Mothers, Lost & Found

May 9, 2021

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Rachel, 22 and Rozenah, 6 weeks

Sarah, 22, and Diannah, 7 months

Hagar, 39, and Augustus, 4; Mary, 2

Christeen, 37 and Diana, 9, Dorcus, 1

I say these names of some of the Lost Souls of 1818 – some stolen from their home and families; some deceived by false promises of money and indentured service, not slavery and sold into the Deep South by a corrupt Middlesex County judge – Jacob Van Wickle, who lived in East Brunswick, home of our congregation.

Claussie, 22, and Hercules, 2

Lidia Ann, 22 and Harriet Jane, 3

Nancy and her son, Joseph, 2 days old when brought before the judge, 10 days old when place on the boat out of Perth Amboy

Jane, 25, and John, 4

These are the mothers who sacrificed their own freedom and would not be separated from their children when the judge took the children’s cries as consent to be sent far away.

Juda, 26, and Samuel, 2

Phillis, 25, and Charles, 1

Silvey, 30, and Jacob, 18 months

There were 137 Lost Souls, sent by boat out of Perth Amboy down to the port of New Orleans.  Likely there were more lost mothers than the names I have just spoken.  These are the ones we know went with their children.  No doubt there were more lost mothers. Lost fathers, too.  Lost being the wrong word: stolen.

I tell you the story of the Lost Souls every so often because this congregation has chosen, upon hearing this horrendous history in September, 2017, known for centuries, but often whitewashed into erasure, to become one of its stewards. With our institutional support, and in partnership with two local Black community groups, the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project was launched.

In this era of racial reckoning, of demanding a true justice system, rather than one rooted in slavery and white supremacy; in this era of tearing down statues to that history and choosing new monuments and more accurate narratives, the Lost Souls Project is intent on building a memorial that commemorates the Lost Souls; is committed to building it with leadership and perspectives of Black folks at the center.

I invite every congregant to the 4th annual Recitation of Names – held each May, when we solemnly recite the names of those stolen away.  Some of you who have attended past Recitations know how powerful this event is. Feel free to speak to your experience in the chat. 

This year, we are unveiling a bronze plaque marking the home of the future memorial. The Recitation is on Sunday, May 23 at 4pm. You can attend in-person at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center or you can attend the livestream online. We are one of the few houses of worship taking part in the Inaugural Annual Faith Offering and will be recognized as such. It would be thrilling to have a quarter of the congregation ~ or more! ~ show up in some way.

***

Last Sunday, our congregation sponsored the third annual MLK@TUS. We had a strong turn-out, which was a great feeling!  Thank you to all who brought it into being, most especially Edie Grauer and Patrick Connelly.

For the third time, we partnered with the Meta Theatre Company, a local multi-racial social justice theater company. As they introduced members of their troop, they included those currently behind bars.  It was a powerful moment, one that nearly-almost erased the institutional barriers and brought those three women into the space where we were re-imagining policing together.

What does it mean to listen to the Mother’s Day Proclamation, written 151 years ago and to claim it as part of our history because its author was Unitarian? What does it look like to apply it to our modern circumstance?  I think of this line in it:

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,…

I think of the Mothers of the Movement – I preached about them last year.  Black mothers, reluctant prophets, whose children have been murdered, either by police or vigilantes. The Mothers of the Movement travel around the country and educate the community about their experience of the injustice system.

I think of the mother of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of Sandra Bland, of Daunte Wright. Even the ancestor-mother of George Floyd, to whom he cried out as he was publicly murdered last May.

Nafeesah Goldsmith, lead organizer, Ain’t I a Woman? Mother’s Day vigil organized by NJ Prison Justice Watch

I think of how I spent yesterday in Clinton, New Jersey, invited by a community activist to join with her and others who have begun vigils outside the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and held the one yesterday in honor of Mother’s Day and all the mothers who are spending it inside, incarcerated.  I think of the words of her invitation arriving in my email inbox:

I come to you Sisters as your sister in need of your strength and support….At this time, we are embarking upon unprecedented opportunities to build and destroy systems that constantly control, and oppress us and our people. We must seize the day! As Mother’s day is approaching it is difficult for me to celebrate when we have mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives, grandmothers, cousins, friends, WOMEN being tortured behind prison gates. 

Cookie Rivera, lead organizer of Ain’t I a Woman: Mother’s Day Vigil outside the Edna Mahan women’s prison

If I am to honor our ancestor Julia Ward Howe and bear the legacy we so proudly proclaim with the Mother’s Day Proclamation, I could not say no. Not given that at least 20 women have come forward about sexual abuse while incarcerated there. Not given claims of severe beatings this past January that has led to at least 8 officers being charged

When she said torture, she meant it.

There is little integrity in saying words on a Sunday while declining to bring my body to bewail not the dead, or those whose freedom has been taken in a system we know to be steeped in systemic racism.

I asked Charlene Walker, the Executive Director of Faith in New Jersey and a UU herself, one of the organizers of yesterday’s vigil what action our congregation could take to make Mother’s Day responsive to the mothers incarcerated at Edna Mahan.  She said to call your state legislators to ensure that the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act is being fully implemented.

This Act makes it easier for incarcerated parents to keep in touch with their family members and specifically improve prison conditions for incarcerated pregnant women. It also ensures inspection of facilities for abuse, neglect, and other violations. If truly implemented we hope the women of Edna Mahan would not be facing the abuse they have been subjected to inside.

***

What is our place ~ as a congregation ~ in the national racial reckoning that has been happening this past year since George Floyd was murdered? this past nearly decade since the murder of Trayvon Martin (yes, next February marks one full decade)? And with his murder, the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement? A movement, which calls us all to collective liberation, not the freedom of one at the cost of another. 

What is my place?  What is your place? What is our place?

As a congregation, we are growing our involvement in the justice side of racial reckoning:

  • a single anti-racism book group that has blossomed into two;
  • our third year in a row sponsoring MLK@TUS;
  • two community events exploring how to reimagine policing;
  • our involvement with the Lost Souls Project;
  • intentional changes to sources and topics for our Sundays together.

Yet much of this is happening in silos. What if we were to cultivate synergy? What if we were to bring intentionality to these efforts? What if we were to find our place in Unitarian Universalism’s engagement with racial reckoning, which has growing numbers of congregations studying and adopting the 8th principle, as well as implementing recommendations from the report by the Commission on Institutional Change, as well as exploring other timely topics like the alternatives to traditional policing.

At the end of this month, on the 30th, I will be preaching on reparations. The following Sunday, I will be preaching on the 8th Principle Project, as more and more congregations are voting to adopt it, the language of which says this:

“journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

There is great potential for us to unleash if we meet and vision the possibilities together!

***

This morning, I have preached about lost mothers.  Mothers lost to the abominable business of a local slave ring.  Mothers lost through incarceration.  I have prayed about lost mothers – parents choosing not to have children given the outlook of the climate crisis and all the mothers lost during the pandemic, no matter if our love for them was simple and strong or complicate and jagged.

They are not the only ones lost. They are not the only ones in need of being found. We are all some measure of lost.  We are in need of some measure of being found. We do this not by focusing on our personal salvation but by following our Universalist theology points us to collective liberation: that none of us are free until all of us are free; none of us are found until none of us is lost.

May it be so. Amen.

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V’ahavta by Aurora Levins Morales – video interpretation

The pandemic has brought to me is learning how to edit videos and create worshipful art in this way. Here is one of them. The powerful, mind-blowing, heart-breaking, heart-making poem, V’ahavta, by the powerful, down-to-earth, radical Aurora Levins Morales. Support her powerful self through Patreon or as she describes on her web site.

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Five Senses Meditation

What is your ground?  What is your horizon?

Your ground is that place outside yourself and that space inside yourself to where you return to ground yourself, to calm yourself, to collect yourself.  Once we ground ourselves, it is easier for us to find our horizon – that place we aim to for, the head and heart space we aim for.

I want to offer you the gift of this meditation that can be a quick way to ground yourself in the present moment.

Settle yourself wherever you are.  Find a comfortable posture, whatever that means to you right now.  Standing. Sitting.  Laying down.  Arms at your side or in your lap or holding each other, holding you.  On your heart reminding yourself, ‘oh, honey’ if you need that reminder.  Who doesn’t need that reminder at some point in the day.  Oh, honey.

This is called a five senses meditation, so you keep your eyes open.   We are going to start to ground ourselves by first looking around the physical space where we are and noticing five things that bring us joy or pleasure.  Large or small, near or further away.  As your eyes land on one of these five objects, count it out loud.  One.  Two. Three. Four. Five.

Next, I invite you to touch four things, there in the space where you are.  It’s okay to get up to touch a thing if it’s not within reach.  But it’s important to actually touch it – with hand, foot, elbow, eyebrow, you choose.  But touch it and as you do, count aloud. One.  Two. Three. Four.

Our third sense is sound. Wherever you are – if you stayed in place, or got up and came back, or are somewhere else than where you started – notice sounds that you are hearing.  My voice might be number one.  Notice two other sounds.  You can name those outloud and count them, also.  One. Two. Three.

What are two things that you can smell in this moment?  One. Two.  Count them as you name them and notice the odor.

And finally, is there something in your space that you can safely taste.  Perhaps it is water nearby. Or a book page.  Your fingertip.  Experience one taste.

I hope that this exercise has helped you to a grounded ~ or more grounded ~ space.  If it didn’t work for you, that’s okay.  If you want to give it another try some other time, that’s good.  Or you can let it go. 

For now, let us breathe together.  I invite you, if you are so moved, to join me in using your hands near the camera to move with the inward and outward breath, creating a collective visual hand symphony of breath.

And now that we have done this a few times, and a few more on top of that, let us spend the next shared moments in silence, to see what horizons present themselves to you.

[silence]

[chime]

** there are many versions of this out in the world; I do not know the origins of this meditation but am thankful for it to exist

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Inaugural Poem Mash Up

In honor of this presidential inauguration, I created this video interpretation, a mash-up of five of the six occasional poems created for the inauguration of U.S. president. Deep gratitude to my colleagues whose embodied delivery of these combined excerpts that come together in unified beauty.

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There Are More of Us Than There Are of Them (sermon)

There are more of us than there are of them.

There are more of us walking with the wind.

In November 2019, I raised to you these prayerful words from Sikh community activitist and author, Valerie Kaur

What if this darkness

is not the darkness of the tomb,

but the darkness of the womb?

For several hours on the 6th of January, it felt like a band of insurrectionists were attempting to put the lid on the coffin of democracy – the darkness of the tomb, not the darkness of the womb. 

With curbing of that event – I am not yet sure we can call it a failure, despite the success of certifying the outcome of the presidential election, for so much of the rot within our system was (once again, if we are willing to look) laid bare by their actions – the glaring disparity in how law enforcement treated these white terrorists – taking selfies with them? – and how Black Lives Matters protestors have been treated in the very same location.  Exposing the rot of white elected officials giving a white power salute and a sitting president telling these seditionists that he loves them.

On the Sunday before the presidential election, you might remember, I preached to you about possible scenarios. One was Biden winning and Trump refusing to leave. 

Part of the scenario included authoritarian-leaning elements using this to their benefit and the presence of violence from the far right.

I said then we must be prepared for chaos. 

Some are calling them terrorists or even white supremacist terrorists. There are questions whether to call it a coup, or an attempted coup, or some other nomenclature. Whatever you choose, please do not give them the label of protestor, that is so so wrong.

Though these rioters were removed from the Capitol building, and the election certified, I believe we must continue to be alert to possible authoritarian chaos.

In that sermon on the Sunday before the election, I worried aloud with you that some of you – not all, I know – might find my words hyperbolic. I said

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that have to eat crow and apologize to each and every one of you for falsely raising your fears. 

And while there have been areas of concern – baseless lawsuits; and elected officials teetering very close to sedition,and possibly over the edge; and last week the head of the Proud Boys was arrested for vandalizing Black churches in Washington DC.

Still, if you wanted to turn away and not see the public, visible, in-our-faces planning by the far right, you could.  It’s a powerful force persuading us to not see the dangers.

I did. I have to acknowledge that. Not completely, but I let the relative quiet and the demands of my own life keep my attention, narrow my vision. 

So much so, I had been teaching myself how to make a rice crispies treat in the shape of a crow, to eat as part of my last sermon before going on sabbatical.  I thought I should make good on my word and eat crow, because I had been lulled into thinking there wouldn’t be violence; that five people would not be dead after the capitol building was violently trespassed.

In September, Ibram X. Kendhi published in The Atlantic of the dangers of denial. 

I fear that this is how many Americans are thinking right now: Routine surgery— the defeat of Donald Trump at the polls— will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police departments, at schools, at housing. Are Americans now acknowledging racism, but telling themselves the problem is contained?

Denial is both a psychological defense mechanism and the foundation for wider dysfunction, but it is not part of a healthy spiritual or ethical system.  Yes, part of the human experience, yet an examined life includes a regular practice of illuminating and disarming it.

Our task now – as spiritual people, as ethical people – is to pay attention to how our denial might keep us from seeing the risks and the danger, might keep us from being – as I preached this past August – a stakeholder who defends democracy, rather than just sinking back into our comfortable couches and lives of relative privilege, assuming others will do this work.

We must be wary not only of gun-toting, pelt-clad Viking-wannabes, but also any draconian reactions that might swoop in under the guise of protecting democracy that actually work to undermine it.

You might remember Fiona Hill from the impeachment proceedings.  She had worked in the Trump Administration on the National Security Council as the top Russia advisor. She was one of the people who had been for weeks predicting violence on January 6th.

Ms. Hill spoke in a recent interview, describing Wednesday’s events as part of a long “self coup,” operating in plain sight over a longer time frame, that it was one of multiple “stress tests” to our democratic institutions.

I understand that term – stress tests – as parallel to the concept of “grooming” — what abusers do when they are picking their victims – testing if will they their hair be touched even without permission; will THEY apologize for things the abuser does. If they will turn away; if they will overlook it; if they will say let’s move on.

If Wednesday was an act of grooming by authoritarian forces – and there have been others – such as Trump using the military to clear the crowds so he could have his photo opp with that Bible in hand, that was a stress test (one the military failed, but then came to understand the risks and decided not to do it again) an act of checking if he could count on the military to quell peaceful protesters – then how we respond now and in the days, weeks, months, years going forward is crucial.

I know we are looking forward to celebrating a peaceful inauguration.  And we should. We should eat cake or light sparklers or call our dear friends and laugh and cry and feel relief. 

Just like – and it feels like a thousand days ago – many of you spent Wednesday morning joyful at the results in Georgia: a Jewish Senator, son of immigrants and a Black Senator – the first in that state’s history – a pastor, a Christian who supports LGBTQ+ communities, elected.

Yes, let us celebrate these, and the growing arrests of who fomented insurrection, for they should be held to account.  This is part of how we make real our imaginings of Beloved Community. 

And…

… and those white supremacists who have been flexing their muscles and feeling their oats: they are not going to stop just because their president is out of office. It’s far too complex for that.  I mean, look – leaders of the Proud Boys white nationalist organization include men of color!  Talk about complex!  Proud Boys is a thoroughly misogynist group, yet white women take full part. Our country is too fertile of ground for this complex, confounding version of dominance and white supremacy culture.

We ALL are responsible for what happens next. 

Good thing there are more of us than there are of them.

(Be sure to listen to the song by The Nields, Tyrants Always Fall, linked at the beginning of this post. That is the source of this sermon’s refrain.)

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We’ll Muddle Through Somehow: Christmas 2020 (sermon)

December 24, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Timothy Egan published an opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago, comparing the next three pandemic months to the 1805 winter that Lewis and Clark, and their crew, spent at World’s End (what is now Astoria, Oregon) where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean.   He referenced observations from Dr. Fauci’ and Dr. Redfield Centers for Disease Control, wherein Dr. Fauci called this month “a surge upon a surge” and Dr. Redfield said that the coming season had the potential to be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”  I’m going to add – at least in living memory.


Frankly, the description of World’s End in that early 19th century winter – only a dozen days without rain – was grim, though no deaths were reported.  Grim, in a different way, different than this pandemic. But still illuminating and offering up its lessons.

Grim.  Certainly seems like the right word for this pandemic. How many lives have been lost?  Here, in the U.S. nearly three and a quarter thousand.  Here, on the planet:  nearly one and three quarters million dead. Those are just statistics – for some of you, those numbers have the name of a loved one, a precious loss during a difficult year that is not finished with us yet.

So, what do either grim history or grim present circumstance have to do with a little old lady lonely in her weather-tight home, knitting warm mittens for school children?   I will answer that question, but want to bring into the mix one more thing: the Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  You know it that song, right?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight

It turns out that the lyrics most of us know, the ones that have become the norm, are much more upbeat than the original ones.  In fact, Sinatra, upon hearing the original lyrics, basically said to lighten it up if he was going to include it in the Christmas album he was making.  So now, thanks to Old Blue Eyes, we have:

…hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Written during World War II, the original lyrics, while wishing a merry little Christmas, also stated blatantly, melancholically

It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past

Not exactly a catchy tune for a Hollywood hit film.  Judy Garland didn’t want to sing such morbid lyrics. In the end, it was changed for “Meet Me In St Louis” in which she was starring. 

There’s a line that I love from the original.  It’s the one that Sinatra wanted out, the one that was replaced by hanging a star on the highest bough:

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

That’s us. 

That’s us now. 

That’s this Christmas, with its disappointments and distances.   

That’s this year, with its losses of life and livelihoods, purpose and stamina.

That’s us staring down the long tunnel of pandemic in winter when we think we know what it is to live in pandemic times, but now have to learn what it is to do it in winter.

We’ll muddle through relying on each other – not just reaching out and providing support, but also finding our way to receiving it as well.

We’ll muddle through with mutual aid and showing up on Zoom even though we would much rather be together.

We’ll muddle through by making or buying meals for those who are sick; by knitting or purchasing warm items for those who need them; by delivering Christmas presents to families living on the edge, having been pushed there by hostile immigration policies and a xenophobic federal government.

We’ll be like Old Sarah from the story – noticing when there is a need; doing what we can with the skills and capacities we have; giving when we can whether we know the recipient well or at all.  That’s what we have done, in a nearly literal way, by partnering with Elijah’s Promise to create our “Mitten Tree.”  Gratitude to those of you who have donated warm items – not just mittens, but also scarves, hats, gloves – as part of this holiday season.

Maybe we won’t be exactly like Old Sarah but will be like the unnamed source of new yarn – making sure that good continues in the world, even if we aren’t the direct source of it, even if we remain anonymous.  That’s what we do with our weekly Be The Change donations.  That’s what you do when you donate to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund.

Maybe…we’ll be like Old Sarah, knitting our little corner of the interdependent web of all existence, making it stronger, building relationships within this congregation and outside of it; noticing and honoring all sentient beings; surrendering to the truth that we cannot make our way alone; that we never make our way alone.

Which brings me to the origin story of this holiday.  Not the Pagan one. Or the secular one.  But the religious one.  The Christmas story. 

Let me remind you of it, through the words of Unitarian Universalist poet minister, Lynn Ungar:

It was all so complicated:

The questionable parentage,

the awkward journey,

the not knowing where you will sleep,

or when the baby will come,

or what his life will look like—

even what the world will be like

when he is grown.

Life is usually that complicated.

It was all so simple:

Keep walking. Stop when you can.

Breathe. Through the pain, breathe.

Hold him. Feed him. Keep him warm.

Cradle his head in the palm of your hand.

These are things we all know.

It was, it is, so complicated

and so simple:

Love what does not belong to you.

Love what will be broken.

Love what mystifies you.

Love what scares you.

Love the aching flesh

no more and no less than

the brilliant star.

Love what will die

and what will be born again

and die again

and be born again

in love.

Whichever story you choose – an origin story or a children’s story; a mid-century Christmas song from a movie or an opinion piece in the Times – whichever story we choose, let us light candles that burn the whole year long. 

Candles for love that does not belong to us and that will be broken, despite all our best efforts.  Candles for what mystifies us and scares us.  Candles for this aching mortal flesh.  Candles for a love that will be born again and will die again and be born again, over and over, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, beyond our surrender, beyond our understanding.

Candles of joy despite all the sadness; candles of hope where despair keeps watch.  Candles of courage for fears ever present and candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.  Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens and candles of love to inspire all our living.

Candles to keep us company as we muddle through somehow.

Amen.

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Keep Going On (sermon)

Thanksgiving is not as we imagined or hoped it would be. This will likely be true for Christmas and New Year’s. So much loss, sacrifice, change.  And still, we keep going on.

Some of us have lost loved ones – some due to covid, others due to our general mortality; some of us fear losing loved ones because they are sick, or vulnerable, or both.  It is almost too much to bear.  And still, we keep going on.

There are layers of pandemic pain, of pandemic fatigue – grief, rage, loss, numbness, fragility, edginess. It comes in different shapes and sizes.  And still, we keep going on.

Perhaps you remember Rev. Megan Visser, who preached at TUS in July.  She spoke on Ross Gay’s Book of Delights?  Some of you have shared with me YOUR delight at what she had to share when she led worship that day. Like me, she found delight and wisdom in the Bengsons’ Keep Going song. She used it to explore aspects of pandemic fatigue. I’d like to share her ideas with you.  They come in the form of an ailment with an accompanying remedy.

Number one. “This is Getting Old” – I have said this.  Felt it. Have you? If so, can I get a Zoom amen?  As the song says, they thought they were going to be at Sean’s parents’ house for ten days.  “What did we know?”  Some of us speculated that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Yet, our intellect can forecast, but the experience of nearly anything, is something altogether different. 

We can’t let our response to “this is getting old” be “I’m done with not seeing and hugging my people.” The growing positivity rates tell us: this virus is nowhere near done with us, so we cannot yet be done with it (or with social distancing measures).

According to Rev. Megan, the remedy is finding small pleasures and perceiving genius in our midst, genius that has also been our response to the pandemic.  Is there someone who can teach you something new over the phone or outdoors six feet apart? Go ahead: ask them.  Find ways to make this getting old into something new and energizing.

Number two. Anger. Rage. Mad, edgy, grouchy. Maybe it’s at the governmental response, or the virus, or a particular person.  There’s much to be mad about – the loss of weddings, graduations, deaths, births, holiday celebrations.  Our anger can surprise us, when we unexpectedly lash out, it can hurt others.

Rather than willing away our anger, our turning ourselves away from it, the remedy is that we bear witness to it.  Find ways to express it, to vent it, to befriend it, and to let it move through us, leaving the possibility of relief.  Maybe it’s through scribble journaling, screaming into a pillow, casting a spell or taking part in a ritual.  I’m a big fan of someone listening without trying to fix. 

And smashing crockery.

Number three. Haven’t we all sacrificed too much already? I’m not talking about dining at restaurants or going to the gym.  Lost jobs. Lost security. Not being able to hug those we love.  Not being able to sing together.  Losing our sense of purpose.

We hear Abigail sing the remedy in the song: “What about joy? O boy!”  She wonders and wishes that her joy could pollinate your joy, working it out as she goes along.  “There is no rulebook for joy,” says Rev. Megan.  Yet me must find a way, returning over and over as much as we can, to bring it forth – for ourselves, for each other, for the world.

created by Rev. Megan Ruth Visser at UU Somatics

So three ailments and three remedies:

What feels old requires of us to find something new.

What surfaces anger requires of us to give space and to witness that anger.

And when we feel the burden of all our sacrifices, we must find our way to joy.

While we might want to ask, “When is it going to be over?” we must train ourselves, gently, lovingly, perhaps with our hand on our heart and “oh, honey” in our tone of voice, to ask a different question: “How do we keep adapting?”

That is the rightful question to ask when we want to figure out how to keep going on.

a BRILLIANT dance form of an abbreviated version of the song. Above are Sarah Goeke and Travis Stanton-Marrero. Here they are, without evening knowing it, practicing two of Rev. Megan’s remedies: make something new out of something old AND be joy!

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“Oh, Honey” Healing Practice

I want to invite you into a healing practice I’m callig the “Oh, Honey” practice, inspired by the poem, “Self Compassion” by James Crews.  I invite you, as I am speaking, to bring your attention to your body and its various sensations.  If you feel a bit shy about doing this in front of all these other screens, turn off your camera.

You can keep your eyes open or you can close them.  Either way, I encourage you to notice sensations in your body. 

Notice where your body ends and the chair or couch or floor begins. Notice where your body begins and your clothes end. 

Notice the movement of your abdomen and chest when you breathe. 

Notice if there are any places of tightness, of contraction, of tingling, of heaviness.

For this practice, I invite you to find that part of your body that may be longing for gentle attention, where constriction indicates a stuckness or hurt or pain.  I invite you to place the palm of your hand, or both hands, on that part of you; or place your one hand, or two, on that part of your chest where they feel connected to your heart.

Take a comfortable breath, hold it in a little longer than usual, then exhale. This is not a competition with others or yourself. Breath in, hold, then breathe out.  And once again. 

Let come to the surface, moving through the layers of your body and being, anything that accepts the invitation your gentle, caring hands offer. 

Say to yourself, aloud if you can: oh, honey. 

Oh, honey.

Say it like you are saying it to the love of your life, with all the concern and truth you have within you. Then say it like you are saying it to yourself.

Oh, honey.

Moving past any awkwardness, or snickering like in the poem. Moving past the discomfort of being the center of our own attention. Moving past the fear of what might surface, knowing that you will greet it all with a loving, a compassionate, a fierce, “Oh, honey.”

A next step, to go just a bit deeper: I invite you to extend the “oh,” drawing out the sounds and connecting with the vibration that rises from the elongation.

Ohhhhhhhh.

You can lengthen the “h” in honey as well, bringing about that vibration again, if it feels good to you, only if it feels good to you.

Ohhhhhhhh  Hhhhhhhoney.

Again, only if it feels soothing, draw out those sounds.  If it activates a negative response, if it doesn’t feel right, however you understand that, no worries, just stop the sound, and keep the gentle hand there, offering yourself compassion.

The elongated sound brings about a vibration that activates our vagus nerve, also called the soul nerve by therapist Resmaa Menakem, or the wandering nerve, because it spreads out throughout the whole body.  The vagus nerve is one way to engage our nervous system, the part of the body that retains body sensation memories and feeling memories, that sends out signals of how to respond in a crisis: fight, freeze, flight, or fawn.  For some of us a 5th f is feed – eating our emotions into “behaving” themselves.

Engaging the soul nerve ~ the vagus ~ can help us move pain or self disgust or rage or cyncism or resignation — the list is long – or shame, that’s a big one — through and help it not get stuck in the body. 

We who prize the intellect, perhaps a little too much, our thinking our way out will not work, not in the long run. It can help in the moment, but if that is our only tool of healing it is not sufficient.  

Oh, honey.

Let’s keep our hands there, on our heart, or on that part of our body with heavy, or tight, or painful sensation, cooing at it, cooing at ourselves, for just a few more moments until the chime rings and brings this practice to an end for now.

[chime]

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Choose Democracy

November 1, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G Johnston

Choose democracy. 

That’s the title of this service.  I want to be clear from the outset, I am not advocating a particular vote for a particular candidate.  I cannot do that and will not do that. 

Despite a general assumption about this congregation, we do not all vote lockstep.  Even in presidential elections.  Even in this presidential election.

I am, however, advocating that all of us choose democracy, even defend it, and certainly, as our Time For All Ages story suggests, to protect it.

While this country has a riddled history of attempts and successes at disenfranchising eligible voters – usually voters of color – we have seen in recent years the expansion of such efforts in brazen and anti-democratic ways.  What is new – definitely in our lifetimes, if not longer – is that we have a sitting president who has not committed himself to a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election. Or, frankly, if he wins. 

This, coupled with his mixed messages that leave him allied with white nationalism, makes choosing democracy both harder, and all that more crucial.

This seems like a good time to remind you that Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle reads as follows

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

As I wrote in a memo to the Board of Trustees earlier this week, there are (at least) five possible scenarios that will substantially impact the nation in general and/or this congregation in particular. It would be beneficial if we were to anticipate them, not alone in our personal or family silos, ruminating and spinning ourselves into a frenzy, but together, so that we can imagine a response that is informed by our Unitarian Universalist principles. 

  • No clear outcome for an extended period of time.  We should count on this.  As I preached back in August, we can no longer think of it as Election Day.  We do not have a national election so much as fifty plus state-based elections and during covid times, that means an extended election season.
  • The sustained presence of irregularities.  I am not speaking here of voter fraud, which has been found to have no substantial basis and acts as a dog whistle to authoritarian-leaning elements. Unlawful and unethical-yet-deemed-legal barriers to all cast votes being counted.
  • Biden wins, yet Trump refuses to leave office.  How likely is this?  It depends on where you get your news and whose analysis you trust.  Yet, as I said before, this is the first president – ever? In our lifetimes – who has not committed to a peaceful transition.  If that is bluster, it still instills fear in the nation, which those authoritarian-leaning elements are using to their benefit. There have already been credible threats of violence from the far right.
  • Biden wins, Trump concedes, yet in the process of transition, Trump guts the integrity of the governmental system.  I do not know how likely it is that Biden will win. Yet a Biden win does not mean the country is out of the wilderness.  There is the possibility of the current president, on his way out, will wreak havoc on protections for the most vulnerable. There has been conjecture that self-interest will lead to raiding public resources for his personal benefit.  And not to go on too long here, but frankly, white supremacy culture and hetero-patriarchy do not go away regardless of who wins the presidential election.  And the Supreme Court is what it has recently become, making decisions that will change the landscape of access to full reproductive health, full marriage equality, full enfranchisement, and much more.
  • Trump wins, resulting in grief and fear for most in this congregation. We will need each other then. We will need to take care of each other, gently, fiercely. And take care of those who will be at ever higher risk.  And we shall.  We are willing.

This service contains music and poetry to validate your alarm and to give you, at least for this moment in time, a chance to imagine the possibility of a collective choosing of democracy.  Content that emboldens each of us to find that part of ourselves that is willing.  Content that affirms that in the end, even if that end takes its time in coming, all fascists are bound to lose.  Content that reminds us that alone, we are not enough, but as we join together, so much more is possible:

How can you stop them?
Alone you can fight, you can refuse.
You can take whatever revenge you can
But they roll right over you.
But two people fighting back to back
can cut through a mob
a snake-dancing fire
can break a cordon,
termites can bring down a mansion

Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music. (Marge Piercy, The Low Road, excerpt)

It makes me want to cry, to scream, to hide, to escape into magical thinking, but I have to say to you because I love you: we must be prepared for chaos this week and in the weeks to come.  Just in case.

I hope that I am wrong.  I hope that have to eat crow and apologize to each and every one of you for falsely raising your fears. 

Have your loved ones’ phone numbers in your phone AND written down.  Reach out to the people assigned to your TUS Care Ring

in the spring – even if you don’t know them or know them well. This builds layers of connection and protection.  Share your phone numbers with each other. Stay connected.  The surest form of security is not having access to law enforcement; it is having living connections and deepening relationships and engaging in mutual aid – with those near us (neighbors) and those near us in heart (chosen family, family of origin, beloved friends).  Check in on people who you know lead isolated lives. 

Do the things that make you feel strong – look at the list I sent out in my monthly column. Pay attention as much as you can without risking your sanity. As well as take intermittent media Sabbaths, so you can stay grounded.  Put my cell phone number in your phone if it is not already there (it is in the directory).

In the coming week, there are ways to come together locally and online.  On Election Day itself, there is an online space for UUs across the nation, with spiritual practices every fifteen minutes, from 10am to 10pm. This will be on Zoom and on Facebook Live. 

From 9 – midnight, Community Church of New York is hosting a similar thing – go to their web site to access. 

On Thursday evening, at 8pm, the UUA – the “Mothership” for want of a better term – will be hosting a national vigil online, just as they did after the George Floyd murder.  Information on how to access all of these is going out in an email this afternoon or evening and can be found on our Facebook page.  While I would love to help you find these things, please don’t email or Facebook me to find it but search your email (or spam) for this information.

Also in that email is information about local outdoor, socially-distanced gatherings of which I am aware, one of which I have helped organize and we are co-sponsoring.  On Wednesday – around 4 o’clock – people are gathering in Metuchen and in Highland Park to show our support for choosing democracy.  The message: Every Vote Counts.  Count Every Vote.

This morning’s anthem– All You Fascists Bound to Lose – is an old Woody Guthrie song, updated by the fabulous Resistance Revival Choir. 

It’s not just a song.  There is social science there, as I have preached on before.  Erica Chenowith and Maria Stefan, in their research covering the whole of the 20th century and the first six years of this one, found that campaigns of non-violent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.  They have found that nonviolent resistance presents fewer obstacles to high levels of participations of people like us, which contributes to enhanced resilience and a greater probability of tactical innovation. 

They have found that successful nonviolent resistance movements usher in more durable and internally peaceful democracies. 

Fascists bound to lose, when we come together, nonviolently, strategically, resiliently.

We can be prepared for the chaos that may well come in the days and weeks of this strange, stressful election season. 

We can prepare to respond nonviolently to irregularities and upsurges of violence, or support those who do with whatever resources we have: our financial resources, our creativity, our ability to make food, to honk our horn to show support, to make sure that those who are taking risks for our democracy know that they are not alone.  Let us be a people so willing.

May it be so. Amen.


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Maps Don’t Know Everything

on the occasion of the ordination of Gregory Jones

October 18, 2020

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

In addition to Ruth Feldman’s “Detour,” I offer two brief quotes. First, from the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber:

The second is from Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, current U.S. Poet Laureate. She wrote it in the introduction to her book, How We Became Human:

A neuroscientist has found that navigating our way without using a GPS increases that part of our brain that just might help offset cognitive impairments later in life.

If we hold as true the fractal nature of reality, then we must wonder – and begin to imagine into being – that our acts of navigating without maps, electronic or otherwise; that our actions of attending to so-called wrong turns; could be journeys filled with Buber’s secret destinations, and Harjo’s sacred all-ness.

Before going much further, I must confess: I do worry that Harjo’s certainty is misplaced, that it might be a form of spiritual by-passing, for as much as there are happy endings, there are also rotten ones.  Some get lost along the way, unintended detours riddled with ruts so deep we cannot climb out of them. Beloveds who cannot be retrieved or returned or resurrected,except in the most metaphorical of ways. I say a blessing over the memory of those gone from us, some stolen, some just gone too soon.

I say just a bare few of their names:

Breonna Taylor

Jonathan Price

Tony McDade

Heather Heyer

Elandria Williams

And alongside that worry about spiritual bypassing, alongside grief and rage, I hold also…what?

Possibility.

Potential. 

Not for progress – we left that behind in the 20th century.  But for emergence, for co-creation, for not only listening to the world we dream of, but dreaming it into being, without a map to show the way.

The secular American social philosopher, Rebecca Solnit, and the Christian public theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, each suggest that we should practice getting lost. On purpose. And if not choosing to, then assenting once it happens.  Taylor reminds us that if we do not start, now, choosing fairly low-risk ways of being lost, how will we handle it when “life’s big winds” knock us off course?  She reminds us that the skills needed for literal lostness are the ones we need for other forms:  managing our panic; marshaling our resources; looking around to see where we are; openness to the offerings of this unexpected development.[i]  

Unitarian Universalism is lost.  Some might call it trying to redefine ourselves. Others that we are rooting our authentic selves in the 21st century.  It’s both right and wrong, what some our Christian detractors have claimed from the start ~ that we are one dangerous, gigantic, god-killing wrong turn.

Instead, I believe that we have taken a detour. Not just a semantic shift, but a true re-orientation.  Some of the wisest of us, having noticed that we were lost/are lost, instead of immediately trying to find our way back, are offering to find our way…our way forward?

Maybe. Perhaps just our next way. And then the next.

Potawatomi biologist/writer/poet Robin Wall Kimmerer describes Abrahamic religions, with their commandments detailing right and wrong, as maps. [ii]   What she was taught of indigenous spirituality is more like a compass: pointing in a direction, and then you just have to find your way. 

Unitarian Universalism, even with our sixth source of

Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

does not resemble authentic indigenous spirituality. Still, there is something powerful within Unitarian Universalism and it is worth respectfully borrowing that metaphor: a compass, not a map. 

Comfort with getting lost. 

Agreeing to not rely on GPS, which was, no doubt, programmed by white supremacy culture, anyway.

When Greg first asked me to preach at his ordination, I asked if he had already chosen a reading. 

His first answer was supplanted by an email arriving in my inbox minutes later. Well before we met during his first year at seminary and my last, he had a poem taped to his mirror.  It was the one you heard earlier, “Detour,” by Ruth Feldman. 

Ruth was my Great Aunt, a relative to whom I was fiercely devoted in the final decade before she died, having lived a life filled with tragic, delicious, and drama-filled detours. About whose life – and I do not think that Greg knows this part – I preached my very first sermon, as a lay person, nearly sixteen years ago. 

Greg has told me that he experiences the poem as describing not only his life, but an essential aspect of his ministry: not only a willingness to get lost, but an appreciation for what one finds along the way, particularly as one who is willing, as Greg is, to move back in order “to support the development and leadership of those [traditionally marginalized and silenced] who are [currently] transforming our UU movement by their courage, insight, and energy.” His words.

What is emerging, in this world where maps don’t know everything? And, in fact, might be leading us the wrong way?


What is possible in this world of secret destinations, where all is sacred?

Pleasure activist, community organizer, and all around badass, adrienne maree brown, suggests that

We are creating a world we have never seen. We are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves in war regalia to turn and face us. Because of our ancestors, because of us, and because of the children we are raising,there will be a future without police and prisons. Yes. There will be a future without rape. Without harassment, and constant fear, and childhood sexual assault. A future without war, hunger, violence. With abundance. Where gender is a joyful spectrum. Where my nephew would not be bullied for his brilliant differentness. Where each of our bodies is treated like sacred ground, whether we have insurance or not.[iii]

This is Greg’s work, his ministry, the one he has been already conducting and the one to which we are ordaining him today.

This is our work: using the compass of Unitarian Universalism to find our collective way, living a life of integrity and liberation; a life in service of a greater good; a life that if not obliterates oppression, then reduces its harm, hopefully mightily. 

In announcing on Facebook on October 4th the death of Unitarian Universalist minister Carl Bretz, his minister (and colleague), Reverend Jake Morrill described Carl as happily welcoming

what he called the “revolutions” among UU clergy in each generation, which he believed necessary to move the faith forward.

Reminds me of Greg – welcoming and celebrating the renewing energies of the revolutions – like the recent report of the Commission on Institutional Change, that keep our Living Tradition alive. Generational revolutions that move the faith forward remind me that Robin Wall Kimmerer says the Original Instructions within her indigenous spirituality call for following them differently “for each of us and … for every era.”

For too damn long, Unitarian Universalist ministers: so much white. Until not that long ago, so much male. And driven by a not-especially-benevolent form of exceptionalism. Were told to be great leaders.  In this era, Greg, with your ministry, you are a part of a movement of white, and/or male, and/or cisgender ministers, who recognize that our instructions ~ our compasses ~ are to follow. Our compasses are to make space for those historically and currently pushed to the margins. 

That if we are to lead, it is to do so by showing others with similar identities and social locations how to grow resilience, holy curiosity, and the capacity for celebration, particularly in those who feel that we have taken a wrong turn, role modeling to congregant and colleague alike. No to fragility, defensiveness or sabotage. No to gaslighting and gadflying.

~~~

All is not lost, even for this nation, as our flirtation with authoritarianism has moved well-past a one-night stand into a weaponized and self-destructive affair. 

All is not lost, even as the world continues its rapacious consumption and the waters are rising, the droughts are multiplying, the fires scorching.

So while we may consent to lostness, to losing our way in order to find it, let me say with a confidence that I did not know I have inside me: we are not lost. At least not in the old fashioned way.

We are, I think, on a right path, perhaps even a righteous path, sacredness all around as every wrong turn has the potential to become right; as our journey emerges with its secret destinations; as we cast aside the maps that don’t know everything.

May it be so.  Amen.

Here is the video of the sermon

[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World, 2010

[ii] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass, 2015

[iii] brown, adrienne maree.  Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, 2017

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