Shifting the Narrative: Embracing Possibility, Embracing Eve (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick NJ

September 26, 2021

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

Part I

The story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve: abbreviated. God makes Adam from mud and breath. God makes all the creatures and places Adam as their head. God notices Adam is lonely and creates another person who eventually is named Eve ~ or Chava, or Hawwa ~ “mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20).  In-between, God tells Adam to eat anything/everything he wants in the garden. Except from the Tree of Knowledge.

Let me ask you: how many parents do you know who forbid their children from something by placing it in their immediate grasp and then walking away?

To the surprise of no one, they break the rule. First Eve eats a fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Adam is with her when she does this, and when she offers it to him, he eats it. When God learns of this transgression, both Adam and Eve pass the blame: Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. God curses all three and sends them from the garden.

For those who were raised Christian, this story is offered as the explanation for the concept of Original Sin. Yet, this passage pre-dates Jesus by a long while. Before it was a Christian story, it was a Jewish story and there is no concept of Original Sin in Judaism. In fact, at the time of Jesus, there was no concept of Original Sin – it came from a 2nd century Bishop in the new church and was later expanded by others, becoming an entrenched, and quite damaging, piece of dogma.

Whom does that particular interpretation or narrative serve? A particularly patriarchal, hierarchical form of Christianity for one. Whom does it not serve? I would say it serves no women ~ never has, likely never will.

This need not be the only way to understand the story of Eve. This need not be the only narrative.  It is, in fact, not the only narrative. 

In Judaism, there is a long-existing tradition among rabbis to create midrash – stories that fill in gaps, or attempt to smooth contradictions, in scriptural text. Because there are a lot of them. The midrashic tradition is so embedded that sometimes these stories can be confused for actually being in the Bible.

During the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, Jewish feminists claimed the power of midrash, refusing to let it be the sole domain of the mostly male Rabbinate. They developed a splendid tradition of stories to reclaim what was otherwise used against women and against women’s collective inherent worth and dignity.

Judith Plaskow

For instance, Judith Plaskow wrote what became a well-known feminist midrash about Adam’s first partner – and it wasn’t Eve. Before Eve, according to some ancient midrash traditions (written by men), there was Lilith –  not named in Genesis, but read between the lines and into the text. Those ancient midrashim tell us that Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam and fled the Garden. It was her refusal to be subservient and to put up with inequality, that led her to flee, which led to her becoming a demon. Or so the ancient story goes. Judith Plaskow’s midrash of nearly fifty years ago tells of a different Lilith – one who maintains her autonomy and eventually forms a sisterhood of mutual aid with Eve.


***

Whether we believe them or not, whether we take them as fact or myth, creation stories are where we root our collective sense of identity. They provide the foundation for our orientation for the world…at least partially. It is inevitable that we are shaped by them, for their influence is at the collective subconscious level.

In reflecting on the difference between the story of Eve and the story of Skywoman, Potawatami author, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass,

“On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast.

One story leads to the generous embrace of the living world, the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a co-creator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven.

Kimmerer continues

Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. … we can’t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without “re-story-ation.[1]” …But who will tell them?”

Restoration.

Re-story-ation.

Yes, who will tell the story of Eve?  Will we let the clumsy, often malicious interpreters of ancient scripture, the ones over-saturated with patriarchy and drive to dominate, be the arbiters of this widely influential story? What do we lose if we cede that power to those people, deciding that the stories of ancient scripture aren’t worth our time or energy?

I tell you what we get: pervasive abuse of women. So, pervasive, women blame ourselves for nearly everything, forming ourselves into the shape of shame.

We get deep patterns of physical, psychological, and emotional abuse in every culture and tradition.

We get laws like the one in Texas – S.B. 8 – that places a $10,000 bounty on the heads of pregnant women who dare access medical care, levied by men in service to the power of patriarchy.

We get “missing white woman syndrome” where mainstream media pays disproportionate attention to missing white women than to missing Indigenous women and other women of color.

We get any woman-identified body demeaned, subjected to systemic violence and pervasive threat of violence.

We get a world in which a binary sense of masculine and feminine cuts every human in one way or another, silencing parts of us, maiming soul, stunting psyche, sometimes killing us.

What might we gain if we do not cede that power and authority? What if we were to choose the freedom that comes from accepting responsibility for our own destinies, our own trees of knowledge? Kimmerer challenges us with this question:

“How can we translate from the stories at the world’s beginning to this hour so much closer to its end?”

What if we were to reclaim Eve as ancestor and kin, shero and inspiration? Might we lose the false and terrible calm promised to only some of us? Might we be able to emerge from boxes imposed on us, entrapping us?

In the second half of this sermon, I’ll try to tackle that question.

Part II

Instead of Original Sin, how might we understand the story of Eve? How might we understand her decision to eat the fruit as something not sinful, but not even a mistake? Where can we turn to different understanding, empowering interpretations, that help us not wed ourselves to the past, but give us inspiration for now and into the future?

In juicy, meaningful situations like this one, the first place I tend to look is poetry. Poetry long before scripture. Poetry as scripture.  Perhaps this is one of the tell-tale signs that I am a Unitarian Universalist?  Could be.  So, let me share with you these delightful passages from poets who have claimed the story of Eve as their own, remaking it for all of us, an invitation to shift not only the narrative of Eve, but of our own lives.

First, there is our reading today. Titled, “Eve, After,” written by Danusha Laméris, published in 2013.  Let me share with you again the ending:

Foolishness, betrayal,
—call it what you will. What a relief
to feel the weight
fall into her palm. And after,
not to pretend anymore
that the terrible calm
was Paradise.

In that piece, you can hear the echoes of this earlier poem, written by former U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, called, “I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land.”  It ends in this way:

And there was no voice in her head,   

no whispered intelligence lurking   

in the leaves—just an ache that grew   

until she knew she’d already lost everything   

except desire, the red heft of it   

warming her outstretched palm.

Then there is this quick clip of an end to a poem written in 2015 by Ansel Elkins. The title is “Autobiography of Eve.”

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt

to freedom.

And finally, there is this lush, voluptuous piece from Marge Piercy, published in 1998, titled, “Applesauce for Eve:”

You are indeed the mother of invention,
the first scientist. Your name means
life: finite, dynamic, swimming against
the current of time, tasting, testing,
eating knowledge like any other nutrient.
We are all the children of your bright hunger.
We are all products of that first experiment,
for if death was the worm in that apple,
the seeds were freedom 
and the flowering of choice.

When I read this last one, this one from Marge Piercy, I think: yes, this is the Unitarian Universalist Eve: Scientist. Life. Freedom. Hungry with curiosity.

I also look to the feminists (who are also sometimes the poets). In this case, I found such good, provocative stuff among the Jewish feminists.  Not a surprise, really, but a joy and worth noting aloud.  For instance, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, writing just this past summer, believes the story of Eve to be revolutionary.  She says it is so because it is the first

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

“story of breaking free of a partner’s expectations, of choosing to step outside a dynamic that may have been safe, and comfortable, … and following intuition, and the instinct for growth.  Stepping out into the unknown. And even more than that—…this first brave act of free will becomes defining for humanity.  This was the decision to choose understanding over blissful ignorance, engagement with the world and its pain instead of remaining in a comfortable bubble.  This was the decision to learn and grow and face hard truths—even if doing so sometimes came with difficult consequences.” 

Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, suggests something similar: that Eve isn’t tricked into eating the fruit. She chooses it. Both she and Adam choose to live awake and self-aware.  Rev. Lonberg tells us that god doesn’t create suffering as punishment. It just is part of the bargain: awareness of “all that is happening and thinking deeply about it, can be a source of pain.”

Frankly, it is through this awareness and suffering, that we gain the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, a defining aspect of what it means to be human. It raises the question of whether in paradise we could have ever been fully human.

There is so much to be learned from this freedom-seeking, bold Eve who is not interested in terrible calm. As Rabbi Ruttenberg writes

Eve teaches us that we can constantly strive to grow and to learn and to stretch ourselves, and that facing pain may be preferable to eternal avoidance of it.  And that sometimes we can bring the people that we love along with us, if they’re willing to join. 

There is so much to celebrate, rather than condemn, in Eve and her choices.

So again, I ask: whom does that old, malicious narrative serve?

It makes me think about that recent law in Texas, the one that other conservative states are actively trying to pass in their jurisdictions, the one that allows anyone (ANYONE!?!) to sue for $10,000 a woman who seeks the medical care known as abortion more than six weeks after conception (which is often before most women know we are pregnant). Or to sue people who help her – including a taxi driver, or I suppose, the person politely holding a door open on her journey from home to medical office.

There’s that bumper sticker: WWJD – what would Jesus do?  I am wondering WWED – what would Eve do? Or WWLD – what would Lilith do?

I’m quite convinced that Eve would call BS on a law that bars access to necessary medical care for women, which is at least as important, if not more so, than access to the Tree of Knowledge.

I’m pretty sure that Lilith, who was turned into a demon held responsible for the death of thousands of infants, would be angry as all get out about women being demonized for terminating pregnancies and exercising autonomy over their own bodies.

I’d wager a fair sum that both Eve and Lilith, collectively, would support any efforts to help women in Texas (or other states) access full reproductive rights, including access to abortions they deem right and necessary for themselves. This includes any efforts we in this geographically-distant congregation make, for it is good to remember that we are near to an airport hub in a state where access to abortion is relatively protected; where we could perhaps offer refuge, refusing to acknowledge any authority that heinous law in Texas purports.

What did one of our poets, Ansel Elkins, say?

Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.

I leapt

to freedom.

So be it. See to it. Amen.


[1] Concept attributed to Gary Nahban in the original text by Kimmerer

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What Future Are We Preparing For (sermon)

Part I

I have some challenging questions for us, which I pose with love for you, for us, and for this aching world. I cannot promise you hope in this sermon, but as a good modern Universalist, I can promise you love. If this morning is a morning when you just cannot bear a heavy sermon, you are invited to exercise self-care and engage a different spiritual practice.

Which future are you preparing for? Which future are WE preparing for? 

Is it the one you were ostensibly promised, told you would be able to pass onto the next generation? One that looks more or less like your own: cars (but perhaps electric ones), central air (with solar panels, of course), gratifying employment (or chasing it), easy consumption of items from across the globe delivered to your door with the click of a button?

Perhaps in that future the social safety net is actually enough, rather than the not-really-adequate one we have now. Or the broken health care system.

As Unitarian Universalists, we generally do not accept a theology of a divine, gendered voice commanding us to prepare for the future. So from whence do we source our instructions? From where come the instructions to escape the impact of what we have wrought on the planet? the guidance for how to reckon with the consequences of our own actions?  

Is it the various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? The one that says we need to stop now – well, actually, decades ago, but since we didn’t, now is all we have left and we still might not choose it?

Stop our fossil fuel consumption. Stop most all forms consumption that we have here in the so-called West, that many of us in this country have come to expect as our, forgive me, our god-given right. 

The story of Noah’s ark, found in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, suggests that at a particular point in Ancient Times, there was one correct set of instructions for surviving an extreme climate event: those handed down by the one god.  Most people living at the time, deemed corrupt by god, were excluded from these instructions.  But Noah followed the instructions, bringing along with him his family (and some green alligators and long-neck geese…). They built an ark, a floating zoo, just before the whole known world was lost to a great flood. They survived into the only future.

Unitarian Universalists understand this as story, not history ~ a part of a wider mythology that informs many cultures. Yet while ancient scripture may not offer fact, it does offer the possibility of wisdom and reflection. For us today, it is our jumping off point: for which future are we preparing?

We are not like Noah. There are more than one set of instructions here in our post-modern world. Many instructions, plus there are our aspirations and then there are our actions. Each of us, all of us, will have to choose. Actually, we are already choosing, every day. By our actions and by our inactions. 

It was a timely question for Noah, his family, and his community.  It’s a timely question for us. 

Timely, given that Jeff Whazhisname and Whoever Branwhat, are following instructions that take them to the edge of space, when ~ instead ~ they could choose to solve childhood hunger. Frankly, given the amount of their vast wealth, they COULD do both. I’m pretty sure their instructions are not god-given, but come from a place of greed. I’m pretty sure their instructions are based on individualistic self-preservation, not collective liberation as our Unitarian Universalist principles and values direct us.

It’s not easy. Some of the once-good instructions no longer are. Recycling plastic used to be a thing – a practice we hoped would allow us to continue to consume at the levels to which we had become accustomed.  Except it’s turned out, there is nowhere for plastic to go. There never really was.


Some instructions tell us that if we stop using fossil fuels and become carbon neutral by 2050 or 2035, we can just shift our energy use but keep our consumptive habits as they are.  Friends, these instructions, are also an illusion. An intoxicating, dangerous one.  These instructions might slow the collapse, which is a good thing, but in my estimation and that of those I trust, it will not stop it.

I ask these questions in all humility because I have not yet been able to wean myself off of using Amazon, which funds Jeff whatshisface’s misguided and not only selfish folly, but folly harmful to the rest of us.  I find it difficult to extricate myself from those instructions. Consumption. Convenience.

As I know you are, I am trying in small personal ways that fit my class position – I drive a ten-year old, used hybrid car. We are turning part of the yard at the parsonage into a large garden, planting and harvesting food that we share with our neighbors. For 35 years I have followed a diet of no meat.

Yet full disclosure: I took two airplane flights this summer and currently plan three more by this time next year.  Modern, pre-collapse life seems to have instructions embedded within it for the very collapse we seek to avoid.

So, as I am asking you this question, I am asking myself: what future are we truly preparing for?

Part II

“What future are we preparing for?”  I came across this question while listening to my favorite podcast.  Led by community organizer and author, adrienne maree brown and singer-song writer, Toshi Reagon, it’s focused on the Parables books written by Octavia E. Butler.  Each podcast includes questions to ponder, applying the novel to our lives, which is apt, because it’s a story about dystopian American life, beginning in 2024 and includes a presidential candidate who runs on the motto of making America great again – did I mention it was written in the 1990s?

Butler’s Parable books have become a kind of sacred text for me, particularly as visionary fiction helps me manage my anxiety about what the future holds. The Parable books actually have a sacred text that emerges, put down on paper by the protagonist: 15-year-old Lauren Olamina.  It’s called EarthSeed: Book of the Living. Last year, part of my spiritual practice was to write daily a reflection on each of the verses; there are 66 verses, so it kept me company for that many days.   I’ll be talking more about the Book of the Living when I preach about Not That God in October.

The instructions in the Parables books are concrete: learn to read maps, collect seeds, have a go-bag ready, learn self-defense, and most importantly: know when to choose compassion over competition.   The instructions in EarthSeed: Book of the Living are philosophical, such as:

Belief
Initiates and guides action—
Or it does nothing.

or

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers

The other sacred text helping me prepare for the future is the Work That Reconnects. You have heard me speak of it more than once. Not a single book, but resources developed by Joanna Macy, further developed by the community that has been birthed by the Work That Reconnects.  The instructions here call us to prepare for the Great Turning, rather than contribute to the Great Unraveling.  These instructions call for actions to stop the damage being done, generative actions based on ancient wisdom and new ways, and a shift in human consciousness that understands this planet as a living being of which we are a part. Knowing this beyond pretty words but in such deep ways it transforms our behaviors and choices.

This pandemic, when it has not exhausted us to our core and traumatized us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, demands that we answer the question about our future. We try to lead our daily lives but the question is relentless. It forces us to confront the gap between what our actions actually are and what a sustainable future requires.

It forces us to think not only about welcoming climate refugees as if they are someone apart from us, but to confront the possibility that we (and our children and grandchildren) may become climate refugees in our lifetimes. I say this hard thing, knowing that we have guests from different parts of the country ~ upstate New York, the suburbs of Philadelphia, and coastal Florida.  I say this, having just read in the New York Times last week how New Jersey, where this congregation is, has seas rising at twice the global average because the land is also sinking.

We need to prepare now for the future that is already here. We see it in the pandemic, which was brought on by our extractivist avarice and its impact on the environment, letting lose a lethal virus that might otherwise have stayed among wild creatures had we not encroached on their habitat. We see it in the wild fires in the west of this continent, in Turkey, Italy, Finland, Greece, Siberia, Lebanon, Indonesia. We see it in the flooding in Germany and Central China. Hard not to think about Noah’s Ark … We see it in the heat islands in all our cities, like New Brunswick here, where areas with few shade trees, much concrete, and low access to air conditioning, which often means more heat-related health challenge like asthma impacting disproportionately those living in poverty and Black and Brown communities.

Friends, whatever we do, let’s not listen to Jeff Whazzhisname. Or Whateverface Branwhat. Or Elon Whoever. They have given too little to the common good. They have taken too much.   

For many of us, it’s not going to be god-given instructions but ones we must discern from the cacophony of options, guided by Unitarian Universalist principles and lived values.  Guided by compassion and love.  Given what we are facing, whether or not we can access hope, we can always choose love.

I invite you to attend next Sunday’s service, which follows on this one, with a message from the future.

So be it.  See to it. Amen.

The video below contains both the reading and the sermon in its two parts. The reading is a recent poem by Rev. Theresa Ninán Soto, used here with their permission. The sermon makes more sense after having experienced the poem.


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Dear Universe, What. The. Heck?!? (a prayer)

This prayer was inspired by the prayer at the end of this blogpost by Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber.

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Reparations: A Sermon

here is the whole Sunday service – below is the text of the sermon (in 4 parts)

Introduction

The opening skit  for Saturday Night Live back on April 11, was a morning news show in Minneapolis with four anchors, two Black and two white. This was days before the Derek Chauvin verdict for murdering George Floyd.  Banter reveals the white anchors have more confidence in the judicial system than the Black anchors.  The white anchors are insistent on finding common ground, which their Black counterparts are willing to be a part of as far as that goes.

One Black anchors says “there’s a glaring discrepancy in the way that Black people are treated by police,” both white anchors, with relief in their voices, confirm their agreement. 

The other Black anchor says, “and we need concrete solutions to fix the problem,” to which the white anchors, momentum picking up, nearly shout, “no argument there!” 

Then first Black anchor offers, “And we start with reparations.”

To which the white anchor says, incredulously,

“Now wait just a minute!”

The Black anchors are not surprised – it was clearly a set up. They laugh at their pseudo-attempt to get their white co-workers to follow the logic of their own words, knowing that at the point of consideration of reparations, common ground would disappear yet again.

Reparation means “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”  When when it comes to cultural reparations, the concept raises some intense reactions. Dismissal. Incredulity. Rage.  Fragility. Scorn. Denigration disguised as hyper-rationality. Condescension. Whitesplaining. 

And more and more lately: Possibility.

There was a time when talk about reparations was on the fringe.  Even in fringe times, it was a legitimate conversation, but was relegated to the margins. No more. Wider American society is engaging this concept more and more and so is Unitarian Universalism. We’re going to spend some holy time this morning exploring what is calling on us to engage our best moral imagination, one of the ways we ask ourselves, “Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Part I: History

In 1783, before the birth of this nation’s constitution, freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. She had been Kidnapped as a child from what is now Ghana, then sold into slavery, she survived fifty years of enslavement, then sought a pension from the family that enslaved her.

Hers was one of the earliest successful attempts at reparations (in part because the family that enslaved her were British loyalists) in this nation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes after sharing this story (and I’m paraphrasing here): the idea that Black people might be owed something after 150 years of enslavement might not have been national consensus, but at least it was not outrageous. Reparations is not a modern idea. 

Not a modern idea and not a theory from the elites, as we well see from Jordan Anderson’s response to the offensive request from the man who had previously enslaved him to return to work for him.  What a response from Jordan Anderson: full of truth-telling, demands for accountability, and not a small amount of satire!

Reparations in this nation does not revolve solely around race-based chattel slavery. Sometimes talk of reparation relates to harm that is not slavery, but is still race-based. Think of this weekend’s marking of the 100th year since the Tulsa massacre, when the most affluent and productive Black neighborhood in this nation was bombed, 300 Black people were murdered and thousands left homeless.  The three remaining survivors of that massacre recently testified in Congress.  One of them, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher said this:

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot….I am 107 years old and I have never … seen justice. I pray that one day I will.”

We can think reparations in the U.S. context for other cultural arenas – for instance, reparations for the displacement and genocide of Native peoples of this land. Not just payment, but return of lands stolen from them. Or to those Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in camps during World War II.

It’s a bigger issue than a single sermon can do justice to, so I make my humble, circumscribed attempt, sticking to reparations as it applies to the legacy of forcibly bringing Africans to this nation as chattel slaves and the ever-renewing ways in which white supremacy embeds itself in our institutions.

Part II: Practicality

One way to bring the conversation about reparations to a standstill is to acknowledge how many groups could be legitimately considered due some form of reparations – displaced Native peoples; descendants of those stolen from Africa; Japanese-American interred during World War II; our Mexican-American siblings in the Southwest living on the land of their ancestors which was claimed by the USA as war winnings.  The argument goes: if it’s not feasible for all, it’s not fair for one.

Yet, the U.S. provided reparations for the Japanese American internment – signed into law by President Reagan in 1988. Ultimately paid, it paid out $1.6 billion to just over 82,000 Japanese Americans. 

Another way to undermine reparations is talk of how impossible it is to go all the way back to slavery.  I find Ta-nehisi Coates response compelling. In his 2014 article, “The Radical Practicality of Reparations”, he wrote,

Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. [or] We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing “impractical” about this.

Another way is to undermine reparations is white backlash, plain and simple. The New York Times reported about a week ago about quite recent legislation that provides a “$4 billion federal fund meant to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming.” The article details how white farmers, feeling they are being unfairly excluded from this fund, are claiming racial discrimination against them, rather than acknowledging the systems of white privilege that have reduced the number of Black farmers from 14% a century ago to less than 2% now. White farmers seemed to have had no problem when the financial equations were unfair in their favor. 

We see our own dynamics with white backlash in Unitarian Universalism, too, with too many people – both lay folks and religious professionals – undermining efforts to attend to the legacy of the dominance of white cultural markers and power dynamics within our own faith movement. 

Yet, thankfully, there are also concrete social justice efforts that are grounded in a reparations approach. Many of our older congregations, established when slavery was still legal in this country, have looked to see how they may have benefitted from the owning of slaves.  Several congregations in Boston, a collaboration between the UU congregations in Rockport and Gloucester Massachusetts; efforts in Needham and North Andover, Massachusetts, and others. There is the memorial at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, honoring the enslaved workers who built the church building, using original bricks that they made with their labor.

At First Parish Brewster, on Cape Cod, one of the members learned that his ancestor, a founder of the congregation, had owned enslaved people. The congregation has a Reparations Task Force that is recommending for a congregational vote next month. The task force’s recommendation is that the congregation commit “a portion of their financial resources — endowment and operating budget — to reparations.”  They understand this to mean acknowledging harm done by their founders, apologizing for that harm, and growing community and congregational awareness.

***

In every Congress since 1989, H.R. 40 has been introduced – first by Congresspersons John Conyers Jr and Sheila Jackson Lee.  In the Senate, there is a companion bill, sponsored by New Jersey’s own Senator Booker.  This proposed legislation isn’t to provide reparations.  It is to establish a commission to study reparations.  For 30 years, it never made it out of committee.  Didn’t see the light of day, basically.  Until this past April when it passed out of committee for the first time ever.  The conversation is changing. Possibility!

Here in New Jersey, S322 was introduced in this legislative session on January 14 of last year.  Successful passage of the bill would not mean New Jersey is obligated to pay reparations to Black descendants of enslaved people. Instead it would establish a task force to “research, write, and publish a report that will make the case for state-based reparations” and “outline policy recommendations that seek to repair the harm” that resulted from slavery in the Garden State, according to current language in the bill. UU FaithAction NJ, a UU social justice organization of which this congregation is a member, recently formed a special task force to support the passage of S322 – members of our congregation could add their energies to ensure a Unitarian Universalist voice is part of this important conversation at the state level.

Another small, yet meaningful act of reparations is our congregation’s involvement in building the Lost Souls memorial. The National African American Reparations Committee published a ten-point plan for reparations, with number 9 being “Sacred Sites and Monuments.” Though our congregation isn’t directly implicated in that 1818 slave ring, our shared geography invites us to accept the invitation to make amends for this whitewashed history and help others to do so as well.  

Part III: Moral Imagination

illustration by Sammy Newman

A Black friend recently suggested that I need not feel guilty about past racial atrocities.  I understand why she might say this to me: liberal white people have an earned reputation for not just your garden variety of guilt, but white guilt.  It seems to be a developmental phase most of us who are white go through and many of us stay in for much or all of our lives.

The white writer, Eula Biss, has noted that in German, the word for guilt is schuld which is the same word for debt. She encourages white people to move out of a sense of guilt to recognizing a state of debt.  This resonates strongly for me. I’ve long been done with white guilt, having spent considerable spiritual, emotional, and personal energy moving out of that useless space.  But debt?  And accountability?  And reckoning?  These are relational concepts, informed by my understanding of our interdependence, which I embrace and feel called to engage.

If you are white, I encourage you to do the same: to take on the practice required to rid ourselves of guilt and move into relationships of accountability, because there is a life-affirming generativity that exists in that dynamic space and in this newest era of racial reckoning, offering opportunities to act through a lens or reparations.

As Unitarian Universalists, in addition to whatever may be happening locally, there is the UUA’s ongoing commitment to fund Black Lives of UU, including the commitment to make amends for how we removed funding from Black organizations in the late 1960s. The UUA Board committed to ensure funding, repaying what was $1 million in 1968 and in modern times (with inflation) was $5.3 million. The UUA Board paid that debit in full, a few months early, last year. While reparations are costly, leaving the unpaid debt is even costlier.

There is the opportunity to adopt the 8th principle (a topic on which I am preaching next week). And so much more.

In 2019, before the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, the Associated Press found that the vast majority of Black Americans — 74% — favored reparations, but less than a fifth of white Americans did.  Which brings us back to the Saturday Night Live opening skit.  Which brings Unitarian Universalism, with its predominantly white make up and its commitment to racial justice, to a yet another threshold, pondering where we came from and where we are going, pondering what new way we are building.

Ta-nehisi Coates

Ta-nehisi Coates has written that, “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.”

Let us liberate ourselves from those awesome ghosts of history. 

Let us be wiley enough as inspired by the clarity, courage, and candor of Jordan Anderson, still speaking to us from more than a century and a half ago.

Let us engage the practice of our first hymn: knowing where we come from in order to get a sense of where are we going.

Let us use this Memorial Day weekend to remember that the roots of Memorial Day come from enslaved people mourning civil war dead in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. 

Let us observe the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, giving witness to the testimony of Ms. Viola Fletcher and her heart-breaking request that there be justice in her lifetime.

Let us do the necessary weeping before we rebuild the glorious Beloved Community.

Let us be brave enough to face our histories so that our futures are not contorted by the worst of the past, but buoyed by the best of our present efforts.

Let us exercise the best of our moral imaginations when it comes to the case for reparations.

Amen. May it be so.

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Ritual for Re-Opening Space

As all kinds of folx move into re-opening space that was closed during the pandemic, it can help to bring intentionality, and even ritual, to this process. We have all been exposed to trauma in the form of a global pandemic.  This trauma has different manifestations depending on one’s social location and context, but no matter where you are or who you are, the impact of this collective trauma is real.  And this means finding and creating means for healing from it are necessary and can be real. A congregant who is a psychotherapist sought me out, asking about ritual before they begin seeing clients in-person. The following was crowdsourced from Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues, and brought together by the sacred, synergistic energies that occasionally flow through me.  It can be used, in whole or in part, in many contexts ~ perhaps it can be used in yours?   Please feel free to share it widely. I strongly advocate against cultural appropriation of sacred rituals from communities to which we do not belong. For instance, I do not burn sage since its origins is from people native to this continent and mine are not. I encourage others refrain from similar acts of misappropriation. Center Yourself Before entering the space, remove your shoes and connect with gratitude. Sit for as long as you need to be present and to leave the logistics and distractions of the rest of your life aside. They can learn to wait patiently for you while you do this thing. Embodiment: Bow to the pandemic out of respect and humility for its power as an adversary. If the concept of bowing is distasteful, consider it as an act of “touching the earth.” (This idea comes from Joanna Macy, who adapted it from Catriona Reed, an ordained senior member of the Order of Interbeing.) Honoring the limits of your body, raise hands high to the ceiling at each wall and sweep down. Do over and over to experience the power of repetition and the possibility of groove. Exhale audibly and comfortably with each sweep of your arms so that the breath that we’ve been afraid of is now helping move things. Use a broom (I like cinnamon brooms myself – it’s one of the few scents I can tolearate) and ritually sweep, starting at the center of the room and moving toward openings (open windows, doors, vents) Bring music into the space.  Singing or playing recorded music. Some ideas include    Cleanse: If you do this, do it first: sit in the room and allow that which you are inviting to be released to take the form in your mind: words, images. Go holy slowly; some may be timid or wiley and take their time to be known. Write them on slips of paper.  Burn them in the space – perhaps in a cast iron pan. If you cannot burn them in the space (think about fire detectors and safety), go to a nearby outside space to do it. Using water (homegrown holy water, water from a source sacred to you, or salt water representing tears of joy and sorrow), dab this stuff of life in those places that speak to you as in need: thresholds, places where people regularly sit, wherever else calls out to you. Bring in a green plant that will thrive given the conditions of the space (access to natural light, for instance).  A jade plant, perhaps? Not only is it an ongoing filter of the air (cleansing), it is a segue to the next phase for it represents life. Renew & Affirm Life Instead of cut flowers, can you bring into the space a living plant? Set new intentions by writing them down on colorful slips of paper.  Place them in a beautiful container that sits in the room. Perhaps the container is transparent, providing a visual reminder. You could also write new intentions/blessings on flat rocks with a permanent marker, leaving them throughout the space. If you use a version of this ritual, I’d love to hear about it.  Please feel free to contact me at kjohnston (at) uuma (dot) org.
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Living Within Our Means

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

May 16, 2021

Today, I am here to encourage the congregation as a whole to go boldly into uncertainty; to live boldly within our means; to invest boldly in our future. 

Even as the personal and societal winds of scarcity whisper, and sometimes shout, their pernicious persuasion in your ear.

I ask you to engage Rev. Jake’s concluding question: Which trade-off will we make?

***

We are not living within our means when teachers in our school aren’t being paid a living wage. It cannot be on the backs of the staff of the Montessori School that our congregational budget is balanced.

It’s already not right that we don’t help to fund health insurance for our employees except for the Minister (me), though that is far more complex – perhaps even impossible – for us to remedy, except to overhaul the whole damn healthcare system and bring Medicare for All.

It’s not right that we are considering not paying the recommended compensation for guest ministers for the second year in a row, after there was no increase to that standard fee for nine years.

At today’s Annual Meeting, our members are voting on a budget that will remedy the living wage issue for the Montessori School. While the recommended budget has a monetary deficit budget, in this particular sphere, there is no ethical deficit. That is good. Very good.

***

I recently heard someone remark proudly that we haven’t yet touched our Endowment.

This does not fill me with pride.  It fills me with worry.

Worry, because I believe that it could be detrimental to leave the Endowment “intact” instead of accessing its abundance to nourish the congregation during and after this long pandemic austerity. 

In the five years of our shared ministry, I have found that one of the roles is to remind you of the abundance in your midst: that you own a parsonage outright; that you own a School that brings a profit more years than not; that you have a very healthy Endowment (thank you, Ones Who Went Before Us!) – an Endowment that was made to get us through scarce times not just by looking at it.

Living boldly within our means doesn’t necessarily mean accessing our Endowment abundance. It could be accessing our human labor abundance, such as clearing part of the property to create space to safely meet outside in the wooded oasis that is our grounds, as one lay leader recently dreamed aloud with me.

***

In the early 1980s, I took Driver’s Ed class as part of my high school curriculum. Not sure if it was for credit, but my parents didn’t have to pay for it (like I did when my kids were growing up).  I remember there were seatbelts, but only lap belts.  I know some of you remember those days. 

The name of our Driver’s Ed teacher was Slick. That’s what we were allowed to call him.    His nickname matched his slicked back hair so perfectly. I thought he was a wannabe Elvis.  I remember learning from him how to navigate curves:

reduce speed before entering the curve

when you reach that point where the car is closest to the inside of the curve line – called the apex, just BEFORE the curve is about to straighten out —

speed up to successfully pull out of the curve

It was counter-intuitive. Go FASTER inside the curve? It didn’t make sense at first. With practice, I experienced the power of following that guidance. I have been wondering if this applies to our current situation. 

The pandemic put the brakes on – for everyone – kind of like reducing the speed with which we entered the very curve we were trying to flatten.

Here we are now, soon to exit the too-long pandemic curve.  We’ve been driving it longer than any of us hoped we would have too.  Or it’s been driving us.  We’re tired.  We want to put the cruise control on and just coast.

Yet, soon, it’s time to pull out of the curve.  How will we choose to do it?  Coasting along, losing momentum?  Or giving it a bit more gas, so that we can successfully pull out of this doozy of a curve.

So that we can … ease on down, ease on down the road.

***

A lay leader in the Town Hall back in February told those gathered that if every one of our 80-something pledge units were to contribute about $3300, we would meet our annual pledge goal (which doesn’t even cover half of our budget).

I’m thankful to this lay leader for doing the arithmetic.  Someone did that once in my home congregation, back when I was a single mom raising two kids. They said it cost some big sounding number, PER KID, to fund the Religious Education program.  I was shocked. I had no idea.  That information inspired me to increase my pledge, gradually, within my means. So, in that way, it was good to know.

Yet it can also be problematic to know such arithmetic. Not every family could afford to pledge that per-kid-amount.  Plus, it’s not just the responsibility of parents to pay for Religious Education; it’s everyone’s.

Similarly, it can be helpful AND problematic to know this congregation’s arithmetic. It’s just not true that each pledge unit has equal responsibility for meeting the budget.  Some can afford $3300. Some can afford three times that. And some can afford one-tenth.  From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

It can be discouraging for those who cannot afford that arithmetic – so much so that it feels like a message that they don’t belong here.  Not the intention, but can be the impact. I never, ever, want that message of unwelcome for any of you. I don’t think any of us do.

Here’s another problem with that arithmetic: it continues us on our current path of what is the smallest amount we can squeak by on. The what-we-can-squeak-by-on amount does not nourish our imaginations. It does not strengthen the now-foundation now for the future-congregation. 

***

Members AND friends are welcome – invited, encouraged – to attend the Annual Meeting that will be happening after a short break when this worship service is done. All will hear about the extreme challenges the pandemic has brought our congregation and the heroic leadership of the Board, the Finance Committee, the Leadership Development Committee, in fact all the committees, in helping us get through. As a Member, you will get to vote on an imperfect budget given these impossible times. 

Should members choose to approve the budget at the Annual Meeting, you will have used your moral imagination to start UMS teachers’ pay at $15/hour, which is an ethical step worth celebrating. 

In the coming months, we will face the ethical quandary of what to pay guest ministers. The recommended feels outside of our reach.  Yet, if we use our moral imaginations, there is a solution close at hand: we can choose to pay that recommended rate, which would mean fewer guests and more wonderful lay-led services.  This, too, is a way to live within our means.

It seems important to mention that it’s possible if we do not pay the recommended rate, some ministers won’t preach for us, which goes back to Rev. Jake’s question: which trade off will we choose?

At the Annual Meeting, you will also hear about the imagined vision, and steps already taken to make it real, of what it will look like when we return to in-person worship services.  Our commitment is to do so in a multi-platform, or hybrid, way: allowing folks to sit in the sanctuary and folks to attend online, living into our values of deep and wide inclusivity. In addition to imagination, this plan will take significant financial resources – a chance to accelerate into the curve so that we can successfully pull out of it. A choice to be Kellogg’s, not Post.

I want to thank you in advance for bringing your questions even if they feel obvious (someone else in the room will be wanting the answer to your question, I promise you). 

After the meeting is over, I hope you will reach out to individual members of the Board, the Leadership Development Committee, and Finance Committees to thank them for their hard work.  It shouldn’t be a thankless job. As you thank them, consider letting them know they have your support to go boldly into uncertainty, because there will be many times in the coming months and years, when they will face challenging situations, choosing one trade-off for another.

Let us live boldly within our means, silencing the whispers of scarcity.

Let us think long and hard what our answer will be to Rev. Jake’s question: shall we be Post Cereal or shall we be Kellogg’s?

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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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