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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!"

                                             # # #

©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

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  29 October 2020 •  No. 207

Photo by Malcolm Marler

Two features in this issue

• “Voting: What it does and does not do: 13 suggestions for help clarify decisions

All Saints Day resources for worship (listed at bottom)

§  §  §

Processional. “Are you alright? Are you okay? / I hope your body is whole tonight / And if your heart is breaking / I hope it’s breaking open / And if your breath is shaking / I hope it’s shaking though. . . . / Oohoo-woah I hold my rage / I pray my rage is a fire / That cleans my mind out / And makes me ready to listen. . . .” —“The Keep Going Song,” Abigail and Shaun Bengson

Invocation: an honest prayer for the president

“O Wind of Spirit who moved across the face of chaos,
breathing life into creation and humanity.
Heal this man, afflicted in his presidency,
from the very illness he has unleashed in mockery.
Defend him from the Power of Death by which he is so enthralled
and so embraced, as to set it upon countless others
whom we pray you protect as well.
For the time and sake of mercy,
withhold the wrath of your judgment and bring him instead
into the fullness of his humanity, painful though it be.
When his breath comes easy and he wakes, may truth dawn upon him like a bolt. . . .”
—Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Prayer for Mr. Trump, the human being,” Radical Discipleship

Call to worship. “As part of my own spiritual practice, I read obituaries and eulogies. And have written quite a few eulogies in my ministry. . . . All Saints is a time to illumine the mystery of the communion of saints. Death has its day. It ends a life but not a relationship. Our grief ebbs and flows, but grief never ends. Neither does our communion with the saints.” —continue reading “All Saints: Call to worship and pastoral prayer,” Nancy Hastings Sehested

Hymn of praise. “This joy . . . this strength . . . this love . . . this peace that I have / the world didn’t give it to me / and the world can’t take it away.” —Resistance Revival Chorus, “This Joy

Featured essay

From all appearances, we in the United States are at one of the most dangerous moments in our nation’s political history. We have a president who thinks that “when someone is president of the United States the authority is total.”

Someone who winks at white supremacist terror plots to assassinate public officials. Who repeatedly suggests that he won’t leave office voluntarily—and by so saying may in fact unleash a hail of street violence after the election.

So, yes, I believe voting is an urgent duty. As the poet adrienne maree brown writes, “today we show up for those furthest from power” (“election day spell”).

But we need to bring added context to this urgency. Here are a baker’s dozen suggestions to keep in mind before, during, and after you cast your ballot.

1. Voting is such a small part of our commonwealth duty. You will likely spend more time in grocery store lines every month than in polling stations every year. Elections are but the end result of an advocacy for the common good that starts in each watershed. Imagine a different future, find collaborators, and spend yourself extravagantly.

2. Renewed public policy requires new public consensus. Even our best, most humane public officials face immense pressure from powerful, moneyed interests, particularly at election time. They need the backing of public opinion to withstand corruption. Do what you can to organize and focus such backing.

3. Ballots have proved a welcomed alternative to bullets. It is no small feat that the U.S. has survived for over two centuries with only one attempted coup d’état. But elections do not a democracy make. They can be bought in a thousand different ways. —continue reading “Voting: What it does and does not do: 13 suggestions to help clarify decisions

Confession. “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… and remember to vote.  It’s going to be nuts from here on out.” —Heather Cox Richardson

¶ “The idea of ‘cheerful news’ makes me want to dunk my head in a vat of soup. When John Krasinski launched Some Good News  (15 minute video) at the onset of the pandemic, no bowl of bisque was big enough. I know I’m being a churl, but there is literally nothing more grating than bad good news. I don’t want to hear cloyingly uplifting emotional stories. I want the good news to be usefully good. I want it to be good news that points at greater news, and not a false dash of aberrational cheer amidst the bleakery.” Sarah Lazarovic, Yes! magazine

All Saints Day Gospel lection. Sydney Mark (age 7) reading Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes, in worship, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC.

Prayer of intercession. “Today's Tiny Prayer (for poll workers): May you be surrounded by safety and gratitude, may you feel the warmth of beaming smiles beneath our masks, may you be protected from conflict and violence, may you be buoyed by the pride of taking selfless part in our collective act of democracy. . . .” Micah Bucey

Preach it. “Another thing I did not see in 6,000 miles of American pavement [on a recent long car trip]: 'Jesus is coming back; prepare to meet your doom.' But maybe Jesus is already back, teaching us steps one and two of Shalom: Don’t shout at people you don’t know. And don’t give up on the world that God so loves.” —Gary Gunderson, author of “Leading Causes of Life,” in “Drive

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “I'm working … my a** off on the Christmas stuff, that you know, who gives a f*** about the Christmas stuff and decorations?” —First Lady Melania Trump, from a recorded conversation with her former senior advisor, Dominique Mosbergen, Huffpost

Call to the table. "When I think of all the things that we've been through, I know just one thing is true… Life is better with you." —"Life Is Better With You," Michael Franti & PS22 Chorus. (Thanks Marti.)

Highly recommended. “Therapy After the Election: Therapists are preparing themselves to support clients after November 3.” —Russell Siler Jones, Psychology Today

Best one-liner. “[T]he difference between being at peace and being complacent is one of the most basic lessons saints can teach us.” —Charles Mathewes

Helpful tools.

        • Listen to this brief (2:11) video by my friend and former colleague Daniel Hunter speak on “How Are Organizers Planning For a Potential Coup?” around the election. —AJ+ videos

        • “10 things you need to know to stop a coup,” Daniel Hunter, Waging Nonviolence.

Among the signs of our dangerous times. On 27 May of this year, President Donald Trump retweeted a video by the group “Cowboys for Trump” in which the group’s leader, Cuoy Griffin, an Otero County, New Mexico commissioner who said “I’ve come to a place where I’ve come to the conclusion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” See the verification by Snopes.

Prayer of intercession. “May you remember that, beyond the gaslighting, beyond the equivocating, beyond the trickery, there are truths that transcend, truths that you know deep in your soul, truths that you feel deep in your heart, truths that you actively embody every time you listen for the still, small voice inside you and connect it to the voices within those around you, stepping away from narcissism and nationalism, questioning your own assumptions and privileges, and continuously co-creating new ways for truth to reveal itself and rise above the lies. Amen.” —Micah Bucey. See his daily “Today’s Tiny Prayer"

For the beauty of the earth. “The Greatest Grand Canyon Timelapse We've Ever Seen.” (2:34 video. Thanks Carson.)

Altar call. “The entire Bible goes out of its way to life up the widows, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor. God loved the ‘inconvenient.’ If you’re not for them, you’re certainly not for the Bible, and the while irony of it is that I’m pretty sure Jesus died for both them and for you, too.” J.S. Park

Benediction. “Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” —Book of Common Prayer 823 (Thanks Steve.)

Recessional. “There’s No Easy Walk to Freedom.” —Peter, Paul and Mary (Thanks Dan.)

§  §  §

All Saints Day resources

• “Precious memories: An All Saints Day meditation

            “In my deep-water baptist territory, All Saints Day—following "All Hallows Eve," or 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.” continue reading

• "Quotes about saints: A collection

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

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

• “All Saints Day: A litany for worship

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

• “After Tuesday: Electoral season pastoral prayer,” Nancy Hastings Sehested

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

#  #  #

©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.

 

Voting – What it does and does not do

13 suggestions to help clarify decisions

by Ken Sehested

As has been said,
if you think you're too small to be effective,
you've never been in bed with a mosquito.

From all appearances, we in the United States are at one of the most dangerous moments in our nation’s political history. We have a president who thinks that “when someone is president of the United States the authority is total.”  Someone who winks at white supremacist terror plots to assassinate public officials. Who repeatedly suggests that he won’t leave office voluntarily—and by so saying may in fact unleash a hail of street violence after the election.

So, yes, I believe voting is an urgent duty. As the poet adrienne maree brown writes, “today we show up for those furthest from power” (“election day spell”).

But we need to bring added context to this urgency. Here are a baker’s dozen suggestions to keep in mind before, during, and after you cast your ballot.

1. Voting is such a small part of our commonwealth duty. You will likely spend more time in grocery store lines every month than in polling stations every year. Elections are but the end result of an advocacy for the common good that starts in each watershed. Imagine a different future, find collaborators, and spend yourself extravagantly.

2. Renewed public policy requires new public consensus. Even our best, most humane public officials face immense pressure from powerful, moneyed interests, particularly at election time. They need the backing of public opinion to withstand corruption. Do what you can to organize and focus such backing.

3. Ballots have proved a welcomed alternative to bullets. It is no small feat that the U.S. has survived for over two centuries with only one attempted coup d’état. But elections do not a democracy make. They can be bought in a thousand different ways.

4. As Frederick Douglass knew all too well, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Be demanding. Justice often requires the painful work of delegitimizing existing power arrangements before reconstruction can occur.

5. The roots that nurture my support for democratic polity include conclusions from philosophical reflection and political theory. But the deepest are theological: democratic governance is an important public means by which we practice nonviolence.

6. Vote—with a chastened realization that what we get does not coincide with what we want. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Increments matter. Better-than-worse is a relevant calculation.

Long before polities are decided in D.C.—or your state capital or county commission or city council—the struggles to build a movement powerful enough to make substantive change is underway. Lend yourself to one or more.

7. No movement has ever been generated or crushed by an election, but they can be encouraged or restrained. As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Work at constructing a new level.

8. Convictions that don't raise blisters or calluses are good only for talk shows and fashion runways. We live our way into new kinds of thinking far more often than we think our way into new kinds of living.

9. Think large in small ways; act small in large ways. Be like the trim tab on a large ocean-going vessel, altering inertia just enough to allow the rudder to shift course without fracturing.

According to the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy (aka Six Nations), “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Pay it forward.

10. People of equal vision, passion, courage and intelligence will (and do!) disagree on how to get to where we need to be. The body politic needs vigorous, even heated debate, but not demolition derbies and cockfights.

11. Lasting change takes patience and endurance, characteristics in short supply in our fickle, attention-deficit culture. It requires disciplined persistence—a truly countercultural asset—of fostering, precinct by precinct, the willingness to demand more than seems feasible at present.

In his novel, The Overstory, Richard Power wrote: “Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible.”

12. Stephen Jay Gould, renowned paleontologist, coined the phrase “punctuated equilibrium” in revising Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most evolution comes at glacial, nearly imperceptible speed. And then . . . shazam . . . as if from nowhere emerges dramatically altered biological conditions giving rise to new species. So also with social change, which sometimes appears as a miracle. Think bus boycott in a sleepy Alabama town—carried out by marginalized people, taking frightful risks, against seemingly impossible political odds—which ends up launching a global civil rights movement.

13. Finally, ponder the parable of the coalmouse.

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said.  “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn't have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952.  When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off.”

Having said that the coalmouse ran away.

The dove, since Noah's time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for peace to come about in the world.” (“A Tale For All Seasons,” adapted, from The Caribou by Kurt Kauter)

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

All saints

Call to worship and pastoral prayer

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

Today we observe All Saints, a tender time for the church to remember the saints who have died, and whose lives live in us still.

As part of my own spiritual practice, I read obituaries and eulogies. And have written quite a few eulogies in my ministry.

It is a practice that reminds me that death is a part of life. It is a way to keep choosing to live fully even as I am dying certainly. It places me in the river that flows with a life in love that knows no end.

All Saints is a time to illumine the mystery of the communion of saints.

Death has its day. It ends a life but not a relationship. Our grief ebbs and flows, but grief never ends.

Neither does our communion with the saints.

Something of their essence still flows through us.

Something of their life lives in us.

Something of their courage and endurance empowers us still.

And maybe in the mystery, they carry something of us in them, still speaking to us . . . still teaching us, loving us . . . pouring hope into us.

Today you’re invited to name saints. Pick up a leaf. Say their name. and place it on the table, a table where they are still missed, and yet a table in which through the mysteries of God’s love everlasting they sit at the table with us.

Pastoral 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, 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 brokenhearted, 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.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

All Saints Day

A litany for worship

by Ken Sehested

The saints of old don’t wear golden crowns, or sit on lofty perch, mouthing caustic comments on how poorly we yet-mortal souls measure up to the glory of days past.

They, too, knew about keeping hope alive while getting dinner on the table, faucets fixed, carpools covered, and budgets balanced.

After the ecstasy, there’s always the laundry.*

The saints, too, endured wistful nights and wasted days. They had knees that ached in cold weather and sometimes spoke sharp words to dearly-beloveds—including, on occasion, to God.

You may never enter a lion’s den, or travel through a war zone, or hear a prison door close behind your act of conscience. Mostly, you don’t get to custom-design the witness
you bear, the woe you endure, or the promises
you make to mend the world as it crosses your path.

By and large, you weigh the choices that come your way without the fanfare of stardom’s spotlight, your picture in the paper, or even angels whispering in your ear.

Saintly work is more common than you think.

#  #  #

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. *Line adapted from Jack Cornfield’s book title, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

Make us audacious

A Reformation Sunday prayer, inspired by John 3:1-8

by Ken Sehested
Note: On Reformation Sunday, 1981, my wife Nancy and I were jointly ordained to the ministry. The choice of Reformation Sunday was intentional.

Beloved, Who beckons us with the aroma of baking bread, Whose breast offers milk and sweet honey, Who showers manna in the wilderness, with fresh water from sheer rock, and instruction from the mountain.

We give thanks for our baptismal trek through the sea, on the road from slavery to freedom.

Even still, though the restraints on our hands have fallen, those on our hearts remain. We are anxious about our 401k’s and find ourselves longing for Pharaoh’s shiny baubles and Amazon’s free delivery. Even as our ancient kin were skeptical about Moses’ mandate, so too are we about the one from Jesus.

Disquiet haunts our dreams. Confidence in Your Dream fades. Sometimes, like Nicodemus—fear of losing a seat in the halls of power, of forfeiting “Gold” status or “Rewards” benefits—we slink through darkened streets for a clandestine encounter with Your incarnate Presence.

Thank you for keeping a light on, a door ajar, a gentle embrace, a welcoming table.

We live in a season, on a land, among a people, with much scalding. Our seas are burning. Our forests are burning. Our streets are burning. Pandemic’s fever surrounds.

We are confronted with the awful truth that many who have worn crosses are prominent among those who burn them.

Grant to us a reforming repentance that overshadows grief, that prompts not regret but joyful refrain. Rend and amend our hearts with the aborning power from above—beyond the reach of every marketeer—by the Spirit Who neither shames nor tames but unleashes courage and prowess and perseverance.

Beloved, send Your angels to remind us that we are a delight to the Most High.

And thereby make us audacious, for the living of these days.

#  #  #

For a personal family backstory to this occasion, see "Hearts over heads: A Reformation Sunday ordination story."

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Hearts over heads

A Reformation Sunday ordination story

by Ken Sehested

My wife Nancy and I were jointly ordained on Reformation Sunday, 1981, at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. As you might guess, the choice of the date was intentional—not simply to align ourselves to that dissenting ecclesial movement of a half-millennium ago, but to affirm that the community of faith is always and everywhere called to reform and refine its vision and mission, to realign itself at the intersection of the abiding Word and the ever-shape-shifting words whose purpose are to confuse and deceive and vandalize the common good.

The days leading up to that Sunday were glad ones, with one misgiving. My parents made a long car trip to be present for the occasion, and we didn’t know how my traditional-minded Dad was going to take being present for a woman’s ordination.

There was no doubt that he adored Nancy—elegant, funny, generous, not to mention beautiful. In fact, Dad’s opinion of me improved significantly when we married. He would never say as much, but I imagined him thinking, “If a quality person like Nancy thinks he’s pretty good, my boy must be OK.”

But ordaining a woman, I worried, might be a stretch.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the obstacle, which I didn’t realize until that Saturday night. Just before bedding down, I briefed Dad on how the service would unfold, including the “laying on of hands” ritual that, in our congregation, involved everyone present.

“Not just the ordained people?” Dad asked with face revealing both confusion and alarm. In traditional Southern Baptist life, that’s the custom—only the ordained were permitting to lay hands on the ordinands, a jealously guarded privilege of religious authority.

“No, Dad, in our church every member is encouraged to participate in the laying on of hands. We really do believe in the priesthood of all believers.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” he said in a tone that I knew too well, and dreaded. Dad was still very worried that I didn’t get enough “Baptist doctrine” during my studies at an ecumenical seminary.

“I don’t know about that . . . “ were his parting words as he turned and walked away. I knew we would not speak of it again before the service; and I suspected he would not participate in the dedication.

My sleep that night was fitful.

I was still anxious during the next morning’s service. But, near the end, when the time came for the ritual laying on of hands, both Mom and Dad were among the first to approach as Nancy and I knelt at the altar. Dad’s face was uncharacteristically emotional, and I could tell he was well out of his comfort zone.

When the time came, his heart won out over his head.

I recall that story from time to time, trying to glean its wisdom on how relationships can be nurtured with people, across all sorts of ideological divides, in a way that allows hearts the upper hand.

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•For more background on the Protestant Reformation, see this special issue of “Signs of the Times.”

•For a Reformation Sunday prayer, see "Make us audacious."

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Buttered hot biscuits

Inspired by Romans 12:9-21

Sisters and brothers: Before we get down to business, wrestling with what the Spirit has to say today, let’s do some stretching exercises. Don’t want any muscle strains in the house of the Beloved. Easy does it—bend and stretch and tip-toe fetch.

Love from your devotion, not from your ambition.

Be quick to praise, slow to blame.

Don’t quit in hard times. Show what you’re made of.

Practice hospitality—without issuing debt.

Laugh ‘til you cry with friends in their rejoicing; cry ‘til you laugh with those doubled in grief.

Don’t wrestle with pigs. It only makes them mad and makes you muddy.

Be relentless in prayer, patient in pardoning, quick to encourage, and urgent to amend.

Don’t fight fire with fire—let your baptismal waters do their work.

Settle old scores with buttered hot biscuits.

Now the warm-ups are over. Ready to break a sweat?

Descend, Holy Spirit. Take us to the mat.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Labor’s bread and lovers’ roses

A Labor Day meditation

by Ken Sehested

My primary Labor Day memory comes from seminary days. I was assistant pastor at a church in New York City [Think: Typing a stencil and mimeographing the Sunday worship bulletin, etc., etc.], and for several years running I was the designated preacher on Labor Day weekend. The congregation shrank to 8-10 people that Sunday, given the New Yorker tradition of leaving town in August, returning on September’s first Monday evening.

Right: Art by Ricardo Levins Morales https://www.rlmartstudio.com

My favorite Labor Day tradition (unfortunately cancelled this year) is also a churchly affair. Members of my congregation hike in the Black Mountains east of Asheville, then convene under a picnic shelter in a nearby park for a leisurely, intergenerational potluck dinner and conversation, with plenty of playground equipment and a gentle stream for wading.

Picnics and discount sell-ebrations are synonymous with Labor Day, along with the cheap sentiments of Presidential Labor Day Proclamations. The latter’s sanctimony this year is dramatized by the wretched statistics of how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-age earners. More than 90% of the jobs cut during the pandemic have been from restaurants and other hospitality industries.

The stock market, on the other hand, is in record setting territory. The ruthlessness of income inequality could not be more pronounced.

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness
and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors
work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.”
—Jeremiah 22:13

I never think of Labor Day without humming the song “Bread and Roses.”  Food is essential to life; but so, too, is beauty.

The history of the song “Bread and Roses” lifts in relief the struggle—sometimes deadly—of working men and women who have faced threats and armed suppression of strikers demanding living wages and humane working conditions.

As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, “[E]xperience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other."

“Then will I draw near to you for judgment, against those
who oppress the hired workers in their wages.”
—Malachi 3:5

The phrase “bread and roses” is thought to have originated in Russia, but it gained currency in the early 20th century from two women, both activists in the women’s suffrage and labor organizing movements: Rose Schneiderman and Helen Todd. In 1911 James Oppenheim composed the lyrics to the song by the name; the music was composed in 1974 by Mimi Fariña.

The song is associated with the January-March 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike. Responding to Massachusetts labor law that shortened the work week for women and children from 56 to 54 hours, the Lawrence mills reduced pay of its workers proportionately. When one of them, Anna LoPizzo was killed by a policeman during a protest, it galvanized a strike of some 20,000 women.

The strike is remarkable for many reasons, one of them being the fact that the Lawrence textile workforce was composed of immigrant women from more than 40 countries who rose above their cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences to act in common defiance. By the end of their strike, 275,000 textile workers throughout the state were granted higher wages and better working conditions.

“Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields,
which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the
harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
—James 5:4

This Labor Day, spend a few minutes learning about the disruptive, injurious history which made our picnics possible. And pledge yourself to finding some way, however small, to remain vigilant on behalf of neighbors who still struggle both for labor’s bread and lovers’ roses.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org