Just Love

OUR TIMES -- See minister's column, HERE


Oh, my, y’all – as we say down South. 2020 – the year that means perfect vision – 20/20 – has seen one thing after another that we never saw before and didn’t see coming. Global pandemic. Growing recession and unemployment. Three weeks and counting of protests – world-wide protests – sparked by the George Floyd murder. This last week – well, as one headline put it – it was a bad week to be a racist statue. Confederate Civil War figures were smashed, beheaded, pulled down. In Belgium, they’re removing statues of King Leopold, the 19th-century king who was particularly cruel in colonizing Africa. In New Zealand, protestors removed a statue of John Hamilton, the 19th-century British Naval commander who was merciless in his attacks on the island’s indigenous people.

NASCAR banned the confederate flag. NASCAR! I don’t know how many of you are fans, but the confederate flag has been so common at NASCAR races as to be practically the sport’s unofficial logo.

General Petraeus has called for renaming Forts Bragg, Benning, and Lee because they were confederate traitors. And the Senate Armed Services committee, controlled by Republicans, has said the renaming must happen within three years.

The National Football League reversed its stance on players kneeling during the national anthem. HBO pulled Gone with the Wind until they could provide a historical context framing. And the TV show “Cops” – which carefully selects footage to cast police in the most heroic possible light – after 31 years on the air was cancelled.

All in barely more than a week. Wow. These are symbolic moves, but they were passionately resisted up until the last couple weeks.

With all that going on in our world, I ask us today to reflect about sex. No, not because I thought we could all use a break from pandemics like Covid-19 and racism. Reality doesn’t take breaks. And uplifting spiritual growth does not come from escapism, it comes from more deeply connecting to reality, in all of its tragedy and its beauty. (So I hope you’ll plan to be part of our next event about the 1619 Project, and will participate in demonstrations for police reform. And zoom in at 1:30 today for the conversation Tracy will be leading about talking with children and youth about racial justice. We are liable to learn some things about how to talk to ourselves, too.)

Today’s topic is not to give us a break, but to emphasize that the work of justice is one. Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop.

Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination. It’s all one.

Reconceiving marriage on a less patriarchal model has been a part of the work of liberation. Marriage once was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. Thus, the ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, and no sex outside of the sort of relationship that looked like the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies. The rise in out-of-wedlock births and single parent families has meant producing and raising children without two adults making a household together. You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies, and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned miracles of birth control, and the latter through the miracles of surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination, and adoption. You can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes.

The package deal has come undone. And with it, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels. Sexuality is nonetheless a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t, when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness..., choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation.... We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection.

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Just love – love that is not unjust – is a social concern, and sometimes a highly contentious social concern, as we saw in Supreme Court nominations in 1991 and 2018. We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose just and true love and commitment.


Sacred friend and guide, invaluable projection of our individual and collective imagination and moral aspiration, avatar of our better selves:
You are with us whenever we invoke you, and with others whenever we hold them in our compassion. Our vision sees you there, a companion in the streets, in police stations, on curbsides, at take-out restaurants, in hospital waiting rooms, in public health offices conducting contact tracing phone calls, in hallways of governments, standing beside the sprayers of tear gas and the shooters of rubber bullets and the wielders of billy clubs, and standing with those receiving tear gas, rubber bullets, and billy clubs.

Be with us as our minds take in the words of the times: “police reform,” “migrant worker,” “essential workers,” “health equity,” “social distancing,” “multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” “data control,” “I can’t breathe,” “spiritual bypassing,” “voter suppression,” “caught on film.” Yet let us not forget the older, enduring words: “hunger,” “poverty,” “deserted,” “overrun,” “marginalized.”

Be with the people who have taken to the streets all over the world to protest. Be with those veteran activists who have been devoting their lives to justice since long before there were cell phones and viral videos. Be with those who have committed to the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception 8 years ago. Be with the thousands of newcomers who have just now, finally, decided that Black Lives do matter. We pray for the ending of institutional racism here and in all places. Help us to lean out new windows to hear sounds in other communities.

Be with the people of Brazil and its public health care system and epidemiologic surveillance that has pushed back against the president and ministers who sought to suppress and minimize the data on COVID-19. Be with the people of Hong Kong, and help their freedoms endure: of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, and association. Be with the Indian Samaritans organization in New Delhi, delivering food coupons to the neediest families. Be with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, dismantling white supremacy and advancing human rights around the globe.

Give us courage to do what is difficult. Make us unafraid to give tenderly, and strong enough to love mightily. Soften our touch, blend our voices, clarify our minds, fire our hearts for the task at hand, and make our juices flow for justice. When we are the healers, then will we be healed. Blessed be, and Amen.


These are the six norms that Sister Margaret Farley offers for love based in justice:
  • do no unjust harm, 
  • free consent, 
  • mutuality, 
  • equality, 
  • commitment, 
  • fruitfulness.
One: Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms:
“physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.”
In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for. Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Two: Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago that a fraternity group gathered outside the Women’s Center at Yale University to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo.

Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but whether ethics requires it to be clear before the first glass of wine starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, you’re the boss of your body, as Tracy’s Time for All Ages emphasized – but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. So I think the "consent" requirement needs some help from the further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Three: Mutuality

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving.

Mutuality need not be perfected, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Four: Equality

Just love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners.

It’s not that all such inequalities should be wiped out. The inequality of teacher and student or counselor and client can be very helpful. But it does rule out romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” There are a number of reasons one may favor legalization of prostitution. But making it legal doesn’t make it ethical.

Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship is unethical. On this point, I’m rather more categorical than Sister Farley is. I think any time those spheres blur together, our flourishing is compromised.

The ethical onus falls primarily on the party with greater power: the teacher more than the student, the counselor more than the client, the minister more than the parishioner, and the person paying for sex more than the person paid. The side with less power should also avoid such entanglements as they are able, but, having less power, they are apt to be less able.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” (Farley) – and not a means only.

Five: Commitment.

Brief encounters are not ruled out. It’s not that all one-night stands are necessarily unethical. The important consideration is that they be entered into with an openness to the possibility that the encounter may lead to long-term relationship. If there is zero prospect of leading to long-term committed relationship, the brief sexual encounter is ethically suspect. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled.... Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” (Farley)
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it’s worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Six, fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation. The procreation imperative, however, expressed a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness.

The relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Making babies is one way to be fruitful, one way for the relationship to contribute to ongoing sustaining and building of the human community. There are other ways.
Raising adopted children is certainly fruitful, where the parents’ sexual relationship is an integral part of the loving household that makes for healthy child-rearing. Even without children in the picture at all, a romantic relationship may be fruitful.

Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of just love strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics isn’t just ethics for people in sexual relationships to follow. Sexual ethics also includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from . . . the wider society.”
The ethic of Just Love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.





What is vision, anyway? There’s that famous verse in Proverbs – or, anyway, the first part is famous.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
The first part is well known and often cited: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The second part about keeping the law is less often mentioned. The implication is that having vision is synonymous with keeping the law. That’s weird! Unpacking this Proverb will, I think, make it seem less weird.

As beautiful, quotable, and familiar as the language of the King James Version is, I rely mostly on the New Revised Standard Version, which renders Proverbs 29:18 as:
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint. But happy are those that keep the law.”
Both translations indicate that keeping the law is conducive to happiness. But “vision” is now “prophecy,” and “perish” is now “cast off restraint.” The Hebrew word translated as “perish” or “cast off restraint” means to loosen; by implication, to expose, dismiss, to ignore (advice or instruction). Staying alive entails keeping ourselves together.

The Hebrew word translated as “vision” or “prophecy” refers to the revelation or prophecy of God’s will. The prophets were the seers who saw God’s will – hence “vision” for the perception of divine purpose. In this light, the New Living Translation’s interpretation makes sense:
"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful."
The New International Version is:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint. But blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction."
So what do we have? We’ve seen that what goes by the name of vision is also known as prophecy, divine guidance, revelation. It’s what makes us able to keep the law, which is to say, heed wisdom’s instruction.

I’d put it this way: “vision” is, indeed, about seeing. It’s about seeing who we truly are. When we don’t know who we are, we are undefined, and scattered. That’s how I read “casting off restraint,” “running wild.” It’s the dissolute, dissipated life of not being true to ourselves: jumping from persona to persona without the anchor of a core vision of who we are. That’s no kind of life. It is, indeed, to perish.

By contrast, to keep the law, as I read it, is to keep your own law: to be true to the vision of yourself. It is to heed wisdom’s instruction, recognizing that the best wisdom is in yourself. I’ve been talking a lot in the last couple months about vow – asking, “what is your great vow?” Our vow is the vision we have of the life we want to lead. It’s not a goal to get to – it’s the way we want to travel. It’s not about any particular results, it’s just about orienting yourself in a particular direction, and going.

I’m not saying “the journey’s more important than the destination.” I’m saying the journey IS the destination. There’s nowhere to get to except the going.

Our vow is our vision for ourselves. To have vision is to see everything we do in the light of our vow.

In the business world, in the organizational world, you need to accomplish things. So there’s a need to articulate just what you’re out to accomplish, and make plans to get there. But there are a lot of different goals your organization could be pursuing, so the challenge arises: how to decide which goals? Most organizations have multiple goals, so the question is which ones to make the highest priority.
And for organizations, that’s where vision comes in. A well-crafted vision that isn’t just written down in some exercise and then forgotten -- a vision statement that is taken to heart and paid attention to -- provides real guidance in deciding which goals are the highest priority.
It provides inspiration in pursuit of those goals. So in the organizational world, vision is about accomplishing things.
And that’s great. I’m not against accomplishing things. Organizations are for accomplishing things. Whether the organization is a Mom and Pop Bakery, or Google, or Walmart, or a sports team, or a nonprofit like the Equal Justice Initiative, or Greenpeace, or a political party, the organization exists to accomplish stuff. Achieve results.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not an organization. It’s an amorphous movement without formal leadership, where informal leaders emerge and recede without any sort of organization chart of who reports to whom. But even a movement is about accomplishing things. And it needs a vision, which, in this case, is right there in the name of the movement. Black lives matter. That’s the vision: a world in which black people are not systematically treated as if their lives don’t matter. From that basic vision, various individuals and organizations may opt to be guided by that vision in to form particular goals that contribute toward the vision.

Accomplishing things is important. Accomplishing housing for people is a definite good – and that has not been fully accomplished yet.
Accomplishing a system that keeps so many millions fed and clothed – a system that produces enough food that no one need ever be hungry, even if we don’t get it distributed to everyone – is a really good thing. Shakespeare’s plays, Michelangelo’s art, Beethoven’s symphonies, Newton’s Laws, Salk’s vaccine, Pythagorus’ theorem, and Eiffel’s Tower are achievements that profoundly alter and enrich human life. Accomplishment of libraries, and universities, and hospitals, and museums is important. Accomplishment of our system of ongoing scientific research with peer review is no small thing. Accomplishment of a free and independent press is a big deal, as is the accomplishment of an independent judiciary – given that for most of human history we had neither a free press nor an independent judiciary. All those accomplishments have required vision that directed purposive effort toward accomplishing.

And all those accomplishments, wonderful as they are, are not enough. We still need to accomplish the end of poverty, the end of domestic violence, the end of rape, of misogyny, of patriarchy. Achieving the end of war, the end of police brutality, the end of white supremacy remains to be done. The accomplishment of peace and justice remains to be done. Achieving equality of concern and respect for all of God’s children remains to be done. The accomplishment of environmental sustainability and conservation of species and habitats remains to be done.
Those are vitally important. In some of those cases, we won’t survive as a species if we don’t proximately accomplish them. In other cases, if we can’t proximately accomplish them, maybe we shouldn’t survive as a species. Accomplishing these things will take clarity of vision and steadfast commitment by a lot of people to that vision. We have, all of us, absolutely crucial work to do to get things done. We have journeys where getting to the destination is very much the point, and is very much needed.


Life is also more than accomplishing things. In the widest context, in the spiritual context, in the ultimate context, we do not work for the sake of what we hope that work will accomplish. We work simply to manifest who we are, regardless of whether the hoped-for results happen or don’t.

Vision works at both of those levels. Vision works at the level of directing us toward accomplishment, clarifying and inspiring our aims. Vision also works at the level of just being, clarifying and inspiring our inherent blessedness.

The first is the level of never enough: there is always more to accomplish, always the next thing that needs our efforts. The other is the level of never not enough. Who you are, what you are, is always precisely and perfectly sufficient. Please have the vision to see that.


Dear Jeremiah, archetype of our imagination,
We turn to you in prayer, you, dear Prophet Jeremiah, who, in 6th-century BCE Jerusalem, grieved for your people.
You wrote:
‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
So why has the healing of my dear people not come about?’
As you then wished plaintively for a balm, so today and here, do we.
We crave healing, an end to the desperate pain we are feeling.
People of more than 75 cities in the United States are marching, demonstrating against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey, and far too many others at the hands of the police.
Others are demonstrating in solidarity in London, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Perth, Auckland, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, among other cities.
We need a balm of Love and Peace, to heal our wound of racism.
We need to be made whole.
The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic continues.
Statistics are not reliable, but such as we have indicate that the worldwide deaths per week peaked in mid-April, then fell steadily through the end of May until weekly deaths were almost down to half of the peak week.
In this first week of June, however, deaths are up again – 10 percent more than the week before, worldwide.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Jeremiah, you experienced a divine command to gird up your loins, stand up, and tell them everything commanded.
So be with us, prophetic icon and archetype.
May we likewise be unafraid.
May we likewise stand up, in body or in spirit, for what is right.
May we likewise speak what Justice commands.
For there is no balm in Gilead unless and until we are that balm.
There is no physician but we ourselves.
When we are the healers, then will we be healed.
Be with us, spirit of Jeremiah.
Blessed be, and Amen.


Iyanla Vanzant said:
"If you don’t have a vision, you’re going to be stuck in what you know. And the only thing you know is what you’ve already seen.”
So. Think about that. To have vision – to see – is the only way to see what you haven’t seen. Vision, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways. Sometimes a vision of one thing leads us to a place of something else – different from what has been and also different from you had envisioned. Through imagination we may be led to the unimagined.

Sometimes what’s called for is completely unrealistic vision.
You might look at that unrealistic vision, and your rational mind says, “No, that’s not gonna happen.” But there’s a benefit, sometimes, in turning off rational mind for a little while. Enter the field of play. Hop on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Trolley and take a trip to the land of make-believe.

When you get back, you may be in a position to say: OK, that vision is not going to happen. But thinking about it lets me see what I really love about that completely unrealistic vision – what I really value. And clarifying what we love and value can then go into making a vision that maybe, kinda, really could happen. You might like an example. And I have one.

Here is a completely unrealistic vision. It ain’t gonna happen. But I find it very appealing. And by reflecting on what’s so appealing about this, we get some direction for maybe what we really could do. This vision is expressed in a poem by Junauda Petrus-Nasah.
Could we please give the police departments to the grandmothers?
Give them the salaries and the pensions and the city vehicles, but make them a fleet of vintage corvettes, jaguars and cadillacs, with white leather interior.
Diamond in the back, sunroof top and digging the scene with the gangsta lean.
Let the cars be badass!
You would hear the old school jams like Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Al Green.
You would hear Sweet Honey in the Rock harmonizing on “We who believe in freedom will not rest” bumping out the speakers.
And they got the booming system.
If you up to mischief, they will pick you up swiftly in their sweet ride and look at you until you catch shame and look down at your lap.
She asks you if you are hungry and you say “yes” and of course you are.
She got a crown of dreadlocks and on the dashboard you see brown faces like yours, shea buttered and loved up.
And there are no precincts.
Just love temples, that got spaces to meditate and eat delicious food.
Mangoes, blueberries, nectarines, cornbread, peas and rice, fried plantain, fufu, yams, greens, okra, pecan pie, salad and lemonade.
Things that make your mouth water and soul arrive.
All the hungry bellies know warmth, all the children expect love.
The grandmas help you with homework, practice yoga with you and teach you how to make jamabalaya and coconut cake.
From scratch.
When you’re sleepy she will start humming and rub your back while you drift off.
A song that she used to have the record of when she was your age.
She remembers how it felt like to be you and be young and not know the world that good.
Grandma is a sacred child herself, who just circled the sun enough times into the ripeness of her cronehood.
She wants your life to be sweeter.
When you are wildin’ out because your heart is broke or you don’t have what you need the grandmas take your hand and lead you to their gardens.
You can lay down amongst the flowers.
Her grasses, roses, dahlias, irises, lilies, collards, kale, eggplants, blackberries.
She wants you know that you are safe and protected, universal limitless, sacred, sensual, divine and free.
Grandma is the original warrior, wild since birth, comfortable in loving fiercely.
She has fought so that you don’t have to, not in the same ways at least.
So give the police departments to the grandmas, they are fearless, classy and actualized.
Blossomed from love.
They wear what they want and say what they please.
Believe that.
There wouldn’t be noise citations when the grandmas ride through our streets, blasting Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Alice Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, KRS-One.
All that good music.
The kids gonna hula hoop to it and sell her lemonade made from heirloom pink lemons and maple syrup.
The car is solar powered and carbon footprint-less, the grandmas designed the technology themselves.
At night they park the cars in a circle so all can sit in them with the sun roofs down, and look at the stars, talk about astrological signs, what to plant tomorrow based on the moon’s mood and help you memorize Audre Lorde and James Baldwin quotes.
She always looks you in the eye and acknowledges the light in you with no hesitation or fear.
And grandma loves you fiercely forever.
She sees the pain in our bravado, the confusion in our anger, the depth behind our coldness.
Grandma know what oppression has done to our souls and is gonna change it one love temple at a time.
She has no fear.
So, what’s appealing about that? Proverbs told us that when we run wild, we aren’t going to be happy. Our flourishing depends on having some guidance. “Whoever obeys the law is joyful” – says the New Living Translation.

OK, that’s a human need, especially for our younger folk, but not just for younger folk: to have some guidance. I’m 61-years-old, and I have a relationship with a person I call my teacher. Teachers need teachers too. Our flourishing at all ages depends on having some guidance – some laws we obey.

And police were kinda, sorta supposed to help us meet that need, ideally. I mean, I know the historical analysis that reveals just how much US police forces for hundreds of years have been essentially the private guards at the white palace – protecting their employers from the inconveniences of that nonwhites might otherwise impose. I speak of what historical analysis reveals because that is my experience of coming to know this. I recognize for minority communities in this country, the broad sunlight at noon on a clear day requires no revealing or analysis to see. It doesn’t need any uncovering because, for them, it was never covered. But even without that function as the protectors of white supremacy, our increasingly militarized police, occupying our streets with armored personnel carriers, flashbang grenades, grenade launchers, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and tear gas have been moving further and further away from helpful guides to obedience of helpful laws.

Junauda Petrus-Nasah’s vision raises the question: can we look for more supportive ways to guide all of us to being productive, responsible, flourishing people? Can we? It’s a good question.



Presence in the Midst of Crisis


OUR TIMES segment -- HERE


I want to talk about presence – being present for each other in an attentive way. Our presence is a fundamental offering. A person aligned with their purpose, who has integrity and wholeness, creates a presence that ripples out through the world. It reassures and empowers others. It changes the world.

Henry Nouwen, in his 1974 book, Out of Solitude, wrote:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
I want to talk about presence in the midst of crisis. This last week has been a tough one. Let’s just be present to that for a few minutes.

The global death toll from Covid-19 is confirmed at over 370,000, and over 28% of those deaths were in the U.S., which passed 100,000 deaths this week. We have lost parents and children, siblings, co-workers, close friends, beloved spouses. We are awash in grief, and deprived of the memorial services that afford us a chance to process our grief within a context of family and people who simply come to pay their respects – people barely known to the principal mourners who nevertheless provide the gift of their presence.

Apart from the death toll, the unemployed now number more than 40 million – 40 million claims for jobless benefits have been filed in the last 10 weeks. It’s an unemployment rate of 14 percent – the highest since the Great Depression.

Then came the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police officers, and the incident between a dog-walker and a bird-watcher in Central Park that vividly informed us that America’s racism problem, for one, has not been dampened by the Coronavirus. Indeed, as the lawyer for George Floyd’s family said in a statement: “The pain that the black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of black people in America is raw and is spilling out onto streets across America.” Meanwhile, white supremacists are also taking to the streets, vandalizing and looting apparently with the aim of black protestors being blamed for it.

In past crises, the commander-in-chief became the mourner-in-chief, giving to the country empathetic presence. Instead, our president is waging war against Twitter, floating baseless theories that Joe Scarborough killed a former staff member two decades ago, and suggesting that looters be shot. The opposite of present, after all, isn’t exactly absent – the more precise opposite of present is: distracted.

It’s been a difficult week. And it comes at the end of a pretty rough 10 weeks. In perspective, bad weeks are normal in human history. We have not seen the like in our lifetime, but in the broad sweep of millennia, political dysfunction has been cropping up since there was politics. Plagues and pandemics have been periodically striking since before the Common Era. Unrest and uncertainty have been more common in human history than peace and prosperity.

Still, it’s a difficult adjustment for many of us. Many people, cut off from the social circulation to which they are accustomed, are feeling the effects – often feeling numb. “Sleepwalking through my life,” they might say. I read one account of a person who said, “I feel like I have two modes: barely functioning and boiling angry.” Another said, “I’ve lost faith in myself. I don’t know if I can actually justify taking up space and resources. My purpose is disintegrating.”

Depression is way up. Before the pandemic, the rough estimate for how many people met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression was roughly about 5 to 7 percent. Now, Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, estimates 50 percent of the U.S. population is experiencing depressive symptoms. Half of us.

“Experiencing depressive symptoms” is not the same thing as meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Still, people – maybe you -- are taking this hard: the isolation, the stasis – and often significant medical stress, financial stress, or both. If you defined yourself by your work and that work disappears, or knew who you were through particular modes of interaction with others and that interaction is gone, a basic sense of self might be lost.

There’s a risk that feelings of numbness, powerlessness, and hopelessness may be considered normal – that this is just what life is. It isn’t – it doesn’t have to be.

We need social responses to relieve the medical and financial stresses, and, yes, let’s all participate in the processes for that: vote, write to your representatives, march, contribute if you can to causes. Beyond that, the alternative to pandemic dysphoria begins – well, it begins by determining whether medical help is called for. Google “am I depressed?” Talk to your primary care physician about whether you should see a mental health professional.

With or without medical assistance, the road to presence begins with presence to yourself. If you’re feeling numb, feel the numbness – which might sound paradoxical, but investigate it: where does the numbness seem to originate from, are there any particular parts of your body that feel different. At the end of every day, jot down when during the day did you feel most numb and least numb. And while you’re there with pen in hand, write down some gratitudes – that’s always good practice. Pay attention to what’s up with you.

The opposite of presence is distraction, and to cultivate presence, notice when you escape into self-distraction: “Organizing an already well-organized sock drawer, baking bread you don’t even want, or endlessly scrolling through Instagram” (Hamblin, Atlantic). While preferable to staying in bed all day, those are ways we distract ourselves. Exercise is great, but if your response to global pandemic is that you’re going to work out really hard, then exercise itself can be escapist distraction.

Attentive presence to ourselves can be hard. It helps us be able to give presence to ourselves if we have a friend or family member who can give us that gift of presence. And sometimes it helps us be present to ourselves if we practice by being present to others. The friend who cares, as Nouwen wrote, is present – undistractedly there: sharing silence in the midst of despair or confusion; sharing company in grief; tolerating not knowing, not fixing; facing together the reality of powerlessness.

What we most need from one another is simply presence. There’s a lot we can’t fix it – and we, as individuals, don’t need to. What we can do is be there – for our lives, for our families, for our friends, for anyone we have occasion with whom to spend a few minutes: whether through a screen, or through masks, or naked face to naked face.

As Nouwen’s “Out of Solitude” went on to explain:
“When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.”
But when we are present to someone else – just undistractedly there – our presence, our attention to them without judgment or advice affirms as only such presence can affirm: it’s not about the scoreboard.

You don’t have to do anything except do you. It doesn’t matter what your successes have been. It doesn’t matter what your failures have been. Someone who is present for you is not there for the sake of “better.” They’re not there to help you do better, or be better, or get better. They’re not there to take your pain away, but to share it.


Dear Source of our Energies and Efforts,
We have been self-protective when we could have been more vulnerable and open. This is not sin. It’s just that we aren’t always as skillful as we could be at judging when self-protection is warranted. And we almost always err on the side of being guarded.

May we be more present, more self-revealing, more open to new experience, more tender more often.

May we trust a little more.

May we be less often reactive and more often curious.

May we be less often demanding and more often grateful.

May we be less often afraid, and when fear arises, may we manage it skillfully, neither suppressing nor indulging.

And may we attend to the call of justice.

As we hear news of political turmoil and broken promises in Hong Kong, as we hear of racist incidents in Central Park and police killing in Minnesota, may we have prophetic words to speak truth to those who abuse their power wherever they are found, and words of comfort for those who suffer from racism or political oppression.

As our world continues to wrestle with the political, medical, economic, and cultural implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – as the U.S. death toll surpassed 100,000 -- may we speak to one another in ways that are respectful of the needs of those around us.

May we turn away from an inward focus, and see the ways we affect other people.

May we thus orient toward justice, and encourage those around us to orient toward justice, and may the company we keep be company that encourages and supports orientation toward justice.

May we embody love, and may we thereby transform our world.

We do not seek a world without conflict, but one in which the most violent conflicts are becoming ever less and less violent. May we be a part of making that so.



The 1979 film, Being There, illustrates the power of – being there. Peter Sellers plays Chance, an illiterate gardener who has spent his whole life on an estate, learning about and then tending to the gardens. He’s never left the property. Other than gardening, he watches a lot of television.

When estate owner dies, Chance has to move out. Chance wanders aimlessly in the city, Washington DC, and happens to be struck by a chauffeured car owned by elderly business mogul Ben Rand. When he tells them he is “Chance the gardener,” he is misheard as saying "Chauncey Gardiner."
They take Chance back to their home to recover. Since Chance has been allowed to take clothes from the attic of his erstwhile benefactor, he is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and 1930s.

Ben Rand takes "Chauncey" for an upper-class, highly-educated businessman who has fallen on hard times. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful. He tells him, “You know Chauncey, there’s something about you. You don’t play games with words to protect yourself.”

Rand is an advisor to the President of the United States, whom he introduces to "Chauncey." In the course of the conversation, the president asks Chance if he thinks “we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives.”

Chance says, “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden.”

The President says: “In the garden.”

Chance says: “Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

Ben Rand interjects: “I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we're upset by the seasons of our economy.”

And President says: “Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time. I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.”

Subsequently, the President gives a speech in which he quotes “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance rises to national prominence, attends important dinners, appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what would be his presidential policy. By the end of the film, we see political operatives discussing who their party’s next nominee for president should be, and they’re agreeing on Chauncey Gardiner.

The movie is a comedy, and it’s a spoof of the cluelessness of business moguls, politicians, and the media. Chance, albeit inadvertently, dupes them all, and I don’t think real people in those positions would be quite so easily duped. But one thing about Chance: he’s not very bright, but he is present. He’s not distracted by calculations about advancing his own agenda because he doesn’t have an agenda. He’s just there. And the film shows us how attractive that is.

We hunger for another person’s simple presence. People who don’t get that very much – such as people in positions of power who only ever encounter other people who are trying to get something from them or just be close to a center of power – may especially feel that need. I’ve had days when I would have loved to spend an hour with Chance the Gardener. I wouldn’t take him to be a sagacious oracle, but I’d have appreciated the balm of his presence and maybe getting out of my own head to think about what makes plants healthy and grow.

Being there -- presence -- is a form of love, and it’s respect – respect for the other’s humanity, for their animality, for their being, which Chance exhibits intuitively, unreflexively, without conscious intention to do so. Presence respects, but it does not approve, for approval would turn the encounter back into a scoreboard matter. Nor is disapproval relevant.

If we have learned to be present to ourselves – to hold in nonjudgmental awareness all the voices and feelings that arise in ourselves – then we can be present to others, for others just are ourselves in a slightly modified form. Others are ourselves – including the aspects of others that we don’t like. There is no evil in any heart that isn’t also, in some measure, in mine. Because there is no evil in any one that isn’t also, in some measure, in me, I can bring presence to people who have done awful things. Nouwen explains:
“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too.
When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.”
Attentive, undistracted presence is a grace – a gift that we don’t earn or deserve.

It’s a kind of miracle, which the film Being There indicates in its final scene where Chance strolls across a pond, walking on water. Nouwen references this miracle-working power when he writes:
“Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.”
In the midst of crisis, may we receive and give this miraculous gift.


From Rainer Maria Rilke:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.