In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public

by Kenneth L. Sehested
2009. 89 pages, $15.
(Order from the author at 358 Brevard Rd., Asheville, NC 28806)

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

In the Land of the LivingEach night for the past month or so, I have been going to bed with a prayer book.  I usually read one prayer at a time so I can center my thoughts on one idea, one insight, one close encounter with the Divine.

A prayer may give comfort with beauty when I can pray to the “Weaver of Days and Rest-giving Nights” (p.2). But it’s hard to nod off when I despair of real health-care reform and am nudged by “Brace yourselves! For I am sending you to an impudent and stubborn people……MercyFull Ones, do not hide your scandal-ridden hands or your scorn-scarred hearts” (p.13).

Then I have to chuckle in the midst of a Lenten prayer: “Lent is a time for clearing and cleansing.  Dustballs happen.…In the midst of Fox News’ deceptions, we still give thanks” (p.41). Or the message of Jesus to John (pp.46-47; see it at the bottom of this review).

Those of us who attended the EEWC conference in Charlotte, NC, in 2006 will remember Nancy Hastings Sehested’s impassioned sermon that Sunday morning or the workshop that she and her husband, Ken, led on “Doing Justice and Loving Mercy.”  Ken, Nancy, and another colleague, Joyce Hollyday, founded the Circle of Mercy church in Asheville, North Carolina. These are Ken’s prayers from their ministry, a moving blend of peace-and-justice politics, echoes of biblical theology, and poetic artistry.

Most of the prayers end with the note, “inspired by” a particular biblical text, often from Hebrew poetry in the psalms or the prophets. I often had to haul out my Bible to look up unfamiliar passages. How many readers know that the prophet Habbakuk calls us to “pound the doors of Heaven” to make God “see wrong-doing and look at trouble”? Or that God replies, “Stop your whining! Pull yourself together….Get yourself a billboard. Set a neon sign in the sky.” Say: “Don’t let your fears get behind the wheel….Resist the madness of market forces….” (pp.20-21).

As the subtitle states, these prayers are both private and public. In the silence of a summer night, I may be touched by, “In darkness and in light,…asleep or awake, there is an Advocate who lingers, who does not forget, who notices every tear and cherishes all laughter. Who is this Advocate, this gracious Father, this guardian Mother, this Presence whose Way is peace, whose Will is justice, whose Weal is shaped in mercy?” (p.4).

But many of these prayers also belong in our public life, challenging “every empire’s rule, every temple’s sway” (p.40). I have just retired from college teaching, but I wish I had had this book earlier to read prayers to my Bible classes. Each professor, teacher, worship leader, and preacher who cares about justice and contemporizing our scriptures could enrich their own tasks by using this book of prayers.

I cannot close without including much of the whimsical, upside down poem “Go tell John,” from Matthew 11:1-6. If you were sitting in prison about to lose your head from speaking truth to power, how would this strike you?

The disciples of John came to Jesus saying,
Dude, what up with this?
John’s in prison and you’re out here lollygagging in the boondocks!
John wants to know when the revolution is getting underway.
Are you the Man-in-Charge or not?!
Jesus said to them,
Go tell John, and Mary, too:
The blind are being hired as wilderness travel guides.
And the lame have signed up for ballroom dancing classes.
Go tell John, and Mary, too:
The lepers strut their stuff on the fashion circuit’s hottest runways.
And the deaf are harmonizing in Carnegie Hall.
Go tell John, and Mary, too:
The dead have kicked off the coffin lid and put obituary writers out of business.
The poor have food in the pantry and gas in the car.…
Blessed are all who see God at work in these things!

——© 2009, Kenneth Sehested

© 2009 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 33 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2009


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.