Recent

Nevertheless

The Spirit’s plea from above whispered by voices from below

by Ken Sehested
US Presidential Inauguration • 20 January 2021

In the spring of 2016, when our pastors were planning the preaching schedule for the fall, I agreed to take that duty for Sunday 13 November. None of us were paying attention to the electoral calendar.

Long story short, it turns out I was preaching the Sunday after Donald Trump's election.

“Glad I don’t have to,” my normally very supportive spouse mentioned the following day.

My 8-year-old granddaughter was so distraught when she woke up to the election news that her parents let her stay home from school.

I felt pretty much the same.

A friend who learned of this assignment wrote me to ask “what on earth are you going to say?” I wrote back, “Don’t know yet—still sorting through my own emotional reactions . . . something between flame throwing and fetal crouch.”

I knew immediately that with this venal man’s inauguration, some of the ruinous legacy of our national history was catching up to us. Yes, our country has better angels; but also potent devils; and that some of those would be unleashed.

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case.

“Make America Great Again” is a slogan in service both to national amnesia and to reinforcing our country’s complicated caste system.

On that post-election Wednesday morning a vengeful scream was bubbling up my esophagus. Few are immune to such wrathful emotions. I am, as Cesar Chavez wrote, “a violent man learning to be nonviolent.”

§  §  §

We typically attend to the lectionary texts for our congregation’s weekly worship; but I wandered off that trail, immediately thinking of the Ezekiel passage: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2).

I closed that sermon with the following paragraphs.

The soured grapes of wrath and the ferment of generational trauma are coming with a fury we hardly understand; and I fear it will expose us to a bedeviled, long forgotten history. The work of unraveling the tangled knots, treating the festered wounds, and restoring neighborly bonds and bounds will require more than seasonal attention and a coat of pious enamel.

In the days to come, we must more earnestly tend the springs of hope, map those locations, become guides for those dying of thirst. Hope, as Krista Tippett wrote, “is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

To move toward healing streams, though, we must be subjected to godly grief’s refining fire; we must lose our innocence if we are to stand with the innocent; we must breach the boundaries that obstruct a critical assessment of our own complicity; we must return to the edge of our seats, listening to the Spirit’s plea from above whispered by voices from below.

“Then when the night is upon us, / Why should the heart sink away? / When the dark midnight is over, / Watch for the breaking of day. / Whispering hope, / O how welcome thy voice, / Making my heart in it's sorrow rejoice.” (Hymn lyrics by Septimus Winner)

§  §  §

Many of us, on this very day, are whispering hope that the reign of a calloused grafter is being exiled to his palatial resort, taking his grifter family with him.

I am among the many breathing a sigh of relief. And yet. . . .

This aria in our nation’s oratorio will echo for some time to come.

•Some 75% of Republicans still believe the election was stolen. About 45% of them thought the insurrection attack on the US Capitol was just fine.

•Our public health care system—underfunded for decades to grant “freedom” to health profiteers—is at its breaking point.

•Ten months of Covid deaths in the US now equal the troop fatality rate from four years of bloody combat in World War II.

•The richest in our nation have seen their wealth surge in the midst of our national crisis, while a great many citizens may never recover financial stability.

•The promissory note of racial justice has not yet cleared.

•And our biosphere's point-of-no-return looms, made all the more frightening because we likely won’t know we’ve crossed that catastrophic boundary until it’s already in the rear view mirror.

And yet . . . and yet.

People of faith know about redemptive power of penitence.  Repentance. Turning around.

Maya Angelou’s witness is enduring: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

The compounding gloom from daily headlines and the furrowed brows of “breaking news” commentators are our false prophets. Not simply because they are inaccurate about what they say (though some intend deceit); but that there is more to be said than they are able to film or photograph.

§  §  §

Several years ago, during my eight months of living with my frail Mom and my sister, Glenda, during her dying days, Mom said to me, “Sorry you have to go to so much trouble, son.”

And I responded, “Mom, trouble is where you go with people you love.”

Which reminds me of the sage encouragement of former Congressman John Lewis when he said, with a sly grin, “Get in some good trouble.”

Don’t do it merely for charitable reasons. Do it for your own spiritual health. For in the midst of trouble—when assets run low and prospects are dim—is often the place where hope, beyond human calculation, breaks out.

The Spirit’s Word from above is whispered by voices from below.

§  §  §

It was amongst the company of beaten civil rights marchers that folk found the resolve to sing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” Such music may arise in sanctuaries, but it propelled bodies into streets and every place where life is at risk.

That’s the purpose of sanctuaries: where identity is formed; where communities of conviction are fashioned; where weak knees are strengthened and trembling hands are soothed; where hearts are captured by the beatific vision, a vision so potent that it galvanizes and focuses energy and talent and assets in unfettered allegiance.

Allegiance to the psalmist’s foretelling of the day when “justice and peace will embrace;” to the prophet’s disclosure of the day when swords will be forged into plowshares; to be captivated and animated by Jesus’ prayer, “Thy kingdom . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”

We need not turn a blind eye to the “and yet. . .” realities that bedevil our body politic. But sustaining resources are available and allow us to say, “Nevertheless.”

Another world is not only possible, it is promised, and its scouting party is already showing up in a neighborhood near you.

Ask for directions. See for yourself. Look for an investment with your name on it, a place where your agency matches the world’s urgency.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Angel wings and devil tails

Meditation on the Feast of the Holy Innocents

by Ken Sehested

The Feast of the Holy Innocents (aka Childermas or Innocents’ Day), referencing Matthew’s account of Judean King Herod’s order to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem to suppress a potential rival, was first established in the fifth century BCE. Some Christian communions in the West mark the day, officially, on 28 December; in the East, 29 December.

However, the observance is largely forgotten in most congregations. You can understand why. Who wants to interrupt chirpy carols, the sight of ornamented trees and light-lit homes, and post-Christmas sales with the story of a massacre of babies?

Needless to say, few if any church Christmas pageants, with kids in bathrobes and assorted other makeshift costumes, include Matthew 2’s story. Christmas Eve candlelight services ignore this Nativity story.

It’s is party-pooper story. Certainly not appropriate for young children (as are many other stories in Scripture). Thankfully, few today remember that, in some Western communities prior to the 17th century, the day began with parents spanking their children to remind them of the suffering of those infants, who—gruesome as it sounds—are considered the first martyrs.

But the church ignores this Feast day both to our peril and to our proclamation.

§  §  §

“This is no time for a child to be born, / With the Earth betrayed by war and hate / And a comet slashing the sky to warn / That time runs out and the sun burns late.” —Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth

§  §  §

In 2003 I was asked to lead what would be the final group of volunteers joining a delegation of activists present in Iraq, attempting to witness and tell a different story about realities in that mangled country—which would only be compounded by a US invasion.

I was in anguish on the long flight to Amman, Jordan, and then for the first two hours—to the Iraqi border—of the 12-hour drive through the desert. Though not because of my destination. Two days before leaving, I suddenly remembered that I had an Israeli customs stamp in my passport. You can’t enter Iraq if you have such a stamp.

There was no time to get a new passport. Emergency efforts to rinse that stamp from my passport didn’t work. So I stapled a photocopy of my birth certificate on that page, hoping this would distract Iraqi customs officials. But I was mentally preparing to hitchhike the two hours back to Amman from the Iraq border.

Just as I feared, the ruse didn’t work. Thankfully, our experienced van driver knew that a 30,000 Iraqi dinar bribe would suffice. It did. I repaid our savvy driver $10 in US currency and offered profuse thanks.

(Before the 1990-’91 Gulf War, the dinar was worth more than $3 US dollars. By 2003, a $dollar was equal to 3,000 dinars.)

During my three weeks in Iraq—I returned home less than three weeks before the “Shock and Awe” bombardment and invasion by US troops—I developed an abiding friendship with my assigned roommate, Ed, from Upstate New York, who for many years has attempted to bring public attention to the exponential growth in the US campaign of targeted assassination by drone warfare. (A campaign which President Obama significantly escalated, to avoid the political cost that troop casualties would cause.)

Ed, along with 15 other members of the joint Voices in the Wilderness and Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, remained in Baghdad through the bombing and invasion, holed up in a hotel basement.

(For stories from my three-week stay, see “Journey to Iraq: Of risk and reverence” & “Caitlin Letters.” )

Ed and I have corresponded off and on since then. I documented one bit of our exchange, during a later season of impending national crisis, this one during Advent, where I ended a note to Ed with “There is agony in the air, and we must listen for the sounds of angel wings.”

To which Ed replied, “Nor, alas, dare we ignore the flailing of devils’ tails.”

§  §  §

According to the U.S. Supreme Court (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984), the traditional courthouse nativity scene displayed at Christmas has become "a passive symbol." In a case upholding a 40-year-old tradition in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, of erecting a city-sponsored Christmas display (which included Santa Claus), Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that it "engenders a friendly community spirit" and "serves the commercial interests" of the merchants.

§  §  §

The intimation of Advent and Christmastide is this: When agony is in the air, we must listen both for the sound of angel wings and the flailing of devils’ tails. Each provides essential context for interpreting the other.

Advent’s announcement warns of trouble at hand. Most in the believing community prefer Christmastide’s enchantment rather than its contention. We read the Nativity story by way of jingle bells, roasted chestnuts, and jolly St. Nick. (Whose backstory is a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop known for making anonymous gifts to the poor, without first checking whether they had been naughty or nice.)

We envision the “swaddling clothes” in which baby Jesus was wrapped coming from Neiman Marcus; and yet another miracle, this one postpartum: “no-crying-he-made”—obviously a Christmas carol written by a man.

Jesus, we are led to believe, doesn’t do disturbance. Which is why we gloss over the angel’s announcement of Heaven’s good-news revelation, to many in the Nativity characters, begins with this warning: “Do not be afraid.”

Because there was much to fear. King Herod, in particular, who was so threatened by the Wise Guys’ briefing, which prompted the king to launch his assassination squad’s mission to Bethlehem.

Contrary to the carol’s claim, Christmastide is no “sleep in Heavenly peace,” but a troublesome rereading of Creation’s covenant. What was previously presumed to be “law and order” is exposed for the façade of injustice it really was (and is). There is turbulence in Nativity’s wake.

Christmas morn brings the commencement of Mary’s incendiary hymn of praise—the scattering of the proud, the toppling of the mighty, the ascent of the lowly—signaling a beachhead in the land of enmity.

Every Herod-heart is exposed and flails like devils’ tails, enraged by Nativity’s insurgent proclamation. Every Pharaoh, every Caesar is put is put on notice. But they will not go down without a fight.

Which is why Earth’s contention mobilizes Heaven’s attention. Creation’s promise has neither lapsed nor has been suppressed. The promise of Genesis awaits Revelation’s conclusion.

This is the evangelical proclamation of People of Faith: The storm still rages, and we are on leaky boats outmatched by menacing wind and surging swells. But a Calm is coming. The angels still preface their message with “fear not,” for faith is risky business, and devils still stalk the land.

Nevertheless, the Prophet’s claim (Isaiah 40:5)—echoed in Luke’s rendering (3:6)—is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.” And John the Revelator (11:15), asserts that “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdoms of our God.” Much empirical evidence disputes these claims. People of Faith insist otherwise and, in fact, assume the risks of living in accordance with a very different vision, a vision which brings us into conflict with the current (dis)order.

Angel wings and devil tails often appear simultaneously in history’s unfolding.

In the end, Christmas cheer is not sugarplum pleasantry. It is the confidence that sustains the hearts of all who continue to practice praise in the manner of Mary, with the beatific vision underlying Jesus’ sermon on the mount, even in the face of perpetual threat.

Sing, children, whatever the caliber or timbre of your voice. For God is more taken with the agony of the Earth than with the ecstasy of Heaven.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Two epiphanies on 6 January 2021

The Spirit’s disclosure and the nation’s exposure

by Ken Sehested

 

By now you may have noticed the odd coincidence of 6 January [2021] being the date of Epiphany and of Congress’ ritual of announcing the results of the Electoral College’s presidential election tally.

The latter is usually perfunctory, pro forma, pomp and ceremony. Not this time, given Republican representatives’ and senators’ announced intention to challenge the states’ votes. (Strange how a party committed to states’ rights could so easily shed that principle.)

People of faith, however, know that the Spirit is renowned for taking apparent coincidences and remodeling them for providential purpose.

Tomorrow is a dangerous day in the life of our republic. An extraordinary alarm has been sounded in the form of a letter signed by all 10 of the living former secretaries of defense, warning our president against using the military to maintain political power. Two different groups of corporate executives have warned Congress against attempting to change Electoral College votes.

Epiphany’s exposé is also vexing, though of a different sort.

Below is some commentary on the expansive meaning of Epiphany and its relevance for reading the signs of the times.

§  §  §

Epiphany: Manifesting the Bias of Heaven

There are three versions of what Epiphany (“Manifestation”) is meant to commemorate in the church’s calendar.

One of those traditions is to celebrate Jesus’ baptism on January 6.

Another tradition links Epiphany with the birth of Jesus. (The 7 January date begins at sundown on the 6th.)

Yet another tradition celebrates Epiphany as marking the arrival of the magi, of “We Three Kings” fame—the figures played in every Christmas play by children dressed in bathrobes.

Yet the common element in each is the inauguration of a confrontation between God’s Only Begotten and those in seats of power.

As a baptismal occasion, this Manifestation inspired Jesus’ first sermon in the temple at Nazareth. The gathered crowd was so perturbed at his message of deliverance that the text says they “were filled with wrath” and attempted to launch him headlong over a cliff.

As a birth announcement, this Manifestation so infuriated the reigning regime that the “rules of military engagement” were expanded to include the execution of all male infants in the region around Bethlehem. And the First Family was forced to flee as refugees into Egypt, seeking political asylum from Herod’s rage.

As an announcement of international import, this Manifestation threatened to implicate even visiting foreign dignitaries in the web of political intrigue, and they were smuggled out of town, on back roads, “by another way.”

In each reading of the narrative, the message is clear: The Manifestation of God’s Intent will disrupt the world as we know it. Those for whom this “world” is “home”—who profit from current arrangements, from orthodoxies of every sort—will take offense at this swaddling-wrapped revolt.

The bias of heaven is clear: The goodness of this news is evident only to “children,” to the defenseless ones, to the ones facing life on the road without provision, to the excluded and all judged unclean and unworthy.

Biblically speaking, when you talk about heaven you’re liable to raise hell. That is the evangelical announcement. Everything else is mostly sentimental drivel, designed to calm the powerful and control the weak.

But blessed are you poor, you mournful, you meek and merciful, you restorers of right-relatedness; blessed are you who are persecuted and accused in the cause of peace; for yours is the future, the riches of redemption, the solace of salvation, the bounty of the earth in all its goodness.

God will arise, says the prophet Isaiah (33), at the sound of suffering—of weeping from the envoys of peace, of mourning from the land itself. And so shall we.

Therefore, I say, rejoice.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Come into the desert

A midrash on the story of Jesus' post-baptismal journey into the desert

by Ken Sehested

The time has come to flee Pharaoh’s national security state for the insecurity of the wilderness.

Led by the Spirit and sustained by angels, we head to the desert for a throw-down with the Devil.

Fear not. God will sustain you. Your clothes will not wear out, your feet will not swell.

And yet we tremble: Why have you led us from the prosperous land of shopping and shiny plastic things on this highway to the danger zone?

What could be wrong with harvesting bread from stones? And a little Vegas-style magic?

Why not lay claim on all the world’s kingdoms? Wasn’t Jesus “exceptional”?

And don’t we, his followers, get a piece of that action?

Can God spread a table in the wilderness without Wall Street backing?

Come into the desert, O people of Mercy, to find the One whom your heart most desires.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Inspired by Matt 4:1–11 & Deut 8:1–10. ©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

Dr. King and the constellating light

Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is not the same as being captured by it

by Ken Sehested

Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is not the same as being captured by it. Too many find it possible to respect the man but relinquish the mission. It has become too easy to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream. So let us now recall the deep roots of that vision as spoken in ages past:

We remember when Hannah praised God by saying: The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

We dream of the day when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb. For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

We long for the day when all shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord.

We eagerly await the day when the lame shall be restored, the outcast gathered, and the Blessed One will change their shame into praise.

On that coming day, says Mother Mary, God will pull down the mighty from their thrones and exalt those of low degree.

Our hearts ache for the time when the People of God will again be anointed with the power to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

We confess, O God, that the dream once unfurled with unmatched eloquence on our nation’s lawn has been tamed by pious sentiment and framed for commercial interests. The oratory that once sent shivers through the White House and big house and church house alike has been reduced to polite platitude, “race relations” Sundays and gushy, mushy reverie.

Hear this, O People of the Dream: It is good and right that you recall the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement which mobilized him. The journey to the Beloved Community is sometimes dark and desperate and dangerous, and we need constellating light to orient our hearts and direct our feet.

We still have a dream: of a new heaven and a new earth, when the Beloved will dry every tear and death itself will come undone.

For we know that creation itself, now groaning in travail, will be set free from its bondage to decay.

Ignite in us again the Word that stirs insurrection against every imperial reign, against every forecloser’s claim, against every slaver’s chain, until the Faith which death could not contain, the Hope which doubt could not constrain, and the Love which fear could not arraign lifts every voice to sing ’til earth and heaven ring!

“Let our rejoicing rise / High as the list’ning skies / Let it resound loud as the rolling sea!”

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Inspired by 1 Sam 2:1–8; Isa 11:3–9; Joel 2:19–26; Zeph 3:19; Luke 1:51-53; Luke 4:18–19; Rev 21:1–4; Rom 8:19–24. Final line from “Life Every Voice and Sing” (also known as “The Negro National Anthem”) by James Weldon Johnson.

Come into the desert

A midrash on the story of Jesus' post-baptismal journey into the desert

by Ken Sehested

The time has come to flee Pharaoh’s national security state for the insecurity of the wilderness.

Led by the Spirit and sustained by angels, we head to the desert for a throw-down with the Devil.

Fear not. God will sustain you. Your clothes will not wear out, your feet will not swell.

And yet we tremble: Why have you led us from the prosperous land of shopping and shiny plastic things on this highway to the danger zone?

What could be wrong with harvesting bread from stones? And a little Vegas-style magic?

Why not lay claim on all the world’s kingdoms? Wasn’t Jesus “exceptional”?

And don’t we, his followers, get a piece of that action?

Can God spread a table in the wilderness without Wall Street backing?

Come into the desert, O people of Mercy, to find the One whom your heart most desires.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Inspired by Matt 4:1–11 & Deut 8:1–10. ©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  30 December 2020 •  No. 210

Processional. Joseph Haydn's Keyboard Concerto No. 11 finale in D major, performed by eight-year-old Klára Gibišová. (Thanks Wade.)

“The hopes and fears of all the years / are met in Thee tonight.” —lyrics from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Invocation. Holy Light, May we remember that full moon of your Light in this night of clouds and dim seeing. Release the grip on all that squeezes the life out of us…

        •the worrisome, dangerous leaders in our country;

        •the terrorists in our own land;

        •the evidence of more pain, more grief, more loss coming this way and every way.

        Hold gently each sorrow that weighs down our hearts.

        Thank you for joys that come with loving, seeing, awakening to the goodness of this shared life together.

        At this turning of the new year may we let go of regrets, let in your grace and lean into this year choosing life, choosing community, choosing relationships of meaning, choosing caring for those who are the hurting, and mercy for those who are overwhelmed.

        Give us courage to step into 2021 ready to learn new songs for new needs and new times. May we discover more fully and deeply than ever your cherishing of each of us and everyone and this Earth home.

        Alongside the One who births in us love again we pray. Amen. —Nancy Hastings Sehested, Circle of Mercy Midweek Prayer, 12.30.20

¶ Call to worship. “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” —Lao Tzu

Featured essay. “Angel wings and devil tails: Meditation on the Feast of the Holy Innocents"

The Feast of the Holy Innocents (aka Childermas or Innocents’ Day), referencing Matthew’s account of Judean King Herod’s order to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem to suppress a potential rival, was first established in the fifth century BCE. Some Christian communions in the West mark the day, officially, on 28 December; in the East, 29 December.

Right: Angel made by Dee Ann Dozier out of a face mask. Photo by Lynn Farmer.

However, the observance is largely forgotten in most congregations. You can understand why. Who wants to interrupt chirpy carols, the sight of ornamented trees and light-lit homes, and post-Christmas sales with the story of a massacre of babies?

Needless to say, few if any church Christmas pageants, with kids in bathrobes and assorted other makeshift costumes, include Matthew 2’s story. Christmas Eve candlelight services ignore this Nativity story.

It’s is party-pooper story. Certainly not appropriate for young children (as are many other stories in Scripture). Thankfully, few today remember that, in some Western communities prior to the 17th century, the day began with parents spanking their children to remind them of the suffering of those infants, who—gruesome as it sounds—are considered the first martyrs.

But the church ignores this Feast day both to our peril and to our proclamation. —continue reading “Angel wings and devil tails

Hymn of praise. “Rejoice! Rejoice! / Christ is born of the Virgin Mary; Rejoice! / The time of grace has come for which we have prayed / Let us devoutly sing songs of joy / God is made man, while nature wonders / The world is renewed by Christ the King / The closed gate of Ezekiel has been passed through / From where the light has risen (the East), salvation is found / Therefore, let our assembly sing praises now at this time of purification / Let it bless the Lord: greetings to our King.” —English translation of “Gaudete,” Steeleye Span

Confession. “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” —Malcolm X

Words of assurance. “The Wicked Shall Cease Their Troubling,” Jessy Dixon, Dorothy Norwood, Edgar O’Neal (Thanks Billie.)

Short story. “Last evening, at the annual Christmas tree lighting in Brooklyn, a sculpture was unveiled honoring immigrants. “Angels Unawares” depicts a crush of refugees, with Mary, Joseph, and the baby "embedded within people from around the world, sharing the same experience about having no place at the inn,” explained Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz. The title comes from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (See photo at left. Thanks Pam.)

Word. “When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cursed be your religion and your life.” —Daniel Berrigan

Hymn of supplication. “Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low / In darkness as black as the sea / In my heart felt alone and I cried oh Lord / Don't hide your face from me.” —Merle Haggard, “Where No One Stands Alone

Preach it. “. . .the human righteousness required by God and established in obedience–the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream–has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans and aliens.  For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of His people, God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.” —Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Vol 2, the Doctrine of God)

Call to prayer. “Portal of praise: Praise as presage to Advent’s treason [On the Feast of the Holy Innocents]"

The Manger’s trailhead opens at
the portal of praise and genuflecting
thanks. Not because heaven arises to
piety’s incense. But because Advent’s
brush with mortal flesh is a perilous journey,
fraught with insurrection’s threat,
pregnancy’s scandal, birthed from
stabled bed, and Herod’s foam and fury.

The innocents take it in the chops every
time. Yet Advent threatens treason to
every Herod-hearted arrangement.
—continue reading “Portal of praise

Good Golly Miss Polly. In 1995, Dolly Parton launched a nonprofit to provide books to children in low-income households in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. Since then her “Imagination Library” project, supplying infants-to-preschoolers with age appropriate books to stimulate reading, has expanded throughout the US and four other countries. In 2018 the US Library of Congress recognized her in a ceremony celebrating her one hundred-millionth book distribution.

        In 2016 she contributed $9 million to help rebuild homes lost to a massive wildfire that swept through Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Before that, she risked the ire of the country music industry by supporting response to HIV/Aids.

        In an interview with Billboard magazine earlier this year, Parton was asked about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. She responded, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter?"

        In November, Parton donated $1 million (and encouraged her fans to join her) to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s research which helped produce the Covie-19 vaccine, Moderna.

Can’t makes this sh*t up. With three weeks yet to go, President Trump has thus far spent more than one out of every five days of his four years in office at one of 17 golf courses. 308 days. And the Trump company is paid by the US government for the cost. That includes $500,000 for Secret Service rooms. Golf cart rental for his protective entourage: $765,000. When he used Air Force One on these junkets, the average cost per flight is estimated at $206,337 per hour. The Coast Guard’s cost for protecting the waterways at his Mar-a-Lago estate is $236,000 per day. Not to mention the $8,600 cost for Secret Service portable toilets. And there are costs considered classified by the Government Accountability Office. Of course, during his 2016 campaign he promised “I’ll be so busy I won’t have time to play golf.” Right.

Call to the table. “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” —C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

The state of our disunion. “More than a quarter of all the public health administrators in Kansas quit, retired or got fired this year, according to Vicki Collie-Akers, an associate professor of population health at the University of Kansas. Some of them got death threats. Some had to hire armed guards.” —Frank Morris, “Toxic Individualism: Pandemic Politics Driving Health Care Workers From Small Towns,” NPR

For the beauty of the earth. This drone footage by Azamat Sarsenbayev was taken on Lake Karakol in Kazakhstan, as a flock of flamingos began their migration south for the winter. (1:05 video. Thanks Loren.)

Altar call. “If I had the wings of a snow white dove / I'd preach the gospel, the gospel of love / A love so real, a love so true / I've made up my mind to give myself to you.” —Bob Dylan, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You

Benediction. Watch this video (2:30), “A Prayer for the New Year,” adapted from a poem, “Benedicere: A New Year’s Day blessing,” by Ken Sehested

Recessional. “Ode an die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed in a 2014 flash mob performance in Nürnberg, Germany by the Hans-Sachs Choir and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Nürnberg. (Thanks Kevin.)

Just for fun. For satire lovers, listen to “Mother Mary Responds to ‘Mary Did You Know?’” the pop tart Christian song written by Cindy Sadler and performed by Charissa Memrick. (Thanks Loren.)

#  #  #

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor. 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 “prayerandpolitiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

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

 

Fear not the dark

On the Feast of St. Stephen, inaugural Christian martyr

by Ken Sehested

For when lawless people supposed that they held the holy nation in their power,
they themselves lay as captives of darkness and prisoners of long night,
shut in under their roofs, exiles from eternal providence. —Wisdom 17:2

Fear not the dark, you pilgrims, stragglers, misbegotten all, disembarked from the ship of state now arising from the sinews of democracy’s disemboweled cadaver, representing not a historic quake or anomalous fate but the sepsis of a long legacy of land leeched with gunpowdery fingers, prosperity wrung from the chained sweat of chattel brow, long, longer still the ever westward spread—gallantry on its lips, guile in its heart—a destiny manifest to none but its own acclaim.

A fearful people, this: ingenious of craft but bleak of soul, however innocent of intent—an innocence blind to its own capacity for prolific misery—inheritors nonetheless of poached estates whose spoiled fruits now breed carbon-scarred fields where the soil’s fecund hymn once sang.

§ § §

I tell you naught for your comfort, / Yea, naught for your desire, /
Save that the sky grows darker yet, / And the sea rises higher. —G.K. Chesterton

§ § §

Fear not, you refugees from monetizing tenure, advent’s promise against advert’s allure, for a new and swaddled Clue emerges from truth’s eclipse, a Way appears, through the back door (as it were), from beyond every fixed horizon, seeded from below, eschewing the trappings of privilege and power’s cynical assumptions, uncomely in its appeal, a still-small voice heard only at a distance from the boulevard’s racket, out in the bewildering places beyond the market’s bridle, where conveniences are few and provisions are bestowed in warrantless grace.

Here a different Darkness shelters, under shadow of wings, shielding the shamed and the maimed, the tossed and tormented, borne by friends like the ones who, in that older story, tore a hole in the roof over the Mender’s head.

§ § §

Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. —Exodus 20:21

§ § §

Tear a hole in the world’s veneer, you little ones—that world and its minders and binders and brokers of deceit bent on disparity’s rule; for another reign, the Sovereignty of Mercy, is marshaling beyond the reach of menace and rancor, where the armor of faith is fired in hope and fashioned in steeled compassion.

Here in this steal-away place lies the staging ground of Heaven’s planned redress, the garrison where grief’s smear turns to cheer and insurgent resolve is unshackled, from which incendiaries of the Spirit launch raids, even now, against a rancid world to reclaim the resplendent earth for its created purpose and pleasure and joy.

§ § §

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, / and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, /
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. —Wendell Berry

§ § §

The seed of Redemption’s promise grows, but its time is not-yet. How long? Longer, for sure, than every heart-aching desire. The vigilance needed strains to outlast history’s bloody sway. Not long, but not-yet. For now, Hope is still whispered, heard only by those whose ears have yet been seared by the sirens’ counsel to life severed from neighbors in need.

In the Coming Day’s delay, wait in vigilance. Immerse yourself in patient engagement and practiced resilience. Mulch your soul with composted lament. Harness your death-defying vision in quotidian ways spread over ordinary days within recognizable neighborhoods, among nameable people, against petty malice and mischief that arise in routine encounters. Lend the spare weight of your solitary conviction to communal bonds and relational webs sturdy enough to withstand and forestall the grievous harvest.

§ § §

I will give you the treasures of darkness. —Isaiah 45:3

§ § §

Historic moments of grand-scale movements cannot be engineered. Our work is to be readied, rehearsed, abled, and allied for the season when gestating Darkness erupts in travailing labor to birth the Promise of the ages.

Remain faithful to the liturgy beckoning the Age to come: When the night’s dark fear melts from having loved so greatly the stars’ kindly light and clarifying direction.

Pray for us, St. Stephen, when Truth’s claim conflicts with law’s domain.

#  #  #

The Feast of St. Stephen is commemorated on 26 December in the Western church, 27 December in the East.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Again I say rejoice

More is at work than we can see

by Ken Sehested

It’s been a bit more than a week since the Christian community celebrated “Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday.” More properly, a Gaudete service should be observed every 22 December, the longest dark night of the year, Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere—six months later in the Southern). As a way of testifying to the conviction that what is promised is more than what is evident; more is at work than we can see.

Truth is, People of the Book share some values with our Pagan friends in their earth-based spirituality. Christians’ most distinctive conviction is that of the Incarnation, the materiality of the Creator in Creation’s flesh and blood.

§  §  §

Alas, there is little evidence of rejoicing now. We live in the face of multiple pandemics: biological, economic, ecological, social. Not to mention a Stephen King-esque horror movie nearing its climax in our presidential parlor.

One day our great grandchildren will ask from us an account of how we let this happen. I will be happy enough to have disappeared from the scene so I don’t have to answer.

But for now, people of faith need to be able to say why we believe that more is, in fact, promised. To say why joy—despite the cruel and contemptible evidence to the contrary—is the appropriate posture, the proper line-of-sight, the most reliable horizon, for the living of these days.

Joy is more than laughter. It is more than a boisterous dinner party. I’m not talking Mardi Gras. (Though I love laughter, boisterous parties, and parades.)

Rather, joy is that deep dwelling “Desire of nations,” in the stanza of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” written by Henry Sloan Coffin. That desire, adjective for the Promised One, is the deepest current flowing in the river of all life. That desire, built into the DNA of Creation, for the restoration of right relations, for the Kingdom of God, for the Beloved Community, for the new heaven and the new earth—this is the stuff of the star dust from which we are made.

Joyfulness may be expressed in jolly moods. But joy is also the taproot of lament. If there were no joy, suffering would be reduced to silence. Wailing only occurs when there is some hope that it will be heard.

In our faith’s meta-story, the wailing of slaves is what triggered Heaven’s attention. This sequence has not changed.

§  §  §

Joy is the persevering confidence—despite cruel and contemptible evidence—that God is not yet done with us. Joy, in the Hanukkah story recorded in the Talmud (Megillat Taanit, Kislev 7-8), is the Temple lamp whose one-day supply of oil lasts for eight. Joy is the radical reversal of political inevitably, as when the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17) went “outside of Israel,” to a starving widow in Zarephath, to receive the last of her provisions for his meal, and then discovering that the flour and cooking oil are not exhausted.

Joy is the prison singing of Paul and Silas (Acts 16). Joy is the apocalyptic vision of John the Revelator (5:5) where, without explanation or prologue, the Lion is transformed into the Lamb, who takes away the sins—the spirals of violence and contention and conceit—of the world, retribution displaced by mercy.

The soaring chorus of Händel’s Messiah foretells, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord. . . .” (citing Revelation 11:15)

In its most comprehensive sense, joy is resilience. Stamina. Staying power. Buoyance. Joy is the capacity to bloom even in the crevices of sheer rock, as some desert cacti accomplish. What enables this apparent miracle is the work of microscopic bacteria http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8209000/8209687.stm on a seed that eats away miniscule amounts of stone, releasing its minerals, which in turn feed the plant.

In other words, grit—in both its material and psychological meanings.

The Prophet Habakkuk provides the most fitting word of assurance in this season of despondence:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet will I rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18)

And again I say, rejoice.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Fear not the dark

On the Feast of St. Stephen, inaugural Christian martyr

by Ken Sehested

For when lawless people supposed that they held the holy nation in their power,
they themselves lay as captives of darkness and prisoners of long night,
shut in under their roofs, exiles from eternal providence. —Wisdom 17:2

Fear not the dark, you pilgrims, stragglers, misbegotten all, disembarked from the ship of state now arising from the sinews of democracy’s disemboweled cadaver, representing not a historic quake or anomalous fate but the sepsis of a long legacy of land leeched with gunpowdery fingers, prosperity wrung from the chained sweat of chattel brow, long, longer still the ever westward spread—gallantry on its lips, guile in its heart—a destiny manifest to none but its own acclaim.

A fearful people, this: ingenious of craft but bleak of soul, however innocent of intent—an innocence blind to its own capacity for prolific misery—inheritors nonetheless of poached estates whose spoiled fruits now breed carbon-scarred fields where the soil’s fecund hymn once sang.

§ § §

I tell you naught for your comfort, / Yea, naught for your desire, /
Save that the sky grows darker yet, / And the sea rises higher. —G.K. Chesterton

§ § §

Fear not, you refugees from monetizing tenure, advent’s promise against advert’s allure, for a new and swaddled Clue emerges from truth’s eclipse, a Way appears, through the back door (as it were), from beyond every fixed horizon, seeded from below, eschewing the trappings of privilege and power’s cynical assumptions, uncomely in its appeal, a still-small voice heard only at a distance from the boulevard’s racket, out in the bewildering places beyond the market’s bridle, where conveniences are few and provisions are bestowed in warrantless grace.

Here a different Darkness shelters, under shadow of wings, shielding the shamed and the maimed, the tossed and tormented, borne by friends like the ones who, in that older story, tore a hole in the roof over the Mender’s head.

§ § §

Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. —Exodus 20:21

§ § §

Tear a hole in the world’s veneer, you little ones—that world and its minders and binders and brokers of deceit bent on disparity’s rule; for another reign, the Sovereignty of Mercy, is marshaling beyond the reach of menace and rancor, where the armor of faith is fired in hope and fashioned in steeled compassion.

Here in this steal-away place lies the staging ground of Heaven’s planned redress, the garrison where grief’s smear turns to cheer and insurgent resolve is unshackled, from which incendiaries of the Spirit launch raids, even now, against a rancid world to reclaim the resplendent earth for its created purpose and pleasure and joy.

§ § §

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, / and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, /
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. —Wendell Berry

§ § §

The seed of Redemption’s promise grows, but its time is not-yet. How long? Longer, for sure, than every heart-aching desire. The vigilance needed strains to outlast history’s bloody sway. Not long, but not-yet. For now, Hope is still whispered, heard only by those whose ears have yet been seared by the sirens’ counsel to life severed from neighbors in need.

In the Coming Day’s delay, wait in vigilance. Immerse yourself in patient engagement and practiced resilience. Mulch your soul with composted lament. Harness your death-defying vision in quotidian ways spread over ordinary days within recognizable neighborhoods, among nameable people, against petty malice and mischief that arise in routine encounters. Lend the spare weight of your solitary conviction to communal bonds and relational webs sturdy enough to withstand and forestall the grievous harvest.

§ § §

I will give you the treasures of darkness. —Isaiah 45:3

§ § §

Historic moments of grand-scale movements cannot be engineered. Our work is to be readied, rehearsed, abled, and allied for the season when gestating Darkness erupts in travailing labor to birth the Promise of the ages.

Remain faithful to the liturgy beckoning the Age to come: When the night’s dark fear melts from having loved so greatly the stars’ kindly light and clarifying direction.

Pray for us, St. Stephen, when Truth’s claim conflicts with law’s domain.

#  #  #

The Feast of St. Stephen is commemorated on 26 December in the Western church, 27 December in the East.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org