Middlesex County (New Jersey) Board of County Commissioner
Swearing In Cermony and Reoganization Meeting
January 6, 2022
Reverend Karen G. Johnston
Spirit of Life and Love,
God of Many Names,
Including No Name,
Including No God,
Great Abiding Mystery
Source of All That Is:
I offer this benediction that all people of conscience and all people of faith may hear.
It begins with an invitation to pause. It begins with an invitation to breathe.
These pandemic times are trying. They are exhausting, confounding, painful, exacting, rigorous.
These times hold within them great pain and genuine joy; devastating loss and real connection; shocking corruption and transformational compassion.
May these elected officials, and all public servants of this place once called Lenapehoking by the first peoples, and now called the county of Middlesex in this state of New Jersey, truly know and respect their super powers.
In times most challenging, when the poison of division comes too close for comfort, let them remember their super power of taking a pause, available at nearly all times, able to usher in wisdom and skill, where otherwise impulse might wreak havoc or cause damage.
In times most difficult, when facing conflict, let them remember their super power of curiosity, which, like water, can soften rock-hard hearts and which, like sunshine on peonies, can open closed minds, including our own.
In times most demanding, when drawn into the confusion of false equivalencies and the sometimes misleading siren of unity ~ that false unity that comes at the cost of diversity ~ let them remember their super power of integrity, knowing they serve all, which includes those with least voice; which includes those who have experienced systemic harm; which includes not just the Middlesex County of now, but the one of generations to come, for we are in the midst of a climate crisis.
May these leaders know the necessity to care well for their own health and tend to their families and their beloveds, for while their showing up is essential, what we ask of them in service of the common good should not put these tender things at risk.
May these leaders know the joy of completing a project well-stewarded and the sense of meaning that comes from collective efforts towards a purpose larger than themselves. In good times, may they laugh together in a way that builds the muscle of hope. In tragic times, for surely such times will come, may they be of good comfort to one another.
May all who are listening tonight know that the work of serving the common good does not fall solely on the shoulders of these leaders, but belongs to all of us, working to hold them, and ourselves, accountable, to be the change-makers and resilience-builders these times call for.
May these human beings, dedicated to public service and the common good, know and show that they serve all the layers and litters of life, for stewardship of this county must not merely tend to human commerce; stewardship of this county must extend to all creatures and kin who exist on, and in this particular parcel we inhabit on this pale blue dot of a planet, the only home we’ve ever known.[i]
Just as none of us is ever alone, none of our actions are ever in isolation. May their choices and actions be informed by the best of the seven generations past and inspired by the hopes of seven generations to come, for we are all “situated within concentric circles of belonging[ii],” across geography and time.
May their efforts, and all our efforts, be worthy.
So be it. See to it. Amen.
[i] H/t Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot,” https://www.planetary.org/worlds/pale-blue-dot
[ii] From “The Desert Within” by Leath Tonino, The Sun, January 2022
This video contains the spoken version of this sermon.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
This is an inscription over a door at a monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece. I’m asking you to keep it in mind as you listen to my sermon.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
This sermon on mind-manifesting plant medicine – that’s what “psyche-delic” means: mind-manifesting.This is not meant to be…trippy, though I suppose it might sound like it to some ears. Maybe it is trippy. But it is also true, as the new science about psychedelics tell us.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
It is a different phrase than turn on, tune in, drop out – a phrase made famous by Timothy Leary in the 1960s. If what you know about psychedelic drugs comes from that era, it is time to catch up. There are great things afoot in the world of psychedelics. It’s important that we know about them. It’s important that we put aside out-of-date notions because it may mean we can reduce the suffering of others, of those we love, and even our own.
Important because recent science is showing that substances we commonly refer to as psychedelics have the power to heal some of the most intractable scourges facing modern humanity: addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment-resistant depression, death anxiety in those with terminal diagnoses (as we saw in the video earlier), even debilitating despair in the face of climate collapse and the potential for human extinction.
Entheogen. Derived from Greek roots: en (within) theo (divine) and gen (creates). Its literal meaning: “creating the divine within.” It’s an alternative term to “psychedelics” that may have been irreparably tainted by both the high recreation time of the 1960s and the Nixon- and Reagan-era dragnet wars on drugs.
It also points us beyond the mind to the transcendent qualities of these substances and their long-existing use in religious and spiritual rituals and practices.
It’s not just spiritual types who are using that term. In 2019, the City of Oakland decriminalized specific entheogenic plants. There is a growing movement throughout the country called “Decriminalize Nature.” Multiple municipalities are passing resolutions that decriminalize some of these substances: not just Oakland but also Denver; Washington D.C.; Seattle; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and at least four cities in Massachusetts. Decriminalizing a thing does not make it legal; it means that it is the lowest priority for law enforcement.
The state of Oregon has gone even further, passing Measure 109 in November, 2020, which created a two-year window during which the state would create a system that “allows manufacture, delivery, administration of psilocybin at supervised, licensed facilities.” This creates a state-sanctioned system that recognizes what the new science has been finding: many of the psychedelic substances have deeply healing properties that can address otherwise intractable conditions. Oregon has gone the furthest in this regard, but Hawaii, Florida, and even Connecticut are exploring the possibilities of medicinal uses of psilocybin.
Psilocybin. Another psychedelic word. It’s like today’s sermon is a dictionary of new terms for some of us. Psilocybin is the psychoactive element in what is often referred to as “magic mushrooms.”
In 1957, Life Magazine published an article that related the trip of a U.S. banker to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, where he was invited to participate in a religious ritual led by a Curandera, or healer, named Maria Sabina, who was one of many Curanderas, who was one of many in a long line stretching back centuries and perhaps millennia. Unfortunately, doing what white Europeans have been doing for centuries, that banker returned to the States and acted as if – or was treated as such that – he “discovered” magic mushrooms.
Lest I need to remind or inform you: Life Magazine was not some marginal publication. Its circulation was among the mainstream in America. That article was a big deal.
Scientists in the U.S. and Europe, perhaps elsewhere, had been researching the impact of hallucinogenic substances. As author Merlin Sheldrake notes in his book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape our Future:
And catching up, we are. In the past two decades, much of the published research on this topic has come out of Johns Hopkins primarily, as well as NYU and some from UCLA. Just a couple of examples from the new science:
In a small double-blind study published in 2016, Johns Hopkins researchers reported that a substantial majority of people suffering cancer-related anxiety or depression found considerable relief for up to six months from a single large dose of psilocybin.
A few years earlier, in 2014, also at Johns Hopkins, there was a small clinical trial addressing tobacco cigarette addiction. It combined the ingestion of psilocybin in a clinical setting with targeted cognitive behavioral treatment. Findings were extremely promising: after 6 months, 80% of the study participants had stopped smoking. After 2 ½ years, 60% were still not smoking. So promising that just this past October, Johns Hopkins announced that they were awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lead a multi-side, three-year study on the potential impacts of psilocybin on tobacco addiction (the other partner in this study are NYC and the University of Alabama). This is the first NIH grant awarded in over a half century to directly investigate the therapeutic effects of a classic psychedelic.
What makes these plant or fungi-based medicines, or even the synthesized versions, so powerful? With the access to modern technologies not available mid-century, it appears that psychedelic substances work by inhibiting that part of our brain called the Default Mode Network. This is the part of the brain where our sense of self – what some might call our ego – resides. Psychedelics, or entheogens, by temporarily disabling the Default Mode Network, dissolve the separate sense of self, allowing the for new relationship with reality. Some describe it as experiencing the death of our ego.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
Or as Dr. Matthew Johnson, psychologist in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins and lead researcher on that tobacco addiction study, describes it:
Psilocybin [and other psychedelics] “dope-slap people out of their story. It’s literally a reboot of the system… Psychedelics open a window of mental flexibility in which people can let go of the mental models we use to organize reality.”
quoted in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life
This means that rigid conditions (like addiction or depression) or rigid attachments (like fear of dying or debilitating anxiety) become more pliable, opening to new cognitive – and some would say, spiritual — possibilities.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the astronomical rate of suicide in the military could be curbed with access to this plant medicine? Wouldn’t it be amazing if veterans, because they experienced the ego-death from a supervised psilocybin-assisted therapeutic session, didn’t find themselves compelled to experience body-death by suicide?
If you die before you die, then you won’t have to die by your own hand.
Some say it’s purely physiological or chemical. It clearly has psychological consequences. And some say that is not just those things, but can also be a religious, spiritual, or transcendent experience. Not a guaranteed experience of transcendence, but the possibility of it.
When one experiences the dissolution of self, of ego, and becomes one with the rest of reality, or discovers that one has been an interdependent part of all existence all along, it’s easy to understand why this might fit into our understanding of a spiritual or religious experience.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
In those clinical trials involving terminally ill cancer patients, like the ones we met in the earlier video, it was those who had the strongest mystical experiences who showed the most effective results. The study noted that participants experienced reduced “demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life.” When asked to describe these mystical experiences, participants described “a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness” and “exalted feelings” of bliss, love, and joy. (Sheldrake)
Bliss. Love. Joy. Which just so happens to be our Soul Matters theme for the month: opening to joy.
If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.
Is this true? If you experience ego-death before you experience body-death, will you not die when you die? Or at least die with a bit more ease?
I guess this is the question I chase in my spiritual practice of befriending death. Can my meditation practice help me to face my own mortality? Can Date with Death Club help me and those who attend the monthly sessions practice welcoming the truth of mortality so that we are better at it when mortality comes knocking?
Each time I ask this question, I have varying responses. Today, my response is the Mary Oliver poem, “When Death Comes,” even with its unfortunate binary language:
Holding history. That is this month’s Soul Matters theme. This month is also Native American Heritage month. In just a few days most, if not all of us, will be celebrating Thanksgiving in some way, so it seems appropriate for us to explore holding history as it relates to indigenous communities of this continent and Native American peoples in our midst.
I have several asks at the beginning of today’s Sunday service and some at the end.
One is to full-heartedly engage with the beautiful music of the service, all of which was created and performed by indigenous musicians, the first hymn being the exception. I am thankful for the generosity these musicians extended us when I reached out to them with the request to use their music in the service. Of course, as is only right, we honored their request around compensation: one asked that he paid what we felt was right, one asked that we donate to a cause called the Seventh Generation Fund. And so we have.
My second ask is that you take in what you learned from our Time For All Ages story and find a way to integrate that, whether it was new information to you or not, into your holiday celebrations. I think this is especially important because it is the 400th anniversary of that first shared meal. If you begin your Thanksgiving meal with grace, can you find a way integrate the true story of Thanksgiving? Or perhaps you can find a way to offer a land acknowledgement? If there is time that you and loved ones spend in front of a screen, might you share the video with them, inviting a conversation about the distance between the true history and what we are taught in school and the implications of that. So that is my second ask.
My third ask is for us, as a congregation, to recognize that even though today’s worship service is focused on honoring indigenous communities, yesterday was Transgender Day of Remembrance in a year where we have seen the most violent deaths of trans folx, in a period of time where year after year, the number grows. My ask is that we continue to bring our attention to this congregation’s commitment to be truly welcoming, proactively protective, of our beloved trans members, friends, and neighbors.
How we hold history, how we face the truth of it, is a strong indication of how we are doing when it comes to holding the truth of our present day. We see this when it comes to how our nation is doing with its latest transgression of history as some stoke the false controversy called Critical Race Theory. It sure does seem that there is a strong, recurring, insistent impulse towards historical erasure and minimization in the powerful and privileged in this nation. If we are to be true to our principles of justice and equity, we must resist whatever quality or quantity of this impulse we find in ourselves.
So, my fourth ask is to bring your full attention ~ head and heart ~ to the history I am about to share with you, for we Unitarian Universalists are not immune to that impulse to erase and minimize. Too often we have demonstrated that we prefer to hold the history of heroes, rather than the history of harm. Doing so does not help us build the diverse multi-cultural Beloved Community of which we dream. Doing so does not help us to accountably dismantle oppressions, as our 8th principle guides us to do.
When we hold our history with integrity, we learn the devastating chapter in North American history of Indian residential schools. We learn that Native children were forcibly removed from their families. We learn of schools with the philosophical and pedagogical motto was “kill the Indian, save the man.” We learn that we Unitarians were involved – that it was not just other Christian denominations. Not only did we financially supports the systems of these schools, we ran two of our own.
This past summer, it was basically impossible to avoid the reports of the discovery of graves of Native children discovered at residential schools in Canada. Over 1,300 unmarked graves at four former schools in western Canada shocked the world, but came as no surprise to First Nations communities, which have long held survivor stories of students digging graves for their classmates or rumors of children disappearing under suspicious circumstances.
Closer to home, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, since 2017 and as recent as this summer, there have been returns of human remains with descendants of their families or tribes in the following indigenous communities: Rosebud Sioux, Alaskan Aleut, Northern Arapaho, Blackfeet, Oglala Sioux, Oneida, Omaha, Modoc and Iowa tribes.
This summer reopened wounds that have never healed, yet each return allows for the possibility. I think this is why it is so important to hold history with integrity: to allow for the possibility of both justice and healing.
Perhaps you are like me, somewhere between surprised and shocked, to hear that Unitarians had their own Indian residential schools. It is not something I learned as a lay person or in seminary. However, it had been duly, and often proudly, recorded in contemporary materials that Unitarians were involved in the establishment and management of a number of such schools in the 19th century, as well as taught at them, often understanding this as acts of service or social justice. According to Rev. Dana Stiver,
Early Unitarian writings indicate that many Unitarians propagated, or at least remained complicit in, the popular idea that westward expansion of the American frontier marked an advance of “civilization” over the “savagery” of Native peoples.
Rev. Samuel Atkins Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA, the 19th century equivalent of the UUA), wrote this in his thesis at Harvard while preparing to become a Unitarian minister:
Indians as a race are inferior intellectually to white men. But this is not or should not be the object of Indian education to make Indian scholars. … We do not expect now from the Indian any contribution to national thought or character. …Indians must be taught to live properly before they can be taught to think and act with judgment and independence.
“The Montana Industrial School for Indians at Ramona Ranch, 1886-1897″, Dana Capasso Stivers
When we hold history with integrity, we find that nearly or fully forgotten aspects begin to emerge. That is what has happened in the Unitarian Universalist universe. In 2007, delegates at General Assembly called for our faith movement to “uncover our links and complicity with the genocide of native peoples.” Out of that came it became more widely known that in 1870-1876, the AUA worked with the Ute Tribe in Colorado under the Grant Peace Policy and did so to “present to them the better phases of a Christian civilization.[i]”
In response to uncovering this aspect of our history, then UUA President William G. Sinkford (our first president of color, which is likely not a coincidence) used the occasion of the 2009 UUA General Assembly to offer a formal apology to the Ute tribe for Unitarians’ historical complicity in crimes and violence against the Ute people. The apology was accepted by a member of the Ute tribe.
This is not the only residential school we founded. There was also the Montana Industrial School for Indians at Ramona Ranch. It is sometimes referred to as the Bond Mission, so named after Rev. Henry Bond, who founded it with his wife, Pamela. They led it only for only the first few years that it operated, which was from 1886-1897.
The history of the Montana School, or the Bond Mission, is available to us because of Margery Pease, a member of the Crow Nation who is also Unitarian, self-published a history. She had a personal connection – one of her ancestors was one of the early Crow staff members of the school history. She knew the importance of holding this history and ensuring that others do the same. In 1986, she and her husband organized a centennial commemoration which descendants of students of the school attended, as well as the then president of the UUA, Bill Schultz. His remarks included these remarks:
If Henry and Pamela Bond were with us today, I am confident that they would say to the Crow community, “We who taught your parents and grandparents are now your students.”
I don’t know about you, but Schultz’ remarks strike me as rather saccharine revisionism or flat-out whitewashing, rather than holding history with integrity so that we might accountably dismantle systems of oppression.
We have access to a more detailed history of the Montana Industrial School because of a recent article by Rev. Dana Stivers in the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History. I am deeply indebted to this article, which greatly informs and enhances my understanding of this topic. In it, I learned how Rev. Bond meticulously tracked the enrollment of the school, as any good administrator should. Also, as any “good” white colonizer intent on assimilation, Rev. Bond noted not just the child’s Crow name, and their father’s name, but he gave each pupil an Anglicized name, by which they would be known going forward.
Though some Crow parents enrolled their parents willingly, there is clear evidence that others were coerced, with food rations withheld until they brought their child to the school.
Children at this school regularly ran back home. Including once when 17 boys all left on the same night. This only began to slow when Rev. Bond listened to one of his newly hired staff, a man whose mother was Crow and father was European. This staff member, George Pease, suggested that they build a dormitory for visiting parents. Once this was completed and families had a means to stay connected for meals or longer visits, the running away ebbed.
This adaptation shows that over time, Rev. Bond was able to learn how to make the school into a less hostile environment, taking into account indigenous views on how to do better. Yet, as Stivers notes in the article:
And so here we are. We know what we know and cannot unknow it. What do with do with this this history we are now holding?
At the start of the sermon I named four asks. For the end of the sermon I repeat one of them, and add a few:
Do find a way to integrate the true story of the origins of Thanksgiving into your holiday observance.
Let me know if you would like to read Rev. Stivers’ article on the Montana Industrial School for Indians.
Write to your Senators and Representative and voice your support for the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act, which the National Native American Boarding School Coalition supports. I’ll include information about it in next Wednesday’s weekly eblast.
May the coming Thanksgiving holiday, the 400th anniversary of the original shared meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, be more meaningful for you, given how we have spent our morning together today.
So be it. See to it. Amen.
Holding history is not some shriveled practice of paying attention to something long dead. Holding history is an enlivened and embodied dance of the then and the now, a recognition of the truth spoken by James Baldwin:
History is not the past.
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.
The truth of these words is like astronomical term, “dark matter”: we know history is there not so much because we can see it directly, but because we can see its influence on more knowable-to-us current events.
With what has happened this past week, while no one can tangibly point out white supremacy culture, we can see its influence on what we call the present, which echoes mightily of the past, so much so that they really and truly are one:
A teenage gun-toting white vigilante is pronounced not guilty of murder in the killing in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of two Black Lives Matters protestors in a courtroom awash with white privilege, claiming – as so many police officers do when killing unarmed people – that he feared for his life if he lost control of the very gun he brought into a chaotic situation.
This, while at the same time, in the trial of the three also gun-toting, also white, killers of Ahmaud Arbery, those three in a pick-up truck, those three who were chasing the young unarmed Black jogger, are using the same defense: they feared for their lives when Ahmaud defended himself by attempting to disarm the threatening strangers.
I speak of these recent events not to detract from today’s sermon focused on honoring indigenous communities. I raise our attention to these because the white supremacy culture at the source of this violence is the same white supremacy culture at the source of the disenfranchisement of indigenous communities, of Native peoples: chattel slavery of Africans and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of this continent.
They are not in competition with one another for our attention. They call out to all of us to see how this past continues to contort our present, keeping the values we cherish so much that we name them in our principles — justice, equity, compassion, peace – from full fruition. Keeping at bay our dreams of a diverse multi-cultural Beloved Community which aims to accountably dismantle all forms of oppression.
As the service comes to a close, let these three questions be your company in the days and weeks to come:
A true story that comes to us from our sibling congregation in Amherst, Massachusetts:
In 1919, The Rev. Henry Ives was called by the church. During his 10 years in Amherst, membership grew. In 1925, the meetinghouse was renovated to better accommodate the congregation’s size — with unexpected results.
For there had been a stowaway in the shipment of building materials!
As The Rev. Ives later wrote, “It belonged to the vegetable kingdom. Apparently, it started with the new-laid wooden floor of the [basement] social room and stretched its greedy way to eat the life out of the beams and timbers which supported the roof. It crept up the walls like a thief in the night . . . North Carolina pine crumpled like dust after it had eaten its greedy meal from the pores of the wood. The back stairs might have fallen at the first real test of their strength. Huge blossoms like gigantic toadstools appeared where the floor and walls met. Scientists called this foe the house fungus and Unity Church became a Mecca for students of fungus diseases.”
I am not a fan of creating hierarchies of suffering. I think it does more harm than good. Sometimes, when we try to put our own challenges in perspective, we can go too far, by elevating the problems of others and minimizing too much our own. We can do this too early in the emotional process, jumping to acceptance before we do the work of grappling with the challenge itself.
Both those things said, hearing this story helped me put into perspective the setback we experienced this week with the discovery of mold throughout our sanctuary and the disappointing delay of our return to holding Sunday services in the building. There are no gigantic toadstools blossoming. No timber is falling to dust. This was not a violation at the hands of some vandal, which would carry with it a trauma that this does not hold.
We just have fungus among us.
Nothing more. Nothing less. And it is ours to address.
Like Chris, who shared his reflections upon seeing the footage last week of our ancestors and the breaking ground to build this building, I have been thinking especially about the image of the shovel going into the hillside. In the grainy, jumpy video, you can see one of our ancestors, one of this congregation’s founders, using the back of the shovel to move away leaves, to get better leverage when sinking the shovel into the dirt. You can’t hear the shovel breaking the surface, but in my mind’s eye, I can almost feel that initial resistance, and then the give of the soil to the blade. I wasn’t thinking these thoughts last week as I watched that footage from inside the sanctuary, but ever since I learned about the mold, I have thought that soil – the soil on that shovel back in 1963 or ’64 contained as all soil does spores of all sorts of molds, perhaps even some not-so-distant relative of the mold that found a fecund home in our sanctuary during the height of the pandemic.
It has been hard not to feel the weight of the challenges of this building this week, this past month. Yes, now the mold, but before that it has been water damage, leaks and replacing walls. It has been roofs that have seen better days. It is the financial responsibility to clear snow even when the building is closed. Trying to figure out how to address air quality concerns during a pandemic with a closed ventilation system and a room full of beautiful, idiosyncratic triangular windows.
There are people in this congregation who love this building. Who have loved it for decades. People who have accepted the mantel handed to them directly from the founders who loved our whacky building with its award-winning design that has done little for the following generations, for its design has brought headaches when pursuing the upkeep. So god bless the people who love this building and who will sacrifice to sustain it. For I think there is in our near future a need to sacrifice in order to fix this.
The first time I walked into the sanctuary, I knew this was the congregation I was meant to serve. But I’m not sure I consider myself among the group of people who love the building. I feel like my relationship is more of a love-hate kind of thing. Definitely love, but also: well, let’s just say I have cursed the building and its oddities and challenges far more than once.
Ultimately, it matters little what I think of the building. I am just the Minister. And that may sound funny to some of our newer members, but it’s true. Because ministers come and go, but you all, dear ones: you are the owners of this place, together, collectively. You are the owners of the building, the property, the parsonage (yes, you are responsible for the house in Somerset where me and my family live). You get to make the easy decisions (what color to paint the restroom walls) and you must make the hard decisions (how to raise the funds? when is it too much? has our love of building outsized our love of mission?).
Our mold is a real problem. It has already taken hours and hours of labor and attention and that is just the beginning. It will take some of our financial resources. It is real. And it is our problem, no one else’s. If we ignore it, it won’t get fixed. So it needs us.
And I want to remind us that this week, the jury was picked for the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed Black jogger chased by white men with guns in a truck and killed in February, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, includes one Black juror. One. In a county that is 24% African American.
I want to remind us that there are 200 Afghans who had to flee their nation when the military of this nation’s government ended its presence there after twenty long year and who are now hoping to make their home here in Central Jersey.
So while the mold is a problem and it is our problem, we must place it in context.
When I am discouraged, I find it helps to know that I am not alone. I had that experience in talking with our insurance company, when they told me that they are getting scores of claims just like ours from other houses of worship. It was disappointing when they said this damage is not covered by our insurance. Hearing that we were not alone helped soften the blow just a little. I mean, it would have been WAY better to learn that our insurance would help pay the bill, but I guess we can’t have everything.
I do find it better to go through discouraging times in good company. When I came to fully comprehend what we are facing with this mold problem, I turned to crowdsourcing among my colleagues. First, I turned to them for the healing of sympathy. Then I turned to them for the healing of humor. Since I knew that our service this Sunday could no longer be titled, “Enter, Rejoice and Come In,” I asked them for alternatives, serious or funny.
I tell you, much to my surprise, for I was feeling quite defeated, I went to bed laughing. And in the morning, when I looked again, there are more suggestions, so I started the day laughing too. Here are many of their suggestions.
Some were of a general ilk:
Not What We Planned
Murphy’s Law: A Theological Reflection
Good News and Bad News: Well, at least it’s not Covid…
And the winning selection:
We Plan, Earth Laughs
Some went straight for the mold angle:
Come Bleach SomeSeats with Me
Molding the Future
It’s a Moldy but a Goodie
A Church That Doesn’t Fit the Mold
There is Spore Love Somewhere
Some decided that mold and fungus are enough alike:
The Problem has Mushroomed
A Truly Inclusive Religion: Our Friend the Fungus
A Morel Dilemma (or When Shiitake Happens)
Some worked the growth aspect:
Church Growth in the Post-COVID Era: Exceeding Expectations!
Exponential Growth is Easy
Not What We Meant: Congregational Growth
A Culture for Unimagined Growth
And a few more worthy of our attention:
Alive with Possibility
Jesus *Should* Have Taken the Wheel
Okay, but Do Spores Pledge?
Wheezy Does It
Not only do I have clever colleagues, I have colleagues that let me know that I am not alone, that let me know that WE are not alone.
Right now, I can only see the bad luck of this situation. I do not have the equanimity that the old farmer from our Time For All Ages showed in the face of all the different events happening in his life. Bad luck? Maybe, he says. Good luck? Maybe, he says. I appreciate the parable, my mind welcomes its message, but my heart is stuck in the certainty that this is bad luck. And…
…and I am willing to suspend not my disbelief, but the certainty I feel, and be open to the maybe. Be open that we do not know what will come of this challenge. Already, I have experienced spontaneous acts of generosity from colleagues and congregants alike. THAT has felt like good luck. Like good fortune. Like blessing.
Let me tell you what happened to what was then called Unity Church and is now the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, after their bad luck from the vegetable kingdom. These words are from their website history:
The Rev. Ives asked the AUA for financial help to save the building. The reply was that it had none to offer, but Unity Church could have two sets of beautiful and valuable memorial stained glass windows by John La Farge and Louis C. Tiffany. These had been created for All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, MA. The windows’ donors had stipulated that if the building was ever purchased by a different denomination, its many memorial windows should be given to other Unitarian churches. In 1923, All Souls’ members had merged with First (Unitarian) Church of Roxbury. The All Souls building was now on the market, so the AUA offered two sets of windows to Unity Church. Unity Church successfully raised enough funds to repair the building, complete the remodeling, and pay for the installation of the windows from Roxbury.
This is not the first challenge this congregation has encountered. It is not the last. That it is happening in the midst of a pandemic makes it harder, adding to the accumulation of loss, disappointment, and discouragements. Yet, we are a hardy people. We shall not let it stop us from being a congregation that knows we are more than a building. We shall not let it stop us from seeing all that there is to celebrate: that we never closed, that we continue to meet in many different ways (right now, virtually; at 12:15, in person outdoors for fellowship; at 2pm, as part of the wider community in support of refugees and making our home their home), that there has been such great joy in seeing photos of children getting their first covid vaccinations (hallelujah).
May this latest challenge hold within it unexpected delight, spontaneous acts of generosity, and kindness more than we deserve.
This past March, a dear friend’s husband, who was himself also dear to my heart, who live a thousand miles away died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46 – far too young and leaving not only his partner, but two children who loved him deeply. In the first days after I heard the news, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my shock and grief, so I am not sure how my friend was surviving hers.
In the end, what I came up with was wholly insufficient, but I think that is so often true about our choices in the aftermath of someone’s death. It’s not enough, it never can be, but it is in the doing, hopefully with the least amount of clumsiness, and always with some amount of awkward, it is in the doing and in the trying that possibility emerges.
If we want to find a literary example of denial, this is it. She describes with utter candor the ways in which she believed and acted in hopes of bringing her dead husband to life, in spite of the facts. I don’t think she stopped taking the garbage out, but just about nearly everything else.
During my sabbatical last winter, one of the books I read was Lessons from the Dying by Rodney Smith. In it, he writes,
It’s debatable whether this is always true, yet it nags and gnaws at us to ponder it.
As you may know, this year I am leading two year-long explorations of mortality in community. This is another thing that came out of my sabbatical: a 46,000-word curriculum called Date with Death Club. It is being piloted in four or five other UU congregations this year, as well as being offered by me on a monthly basis. In one case it is online to UUs (including some of you) from all across the country. In the other case, it is in-person at the East Brunswick Public Library. The topic of this past month’s session was the mortal dance between resisting and accepting the fact of our mortality. We explored the many factors which contribute to where we might be on the continuum between resistance and acceptance.
While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, since we are all members of Date with Death Club (whether we want to be or not), it’s a good way to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning. Next month, the topic is living with grief. We will be watching the documentary, My Octopus Teacher. You can register to attend the online session (the link should show up in the chat). Or you can just show up at the library (with your mask) the second Saturday of each month.
Another book that I have read, though longer ago than my sabbatical, has the wonderful title, Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them). It was written by Sallie Tisdale, an author, former nurse, and Buddhist. She has written the following, which I think is so brilliant that I want a t-shirt with it:
It’s hard to follow that advice if we are steeped in various forms of denial. Or magical thinking. But denial is part and parcel of the human psyche. We cannot just will it away. (Just like we cannot will away grief; it has its own pace and pattern.) Plus, denial, because it has some beneficial qualities as a psychological defense mechanism, should not be thrown out wholesale (and thankfully, cannot be).
Yet, there are things we can do, so that we have more control over our denial than it has over us. Consider this invitation to spiritual homework from the author of Lessons from the Dying. First, think of a time when denial protected you from a truth to devastating to accept and acknowledge the gift Denial gave you at that time. Then
“Pick a task that you avoid or procrastinate doing, like washing the dishes or emptying the garbage. What complications arise from that avoidance? When you find you are evading some unpleasant action, look at the motivation and emotion you have associated with it. Is there fear? Are you strong enough to go ahead and do it rather than hope it will go away? See how you seek escape in your wishful thoughts (maybe someone else will do the dishes).”
What would it look like if we weren’t in denial about the small deaths and losses or the big one at the end? Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician, tells us that at the end of our lives, while there are ten tasks of the dying, ultimately it boils down to four simple mandates:
If we might stretch ourselves to move through the various kinds of denial in our lives – whether it’s about taking the garbage out or something much less mundane or much more emotionally-laden – we might be able to see each small and large good-bye as an invitation to practice for the last one. We might practice living like each day is our last, like this is the last year of our life, and doing so not because we are feeding a morbid obsession, but because we are seeking to disarm the power that denial and resistance can have over our lives, muting the brightness, returning energies for living our life, because we stop resisting the fact of our mortality.
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I love you.
Some of you may be familiar with the storyteller/author Clarissa Pinkola Estés. In her book, Women Who Run with Wolves, she shares a version of the Inuit story of Skeleton Woman. It is too long to fully include here, so this is my adapted telling of it.
A girl is wrongfully killed, her body thrown into the sea, where the fish eat away at her flesh and turn her body into a skeleton, buffeted by the currents, but somehow, magically, kept intact. Most of the villagers stayed away from that part of the ocean, believing it to be haunted, but a fisherman from a faraway place, ended up there. He began fishing from his small kayak. His line caught on something big, which brought excitement. When he hauled up his catch, to his terror he discovered this skeleton woman. Despite his best attempts to rid his line of her, it did not work. He paddled madly to put distance between him and the skeleton.
“Agh!” cried the man, and his heart fell into his knees, his eyes hid in terror on the back of his head, and his ears blazed bright red. “Agh!” he screamed, and knocked her off the prow with his oar and began paddling like a demon toward shoreline. And not realizing she was tangled in his line, he was frightened all the more for she appeared to stand upon her toes while chasing him all the way to shore.
Even when he got to shore, she was there. Even when he jumped and ran home to his ice hut, she was there, the line she was caught on and which he dragged along, connecting them despite themselves. As he dove into the tunnel that was the door to his home, into the dark, he was sure that he was safe. Yet, when he lit the oil lamp, there she was. His heart beat even faster, like a drum, fear rising. And then he looked again, the soft lamp light inviting him to behold her differently. He began to speak softly to her, as a parent to a young child. He began to untangle her from the fishing line, which had truly contorted her shape. He invited her to sleep on the bed of soft furs.
His exhaustion finally overtook him and he slept. As he did, fearful dreams of what had just transpired, bringing a tear to his eye. Skeleton Woman, moved by the eventual tenderness he showed her, drank of that tear, which was like a river. As the story concludes
While lying beside him, she reached inside the sleeping man and took out his heart, the mighty drum. She sat up and banged on both sides of it: Bom Bomm!…..Bom Bomm! As she drummed, she began to sing out “Flesh, flesh, flesh! Flesh, Flesh, Flesh!” And the more she sang, the more her body filled out with flesh. She sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs. And when she was all done, she also sang the sleeping man’s clothes off and crept into his bed with him, skin against skin. She returned the great drum, his heart, to his body, and that is how they awakened, wrapped one around the other, tangled from their night, in another way now, a good and lasting way.
Pinkola Estés calls this story a love story. Others call it a story of healing or one of compassion. I call it befriending death. Because when I read it, I see what is possible when we stop running away from the fact of our mortality. I see what is possible when we embrace this truth: our lives can become fuller, more fleshed out, and we need not live with fear, but one of courage – with heart at its center, for that is the root of the word courage – cor – from the Latin for heart.
Some people say a person can never change. I must acknowledge that sometimes I hear that voice in my head. It’s usually when I am experiencing fear, or shame, or hurt. I think it is a form of protection, a kind of psychological defense mechanism. Defenses like denial, like believing that we are all stuck and can never change, have their place as we establish safety for ourselves, but their usefulness is temporary. They can overstay their welcome and if they do, what was useful, can become dysfunctional.
In Unitarian Universalism, we say that revelation is not located in any one set of scriptures or sources, is unsealed, and is always in process. This is true, not just about what constitutes scripture or sacred text. Our Universalism, with its foundation that we are all saved, that we are all loved, tells us this is about us as well.
I believe one of the manifestations of this is that even as we are aging, perhaps getting more stuck in our habits and patterns, we can still very much fulfill our life tasks. We can seek and grant forgiveness, even if we have not spent much of our lives focused on this. We can thank and express love, and discover that these are not just in words or transactions, but transformations. Transformations of relationships and our spirits, be it now in the time we have left, or in our waning days or hours: a gift to ourselves and those we will eventually leave behind.
We need not wait to practice the wisdom Dr. Byock has distilled for us from his decades of working with people at the end of their lives. There are traditions available to us that connect us to this wisdom – the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur provides powerful structure for seeking forgiveness and granting it. Step 9 in the Twelve Steps – “make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others” – also provides structure to this most needful of human interactions. Each morning, when we say good-bye to those we live with; each phone call, when we say good-bye to the person on the other end of the line: these, too, are invitations to practice: thank you. I love you.
Let us not be like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who waited in denial so long to take the garbage out, that she met some awful fate. (That I cannot, right now relate because the hour is much too late.)
Let us choose to be like the lover of Skeleton Woman, perhaps afraid at first, but willing, in time, to embrace mortality, that life might be sweeter, fuller, fleshlier.
Let us find ways now, right now, not waiting until the last minute, to say to our beloveds
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.
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.
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.” …But who will tell them?”
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
So be it. See to it. Amen.
 Concept attributed to Gary Nahban in the original text by Kimmerer
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.