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Signs of the Times  •  23 December 2020 •  No. 209

Processional. “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein. / Rejoice on earth, ye saints below. / For Christ is coming, Is coming soon. / For Christ is coming soon.” —“E’en So, Come Quickly Lord Jesus,” Paul Manz, performed by the Cambridge Singers

Call to worship. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Over the Rhine, Fairuz, Brothers of the Baladi. A musical journey through modern Bethlehem—in all its beauty and pain. From the church of the Holy Nativity, to the refugee camps and the checkpoint. 

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More is at work than we can see

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, 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. —continue reading “Again I say rejoice: More is at work than we can see

Hymn of supplication. “When I am laid, / am laid in earth, / may my wrongs create / No trouble / no trouble in, / in thy breast. —“Dido’s Lament,” performed by Annie Lennox & Choral Performance with London City Voices

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Joy’s ascendance

“For Jesus, there are / no countries to be conquered,
no ideologies to be imposed, / no people to be dominated.
There are only children, / women and men to be loved.”
—Henri Nouwen

Yes. This. Of course. No doubt about it.
I stake everything on this claim.

However, some employ this credo
as warrant for quietude and passivity
in the face of threat:
         when conquering stalks the land;
         when imposition is frequent and flagrant;
         when domination is the organizing
               principle of public policy making;
         when fortune’s rise depends on
               squalor’s increase.

In such an age
(ours is hardly the first, nor will be the last),
truthful words are hitched to connivance;
trustworthy ideas are poached and sold on corrupt
markets as collector trinkets; righteousness is
muzzled and paraded in circuses for the glitterati;
faith is traded on Wall Street’s big board.

In such an age,
a certain kind of insolence is required.
A scrupulous disrespect is called for.
A principled nuisance needs be made.
A distinct discord sown,
        a discomforting voice raised,
         a troubling undertaken,
         a disturbing cry wailed.

Levitation from history is not an option.
None are exempt from making painstaking
choices amid contested and morally-
ambiguous terrain. Bystanding does
not protect innocence.
—continue reading “Joy’s ascendance: This stuff could get you in trouble"

Hymn of assurance. “A Night Like Any Other Night,” by Charlie King, performed by Darrell Adams

Word. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Call to the table. “Magnificat Primi Toni,” Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-1594), based on Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke, performed by Voces8.

Can’t make this sh*t up. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has called the enslavement of millions of African people “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” —interview with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sunday 26 July 2020

For the beauty of the earth. Amazing starling murmuration, by Jan van IJken, National Geographic (2:00).

Altar call. “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Blind Boys of Alabama, with Tom Waits

Recessional. “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born / of the virgin Mary / The time of Grace has come, which we have waited for.” —English translation of the first verse of “Gaudete,” a 16th century Swedish carol, performed by Aúna

Just for fun. “A Cajun Night Before Christmas,” by Trosclair (4:37).

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

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “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.

 

Thanksliving

A poem for Thanksgiving

by Ken Sehested

Gratitude is surely among the precious few,
truly-renewable energy sources available. The
hearts of both giver and receiver grow larger
in the process. Saying thanks, especially beyond
the demands of simple etiquette, is among the
most accessible violence-reduction strategies.

It is quite possible, of course, that expressing
gratitude simply masks the desire to get in
line for future favors. Or fends off the
possibility that one is now in debt to the
donor. Or is simply a disguised form of
doing business (as in gratuities—tips—to
those who serve us). “Free” market values
have managed to commodify even our
most noble human values. Freedom language
has morphed into a cover for savagery.

      If you only give for what you hope to
      get out of it, do you think that’s charity?
     The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.
     (Luke 6:32, The Message)

Genuine gratitude, on the other hand,
disentangles us from such compulsory
and stingy calculations. It stems
from the recognition that
           all good and perfect gifts
            come from above (James 1:17),
which is to say: Good gifts do not
originate with us and are not in our
control. We are custodians, not customers.

Giving thanks frees us from the deadly
habits of hoarding. It acknowledges that
all living—whether breath or blood or
water or spirit—must flow, must not
be dammed up, to be enriched.

Thus the appropriate response to
graciousness is to be gracious. Just as
surely as water runs downhill, so, too,
is gratuitous life oriented to the margin,
in the direction of those who lack the
capacity to reciprocate in kind.

When such gratitude abounds, life remains
fertile. When it does not, soil becomes
dust, available to every passing wind,
choking lung and lake and landscape.

I have endured such winds as a
     West Texas child.
They made my nose bleed.

To give thanks is to live thanks.
All living is rooted in giving.
Such is the ecology of the Spirit.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Inspired by Luke 6:32, The Message; James 1:17.

Electoral ambiguity

Why don’t I feel happy?

by Ken Sehested

It was a leisurely Saturday morning. I promised a friend I’d help move some furniture and boxes, but he called the night before to say he needed to reschedule.

So, I said to myself, you no longer have an excuse for delaying your flu shot. Plus I needed to shop, since the kids were coming for dinner.

Upon my return, barely in the door, Nancy hollers, “Biden’s just been declared the president elect.”

I walked into the living room, staring at the TV for a few seconds; and then said, to no one in particular, “Why don’t I feel happy?”

Then a voice inside my head (I have several) responded: “That’s exactly what I thought you’d say, libtard.” (The preferred expletive of “realists” against lefties.) “You are willing to overlook the actual suffering of people for the sake of your precious progressive creed.”

The accusation—more bitter than I’d previously experienced from that corner of my mind—knocked me back on my heels.

(For context: I worked five years at the magazine theologian Reinhold Niebuhr founded. He’s the one who lodged the notion of “Christian realism” into the brains of generations of intellectuals and pastors. I was true and surely suckled on realism.)

“Really!?” a second voice in my head said. “That all you got?”

“You know how much you hate bucking the tide of your Facebook feed,” said the first. There was a lot of exuberance over the electoral outcome.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said the second voice. “I am delighted to know an eviction notice has been served at the White House, that a man with an ATM where a heart should be—a bigly con, a man-child with the emotional intelligence of a school yard bully, who mobilizes white supremacists and scoffs over covid’s stampede—will finally, along with his entire family of grifters, make their final ride in the Marine One helicopter.

“Yes, we’ll be singing a medley of ‘Oh, Happy Day’ and ‘Ding, Dong, the Wicked Witch Is Dead,’ the second voice responds sarcastically. “But trumpism isn’t going anywhere. Wall Streeters heavy backed Biden, and his transition team includes a bunch of former defense industry execs—you know that crowd would make their way to the front of the soup line.

“Not to mention the fact that after the inauguration, Our Former Dear Leader will have plenty of time to continue fanning his minions’ fevered pitch (when he’s not in court facing a slew of indictments).”

(As you can see, I carry on lively conversations even in the solitude of my study.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a volatile a mix of emotions. Maybe not since the birth of my firstborn, when that second voice in my head said, jubilantly, “OMG!!!” and the first one responded in alarm, “OMG!!!”

No doubt, I remain a “prisoner of hope” (cf. Zechariah 9:12). But during the plaintive prayer, “how long?,” I wish I were more optimistic about the “not long” antiphon.

I hope to write more about this later. (I hope you will, too.) We all need to think carefully amid the travail of acting truly.

P.S. Listen to some sassy truthtelling in Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables

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Dad’s “Heart Shield” Bible

A Veterans Day reflection

by Ken Sehested

At right is the image of my Dad’s “Heart Shield” Bible, an edition of the New Testament on to which a metal plate has been attached. The engraved cover, now smudged by corrosion, reads “May this keep you safe from harm.” It was sold by the Know Your Bible Sales Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactured by the Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, Wisconsin, and was designed to fit into a soldier’s uniform shirt pocket. Multiple stories exist of soldiers reportedly spared serious injury when bullets struck this tiny piece of body armor.

An inscription inside the cover indicates that Dad’s sister, my Aunt Juanita, gave him this gift. No date is listed, but it was sometime before Dad landed with the first wave of soldiers storming Omaha Beach in the 6 June 1944 D-Day invasion of Allied forces on the French coast in World War II. Dad was among the fortunate survivors, though he carried for the remainder of his life a piece of German artillery shrapnel embedded in bone behind his right ear.

I pause on this Veterans Day to ponder a number of questions (listed below). These in no way disparages the courage of my father, among countless others—fathers, mothers, children and siblings—before, during and since that particular day in 1944. Jesus truly and rightly said that greater love hath none than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In fact, as a pastor, I am envious of the military’s success in coaxing from its ranks the willingness to go into harm’s way for the sake of something greater than personal fortune.

My questions are not with soldiers’ moral capacity or disciplined devotion. Rather, they are about the object and point of reference of such capacity and devotion. My argument—where it arises and modest as it is—is about whose promises are more reliable and whose provisions are more decisive. These are questions about to whom the future belongs and about the footsteps toward that future.

I assume neither merit nor reproach for myself or any other in responding to these questions, for there is wideness in God’s mercy that no mortal mind can tell. Even so, I believe the questions demand our attention and discernment.

•Does the Way of Jesus preserve a vision sufficiently large and convincingly reliable to forego alliance with, and dependence upon, the redemptive promise of bloodletting resolve?

•Does the Word require our protective wrath to ensure the holiness of God?

•Was, after all, the blood of Jesus too anemic to insure salvation’s fulfillment?

•Is it true that Divine Honor (even that reflected as human freedom) does yet require appeasement by human sacrifice?

The profound desire to make things right—of soldiers and civilians alike, by people of faith and conscience of every sort—is a God-breathed virtue. The debate hinges on what that looks like.

Discuss.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  11 November 2020 •  No. 208

Processional. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” Freedom Singers perform at the White House.

Above: Wild poppies grow in the “Trench of Death,” a preserved Belgian World War I trench system in Diksmuide, Belgium

Invocation. After Tuesday Prayer

Thank you God, for the shaping from the saints in our lives…for the foolish and the wise ones, the serious and the silly ones, the reserve and the overbearing ones, the mischievous and the obedient ones…lives whose presence have broadened and enriched our own.

Free us from regrets by your grace.

Strengthen us by the witness of your hope-bearing and love-embracing saints before us.

May these days make saints of all of us in perseverance in the struggles, in resistance to evil forces, in reliance on your Spirit.

After Tuesday, may we pick up where we never left off…feeding the hungry, teaching and tending the children, listening to the lonely, comforting the broken-hearted, healing the sick, raising all those who are dead and disheartened in spirit.

After Tuesday, may we be found among that countless number who still practice the politics of praise for your creation, and who have always made art of your divine deal of reconciliation.

After Tuesday, may we be counted among that number who still lives for your great dreams for humanity again and again and again…bolstered by the resolve that we are stronger together when we sacrifice together for the common wealth, the common good, the common cause of justice and peace.

After Tuesday, may you still find us with Jesus, walking unafraid, unfaltering…undone only by your Spirit swirling in and around us all.

After Tuesday, may we be convinced more deeply than ever that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from your love.

Through the Christ of love, we pray and pray and pray. Amen.
—This prayer by Nancy Hastings Sehested was originally written following the 2016 presidential election. It remains pertinent.

Right: Painting by Angie King

Call to worship. What we affirm after the election. “It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to tell you kids character matters. . . .” —continue listening to commentator Van Jones’ emotional reaction on CNN to the announcement of Biden’s election. (2:13 video.)

Hymn of praise. “And I want to thank You, for always being there / I’ve been down and out, but You’ve always been right there beside me / And there have been times, Lord, when You were the only friend, / only friend I had.” —Perry Sisters, “I Just Want to Thank You Lord

§  §  §

Two featured meditations on Veterans Day

On the origins of Veterans Day

Veterans Day doesn’t lend itself to commercial attention like its twin, Memorial Day, probably because it’s squeezed between two other cash-registering holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and it does not coincide with a car-cultural observance like the Indy 500 auto race.

But it is a federal holiday, what was originally called Armistice (or Remembrance) Day, marking the cessation of World War I hostilities on the 11th month of the 11th day at the 11th hour in 1918.

The “remembrance” is stirred by the poem, “In Flanders Field,” written by Canadian John McCrae, a Lieutenant Colonel during the war, from the point of view of the dead, early in that conflict before the war’s romanticism turned to disillusionment.

Here are four things people of faith should reflect on in this season. —continue reading “On the origins of Veterans Day

§  §  §

Dad’s “Heart Shield” Bible

At right (below) is the image of my Dad’s “Heart Shield” Bible, an edition of the New Testament on to which a metal plate has been attached. The engraved cover, now smudged by corrosion, reads “May this keep you safe from harm.” It was sold by the Know Your Bible Sales Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactured by the Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, Wisconsin, and was designed to fit into a soldier’s uniform shirt pocket. Multiple stories exist of soldiers reportedly spared serious injury when bullets struck this tiny piece of body armor.

An inscription inside the cover indicates that Dad’s sister, my Aunt Juanita, gave him this gift. No date is listed, but it was sometime before Dad landed with the first wave of soldiers storming Omaha Beach in the 6 June 1944 D-Day invasion of Allied forces on the French coast in World War II. Dad was among the fortunate survivors, though he carried for the remainder of his life a piece of German artillery shrapnel embedded in bone behind his right ear.

I pause on this Veterans Day to ponder a number of questions. . . . My questions are not with soldiers’ moral capacity or disciplined devotion. Rather, they are about the object and point of reference of such capacity and devotion. My argument—where it arises and modest as it is—is about whose promises are more reliable and whose provisions are more decisive. These are questions about to whom the future belongs and about the footsteps toward that future. —continue reading “Dad’s ‘Heart Shield’ Bible

§  §  §

Confession. “I believed you when you said / that I should trust the words in red / To guide my steps through a wicked world / I assumed you’d do the same / so imagine my dismay / When I watched you lead the sheep to the wolves.” —Daniel Deitrich, “Hymn for the 81%” [of self-identified evangelical Christians who voted in 2016 for Donald Trump] Thanks Leroy.

Hymn of intercession. “Ooh, in this darkness / Please light my way / Light my way.” —Moby, “This Wild Darkness

Important pastoral wisdom. “You don’t have to agree with political opponents to understand where they’re coming from.” Sanne Blauw reviews Arlie Hochschild’s book, “Strangers in Their Own Land,” accounts of the author’s series of interviews, over five years, of people in deeply-conservative South Louisiana. The Correspondent

Can’t makes this sh*t up. Trump on peaceful transition if he loses: “Get rid of the ballots” and “there won’t be a transfer.” Allan Smith, NBC News

Call to the table. “The current chaos is designed to make you hopeless about creating change, so that you give up. To combat that, look away and recharge your batteries. Focus on the things that ground you: family, friends, pets, gardening, movies, books, biking, church . . . whatever works.  Just come back when you can. It’s going to be nuts from here on out.” —Heather Cox Richardson

The state of our disunion. “What Will You Do If Trump Doesn’t Leave?” According to research, “50% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe ‘the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.’ Nearly as many believe, ‘A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands. . . . It’s time to start thinking about what you would do.’” David Brooks,” New York Times

Best one-liner. “When disturbing injustice looks like disturbing the peace, you can be sure you’re living in a society that has structuralized chaos and called it ‘peace.’” Rev. Preston Klegg, Baptist News Global

Altar call. “Study War,” by Moby.

Benediction. “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.” ―Howard Thurman

Recessional. “All my life I’ve been waiting for, I’ve been praying for / For the people to say / That we don’t wanna fight no more, there’ll be no more wars / And our children will play / One day (One day).” —“One Day,” a medley by The Shalva Band. (Thanks Candice.)

Just for fun. The moko jumbie stilt dancers of Trinidad and Tobago. Great Big Story (2:29 video. Thanks Marti.)

¶ POSTSCRIPT: What’s up with “Signs of the Times”?

Unless you’re a new reader, you likely noticed that my (almost) weekly “Signs of the Times” column (“news, views, notes, and quotes) took a long hiatus. An explanation is in order, especially to you who contribute.

Late last year I sent a note saying that, as my Nana used to say, “I’m all tuckered out.”

Shortly after that, my Mom’s health took a nosedive. She passed in February.

It hit me harder than I anticipated. . . .
—continue reading “What’s up with ‘Signs of the Times’?”

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

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “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.

 

What’s up with “Signs of the Times”?

Renovation underway

by Ken Sehested

Unless you’re a new reader, you likely noticed that my (almost) weekly “Signs of the Times” column (“news, views, notes, and quotes) took a long hiatus. An explanation is in order, especially to you who contribute.

Late last year I sent a note saying that, as my Nana used to say, “I’m all tuckered out.”

Shortly after that, my Mom’s health took a nosedive. She passed in February.

It hit me harder than I anticipated, in part because her death was the end of eight years of intensive care for her and my sister, including my living in South Dakota for 8 months during my sister’s failed battle with cancer. Then I brought Mom to live with us here in N.C.

I’m finally admitting I don’t have the get-up-and-go I once did. I not withdrawing from electronic publishing; and in fact I’ve probably done more original writing this year than most.

I’ve hired a consultant to help me redesign the site and create a more sustainable template. I’ve also got to learn new software since the platform I use is being aged out.

Again, prayer&politiks is not shutting down; only becoming a little less predictable in the near future.

Thanks for your support and encouragement.

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When wealth, weapons, and worship align

Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon’s frightful intent

by Ken Sehested

        The normally-reclusive Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, took center stage this past week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, promising a “deconstruction of the administrative state,” meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts.

        Let’s unpack that declaration. What he wants is:

        •rewriting tax policies that reinforce the rule of capital as the arbiter of the common good;

        •undoing regulations that protect of the general public, and the environment, to the benefit of large corporations;

        •strengthening the extractive capacity of US market forces in undermining the sovereignty of other nations, backed by overwhelming national security apparatuses.* Such measures effectively repurpose these into an offshore mob enforcement ring offering “protection” in exchange for unfettered access to natural resources.**

        This constellation of guidelines, I would argue, is the meaning of “America first.”

        None of these practices are new—but until now such practices were generally covert, covered in layers of secrecy, and considered rogue when unveiled in the light of public disclosure. The shock over their normalization is wearing off for an eclectic coalition of political constituencies who share a palpable sense of lost privilege.

        With the Trump-Bannon administration, the rogue achieves respectability. What is new is a systematic, intentional magnification of governmental and corporate initiatives whose justification is synonymous with efficacy. How could this be so wrong when it feels so right?

        This is what happens when right is defined as might and judicial appeal is revoked. President Trump’s incoherence, his cavalier disregard of facts, and his scorched earth rhetoric makes him the perfect tool for Bannon’s scheme, who frankly admitted that presidential cabinet criteria were tailored for candidates willing to undermine, if not actually destroy, the departments they now lead.

        Bannon has long ties to the growing white nationalist movement. He has previously supported “genetic superiority” theories and has advocated restricting voting rights to property owners. Trump himself has repeatedly talked about his own “good genes,” comparing himself to a racehorse with good “breeding.”

        You may recall that in his inaugural address President Trump twice used the phrase "America First." Bannon, likely the author of that speech, knew of which he spoke. In the 1930s a movement by that name in the US promoted nativist, antisemitic politics, and opposition to the US's war with the Nazis. The group's most public face was that of Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon promised that the Trump era would be “as exciting as the 1930s," a period of global history fraught with the worst economic collapse since the beginning of the age of industrialism, along with the rise of fascism and a war that claimed the lives of as many as 60 million people.

        "Darkness is good," Bannon said, providing this further context: "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power. It only helps us when they [liberals and the media] get it wrong. When they're blind to who we are and what we're doing."

        Moreover, unlike the Ayn Rand-style capitalists, devoid of (even dismissive of) the terms of Jesus’ beatific vision, Bannon consistently insists on a return to a “Judeo-Christian” cultural orientation.

        Similarly, in Trump’s comments at the recent “National Prayer Breakfast,” the president spoke glowingly of having “met amazing people whose words of worship” and “assurances that I am praying for you” provided “encouragement” for his policy direction.

        Warning bells should sound whenever wealth, weapons, and worship align within any civic consensus.

        Trump, with his blustery, demolition-derby governing style, just can’t help himself. With Bannon, on the other hand, there is method to the madness.

        Finally, it’s important to remember the consistent feature among the various definitions of “terrorism” is the intent and capacity to sow fear in the populace to achieve policy goals. Given this, should we be asking whether Steve Bannon’s dissembling blueprint falls within this definition?

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*The president has just announced a breathtaking 10% increase in the military budget, with corresponding cuts to humanitarian, diplomatic, environmental and social welfare budgets. There are 800+ US military bases abroad, served by 17 US intelligence agencies. The plan for a $1 trillion upgrade of our nuclear weapons is already in place. Even with earlier cuts, the number of performers in the various US military bands outnumber the roster of the State Department’s professional diplomatic corps.

** On the domestic front, just last week the Arizona Senate voted to expand racketeering laws to allow police to arrest anyone involved in a protest and seize their assets, treating demonstrators like organized criminals.

For more background, see

        •Philip Rucker, “Bannon: Trump administration is in unending battle for ‘deconstruction of the administrative state,” Washington Post

        •Laurel Raymond, “Steve Bannon’s disturbing view on ‘genetic superiority’ are shared by Trump,” ThinkProgress

        •Jonathan Freedland, “The 1930s were humanity’s darkest, bloodiest hour. Are you paying attention?The Guardian

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Rejoinder to election day blues

3 November 2020

by Ken Sehested

Anxiety is loose in the land here in the US; and abroad as well, since our nation’s cravings reach around the globe.

Today’s polling deadline—whose results will likely not be determined before the bewitching hour of midnight—may very well lead to the donning of sackcloth and ashes for many.

The predictions on the outcome run the gamut from a landslide for Biden to a narrow electoral college win, despite another loss in the popular vote, for Donald Trump.

I urge you to consider that more is at work than what is obvious.

Which is not to say I am sanguine about the outcome. I well remember, four years ago, making morning coffee as I heard from NPR the unexpected outcome of Trump’s win. I put my hands on the kitchen counter as tears welled in my eyes, my mind reeling with a speedy accounting of all who would suffer this monumental blunder.

All things considered, we as a nation are lucky that more damage has not been done, given the catastrophic potential of four years of this amoral, maniacal, self-obsessed man who has turned the White House into a political brothel. But the damage is real, and will likely take a generation or more to repair, even if he is evicted from office. There will still be much grief to attend.

And if he is not?

I say, even still, that is no counsel to despair. History has suffered more. People of faith and conscience are a sturdy bunch; and, in fact, have shone most brightly while on the run from authorities.

The very fact that the electoral turnout will likely be historic is reason enough to be thankful, even should Trump prevail. The history of nonviolent resistance to tyranny is rich and textured. Truth has often been on the scaffold while wrong is on the throne. “Yet the scaffold sways the future, behind the dim unknown” (James Lowell Russell, channeled by Martin Luther King Jr.).

Whatever the case may be in the aftermath of this present tumult—whoever stands before the crowds in January’s inauguration ceremony—there is still much grief to attend.

We as a people are poorly trained to handle grief. We have been suckled on the “power of positive thinking” gospel; of “accentuate the positive” counsel; of “look on the bright side” prescription.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, provides a careful biopsy of our cheery habits of mind which leave us ill equipped to face moments when love does not win, when an-apple-a-day does not keep the doctor away.

Let me say this as resolutely, and carefully, as possible: Grief is the place where we generate the prospect of joy. It is the introit to the only reliable threshold of hope. Joy is more enduring than happiness, and hope is more sustainable than optimism.

As the Prophet Isaiah wrote about the Suffering Servant—which the Christian community links with the narrative of Jesus—“He was . . . acquainted with grief.”

I confess I do not understand why life typically begins with a newborn’s bloody scream, or why voluntary suffering may inaugurate redemptive effect. But I have seen it enough to lean the small weight of my conviction into its promise. As the blind man healed was grilled by the religious authorities (John 9)—demanding “how did this happen?”—the man said “I don’t know; all I know is that I was blind and now I can see.”

People of The Way do not make calculated decisions to stare into suffering’s countenance because we are masochists responding to the prescriptions of a sadistic deity. We do so because we sense the vision of a very different future unfolds exactly in those places that are cracked and broken and deformed. We do so not because we are heroic or stoic or full of romantic gushing. We do so to listen intently to that Voice effectively suppressed in a world where wealth and power and prestige hold sway.

“There’s a crack in everything,” sings Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.”

We do of course cry out and echo the ancient psalmists and prophets at the intersection of suffering and despair, “How long, O Lord, how long?” We return again and again to the cliff’s apparent edge of destruction, and we do so without money-back guarantees.

We do so because we have fallen, head-over-heels, in love with the vision of the Beloved Community, of the promised day when all tears will be dried and death itself will come undone. Of the time when, as Isaiah proclaims, “. . . all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God” (52:10).

On that day, the barren ones will burst into song, “for the children of the desolate woman” will multiply. And all shall hear the voice from beyond all human management, “Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed . . . for you will not be disgraced. . . . In righteousness you shall be established, far from oppression . . . far from terror. . . . This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord” (Isaiah 54).

Beloveds, let this be your rejoinder to election day blues; let these assurances buoy you amid this present tempest.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Ah, grief, my importune friend

Prose poem in the face of electoral dread

by Ken Sehested

“You've kept track of my every toss and turn through the sleepless nights,
each tear entered in your ledger, each ache written in your book.”
—Psalm 56:8 (The Message.)

Ah, grief, my importune friend, who has brought you to my table,
spoiled my bread, tainted my cup, directed my eyes to the psalmist’s sigh
and the prophet’s lament?

What business have you with me not transacted before? Am I to curse
you? Endure you? Humor you? Crown you?

Could you not postpone your arrival ‘til, let’s say, next Tuesday? I’m sure
I will have my wits about me by then. Or at least a stronger bolt on the door.

Is not my brow wrinkled enough? Hair, sufficiently thinned? Gait, sufficiently
slowed and stiffened?

I once was equal to your sway. Could block your feint, wriggle out of your clutch,
even drink you under the table if need be. Those were the days when sheer
endurance would suffice. I could not o’erpower you, but I could outrun you.

Surely you must be weary by now, by your presence among fire and flood
victims, of children in cages at our border, of the farmers whose despair
resulted in taking their own lives.

Just recently I’ve heard of your presence in Brazil and in Gaza, from LA’s
tented sidewalks and flaming hills; knee thieving breath on urban asphalt;
from the midst of the heated sea itself.

I’ve heard even from this distance the sound of your lament from the hovels
of the Yoruba, the Yazidis, the Yemenis. You’ve pitched tents among the
Rhohingya, in Harlan County coal country, in blood diamond mines across
West Africa, in Uyghur slave camps in China. Such grief you have wrought
in bullet-splayed school yards and among victims of opioid profiteers.

ISIS fighters petition your efficacy for their face-to-face combat and mortar
round casualties, many close enough to smell the blood.

US drone pilots, on the other hand, have eyes (and hearts) shielded by the
great distance between launches—from Langley and Las Vegas, from Kandahar
and Khost, from Bagram and N’Djamena, from Ramstein and Ali Al Salem and
Seychelles—whose computer joy stick pilots rain flesh-severing bombs on
those identified only as heat-signatures communicated by electronic
broadcasts from circling satellites. Few if any in the kill zone have names
have families, parents, children, little but subsistence gardens and flocks,
though at lease one strike was a wedding party.

Think of your own wedding party. Can you imagine the arrival of a soundless
missile striking your wedding cake while scores of family and friends, children
aplenty, dance and feast in their most festive attire?

A drone pilot’s first confirmed kill is referred to as “popping his cherry.” Veteran
pilots “mow the grass” and “pull the weeds” on their “fun-sized terrorists.” Just
now an Israeli air strike in Gaza killed all eight members of one family, subsistence
shepherds, no running water, no electricity. “That was a mistake,” one official
excused. “It appears our threat-assessment database had not be updated.”

A real-time video game, but with kinetic results.

I don’t know how much wokeness I can take.

Ah, grief, my troublesome shadow. Why do you disturb our vestal cheer with
death-dealing remonstrance?

All the while, the Most High thunders at the nation’s princes and priests and
prophets: “I hate your pious showboating and the religious pretense of your
nationalist conceit.” (cf. Amos 5:21)

            In tears, we implore "How long, O Lord, how long?"
            In faith, we proclaim "Not long, not long!"

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Precious memories

An All Saints Day meditation

by Ken Sehested

Like most, my early memories of holiday festivities are varied and (mostly) pleasant. But Halloween stands out, with the most distinct memories, since it involved an evening of roaming (without adult supervision) in homemade costumes throughout the small town where I lived, collecting sweet treats in decorated paper bags.

Then came the much-anticipated sorting of the evening’s haul: the keepers (the really good stuff), the give-aways, everything else for trading with friends, which could go on for a week or more.

In deep-water baptist territory, All Saints Day—following "All Hallows Eve" (part of the origins of Halloween)—was never mentioned, much less observed. We didn’t believe in saints. Though we did have Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon, namesakes of bi-annual mission offerings—a surprisingly feminine pantheon for a body with severely circumscribed leadership roles for women.

I now believe there is no observance in the liturgical year in greater need of recovery than All Saints Day. In turbulent times and turgid circumstances, we need the sustenance of resilient memory.

Remembrance of those gone before us provides the buoyancy to continue the struggle despite bleak prospects. Such stories perform vivid reminders that (a) we are not the first to encounter hard times and (b) the assurance that sustenance (beyond our own ingenuity) will be provided.

Even more: Telling stories of faithful witness—with faces and names and details—is far and away the most effective means of catching courage and transmitting hope. We need a horizon beyond market reports, electoral predictions, and the cacophony of broken-hearted headlines.

The work of imperial powers over a conquered people always begins with the suppression of indigenous language and, thereby, the people’s ancestral stories.

Jesus’ primary mode of communication was stories—not because he was pre-modern or philosophically illiterate, but because he knew stories have an animating power that propositions and apologetics lack. It’s still true.

Resilient communities are storied communities who do the work of hallowing, of naming and memorializing its redemptive moments and characters—filled with faces and names and details—and connecting such memory with that of the Beloved’s Name and presence.

The preamble to the Ten Commandments required the injunction to memory: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Jesus’ model prayer began with the hallowing of God’s name, thereby unleashing the consecrating power to invoke the Blessed One’s reign over creation: “your will be done on earth” (Matthew 6:10).

Hallowing is the harbinger of death’s demise amid joy’s full embrace. Hallowing is the asset that sustains us, wounded but poised and resolute, in the face of history’s brutal affront.

“Precious memories,” as the old gospel tune says, are “unseen angels / Sent from somewhere to my soul / How they linger, ever near me / And the sacred scenes unfold.”

May the poise of the saints—however famous or inconspicuous—be yours.

§  §  §

Here are several resources for observing All Saints Day.

• “All Saints Day,” a litany for worship

• “All Saints: Call to worship and pastoral prayer,” Nancy Hastings Sehested

• “Hallowed Week: A call to worship for All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints Day,” Abigail Hastings

• “Quotes about saints: A collection

• “Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero: Canonizing El Salvador’s beloved archbishop,” an essay

• “For All the Saints: New lyrics for an old hymn

ALSO:

• For a well-written account of the ancient history of Halloween and All Saints Day, see “Halloween 2019” from history.com

• Want to expand your personal All Saints Day imagination? Visit Dan Buttry’s “Global Peace Warriors” blog for brief profiles of peace-wagers and justice-seekers from every age, every part of the world, and of every religious tradition.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org