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

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

Ken Sehested

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

§  §  §

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

(See this brief video.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The meek are getting ready. Let us join them.

§  §  §

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

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

Ken Sehested

Porch Story night, 6 February 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§  §  §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§  §  §

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§  §  §

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

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

Until it was.

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

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

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

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

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

But it didn’t.

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

I didn’t.

I began fearing the onset of hypothermia.

It was.

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

# # #


One congregation’s sweaty spiritual practice

by Ken Sehested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The posture of prayer in light of Ukraine’s misery

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

by Ken Sehested

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

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

§  §  §

We, from this distance and in our negligent comfort and

delinquent affluence, lack the ability to stretch our hands to

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

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

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

comforted in our colonized minds, asking only

      what more is there to drink?

      what more, to eat?

      what more, to abduct our attention from the brutal fate

            of distant, disposable victims of imperial lust

            and bloated arrogance?


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


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

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

recognizing that our own spiritual pittance, rooted in our

insulating wealth, renders us complicit in a world governed by

bloated avarice, administered by relentless corruption,

subjugated by callous threat.


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

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

and enforced by judicial villainy.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


May our prayers for mercy embolden our hearts and hands,

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



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

treason against every hard-hearted arrangement.


Only embodied reverence can tame leviathan’s violence. Only

disarmed hearts can contend with the beast without making us

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

orbit back to its Rightful Tender.


Then, no longer shall the beggarly be auctioned to satisfy

ravenous demand. They shall find refuge, deliverance, in

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

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

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

gathering the shamed, transforming their weeping to a torrent

of praise.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


So, dear sister, be assured that intercessions are being

launched on behalf of all under assault in your region,

accompanied by our material support. Human words are too

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

our meager supplications.


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

§  §  §

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

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


The Last Word

A wedding blessing for Caitlin Hope Wood & Zack Neel

by Ken Sehested

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

Remember that regret is not the last word.

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

One day every cup will overflow.

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

Remember that bitterness is not the last word.

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

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

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

Remember that enmity is not the last word.

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

One day pardon will trump vengeance.

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

Remember that judgment is not the last word.

Despite all cruel reproach, the last word is this:

One day grace will have its way.

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

Remember that despair is not the last word.

Despite all dismay, the last word is this:

One day the meek will inherit the earth.

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

Remember that infidelity is not the last word.

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

One day creation itself will shed its decay.

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

Remember that lament shall not have the last word.

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

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

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What a great time to be alive

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

by Ken Sehested

We are not so much brave as desperate;

to hear a Word above the noise;

a Song beyond the clatter;

a Hope beyond the cheeriness;

a Faith beyond the infamy.

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

whose rage has erupted, threatening carnage;

whose lies have become dogma;

whose hearts have been wrapped in concertina wire.

The verity of virtuous life is scorned;

the moralists embrace lewd vainglory;

empathy, consigned to the gallows;

mercy, judged as weakness.

Liberty has become a warrant for licentiousness;

freedom, a cover for insolence and ethical harlotry;

privilege, practiced as impunity and arrogance.

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

These are the gaping tears in our national fabric.

Two things are abundantly clear:

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

what a great time to be alive!

#  # #


Summon your nerve

A call to the Table on Pentecost Sunday

by Ken Sehested

I would love to think approaching

this table conferred visions of

leisurely picnics in green meadows

beside gentle bubbling streams,

with cooling breeze matched by

warm sunshine and birdsong in

nearby long leaf pine and hemlock.


Truth is, it’s more like unleavened

bread, hastily prepared under dark

skies when death angels rout the

countryside, on the eve of betrayal

and the cusp of terror, in a land on

the brink of ecological collapse and

lead-lined water pipes poisoning

the young and an infestation of

woolly adelgid leaching the life

from majestic forests.


You will be disappointed if you come

here anticipating ease and distraction—

and, if so, consider making a quick exit

now. If not, if you brave the danger

circling this table, I can promise that

you will find sustenance, and persevering

power, Pentecostal power, for the living

of these days, come what may.


When he left, Jesus said something like

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

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


Come, friends of Jesus, summon your

nerve. You’ve nothing to lose but your

fears. And the Beloved Community to gain.

#  #  #

Hallelujahs and heartaches, too

On the occasion of a friend's retirement after more than four decades of pastoral ministry

by Ken Sehested

What a day! What a day! Not to mention a year,

4+ decades piled head-to-toe,

some of them a bit fuzzy now

(thank God!),

others like constellations whose radiance still

guides during dark nights of the soul.

Little did you know, a half-century ago

when your vocation was gestating,

what your profession would involve, where your

convictions would take you, the joys then unimaginable,

the sorrows ruthless beyond belief. And the

“ordinary” days, the days for which songs are

never composed, for which cakes are never baked,

for which poems are never rhymed nor hymns

inspired, for which hardly anyone

but the Beloved took note.


Scores upon scores of hallelujahs and heartaches, too.

Cares that kept you up at night and joys that set you

moving at the first sight of dawn’s light.


If you could have known then what you know now, would

you have allowed those authorizing hands to be laid

on your head? Would you, instead, have run

screaming from the room, faster than Jonah in a

speedboat, further than Tarshish multiplied many

times over? Bemoaning the day of your birth,

more bitterly than Jeremiah?

Cursing God more boldly than Job, demanding a

grand jury indictment for the Most High?


Might you have sought an easier Gospel to declare— a

compliant, more digestible announcement, something

less thorny, less disturbing to patrons, more likely

to win friends and salutations from chambers of

commerce? How many times have you been

tempted to soften the Word, to something like:

thus recommendeth the Lord?


Would you have preferred a cool breeze and votive candle

to Pentecost’s raging wind and flaming tongues of fire?

Maybe a luxury hotel room to the Nativity’s

barn yard stable? Did another life tempt your fate,

one free of property maintenance, boo birds in

the balcony, last minute panics when there’s not

enough grape juice for communion?

You should be happy to not pull off

another capital campaign.


Wouldn’t it all have been easier if Jesus had turned those

rocks to bread. Or cut a deal with the devil in order to

accomplish salvation’s end? Or to undertake a few

magical feats to pack the sanctuary,

grow the membership, spit-polish that

muddle of a sermon?

What harm could that have done?


But, no. Nooooo.

You knew, down in your toes if not in your head,

that there is no skipping from

the crib to the cross

to the Crown of Glory.

No shortcuts to bypass those ordinary days.

No passing the cup of those agonizing experiences.

No surge protection

against joy’s electrifying arc.

For there is no ordinary in ordination’s destination.


Now, though, receive gladly the permission to lie fallow

on days other than Mondays. Let your appointment

book and dress shoes gather dust. Have a Bloody

Mary for brunch on a Sunday. Linger longer with the

morning paper. Give those grandbabies your

undivided, leisurely attention. Let the

lectionary recede, at least for a while .

Turn off your phone for long periods of time. Be less

wordy, and less worrisome, in your prayer time.


Yet may you continue to live large

laugh often, and

love well.

#  #  #

—commemorating the retirement of Paul Hayes, pastor of Noank Baptist Church, Noank, CT.


The storied history of a Walker L. Knight devotional

How lines from a Woman’s Missionary Union conference ended up in a historic speech by President Jimmy Carter

by Ken Sehested

This tale is the unlikely story of a single, five-word sentence, a fragment of a much longer prose poem.

It was first uttered during what many would consider a parochial backwater event: the April 1971 annual meeting of the Florida Baptist Convention Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU).

Several lines from that poem, including the pivotal sentence, was later quoted by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his March 26, 1979 speech at the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signing at the White House.

Years later that poem portion would be produced as a large poster, seen hanging on walls on three different continents, and has long since entered the international vocabulary of advocates of all sorts pursuing justice, peace, and human rights.

The key sentence?

“Peace, like war, is waged.”

This December represents the 50th anniversary of the initial publication of Walker’s phrase, embedded in the poem’s text.

Then directing the editorial services department of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (HMB), Walker wrote the poem for a series of devotionals at the April 1971 Florida WMU gathering, at the request of Carolyn Weatherford, who later became synonymous with missions education as director of national WMU.

When Everett Hullum, Walker’s associate editor of Home Missions magazine, read the manuscript, he insisted that the entire piece be printed. It debuted as an 18-page spread, accompanied by a series of striking photographs, in the December 1972 issue.

The storyline of how some of that text ended up in Carter’s historic speech is circuitous.

It began when John Nichol, pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church (OBC) in Decatur, Ga., used several lines from the poem in a sermon he guest preached at First Baptist Church, Vienna, Ga., where his friend Rev. Robert Maddox was pastor.

Maddox was already an acquaintance of Jimmy Carter, a farmer and active church member in nearby Plains who had done some guest preaching in churches in the area. Twice, in the summers of 1967 and ’68, when Maddox was on vacation, Carter filled his pulpit.

Fast forward several years, after completing a Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta, Maddox was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Calhoun, Ga., where one of the Carter’s sons was a member.

One Sunday Rosalynn Carter, the president’s spouse, visited the church. Maddox invited her to lunch, and she agreed. This was in September 1978, during the 12 days of strenuous diplomacy happening at Camp David, the presidential retreat, when the president was hosting Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in talks aimed at creating a peace treaty between the two countries. Ms. Carter shared what little she knew—and of the high stakes at risk in this diplomatic initiative.

Previously, in May of 1978, one of Carter’s aides whom Maddox had known in Vienna called to say the president would be speaking to the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission, saying that none of the speechwriters knew the context, asking if Maddox would consider working up a draft. Maddox jumped at the chance. Afterward Maddox wrote to the president to offer his services as a speechwriter, but was declined.

The Camp David Accords represented an agreement in principle. Afterwards, Begin and Sadat returned to their respective countries to sell its details to their respective governments. That’s when things began to fall apart, necessitating President Carter’s diplomatic shuttling between the two countries. Finally, in March 1979 Carter announced that final agreement had been reached.

Upon hearing the news, Maddox, on his own initiative, decided to write a speech for Carter for the treaty signing ceremony at the White House. He remembered that phrase from Walker’s poem—“Peace, like war, is waged”—and inserted it, along with several other lines, and sent it to Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary.

Carter ended up using what Maddox wrote, including these lines:

“It has been said, and I quote, ‘Peace has one thing in common with its enemy, with the fiend it battles, with war; peace is active, not passive; peace is doing, not waiting; peace is aggressive—attacking; peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy; peace marshals its forces and storms the gates; peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense; peace, like war, is waged.’”

Though Walker was not identified as the author, a White House aide specifically asked Maddox for attribution of the quote.

A few days later, while Maddox was in Florida, an aide to the president called, urging him to find a TV—Carter was about to give the speech.

In May of that year, Maddox was hired by the Carter Administration, first as a speechwriter, then as a special religious liaison for the president.

Many who knew Walker often used the word “integrity” to describe his character. One of his associates remarked to a new staff hire, “there is no guile in Walker Knight.”

Such virtue does not show up overnight. It was be nurtured—clarified, trusted, repeatedly practiced—over time. Though it’s hard to identify one particular occasion when this temperament crystalized.

Quite possibly it was an experience recounted by his close friend, John Nichol, Oakhurst Baptist Church’s former pastor. At Walker’s memorial service in December 2019, Nichol, commented that “You have to go back to the time when as a teenager he made his first major trip out of Henderson County, Kentucky, with a group of teenagers from his church, to attend Training Union Week at the Baptist Assembly in Ridgecrest, N.C.

“One evening the preacher for that week focused on one of the beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. “Dr. Johnson said that the verse could also be translated ‘Blessed are those who want to see things set right, for they will help accomplish it.’”

Wanting to see things set right, Walker wrote in his Memoirs, served as lifelong point of orientation. It’s what would steel his resolve to speak out on matters of racial justice, on questions of economic inequality, on support of women in ministry, along with numerous other human rights matters.

By the time he assumed his role as editor of the HMB’s Home Missions magazine (later renamed Missions USA), he joined his journalism skills to his theological vision and his editorial courage. He soon learned there would be a cost to such integrity.

Subsequent generations have hard time imagining the red hot emotions around Jim Crow culture and the revolt of the Civil Rights Movement.

One for instance: In the fall of ’71, James Sullivan, the director of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, halted distribution of a Training Union Quarterly (study material for teens)—140,000 copies, plus another 18,000 “leaders’ guides”—because of a photo of a Black teen talking with two white girls, along with a small portion of text. All those copies were destroyed and new copies, with substitute material, were printed.

Sullivan explained that he did so to avoid “misunderstandings. . . It could have been construed as improper promotion . . . of integration in churches, which is an individual church matter under Baptist polity.”

Walker recalled several occasion when the executive of the Home Mission Board (HMB) called him in, holding up the latest issue of Home Missions, and asking “what does this have to do with home missions?”

Walker responded that mission stories could only be interpreted in their social context. At the time, few if any in SBC life were using the language of “liberation” theology. But there it was. He was already practicing what Congressman John Lewis would later urge: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

By the early ‘80s, the SBC’s fundamentalist coalition’s bare-knuckled, publicly announced intent to take over the SBC. Walker could see the writing on the wall. At age 59, Walker and his beloved Nell agreed that he would resign from the HMB, take a 50% cut in pay, and, with support from a group of moderate-progressive pastors, started an independent Baptist publication. The first issue of SBC Today (later renamed Baptists Today and then again, Nurturing Faith) was issued in April 1983.

No single phrase has been more important to my own formation than Walker’s line, peace, like war, is waged. Peace is not simply a sentiment, but an active practice. Peace is not like peace-and-quiet, because peacemakers sometimes stir trouble. Peace, as Dr. King incisively noted, is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.

A broad consensus among New Testament scholars agree that Jesus’ call to love enemies is the radiant center of the Gospel, the hub in which many spokes unite. The capacity to love enemies (which is not the same as liking them) springs from God’s unilaterally disarming initiative in Jesus. Grace is the lubricant which loosens the grip of fear on our living, allowing us to live lives of extravagant love. Our penitential posture, opening ourselves to God’s love, is the very thing that makes us forgiving people, for “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

The disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are intertwined.

Peace, like war, is waged. As Walker put it, originally to those WMU attendants: “Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy. / Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates. / Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense . . . / But Christ has turned it all around: / the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering; / the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer; / the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness; / the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.”

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The New York City Draft riots

Instructive history for the living of these days

by Ken Sehested

July 2022

“Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. They made the weather, then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining.’” —lines by Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) in the Civil War-era movie “Cold Mountain”

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This week is the anniversary of our nation’s largest, longest, and most deadly race riot that began on Monday 13 July 1863 and continued throughout the work week before finally being suppressed by Union army military units and New York militia.

However, few US citizens have ever heard about it. Partly because historians have named this 1863 episode of insurrection as the “New York City Draft Riots,” since the triggering event, following congressional approval of our nation’s first military draft law, was the lottery rollout in Manhattan.

On 3 March, President Lincoln signed into law Congress’ “Act for enrolling and calling out the national Forces,” which required all male citizens between the aged of 20 and 45 to enroll.

Both racial and economic class status factored into the mayhem. President Lincoln’s earlier Emancipation Proclamation escalated the fears of white working class (most of them Irish immigrants) laborers’ fear of competition with the newly-freed African American population. Tensions between white and Black workers had flared since the 1850s. Months before the draft riots, white longshoremen attacked Black coworkers.

Another harsh feature of the draft law was a provision that allowed a draftee to pay $300 to be exempted from military service. Since laborers at the time made between $1-$2 per day, it was obvious that the law favored the wealthy. The draft law also excluded African Americans, who were not considered citizens.

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On May 14, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, the New York Tribune editorialized that “this War is in truth a War for the preservation of the Union, not for the destruction of Slavery; and it would alienate many ardent Unionists to pervert it into a War against Slavery. . . . We believe that Slavery has nothing to fear from a Union triumph.” —quoted in “The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America,” Philip A. Kinkner

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The first drawing of names for enlistment went without incident on Saturday, 11 July. But mid-morning of the second day, Monday 13 July, a mob of 500 white men attacked the provost marshal’s office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft selection was taking place.

The mob violence quickly morphed from an attack on city and federal government buildings to a focused assault on African Americans and the businesses that served them.

One of the first targets was the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836 by Quaker women. Rioters first looted the building, carrying away bedding, clothes, and food, and then set the building on fire. The 233 children housed there, plus their caregivers, managed to escape through the back door without harm.

Soon mobs were wrecking havoc in various parts of the city.

The total number of death of African Americans caused by the riots is unknown; but most historians estimate the number in the hundreds. About 100 buildings were destroyed; many more were damaged. At least 11 Blacks were mutilated, hung in the streets, and their bodies burned.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the riots were “equivalent to a Confederate victory.”

Several key ingredients in this volatile context are also little known.

New York City’s economy was deeply intertwined with that of Southern slavers. Nearly half of its exports were cotton produced in the South. New York’s numerous textile mills depended on Southern plantations. New York bankers provided financing and insurance companies sold coverage to slave shipping.

The city had long since closed its own slave market. But entanglement with the slave economy lived on.

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“To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor. / And we ain’t for the n*****, but we are for the war.” —popular rhyme in Northern cities upon the outbreak of the US Civil War

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Early in 1861, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, a Democrat, petitioned the city’s Board of Aldermen to “declare the city’s independence from Albany (New York’s state capitol) and Washington” in order to maintain the city’s lucrative economic ties to the South.

The abolitionist movement was vilified in the South; but it wasn’t exactly popular in the North, either, with many considering it a reckless, utopian idea. The famous abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass alluded to the frailty of the movement when, after Ft. Sumter came under attack, he said “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

Many abolitionists held opinions similar to Abraham Lincoln, who said in an 1858 presidential campaign speech, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

In the second year of his presidency, Lincoln wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Along with a number of abolitionists, he preferred the policy option of colonization: freeing Black slaves and sending them to Liberia.

We often forget, too, that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became law on 1 January 1863, was not a human rights statue but a military tactic. Slaves in “border” states, which had not joined the Confederacy, were exempt from the decree.

Another of our repressed memories is that the slave-freeing 13th Amendment to the Constitution nearly codified its opposite. In late February and early March, both the House of Representatives and the Senate narrowly approved an amendment (also known as the “Corwin Amendment”) legitimating slavery in those states where it was legal.

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Although presidents have no formal role in the constitutional amendment process, outgoing President James Buchanan signed the measure in a desperate effort to halt the march to war. Shortly after Lincoln was inaugurated, he sent the amendment to the states, with a letter saying “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Those Southern states that had already declared their secession ignored it; and within weeks Confederate troops in Charleston, SC, began its bombardment of Union troops in Ft. Sumter.

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“Show me who makes a profit from war and I will show you how to stop war.” —Henry Ford

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History is messy and more complicated than we wish it to be. That includes you and me.

The unflattering comments noted above about President Lincoln does not detract from his significance as, in the judgment of most US historians, the greatest president in our nation’s history. His views on race evolved—and likely would have continued to evolve if he had lived longer.

My views have also evolved. Probably yours, too.

Just so, admitting the relative unpopularity of the abolitionist movement in the antebellum North does not diminish the passionate courage of those in that headstrong movement. Admitting our exaggerated memory of these and other episodes is what inhibits white understanding of, and response to, continuing systemic racism and privilege in the US.

When doing historical analysis, our greatest need is to wade through the temptation to sentiment until we reach the solid ground of substantive facts. Which typically involves following the money. In considering social conflict, the question is not who started what and why. Rather, it should be: who profits form the conflict?

The New York Draft Riots pitted two racial-ethnic minorities against each other. (And a significant number of the police who confronted the rioters were also Irish.) But who profited from the conditions that provoked this conflict?

Surely the Civil War was a conflict over slavery. But the conflict between the North and the South was not so much a matter of human rights as it was the competing economic demands of an industrial-scale manufacturing economy with that of an industrial-scale agricultural economy.

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“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you do not see.” —James Baldwin

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Odd as it may sound, there is a proper evangelical edge to contemporary insistence to be more than not-racist. The altar call is to become anti-racist. White virtue signaling in the racial solidarity movement is the equivalent of hypocrisy in the church’s moral witness.

The goal is not to be pure. The goal is to read history rightly (to “read history from below,” from the vantage point of the abused); debate and assess remedial and reparative action, including short and long-term goals; and join ourselves with diverse coalitions to bring focused public pressure for morally renewed public policy.

To be sure, truth telling will involve a measure of discomfort and displacement. Occasionally, a lot. As Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Privilege will not easily, noiselessly relinquish its grip on power. It will vigorously insist its status is earned or destined as part of the natural order.

In the end, though, what fuels the quest for the Beloved Community is not the exertion of heroic willpower. Over the long run—and it will be a long run—what is needed is some semblance of a beatific vision for a flourishing community with a table of abundance available to all, spirit and sinew, soul and soil alike, rooted in neighborhoods and reaching the nations, fostering kindred relations in every direction.

It’s not complicated: As Maya Angelou counseled, when you know better. But you must vigorously pursue the knowing.

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