on flowers, $2.5 billion on gift cards, $2.1 billion on clothing, and the same amount on electronics. Susan Campbell, WPRI

The state of our disunion. No doubt one of the Britain’s royal couples, Duchess Kate and Prince William, received deluxe hospital care for the birth of their son, Prince Louis. Even so, the cost of that aristocratic delivery was about two-thirds the cost of average births here in the US. —USAToday

For the beauty of the earth. In praise of “mothering” work everywhere, of every sort, and by everyone. Birthing work almost always involves some level of discomfort and often risk. Watch this 5:07 video of a sea turtle’s exhausting work of getting back to the surf after laying eggs at Topsail Beach, NC. (Thanks Deborah.)

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

Benediction. “Slumber, my darling, till morn's blushing ray / Brings to the world the glad tidings of day / Fill the dark void with thy dreamy delight / Slumber, thy mother will guard thee tonight.” —“Slumber My Darling,” performed by Allison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor

Recessional.If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” Staple Singers. (Thanks Mike.)

Lectionary for this Sunday. Three litanies for worship inspired by Psalm 1:

• “We Shall Not Be Moved

•”Multiply Their Presence

•”Bound to this freedom

Lectionary for Sunday next. “When Pentecostal power erupts, all / heaven’s gonna’ break loose. / The boundaries will be compromised; / barriers will be broken; and / borders will be breached. / Economies of privilege will be fractured / and the politics of enmity will be impeached. / The revenge of the Beloved is the / reversal of Babel’s bequest.” —continue reading “Pentecostal passion,” a poem for Pentecost

Just for fun. Making tacos in space—demonstration by an astronaut. (1:36 video. Thanks Sally.)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “The pastoral dilemmas of observing Mother’s Day,” short commentary

• “Dry bones,” a poem inspired by Ezekiel 37:1-14

• A dozen new annotated book reviews under "What are you reading and why?"

Other features
Resources for Pentecost Sunday worship planning: Litanies, poem, sermon, commentary, and a script for a choral reading of Acts 2:1-13

• “Reversal of fortunes,” brief commentary 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.

©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 “prayer&” 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


News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  2 May 2018 •  No. 160

Processional.Garden Song” (“Inch by Inch”), Pete Seeger.

Invocation. “How, indeed, shall we then live / in this enduring season between / Easter, / God’s Resurrection Moment, and / Pentecost, / God’s Resurrection Movement?” —continue reading "The Little Flock of Jesus," a poem for Eastertide

Call to worship. “You can never hold back spring / You can be sure that I will never / Stop believing / The blushing rose will climb / Spring ahead or fall behind / Winter dreams the same dream / Every time / Even though you've lost your way / The world keeps dreaming of spring.” —Tom Waits, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring

Good news. In March, Portugal generated more than 100% of the country’s energy needs! Watch this brief (0:44) video. (Thanks Linda.)

More good news. The small town of San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, has taken the extraordinary step of banning plastic bags and containers. Watch this short (3:05) video. (Thanks Linda.)

¶ “What will it look like for a Baptist-flavored Southerner to do theology ‘in context’?” Cone asked me. The phrase ‘theology in context’ was in vogue at the time. The question came out of the blue and caught me off guard. But I knew immediately what it meant: I needed to return to the South, and to my babdist subculture, from which I had fled several years prior. And for a split second I understood the Prophet Jonah’s fearful dread upon learning of his assignment to Nineveh.” —continue reading “James Cone: A brief remembrance

Hymn of praise. “In colors, / In colors the fields are dressed / In the springtime / In colors, / Colorful are the little birds / That come from far away / In colors, / Colorful is the rainbow / That we see shine / And that is why the great loves / of many colors are pleasing to me” (English translation). —Joan Baez, “De Colores”

Over the past 50 years, the Amazon rain forest in Brazil has lost nearly a fifth of acreage—an area larger than the state of Texas—cut down for farming, ranching, and logging, Yet Rodrigo Medeiros and Conservation International, in collaboration with others, plans to spread seeds from over 200 native species, including grasses and trees, across 70,000 acres. Bruce Lieberman, Yale Climate Connections 

Confession. “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America. And I think it’s important for us to do this as an organization that has created an identity that is as disassociated from punishment as possible.” —Bryan Stevenson, on the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, quoted in “A Lynching Memorial Is Opening. The Country Has Never Seen Anything Like It,” New York Times

Overlooked historical marker on the separation of church and state. On 5 May 1773 Baptists in Boston agreed to refuse payment of taxes due to support the state-sponsored pilgrim-puritan church of the region. Such historical memories help us remember who we are and thus more able to account for the hope that is within us. —continue reading “Accounting for the hope that is in you,” a sermon based on Luke 24:44-53

Hymn of supplication. “And my Lord, He said unto me / Do you like my garden so pure / You may live in this garden, if you keep the waters clean / And I'll return in the cool of the day.” —“Now is the Cool of the Day” performed by Coope, Boyes & Simpson

Words of assurance.С нами Бог"” (“God Is With Us”), Divna Ljubojevic and Melodi.

Professing our faith. “Greater love hath none than this: / Than to calm the fears of a child. / Greater love hath none than this: / Than to offer all you can to what you adore, and withhold your consent from every imperial demand.” —continue reading “Greater love hath none than this,” a litany for worship inspired by John 15:13

Quotes on gardens

§ Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. ~May Sarton

§ It is forbidden to live in a town with no greenery. ~Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12

§ Those who believe and humble themselves before their Lord, they will be companions of the garden. ~Qur’an, Sutra 11:23

§ The earth laughs in flowers. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

§ Earth is here so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest. ~Douglas William Jerrold

§ Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes. ~author unknown

§ To dwell is to garden~Martin Heidegger

§ I think this is what hooks one to gardening: it is the closest one can come to being present at creation. ~Phyllis Theroux

§ Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts. ~Mac Griswold

§ Anyone who thinks that gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year. For gardening begins in January with the dream. ~Josephine Nuese

            See more of a larger collection of quotes on gardens in “Life began in a garden: A collection of quotes on gardens

Short story. “Madrone's eyes were far away. Slowly she drew her attention back to the room, and shook her head.
        "I know my destiny," she said. "I had a dream."
        She turned to meet Bird's eyes, and gave him a little, hesitant smile, almost like an apology.
        "What kind of dream?" he asked, knowing before she spoke what she was going to say.
        "That kind of a dream," she said lightly. "The kind that messes up your life. It said, 'Build a refuge in the heart of the enemy.'" —"City of Refuge" by Starhawk

Hymn of intercession. “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” —Good Harvest performing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” (Thanks Deborah.)

Preach it. At the annual Alliance of Baptists convocation in Dayton, Ohio, I heard one of the best sermons I’ve heard . . . ever. The preacher was Rev. Deborah DeMars Conrad, pastor of Woodside Baptist Church, Flint, Michigan. Her sermon was titled “Terra Forma,” working from the story of Naboth’s vineyard (Kings 21:1-16). Here’s the video of the entire service. The scripture reading and sermon begin at 48:17. This is a “creation care” sermon in all its fullness.
            Or you can listen to the audio-only sermon at Deb’s “Mending the World” website (31:25 minutes).

Can’t makes this sh*t up. Speaker Paul Ryan quietly fired the House of Representatives’ chaplain, Fr. Patrick J. Conroy. “Padre,” Ryan told Conroy (both of whom are Roman Catholic), “you just got to stay out of politics.” The offense was Conroy’s prayer last November, opening a House session to debate the Republican tax reform bill. Conroy prayed for lawmakers to “guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” —for more see Elizabeth Dias and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

More CmtS*u. "When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice.” —rapper Kanye West on TMZ

When only the blues will do.Improvisation in Cm,” Indiara Sfair.

Call to the table. “We are free to act boldly because we are safe. We are safe because we are at rest. We are at rest because we have been forgiven. We are forgiven because we have come to know that Jesus meets us in our weakness, not our strength.” —continue reading “Such is the journey: A call to Jesus’ memorial table

The state of our disunion. Republican buyer’s remorse. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s [from the Republican tax cut] been massively poured back into the American worker.” Rep. Senator Marco Rubio, The Economist

President Trump and Republican congressional leaders promised that the new tax law would bolster businesses’ ability to raise workers’ income and create new jobs. But “the advocacy group Businesses for Responsible Tax Reform polled entrepreneurs in Maine, Arizona, Tennessee, and Nevada and found that seven in 10 had no plans to hire new employees as a result of the tax plan, while 60% said their workers would not be given raises.
        "Clearly the new law—which has come under fire for heavily favoring large corporations—is not going to do much to help small business owners grow their businesses," wrote Frank Knapp, co-chair of the group Julia Conley, CommonDreams

¶ “Here’s all the data Facebook and Google have on you.” Dylan Curran, The Guardian

How to take control of your Facebook account.

Hymn of longing.Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon,” Kate Campbell.

Best one-liner. "If you are speaking on behalf of social justice then by definition there's going to be controversy, because if it wasn't controversial somebody would have already fixed it." —former President Barack Obama

For the beauty of the earth. In my neck of the woods, each spring the Smoky Mountains National Park has one of the country’s greatest light shows. Lampyridae, a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs. CBS Sunday Morning (6:04 video)

The happy factor. In a new study, psychologists “asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables—like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children—over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."
        “’Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,’ the authors write.” —Emily Esfahani Smith, “There’s More to a Life Than Being Happy,” The Atlantic

Altar call. Resurrection, as Clarence Jordan says, is God's refusal to stay on the other side of the grave. “God raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that He himself has now established permanent residence on earth. The resurrection places Jesus on this side of the grave, here and now, in the midst of this life. The Good News of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him but that he is risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers and sisters with him.” (cf. Luke 24:44-53)

Benediction. “Beloveds, now we know for sure. Every day is grace and every night is gratitude. . . . May you wear down the pathway to the sanctuary of your soul. May you speak up for the silenced. May you befuddle the brutal, bewilder the bullies, be intolerant of the intolerable. Lament and laugh. And may laughter get the best of you.” —continue reading “Keep ringing the bells of holy hope,” by Nancy Hastings Sehested

Recessional. Spring Waltz,” Frédéric Chopin.

Lectionary for this Sunday. “Open your mouths, oh people of praise. Unchain your lungs and unleash your lips. / Let joyful noise erupt from every muted tongue, thankful hymns from every muffled mouth. / Compose a new song for the Chorister of Heaven. A cappella or symphonic, let the sound rise like leaven. / Whether big band or bluegrass or rhythm and blues.” —continue reading “Big band or bluegrass,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 98

Lectionary for Sunday next. “One empty tomb poses no threat / to present entanglements, / any more than annual and / specially-adorned sanctuary crowds / encroach on Easter morn. / It’s Easter’s aftermath / resurrectus contagio, / contagious resurrection / that threatens entombing empires / with breached sovereignty.” —continue reading “Easter’s aftermath,” a poem inspired by Luke 24:13-35 and Matthew 25:1-13

Just for fun. 217 skydivers, jumping from 10 aircraft at 19,000 feet, create sky art and set a new record. (Thanks Sally.)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “James Cone: A brief remembrance

• “Life began in a garden: A collection of quotes on gardens

• “Keep ringing the bells of holy hope,” by Nancy Hastings Sehested

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

• “Accounting for the hope that is in you,” a sermon based on Luke 24:44-53

• “Greater love hath none than this,” a litany for worship inspired by John 15:13

• “Easter’s aftermath,” a poem inspired by Luke 24:13-35 and Matthew 25:1-13

©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 “prayer&” 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

The music of Mary Lou Williams

A review

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

When Mary Lou Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1950s she turned away from her career as a jazz musician, thinking that music played in bars had no place in the realm of the spirit. She came to realize that, as her friend Duke Ellington said, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God does not understand.” Williams and Ellington were among the first jazz artists to write sacred music in the jazz idiom and perform jazz in churches.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, 1910 – May 1981) was an African-American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose career spanned the history of jazz from early swing through the big band era, bebop, and beyond. She stood in the first rank of jazz pianists. She wrote and arranged music for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other bandleaders.

After two priests and her friend Dizzy Gillespie persuaded her to return to playing jazz she performed with Gillespie’s band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

Throughout the 1960s and beyond she composed and performed sacred music rooted in jazz. She wrote hymns and jazz settings for the Catholic mass. In 1971 one of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass.

Her compositions include "Black Christ of the Andes" (a hymn honoring St. Martin de Porres), "Anima Christi," and "Praise the Lord."

“I am praying through my fingers when I play,” Williams said. “I get that good ‘soul sound’, and I try to touch people's spirits …. When I'm playing, it seems as though someone else takes over. What I play comes from God, and I write it for the benefit of other people.”

You can hear Mary Williams perform her sacred jazz pieces here:
     • Praise the Lord  
     • Animi Christi   
     • St. Martin de Porres   

Dale Roberts is a retired teacher, vocational counsellor, and musician from Asheville, NC.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt, Vintage, 2013

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. —Mark Twain

Why bother talking with people at the other end of the political or theological spectrum? We already know what they think. They’re wrong. They won’t listen to reason. They view the world askew. They march mindlessly in lockstep behind partisan ideologues and extremists.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, challenges us to think about our thinking on political and moral questions, to seek to understand how and why others see things differently.

Haidt asks us to think of a human being as a rider on an elephant. We like to think that the rider, the rational mind, is in command. The rider surveys the environment, assesses threats and opportunities, uses reason to choose a response, then commands the elephant to act. And the elephant obeys the rider.

If only.

More often, the elephant—a massive creature comprising instinct, social conditioning, habit, peer pressure, emotions, prejudices, and gut feelings—reacts reflexively, without rational thought, and lurches into action, with the feckless rider hanging on. Then the rider makes up reasons and excuses to justify the elephant’s action.

Human tongues have taste bud receptors for salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Haidt says our minds have six moral receptors to perceive dual concepts: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. These yin-yang pairs contradict and complement each other. The elephant’s gut reactions to information from these receptors determine how we view politics, community, religion, hierarchy, tradition, liberty, equality, and justice.

Haidt says liberals and conservatives define these moral concepts differently. Liberals focus on some concepts; conservatives focus on others: Fairness means everybody gets to keep what they earn/Fairness means the wealthy must share with the poor. Protect school children by arming teachers/Protect school children by banning certain firearms. Same-sex marriage is an abomination/Same-sex marriage is a blessing.  

Haidt seeks to get people at all points of the liberal-conservative continuum to engage in dialogue with open minds, with civility, and with compassion.

To learn about Haidt’s work and about programs to encourage civil community dialogue on politics and religion, look here:
     •  “…a unique non-debate on America's biggest problems, which are hurtling toward us through space and time at an alarming rate of speed.”

Dale Roberts is a retired teacher, vocational counsellor, and musician from Asheville, NC.

Weaving the Sermon: Preaching in a Feminist Perspective

Christine Smith, Westminster/John Knox, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Smith’s book is an intriguing extended metaphor, using weaving as a central lens of understanding.  Weaving is an art, an expression of our time, and Smith uses the components of weaving as illustration, as an organizing image in women’s lives:  weaving, loom, warp, weft.  Weaving:  interlocking threads to create joyful instances of textures and colours.  Loom: keep threads in order and under tension.  Warp: binding together differing threads.  Weft:  the most prominent threads.  This is Smith’s extended metaphor for preaching.

Smith believes there is some ‘qualitative distinctiveness surrounding the preaching of feminist women (p 9); there is a distinctive quality to women’s preaching (p11).  Women use more images and more stories than men do.  ‘The texts women choose are less abstract and more related to everyday life/ (p 12); they are more creative and imaginative in dealing with the text.

Smith has a good section on authority.  Religious authority has usually referred to ordination, giving them the ‘right’ to speak. ‘criteria for effective preaching held by many male homileticians appear to be persuasion and the ability to influence the listener.  The criteria for many women preachers appear to be creating the quality of faith connection….  Authority has to do with a quality of content, a mode of communication and an authenticity of message (p 46).  Smith looks at issues of gender.  She looks at issues of gender.  Eg how ‘can a male Jesus of Nazareth be considered a normative model for all humanity/ (p 80).  She suggests key areas for this definition that entail much broader understandings of incarnational theology’s ‘power’ in relations, radical activity of love, Jesus as parable of G-d, concepts of salvation, hermeneutics.

It’s a book that looks carefully at the possibilities for preaching as shaped by gender and its social implications.  The metaphor of ‘weaving’ may complicate the process.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Preaching Biblical Sermons

Raymond Bystrom, Kindred Productions, 2006

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This book looks at sermons and the changing perspectives; the writer, Ray Bystrom, has taught homiletics (the theological name for sermons) at several colleges and shares both the descriptions of sermons past as well as the approach today, and as pastor had  to practise what he preached!.  He does so through an analysis of our culture and an examination of three major homileticians:  Frederick Craddock, Eugene Lowry and George Buttrick. 

In the treatment of each, he devotes a chapter that includes a theology of the person featured, a sample and an analysis of a sermon preached by the person, a description of the approach, and an evaluation of the method.  Bystrom states that most North American preaching is ‘discursive’:  built on argument and organized by points and propositions; the sermon is frequently little more than the three burdensome logical points with helpful illustrations designed to relieve the minds of those trying to follow the preacher’s logic (p 1).  ‘Preachers need to move beyond ‘three points and a poem’ (p 3).  In place of the discursive model, Bystrom encourages the inductive and the narrative approaches.  Preoccupation with the sermon as argument meant that attention was focused on content and not on form, even though the focus of the early church’s sermons was narrative, not ‘discursive’.  Once the  church moved into the Hellenistic world, a reflective shape became the construct of preaching, a discursive structure (p 10). 

Today we’re paying more attention to form rather than content (p 9).  Eg in the parable of the vineyard workers and their perception of mistreatment, Lowry has the power comment, ‘to be invited into the  vineyard is to be invited home’ (p 60).  Diagnosis and not description or illustration is need, dealing with causative issues and allowing the text to stimulate the imagination (eg what were the family dynamics in the household of the ‘prodigal son’).

A powerful  and helpful invitation to narrative preaching.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Christ and Culture in Dialogue

Angus Menugo, General Editor, Concordia Academic Press, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has dominated the discussion of the relation between Christian faith and ‘secular’ culture.  The discussion has been based the awareness that theology always stands at the crossroads of decision:  either to serve Christ and His church, of to fall prey to a private religious expression, some fashionable philosophy, moral crusade of political ideology (p 7).  Niebuhr’s position is the doctrine of the two kingdoms, the belief that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners, what Niebuhr called ‘Christ and culture in Paradox’.  The Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms speaks against the cultural accommodation of theology, the paradoxical vision provides correctives to two possible dangers:  a ‘Christianization of society’, remaking the world into the image of the church, or an ‘acculturization of the church’, remaking the church into the image of the world.

Menugo’s book speaks to three major themes.  One. The identification of alternative approaches to Christ and culture, clarifying Lutheran perspectives.  Two.  The dialogue between Christ and culture as It applies to social issues (war, evangelism).  Three.  The institutions of the church, with specific attention to worship and the educational structure of the church.  (This is particularly cogent for church colleges and seminaries.)

While Menugo’s book speaks from and to a Lutheran audience, it asks questions on a far wider perspective.  Good probing of our faith.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Religion and Culture

Richard Hecht and Vincent Biondo (eds), Fortress, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This well-balanced volume looks at the key facets of significant interaction between religion and culture.  Religion’ may refer to the religious traditions (Buddhism , Judaism).  Or it may refer to symbols and meanings, values.  ‘Culture’ is the interaction of the political dimensions, a vital public arena where social debates are encouraged and may contribute to preserving democracy and preventing mass destruction (p xviii).  Religious pluralism may be the key, the public spaces for face to face communications.  Religion and Culture is a compilation of essays (from a Lutheran perspective) dealing with three spaces where religion and culture are performed:  peace building, as it creates communities; the dome and domestic space; contemporary art.

Six essays outline religion and culture in the space of politics (key areas sketched here are science, women and peace building).  ‘Sometimes it is religion that creates or reinforces women’s suffering, and sometimes it is religion that provides the antidote and the opportunity for freedom’ (p 110).  Another six essays examine religion and culture in the space of ethics. Fascinating conceptualization here:  the religious ethics of capitalism, education, children, death.  The final seven essays describe a third space that Hecht calls aesthetic, where there is greater creative freedom:  visual art, music, film. 

A fascinating contribution deals with Walt Disney’s ‘preoccupation with death’ (p 394); his films rely on a cultural system of religious meaning to make sense of death (p 394).  Each part of Religion and Culture demonstrates the interweaving of religion and culture; religion cannot be separated or compartmentalized so that it operates only within the walls of religious institutions or during religious events.  Human life is immersed in religion and culture. 

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

With glad and Generous Hearts: a Personal Look at Sunday Worship

William Willimon, Upper Room, 1966

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Here is a helpful look at our worship time together, by Willimon, for many years Minister to Duke University and now bishop in the Methodist church.  From his knowledge and personal experience he stresses that the form and substance of worship if a whole, and sketches the biblical and pastoral components of the ordo:  Gathering, Confession, Praises, Scripture, Sermon, Creed, Intercession, the Lord’s Supper, Sending Forth.  A very useful adjunct to Willimon is "An Educational Gide," prepared by John Westerhoff, a resource for group study and discussion that implements Willimon’s material.

Of special interest to me were his comments about greeting, talking and silence in the time leading to the more ‘official’ worship.  Announcements should be made here in the pre-service, and be made by laypersons rather than by the pastor.

Willimon favours a time between necessary greetings and necessary silence and focusing.  People should be free to move around and create a family-like atmosphere.  The organ should not be played during this time—it is not used as background music for the congregation’s chatter (p 33).  (The other eight parts of worship receive similarly helpful attention.)

It is a book that helps focus what our time of worship can do and be.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.