by Ken Sehested
All Hallow's Eve 2018
Introduction.This prose poem’s origin began upon confrontation
with three recent tragedies spurred by white nationalists in my
country: pipe bombs sent to public figures opposing our nation’s
nefarious governance; the killing of two African Americans in a
Kentucky grocery store after the shooter was unable to enter a
black church for the same purpose; and then a successful, deadly
sanctuary shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. This poem’s
completion came after participating in a Jewish mourning the
dead ritual (sitting shiva), specifically in light of the Pittsburgh
massacre, in one of our city’s synagogues where the rabbi,
referencing Isaiah’s famous “Comfort, comfort my people”
refrain (chapter 40), suggested that the text can also be read
as “Find comfort in my people.” Which is exactly what we were
doing in that packed-to-overflowing sanctuary.
WE ARE IN A WORLD OF HURT. And the hurt submits to no tawdry
there-there, it’ll-be-alright. To the hurting, there is no be-alright
on the horizon. That’s why it hurts: such pain calls the future into
question. Hurt is more than pain. It is threat: that dawn’s dispersive
power against night’s dread can no longer be trusted. Of the kind of
weeping that compounds the sorrow and leads to no joy.
Hope’s power to leverage any moment’s injury is lost if no fulcrum,
no backing, no collateral, no transcending warrant is available.
Lacking such warrant, the inevitability of history’s advance on a corpse-paved highway is assured. The choices narrow to two: eat, or be eaten. This is the way of the world—which is precisely why Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world.” (He was not speaking of the earth—the distinction is crucial.)
So what genuflection marshals the power to call another world into
being? What rosary fingered or incantation uttered? What lucky
rabbit’s foot or magic lantern rubbed? When the desperate cry out
“All lost! To prayers, to prayers!”*—can prayer be more than a
coda of the doomed? The final admission of futility? If the gods
slumber while the innocent lie slain, who are we to do otherwise?
We are in a world of hurt. But what we need is here. Not here for the
plundering, as the gangster-banksters allege. Not here as an edge in
the vicious rivalry for market share or advantage in candidate polling.
Not here as the languishing daydreamers and fraudulent peddlers
presume. The big print giveth; the small print taketh away.
What we need is here. But it cannot be managed for interest income.
Hope is not the reprieve of legal protection during bankruptcy
proceedings. It is not a lottery ticket; not an escape clause or get-out
of-jail-free card. It is not subject to copyright or any exclusive
contract. It is not a tribal totem; not a parochial privilege; not a
What we need is here. But only to those willing to take off their shoes,
risking stone bruises and sharp thorns and the fire that illumines but
does not consume. The Comforter (from “above”) does not displace
the discomfort here below but opens space and time to find in each other’s presence the Solace needed to carry on, the Courage needed to proceed in spite of peril.
Hope is only provided to people with their backs against the wall, to those at the end of their rope, to the outnumbered, the outgunned, to those about-to-be-overwhelmed. Boldness in prayer
originates from lion dens and whale bellies, jail cells and cancer
diagnoses, and among all who stand empty handed. There is, finally,
no escaping the valley of dry bones. But another Purpose hovers
above that valley, and its bones boast of the resinewing Promise to
come. Gold-encrusted souls have little capacity for imagining any
future for any but themselves and their enablers.
We are in a world of hurt. But what we need is here. Its appearance,
amid dark tidings and threats surrounding, is disclosed to the stilled
of heart, those of unclenched fist, of unshod feet, to all refusing to
bend the knee to greed’s expedience, to rage’s craving, to bounty
hunters’ ransom, and the devil’s own bargain. And even less to the
bystander, fearful of soul-stain (the perfect cover for the timid of
heart), to those who look away and choose not to see. The sin of
looking away may be the worst, they being numbered among the tepid.
What we need is here. Though it rarely makes a grand entrance or is
announced by the marquee’s bright lights, without the accompaniment
of press agents or celebrity endorsement. More often it emerges in out
of the way places, among no-name people, in sullied circumstances and
at unexpected, inopportune moments. Its unveiling is often frightening;
its demand, impractical; its promise, preposterous. Children, and those
with nothing left to lose, see it first. Others join as their eyes adjust to the
dark pall that envelops the land of the living. It is here, in gloom’s shadow,
that we encounter the Beloved and the promise of “treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45:3). As need be, go dark.
What we need is here, summoned by the afflicted cry: the hand
extended, the welted skin sheltered, the bread shared, the welcome
spoken, the hospitality proffered; the justice upheld, the resistance
mounted, the old stories told new. Not to mention the body-broken, blood-shed acts of interceding bodies jump-started by intercessory prayer. These acts conspire and, in a time and a manner we know not of, will arise to allay the earth’s trembling and annul its tribulation.
What we need is here—not beyond what’s beyond the clouds.
Heaven’s claim is earth’s repose. From the gestating sod we were
made; from the soul’s fecundity shall issue redemption’s edict. Fear
is a liar. Despair is a dalliance of the self-possessed; resignation, the
privilege of conceit. Remorse will have its say; sorrow will have its
day. But not a minute more ‘fore the joyous morn breaks with a grin
and a newborn’s squeal, marking hurt’s resignation and pain’s
recension. Be assured of this: God is more taken with the agony of
the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven.
What we need is here. Bet your very breath on the confidence that
history is not fated for ruin. Be not appeased: Don’t make nice with
treachery. But be more than opposed: Get busy building communities
of affirmation. Don’t neglect your party clothes. Let doxologies rise
above the clamor. Even as weariness impedes your steps, rejoice!
Take heart. Rest in the storm’s stilled center. Be of good cheer.
Teared eyes shall be dried by the One who shall open every grave.
“Thus says the Sovereign: I am going to open your graves, and I will
bring you back to the land of Promise. I will put my spirit within you,
and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”
# # #
*The mariners in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
The “What we need is here” title comes from a Wendell Berry poem by
that name. The phrase is sung by my congregation as a chant set to the
music of “Celtic Alleluia” by Fintan O'Carroll and Christopher Walker.
Painting at top: "Sitting Shiva" by Emmanuel Levy