Ascetic practices of Ramadan and Lent

by Ken Sehested

At sunset tonight, Muslims around the world begin their observance of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which entails fasting (during daylight hours), a renewed focus on prayer and meditation on the Qur’an, and communal generosity. These behavioral admonitions broadly resemble the Christian emphases of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent.

Such ascetic practices are sometimes understood as a condemnation of all human desiring, as if “spiritual” life and “fleshly” are polar opposites.

Such is not the case. What is the case is that human desiring often disorients and confuses spiritual life. Instead of fostering neighborliness, disorderly desires encourage antagonism, greed, and acrimony.

Creation’s abundant blessing—”May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28)—devolves into a curse—”[P]ride is the necklace [of the wicked]; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression (Psalm 73:6-8).

Yes, ascetic practices can themselves become twisted and tortuous. As if God is a sadist and in need of appeasement by means of masochistic acts of human self-denial. As if faith is a surrender to torture. As if spiritual growth is accomplished by bodily distress. As if penitence is reduced to self-flagellation.

In the end, it is a party, not a purge, to which we are oriented. Doing so requires that we humans regularly find ways to check our appetites. In the end, none of us enter Paradise alone but only in the company of those previously deemed unwelcomed or unworthy to sit at the Table of Plenty.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo! (“The glory of God is the human fully alive.”) —St. Irenaeus, 2nd century church leader, in “Against Heresies, c. 185 CE

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A Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance

by Ken Sehested

I have a vivid memory of the exact moment. I was in seminary, having fled my native South to New York City to finish college and seminary, embarrassed at being a Baptist, at being a white Southerner, and not entirely sure if I was a believer. But the God question wouldn’t go away.

A mighty wrestling match was underway in my soul, trying to come to terms with my adolescent “youth revival” preacher days. Neither the Civil Rights nor the anti-Vietnam War movements had disturbed my piously-furrowed brow.

One Saturday in high school, starting a Saturday 12-hour shift pumping gas and washing cars, I was transferring product displays and stacks of new tires outside as we prepared to open shortly before dawn. I overheard the radio saying something about Martin Luther King Jr.

That Martin Luther King, he ain’t no Christian,” the station owner muttered toward the radio. Everywhere he go there’s trouble.

It would be years before it occurred to me the same was likely said about Jesus.

Entering seminary, I became a voracious reader of the history, details and figures of the Civil Rights Movement era.

Then came that vivid moment. I had purchased one of those over-sized books of photos of Dr. King and other civil rights moments and luminaries. Flipping through, I turned to a photo showing Dr. King and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.

The cover title was clear. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention (the same body whose Executive Committee voted down a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four young children).

At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman. And I also learned that terrorism on American soil has a long history.

That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.

The annual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday provides a perennial occasion to remember the dream that still beckons both church and civil society. And not just in the US: I’ve listened to children in Baghdad sing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic, and read similar accounts from the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to South Africa’s Soweto Township. A comic book-style telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, first published in 1958, was translated into Arabic in 2008 and circulated widely during the “Arab Spring” democracy movement in North Africa.

Yet Dr. King was not assassinated because he was a dreamer, though the national holiday-makers have largely domesticated and smoothed over the threat he represented. (“The most dangerous negro in the country,” according to the FBI’s assessment.)

We forget that by the time he was assassinated, his favorable public opinion polling had plummeted to 33%. We forget that his last major speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” when he openly condemned the U.S. war in Vietnam, he charged that our nation was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

After prophets die, we mold their memory to suit our purposes. We ladle praise on them and put them on pedestals—as a way to distance ourselves from them. There is some truth in that old canard: “A conservative is someone who admires a dead radical.”

Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream is not the same as being captured by it. It is not only possible but common to respect the man but relinquish the mission, to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream . . . such that it turns into something else entirely.

The biggest mistake we make is using the King Birthday observance as the occasion to heap accolades on his memory. Diane Nash, one of the many unheralded leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, says it well:

“If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say, ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, “What can I do?’”

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Advent: When the threat of terror and the prospect of trust collide

by Ken Sehested

Advent is the Christian season when the threat of terror and the prospect of trust collide, both competing for our attention regarding prospects for the future. Will it be more of the same; only intensified?

In all times and places the dominant cultural voices (secular and religious) have denied that history will ever break free of its orbit of pain, suffering, and loss—as if history has its own unbreakable sway of gravity. They are called the “realists,” and they champion charity to suppress the demands of justice. Though the church will occasionally read the Beatitudes in public, few put much stock in such a future.

There’s no better summary of such popular wisdom than by the cheeky comment of Countess Violet Crawly (played by Maggie Smith) in the television show, “Downton Abby.”

“Hope,” the Countess insisted, “is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.”

Famously, the Apostle Paul confronted what the realists called “foolishness” with his affirmation that God’s foolishness can be trusted. According to him (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-30), the Gospel announcement is that another world is not only possible but is in fact on its way—present already in those with open rather than grasping hands—as the aperitif of an era beyond scorched time.

In Latin, there are two words for the future. Futurus suggests a future constructed out of the past and present. Futurologists are those who rely on extrapolations from present trends, indicators that lean toward sustaining present patterns of power and suppressing alternative visions.

The word adventus, on the other hand, suggests the arrival of the new. Certainly for Christians, the season of Advent brings us to the edge of our chairs, straining for the sound of the announcement of annulment for earth’s agony. This waiting and watching is neither neutral nor passive. It is sustained by a bias, one that governing authorities fear, who want only futurus, more of the same.

Advent is the seasonal marking of adventus faith, formed by the beatific vision of a future beyond all currently available calculations, one that can be receiving only by those with unclenched fists and unclasped hearts, one that does not obliterate creatureliness but arises from its compost.

The stories we tell and songs we sing in our sanctuaries remind us that buoyancy emerges from unseen places, at unknowing moments, in unpredictable ways, beyond present reckoning and prognostication.

The present world’s futurus rulers always want to limit what is possible to what is available. Adventus people instinctively know that reality will not be bridled by apparent history and its imperial champions.

Advent is the invitation to attentiveness even when the sap isn’t running, in the face of a howling cold wind and the frightful dark night.

So, kindred, carpe noctem—sieze the night.

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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

After fumbling for worthy words, over several hours and much soul-shaking—and listening to “When You’re Broken Open” (from Dance:1, Anna Clyne, cello soloist, with Inbal Segev & London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop—here is what emerged.

§  §  §

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.


Eleison, eleison, Kyrie eleison. Let this be our benediction, and this our recessional: “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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Pentecostal power

Easter is God's resurrection moment; Pentecost is God's resurrection movement

by Ken Sehested

Easter is God’s resurrection moment; Pentecost is God’s resurrection movement, the birthday of the church, the shock troops of the Kingdom. On Easter God declares divine intention; on Pentecost God deploys divine insurgents. On Easter God announces the invasion; Pentecost is when God establishes a beachhead. At Easter God announces, “I Have a Dream.” On Pentecost Sunday, the marchers line up, the police close in, the first tear gas canisters fly, the first arrests are made. But the people of God keep on marching, heading for the courthouse, headed for the White House, headed for the jail house, headed for the school house, headed for the big house. Headed for every house that’s not built on the solid rock of God’s righteousness, God’s justice; headed for every house that’s been stolen from the hands that built it; headed for every house in every segregated neighborhood; headed for every house that shelters oppression, every house that welcomes bigotry, every house that schemes violence.

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,” said Isaiah, “and the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land” (5:7-8).

“Therefore,” says Amos, “because you trample upon the poor and take from them exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them” (5:11)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus warned, “for you devour widows houses and for a pretense you make long prayers” (Matt. 23:14).

But at Pentecost, the stolen house, the segregated housed, the house of oppression, even the big house is slated for redemption. Recall this description of the houses of the first Pentecostal powered community: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34).

Pentecostal power is an assault on segregation; Pentecostal power is antagonistic to apartheid; Pentecostal power extinguishes ethnic cleansing; Pentecostal power negates nationalism; Pentecostal power wreaks havoc on racism; Pentecostal power triumphs over tribalisms of every kind.

Now, notice here—and this is very important—the Pentecost story in Acts doesn’t say everyone suddenly started speaking the same language. Pentecost does not destroy the various distinctives between and among people. But the story does affirm that these differences are brought under the binding power of the Holy Spirit. They can no longer claim autonomy. They are no longer barriers to community. They are now in the service of God—the very God who repeatedly, time after time after time, has acted to nudge creation back to its purpose in Genesis.

Pentecostal power is the power to overcome ancient hostility, to gather the excluded, to scale the walls of social, racial, even class divisions. Between gay and straight.

I’m convinced that Pentecost is now the most important season for us as Christians. The true energy of Easter is more than, is fundamentally different from the “sugar high” you get from eating chocolate Easter bunnies. That kind of energy burns off within hours, leaving us weary, exhausted. That kind of energy is quickly dissipated. Within a week the Body of Christ is dragging its sparse remnants to a half-hearted post-Easter Sunday service. The resurrection moment is producing very little movement.

A cynical journalist once wrote that a conservative is someone who worships a dead radical. Dead radicals can’t bother us anymore. We quickly domesticate their memories, kind of like the way we do with Dr. King. Of course, we don’t think of Jesus as dead; but he does seem to be safely tucked away in heaven. And from a lot of the preaching I hear, you’d think our job is simply to convince people they need to start making payments on a ticket to join him there when they die. No threatening movement seems to occur when Pentecostal power is preached from our pulpits.

By and large the believing community has become strangers to the power Jesus promised. The subversive character of his life has been entombed in memorial societies we call churches. We revere his memory but we renege on his mission. The proclamation of the Gospel no longer threatens the new world order our leaders envision for us. The erupting, disrupting flow of Pentecostal power has been pacified, rendered harmless, packaged for television broadcast.

There was a time when the redemptive power activated at Pentecost was the power to mend the rips within our social fabric, to restore splintered relationships, to repair broken communities. Pentecostal power once indicated the power to stand in the cracks, to face the hostilities without fear, to confess, repent and repair.

Among the names for God in Scripture is one that means “Advocate.” Or, you could say, “Counsel for the Defense.” In other words, someone who is For Us, a Divine Protagonist—not to get us or trap us or force us into embrace. But One who is in the process of turning us all toward each other, even to our enemies. A Protagonist who lets us in on the divine secret: the world is headed for a party, not a purge. A Protagonist who assures us that we can risk much because we are safe, that nothing—not even death—can forestall the divine purpose of redemption.

This Protagonist, the Holy Spirit, this wind and fire, is taking us into the very heart of God’s and God’s purposes, aligning us with divine intention for creation. In the Pentecostal movement, God is pitching a tent in our midst.

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On the occasion of Malcolm X’s birthday

by Ken Sehested

There was a period of years, decades ago, when I experienced a crippling sense of personal shame and social despair when realizing my own complicity in systemic racism. The shame wasn’t because I had enslaved anyone; or had committed blatant acts of discrimination.

It was because I realized how clueless I was. And if I was this clueless in this regard, chances were I was equally clueless about a whole range of other forms of unconscious bias.

Simultaneously I feared that the same applied to larger society, that we as a people were also structurally complicit, trapped in a naiveté that prevented us seeing the truth about our wounded history that continues to color current behavior.

There came a time, though, when, in quick succession, I came across quotes from three of my heroes that bore me up from the sloughs of shame and despair. Not to make me innocent, but to allow me to be responsible, able-to-respond, freed from humiliation’s disabling power to move forward with courage and perseverance for the work of repair.

The first liberating quote is from James Baldwin, writing in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

The second quote is from Maya Angelou.

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it,” and “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Finally, one from Malcolm X himself.

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

Each of these are grace notes, hopeful disclosures, stemming from the pivotal word embraced by people of faith: Repentance is not for punishment but for the power of beginning again. Not with a clean slate—we will ever bear our scars. And certainly not as a one-off occasion: Penitential living is a daily commitment and a life long process.

But the goodness of the Good News is that we can begin again, we can orient ourselves and our society toward the holiness which radiates neighborliness, restoring right relations and just kinship and social policies, knitting together the warp of Heaven with the woof of Earth.

Only by such grace-impelled, hope-provoked work—and it is laborious, sometimes sweaty, difficult, persevering, frustrating work—can we be saved.

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Considering Advent’s insurrectionary promise

by Ken Sehested

 Advent is a season of great longing, specifically for those longing “from below” of history’s malignant dominion.

The longing is a revolutionary one, however, and frightening to those in charge, who have much to lose if existing hierarchies are breached. Such anxiety is what fueled Herod’s terror against male infants in and around Bethlehem.

This narrative parallels the ancient scene in Egypt when Pharaoh, sensing an internal threat, orders the Hebrew midwives to kill Israelite baby boys.

That narrative is the first case of civil disobedience recorded in Scripture, though the names of the two who conned Pharaoh – Shiphrah and Puah – are rarely invoked.

Those in power long for continuity; and, given the current state of the U.S., that longing is more like an anxiety.

Yet, the promise is made specifically and only to “those that sit in darkness.”

Both Herod, and previously Pharaoh, were terrified by this longing, as were all who aligned with their respective regimes.

In 2020, the U.S. admitted only 12,000 refugees, down from 207,000 welcomed in 1980, when the formal U.S. Refugee Act was initially approved.

To those in power now, undocumented immigrants are the ones to fear; though large sectors of our economy are dependent on immigrants’ cheap labor.

I spent several years laboring as a stonemason, for $10 per hour doing very strenuous work. Then my boss found out he could hire an undocumented laborer from Mexico for $8 per hour.

“Nothing personal,” he told me.

Foreign governments haven’t stolen our jobs. Business leaders in the U.S. have simply obeyed the logic of predatory capitalism.

I recently purchased new undergarments manufactured by a major U.S. brand name. The briefs were made in Vietnam; the t-shirts, in Haiti.

And I finally joined the cellphone age, with an iPhone assembled in China. Much of the world knows that much of the cobalt needed for lithium batteries is mined under harsh conditions in war-torn parts of Africa.

The Christmas story in the Gospels is a story of terrorism. And the Gospel authors are clear that competing claims are being made.

Consider this background to the language surrounding Jesus’ birth, which describes the ideological conflict being played out.

We sometimes forget the backdrop to the nativity story, particularly of the great Caesar Augustus who ruled much of the known world. Many inscriptions describing Caesar’s divine status can still be found.

There you can read about the “gospel” – literally, euangelion, the same root word in Greek we Christians use when we speak of evangelism.

In Rome’s imperial world, gospel was the good news of Caesar’s having established “peace and security for the world.”

Before Jesus, Caesar was described as a “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. Because of this, citizens were to have “faith” in their “lord.” The words “faith” and “lord” are the same ones in the Jesus story.

Elsewhere, Caesar is referred to as the “redeemer” who has “saved the world” from war and established “peace on the earth.”

Do you see where this is going? Can you feel the sharp relief of those nativity stories rising from the ornamental rendering we give them each Christmas?

The birth narratives are more than sweet lullabies. These are incendiary stories. They are bold contradictions to Roman imperial authority.

No wonder Herod was troubled when the magi told him of the birth of a new king!

All of which is to say, Advent and Christmas are dangerous seasons, when competing visions and loyalties go head-to-head.

Jesus’ birth was considered a subversion of present arrangements. It is no less so now — though Christmas itself has been thoroughly domesticated to serve reigning economic and political purposes.

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MercyMovers – Getting ready to move

Getting ready to move

Things to think about

MercyMovers is a mission group of Circle of Mercy Congregation, assisting members (and, occasionally, others) when they need to relocate.

We’re happy to help you move. Attached are a series of recommendations—things you should think about—based on our collective experience (of about 2 moves per year since 2002.)

Most importantly, though, be aware of these limitations:

  1. We’re helpers, not professionals—though we have a good deal of experience. We will do our utmost to handle everything with care.
  2. We can’t offer unlimited time and people. Generally speaking, a crew can offer 2-4 hours to load and sufficient time to unload. (Unloading takes about half the time as loading.)
  3. It’s important that you be fully boxed up and ready to load when our crew arrives.
  4. Do a realistic assessment of how much time it will take to be load-ready; then double that estimate. This is going to take longer than you think.

Read through the following suggestions, some of which will apply to you, and some of which you might not have thought about.

Welcome and introduction

If you are activating MercyMovers, several things are immediately apparent. You are moving. You need help. You know you have one of the most generous, giving, active, and responsive communities surrounding you. You know that you are loved and beloved. And you know that asking others to help can be difficult but also a way to offer a gift. It’s a gift for those in your community to be able to offer their time, energy, supplies, and expertise to help you. We are here to help you, with limits, but more on that later.

Before the move

  1. At the earliest opportunity, please let the organizer know of the date and time for your move. If possible, have 2-3 ranked date/time options available so the organizer can recruit help based on the best time. We cannot stress this enough that we are notified at the earliest possible time.
  2. When planning the move keep in mind the Sehested Rule: After careful planning and calculation of your packing time, add at least 50%. When calculating the number of boxes you might need, add 50%. Stuff happens. Build in a cushion to avoid being unprepared. For a potential free source of boxes, check the sanitation department shed off of Hominy Creek Rd. Ingles often has boxes set out in the morning. Check liquor stores. The big box hardware stores have boxes for sale. As will the company you rent a truck from—if you’re doing that.
  3. It is your responsibility to provide the primary mode of transportation. Please do not rely on the Mover’s vehicles to make the bulk of the move. While some members have pickups, you are not guaranteed that those members or their vehicles will be available for your move.
  4. If you want/need specific recommendations on rental trucks including size and company please ask around or ask the organizer.
  5. Also, should you not feel comfortable driving/backing the moving truck the organizer and/or several members are willing to assist.
  6. MercyMovers has acquired some moving supplies that can be used for the duration of packing, moving, and unpacking. These supplies include both reusable and limited-use items. For a complete list see the organizer and let the organizer know if these would be of help for your move. Once limited-use items are used up they will not be replaced except by donation.
  7. We have a limited supply of old blankets for use in padding items with hard edges (wood, metal, plastic) to prevent scratching. You can also rent those from the company where you’re renting a truck. We also have tie-down straps to keep the load from shifting while in transit.
  8. If there is a clothes washer to be moved, an appliance dolly should be rented from the truck company (see organizer for other options.)
  9. The goal is to make one trip for your move. We will load at the old location and unload at the new one (if the move is local). You will need to take care of additional trips Some moves are made in one day, some are spread out over 2 days (e.g., loading a truck one evening, unloading the next day). The particular situation will dictate the best use of our time. Your input will be very important in the decision making process.
  10. Please consider hiring movers for your large pieces of furniture, appliances and exercise equipment. We are a strong, robust, and eager group, but alas we also are not as nimble and physically capable as we once were. If you have outside volunteer help to assist with these items we will gladly work with and around those persons.
  11. Let the organizer know of any parking challenges associated with either location. If it’s necessary to carpool, please consider a location to recommend.
  12. We also strongly encourage you to assess the nature of both the new and old location’s driveways in terms of backing a moving truck into the most advantageous spot for loading and unloading. If the movee has any questions, the organizer and/or an experienced mover should take a look at both sites prior to the move.
  13. Once the MercyMover coordinator enlists the group of volunteers, please do not change the date/time except for unavoidable life events. If circumstances require the cancellation of your move please let the organizer know ASAP. We will work to reschedule and try again.
  14. Inclement weather happens. We will plan on moving unless traveling conditions make it too dangerous. If raining, we will do our best to minimize tracking mud into either location, but if possible, consider laying down some drop cloths or other material to minimize the tracking-in of mud.
  15. Please have all items that can be boxed – packed, labeled, and taped. This includes but is not limited to; books, dishes/kitchenware, clothes, toys, crafts, decorations, bedding, towels, small appliances, more books, footwear, sporting goods, knick-knacks, pictures, tools, oddities, linen closet contents, souvenirs, pantry items, mementos, under the sink contents, and the rest of your books.
  16. Please remember to check your attic, crawl space, basement, garage and shed(s) for additional items. Remembering these on the day of the move is less than optimal.
  17. Items that are awkward, fragile, delicate, or particularly valuable can be set aside to travel in autos. These include artwork, lamps, TVs and audio-video equipment, and computers. Items that are only awkward but otherwise not particularly fragile i.e.. garden tools, bikes, yard decorations, grill, lawn mower, string trimmer, tent, camping chairs, lawn furniture, can be set aside to pack into the truck as they fit.
  18. It will save you a good deal of work and time to label your boxes regarding where they should be put the in your new place as we unload. Also, as we unload, your primary job will be to direct traffic, instructing the volunteers as to which room each item should be placed.
  19. We encourage you to use a damp rag to wipe down all your furniture, particularly the sides and back (and bottoms, if possible) which are not visible. Dust accumulates. Moving will kick up the dust. And you don’t want to transport any of that to your new location.
  20. If you have items you do NOT want moved please consider storing them in a separate room we can easily marked “do not move.” Otherwise, with many hands doing the loading, we might end up loading things you do not want to move.

During the move

  1. Furniture with drawers: To cut down on the weight of a single item, we will remove the drawers, load the furniture, then put the drawers back in their place—and then reverse that in the unloading.
  2. You will not likely be loading or unloading the truck/autos. It is more important during the loading that you are available floating around answering questions. This is also the time that you will be facilitating the loading of the items listed in point 17 of “Before the move” – see above.
  3. If you have a pet(s) or a small child, we strongly encourage you to have them cared for elsewhere. The day will already be stressful—the presence of pets and/or small children will compound that stress. Also, remember that we will need to prop doors open to make the move more quickly.
  4. Please consider having water available at both sites. Many movers may bring their own containers, but need a source and access to fill up bottles during the move. It is customary but not required to have a few snacks at the new site. We often gather in fellowship after the unloading and break bread with each other. In order not to incur the wrath of COM’s photo archivist, a group photo must be taken before too many movers leave.
  5. Let the coordinator know if you want to be in charge of packing the truck. If not, several of us have experience doing that in ways that economize the available space, spreading the load of heavy items across the truck bed, and special handling for more fragile items. The packer will also manage which items should be loaded first (the heaviest) and so forth.
  6. Having some snacks available once we finish would be a nice touch. We will also offer a word of blessing for you and yours as you occupy this new home.

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  1. You are the heart and soul, the kernel, the essence, and the core of MercyMovers. Without you, none of this is possible. Be aware that this labor is a significant form of pastoral care.
  2. When the call goes out, please let the organizer know ASAP if you are willing to help. Even if that means you might be available for all or only part of the move. The organizer has a big picture view of the move and may be able to steer volunteers based on that information.
  3. If you have a particular set of skills that you are offering to the move please let the organizer know. We will attempt to put your skills to use.
  4. Dress for all types of weather – because it can change. Also, consider bringing gloves, a hat, sunscreen, and water.
  5. Know your limitations. We value you and your service, but don’t push beyond your boundaries. Rest as needed. Limit the weight you can reasonably carry. (This isn’t a competition.) Stay hydrated. We are a team and others will fill in where you may not be able to.

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News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times • 17 August 2021 • No. 214

Invocation. This is the kind of invocation playing out in my heart today, over the folly of the US war in Afghanistan: Maori haka dance by high school friends, performed at the funeral of a classmate.

The haka is a ceremonial dance or challenge in Māori culture of indigenous people in Aorteraroa /New Zealand. It is a posture dance performed by a group, with vigorous movemnts and stamping of the feet with rhythmically shouted accompaniment. Haka are performed to welcome distinguished guests, or to acknowledge great achievements, occasions or funerals.

If you cannot image the rage of God, you have nothing to say of God. —Ken Sehested

§  §  §



  • US troops: 2,448
  • US contractors: 3,846
  • Afghans: 200,000 (est.)
  • NATO member alliance troops: 1,144
  • aid workers: 444
  • journalists: 72

Wounded: 20,660

US citizens killed 9/11 terrorist attacks in US, which led to US invasion of Afghanistan: 2,996

Total deaths as direct result of US wars after 9/11: 801,000

Suicides among post-9/11 veterans of US Global War on Terrorism: 30,177 (compared to combined total of 7,057 who died in combat)

Financial costs

  • Cost of the Afghanistan war, most of which was put on a credit card: $2,000,000,000,000
  • Interest paid on war debt to date; $925,000,000,000
  • Anticipated interest on war debt by 2030: $2,000,000,000,000
  • 92% and 77% rise in taxes for top earners to pay for World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively
  • 8% tax cut for the wealthiest for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Cost for US post-9/11 wars combined: $6,400,000,000,000

Financial benefits: Investors in US arms makers reaped 58% more profit than other stocks over the past 20 years.

Confession. Everybody wants peace. But we also want what we cannot get without war. This is our predicament.

§  §  §

Congressional oversight of wars since 9/11

  • Number of times U.S. lawmakers have voted to declare war in Afghanistan: 0
  • Number of times lawmakers on Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee addressed costs of Vietnam War, during that conflict: 42
  • Number of times lawmakers in same subcommittee have mentioned costs of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, through mid-summer 2021: 5
  • Number of times lawmakers on Senate Finance Committee have mentioned costs of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, through mid-summer 2021: 1
  • Members of Congress who voted against the war in Afghanistan: 1
  • Number of times the US Authorization for Use of Military Force (Congress’ authorization for the US President to wage war on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and “associated forces”) has been used to authorize combat, military training, detention, and deployments: 37 in 15 countries.

§  §  §

Call to prayer. “Tell me where is the road I can call my own, / That I left, that I lost, so long ago. / All these years I have wondered, oh when will I know, / There’s a way, there’s a road that will lead me home.

“After wind, After rain, when the dark is done, / As I wake from a dream, in the gold of day, / Through the air there’s a calling from far away, / There’s a voice I can hear that will lead me home.

“Rise up, follow me, come away is the call / With (the) love in your heart as the only song / There is no such beauty as where you belong / Rise up, follow me, I will lead you home.” —“The Road Home,” Stephen Paulus, performed by Conspirare

§  §  §

Benediction. “War/No More Trouble.—Playing for Change, featuring Bono

§  §  §

Data sources:The Cost of the Afghanistan War, in Lives and Dollars,” Newsweek • “Afghanistan: What has the conflict cost the US and its allies,” BBC  • “Teaching Costs of War,” Watson Institute, Brown University • “Afghan War Has Claimed 241,000 Lives, Report Finds,” Ayaz Gul, Voice of America • “Four times as many troops and vets have died by suicide as in combat, study finds,” Meghann Myers, Military Times  • “How one vote opened the door for more than 15 years of war,” Gregory Krieg, CNN • “Was the Afghanistan War a failure? Not for the top five defense contractors and their shareholders,” Jon Schwarz, The Intercept

600 Afghans leaving Kabul on a US Air Force C-130 cargo plane.
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“Make them do whatever we want”

How to read the Cuban street protests in light of U.S.-Cuba history

by Ken Sehested

Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations
as the full moon once had on werewolves.
—Dr. Wayne Smith, former director of the
US Interest Section in Havana, Cuba

Medieval European maps traced the outline of the entirety of its exploration. Just outside the bounds of what was known they inscribed the words “Here Be Dragons.”

Here Be Dragons is an appropriate mythological metaphor for the U.S. public’s image of our nearest offshore neighbor. Preoccupation with Cuba was a terrifying experience six decades ago when we came within a hair’s breadth of a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union.[1]

One result of the terror—both shaping and being shaped by U.S. foreign policy—was the locking of public perceptions in a time warp. The U.S. embargo has not only been economic but also diplomatic and cultural.

Except in rare moments—like President Obama’s dramatic trip to Cuba in 2016[2] and, just recently on 11 July, the angry protests of Cubans in numerous cities across the nation,[3] the largest in decades, some met with violent repression and arrests—most in this country think little about U.S.-Cuba relations.

We just don’t get much news from there; and the little we hear is shaped by a woeful lack of historical context.[4]

Nothing that we say is accurate without a crash course in the tortured history of U.S.-Cuba relations.

And nothing could be more helpful in allowing Cubans to negotiate their future than ending the U.S. embargo, an utterly failed policy propped up not as a tool of diplomatic leverage but as a wedge in U.S. domestic politics.[5]

In this matter, we are the pariah nation.[6

§ §  §

In 1859, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United
States Senate
reported favorably a bill “to facilitate
the acquisition of the Island of Cuba.”[7]

§ §  §

Few know that the U.S. was considering annexing Cuba not long after solidifying our own independence. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba is ‘the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States’ and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States ‘ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.’”[8] In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams predicted the U.S. would annex Cuba with 50 years.[9] In 1854 President Franklin Pierce supported a plan to annex Cuba, by force if necessary.[10]

Few know that the Cuban people’s first constitution contained a provision allowing the U.S. to intervene in its affairs.[11] Or that the treaty ending the U.S. war with Spain (giving the U.S. control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines), the U.S.-based “Island of Cuba Real Estate Company” opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.[12]

We are largely ignorant of the imprint of the U.S. military’s boot there: of stepping in to steal the Cuban nationals’ expulsion of Spanish rule in 1898; of the Marines’ occupations of 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22; the 1971 disastrous “Bay of Pigs Invasion.”[13] Still today the U.S. maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s eastern shore.

Few know that for more than a quarter century the U.S. propped up the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who murdered as many as 20,000 of his critics and allowed the American Mafia to construct and control casino gambling, prostitution, and drug business, protected from U.S. law enforcement.

It is the rare scholar that knows by 1950 the U.S. owned most of Cuba’s sugar industry and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land. Or that by 1956, U.S. corporations controlled 90% of Cuba’s telephone and electric services; 50% of public railways; and Cuban branches of U.S. banks handled 25% of all deposits.[14]

Your school history class probably didn’t mention that in March of 1960, barely a year after the Cuban Revolution, U.S. President Eisenhower signed off on a Central Intelligence Agency project entitled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime,” to create an organization of exiled Cubans to train for and carry out terrorist attacks on Cuba.[15] Or that the established U.S. policy on relations with Cuba—from the outset—called for “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”[16]

Furthermore, what do you make of the fact that China and Vietnam, also communist countries, are among our largest trading partners? And we frequently sell boatloads of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, among the most dictatorial governments in the world, where converting to Christianity is punishable by death.

§  §  §

We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do
so for
the simple reason that the national interest absolutely
dictates such
a course. . . . Central America has always
understood that
governments which we recognize and
support stay in power,
while those we do not recognize
and support fail.[17]

—Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds, 1927,
quoted in Walter LaFeber’s “Inevitable Revolutions”

§  §  §

My personal interest in US-Cuba relations originated with a providential encounter with Rev. Raúl Súarez, a Baptist pastor in Cuba. A mutual friend connected us. I was fascinated to hear about the life of churches in Cuba, and astounded when Raúl quoted from memory long passages from the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[18]

Since that day I have traveled to Cuba numerous times and developed a network of friends and contacts. During those trips I heard this repeated refrain, “Cuba is neither heaven nor hell.” Almost all also say that they thoroughly support the values of the Cuban Revolution, but not its administration, with varying degrees of dissent. Do we, as citizens of the U.S., not exhibit the same diversity of opinions on our government?

The recent street demonstrations in Cuba are due to multiple layers of frustration. Despite the fact that Cuba is the only country in Latin America to produce its own vaccine, the country’s surge in COVID cases triggered unrest rooted in other complaints, which include anger at the government’s monetary policy shift in January, which dramatically increased the price of food and consumer goods; the lack of simple medicines; repeated electricity outages; dismal performance of Cuba’s inefficient, centrally-controlled economy; and outrage over the government’s human rights record and lack of political accountability.[19]

Many of my Cuban friends report an avalanche of disinformation about the pandemic, from shadowy sources, very similar to what we are experiencing in the U.S.

The Cuban government, of course, blames the U.S. economic boycott, a brutal measure which has lasted long beyond the Cold War’s legacy and is the longest such sanctioning policy in U.S. history.

Is the embargo the root cause of Cuba’s problems?[20] Maybe. Maybe not. Near the conclusion of this reflection I will offer a policy prescription to test this opinion.

§  §  §

It is my duty to prevent, through the independence of Cuba,
U.S.A. from spreading over the West Indies and falling
with added
weight upon other lands of Our America. . . .
I know the Monster, because
I have lived in its lair—and
my weapon is only the slingshot of David.
—José Martí, poet, philosopher, and journalist (Cuba’s
national hero, considered the “Apostle of Cuban Independence)
in his final letter, 18 May 1895, the day before he is killed in
the revolt against Spanish rule

§  §  §

Needless to say, the audience here is my own fellow citizens. My goal is to offer historical context to expose a history largely unknown, one that we must take into account in our bilateral relations.

The key element we fail to recognize is that the Cuban revolution’s understanding of human rights, and the resulting idea of “freedom,” is different from that in the U.S.

For instance, despite its relative poverty, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the U.S., and its literacy rate is higher. Prior to its revolution, Cuba was considered among the wealthier countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet its level of income inequality prior to its revolution was similar to that of the U.S. today, where 0.1% of the population earns as much as the bottom 90%.[21]

Cuba has one of the largest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.[22] By contrast, in the U.S. more than half a million citizens file for bankruptcy every year because of medical bills.[23] The homeless population in the U.S. is over half a million, whereas Cuba has virtually none.[24]

Few in the U.S. even know Cuba has elections.[25] Or that a 1990 dialogue between Fidel Castro and a group of 70 pastors and religious leaders led to a roll back of many religious discrimination policies and the substitution of “secular” for “atheistic” as a national descriptor in the country’s constitution.[26]

Given the recent public demonstrations, there is considerable anger among Cubans over their governance. But after the 2020 murder by police of George Floyd, 15-25 million U.S. citizens marched in cities in every state, a few of which turned violent and many resulted in arrests by police.

While it’s true that some Cubans (and many Cuban Americans) are calling for extreme measures, including violent overthrow of Cuba’s government, a recent poll in the U.S. reveals that one in three citizens agree with the following statement: “The traditional way of life [in the U.S.] is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”[27]

§  §  §

In one of his early visits to the U.S., Rev. Francisco “Paco” Rodés
asked me
to help him find a kitchen cabinet handle to replace
a broken one in his
home. These are the sorts of consumer items
often difficult to find in
Cuba. No problem, I said, and I drove
him to a nearby home improvement
store. It took a few minutes
to find the right aisle. Then Paco’s eyes
bulged in wonder: hundreds
of different shapes, colors and designs of
cabinet handles. Then
he turned to me, with a sly grin on his face,
raised his arms and jubilantly announced, “FREEDOM!”[28]

§  §  §

Back then to the prior question: Is the Cuban government’s claim that its nation’s ills can be traced directly to the embargo an established fact or a fig leaf to cover its own failures?

There’s only one clear way to find out, and the burden is on the U.S., not Cuba, to provide the answer. An act of Congress and a presidential signature would end the embargo.[29]

If such a policy improved the lives of the Cuban people, its government’s excuse would be quickly exposed. The people themselves would know soon enough. And so would we.[30]

I do not know what freedom should look like in Cuba’s future. And, given our history of interference, the U.S. lacks credibility to instruct.

But I wonder about one thing, and I fear another.

Did Cuba’s independence leaders, working hard to fend off manipulation by the U.S., end up fending off the always-needed reforming influence of its own people?

My fear is that, in whatever change comes to Cuba, freedom might look like what one thoughtful Cuban friend said to me. When I asked if he thought the embargo would ever be lifted, he paused for a moment and then said: “Yes, but I fear your country will simply buy ours.”

Cuba’s resident population has been attempting to throw off colonial occupation since Columbus landed in 1492 (thinking it was a coastal island of Asia). He wrote:

“This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Then he went on to comment on the indigenous Taíno people of what is now Cuba: They “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And in his letters, he repeatedly invoked the name of “our Saviour” and “His holy service” as justification for this subjugation. (Is it any wonder that the Cuban Revolution’s government declared itself atheistic?)

The Cuban people deserve to set their sights on a future freed from imperial meddling. Toward that purpose, and for us in the U.S., the first two steps require that we tell the truth about our nation’s orchestration of terrorist attacks on the country (for more than six decades) and then press hard for an end to the embargo.

# # #


[1] U.S. President John Kennedy made a secret deal with Soviet Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. would removed its nuclear weapons in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their missiles from Cuba. “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962,” Department of State, Office of the Historian. For decades the U.S. has had nuclear weapons, based on land, ships, and submarines, ringing the Soviet borders.

[2] See “Background to the touch down: President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba,” by Ken Sehested

[3] Hundreds of protests against coronavirus-related restrictions have occurred in at least 34 states in the U.S. —Wikipedia

[4] For some “did you know?” background on Cuba, see Ken Sehested’s “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

[5] See “A Time For Change: Rethinking U.S.-Cuba Policy,” Lilah Rosenblum, Washington Office on Latin America

[6] This past June the United Nations General Assembly voted (for the 29th straight year) to end the US embargo of Cuba. The vote: 184-2. Only Israel joined the U.S. in opposition.

[7] “Cuba and Congress,” Albert J. Beveridge, The North American Review, Vol. 172, No. 533 (Apr., 1901, p. 537), University of Northern Iowa

[8] Quoted in “Cuba-United States Relations,” footnote in Wikipedia, citing The American Empire Not So Fast, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. World Policy Journal

[9] Cuba-United States Relations,” Wikipedia, citing Cuba and the United States : A chronological History Jane Franklin. Ocean Press; 1997.

[10]Ostend Manifesto,” Wikipedia

[11]Platt Amendment,” Wikipedia

[12]Cuba-United States relations,” Wikipedia

[13]Bay of Pigs Invasion,” Wikipedia

[14]Fulgencio Batista,” Wikipedia

[15]Operation Mongoose,” Wikipedia

[16]Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State [Lester D. Mallory] for Inter-American Affairs,” Department of State Office of the Historian

[17] The US has overthrown the democratically elected governments of numerous governments: In Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973. [For more, see “The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War,” Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Washington Post and “United States involvement in regime change,” Wikipedia

[18] Raúl, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, would later found the Martin Luther King Center and, later still, become among the first three Christians to be elected to the Cuban National Assembly.

Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[19] See “Explainer: Causes of the protests in Cuba,” Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press.

[20] “No one will ever know the extent to which the US embargo has created the current failed state of Cuba, and the extent to which it is a failure of the socialist system. The US determined at the outset of the Cuban Revolution that it could not risk finding out if socialism could work, that would be too much a threat to our system if in fact it did. So we created every obstacle we could to ensure that it did fail, and then when we are successful in its failure, we can blame it on socialism.” Personal correspondence with Stan Dotson who, with his spouse Kim Christman, has lived in Cuba for much of the past six years. I highly recommend Stan’s book, “Cuba: A Day in the Life,” a wonderful collection of stories from everyday life.

[21] See “Income Inequality in the United States.”

[22]Countries With The Most Doctors Per Capita,” World Atlas.

[23]25+ Medical Bankruptcy Statistics to Know in 2021,” Christo Petrov, Spendmenot.

[24]List of countries by homeless population,” Wikipedia

[25] Ken Sehested, “Cuba’s historic electoral process November 2017 – April 2018: For the first time since its revolution, Cuba will not have a president named Castro,” by Ken Sehested

[26]CUBA: Churches Tackle Divisions by Discussing Ethics, Not Doctrine,” Dalia Acosta, Inter Press Service News Agency and “Sanctioning Faith: Religion, State, and U.S.-Cuban Relations,” Jill Goldenziel, Harvard University

[27]Poll shows disturbing level of support for political violence,” Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill.

[28] The author’s personal story. Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[29]Why the Cuba embargo needs to end, explained in 3 minutes,” Zack Beauchamp, Vox

[30] For more see “Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean: A resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” written by Ken Sehested, approved by the 23-25 June 2016 annual meeting of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ and later approved by the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ, June 30-July 4, 2017.