Bidden or Unbidden: God in the House?

God keeps popping up at my house.

Which is a little strange given that we are a couple of Buddhists.

buddha1buddha1It started this summer, while I was interning as a hospital chaplain, part of the process to form me as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Now, to be a UU minister, I do not have to claim Jesus as my personal savior.  Though the title, “minister” sounds exclusively Christian, it is not.  Though some individual UU people or congregations might identify as Christian, and our historical roots are Protestant, many individuals and congregations donor identity as Christian and the denomination as a whole can be legitimately called, “post-Christian.”

So I don’t have to have a close and personal relationship with Jesus.  And I do not even have to affirm a belief in God.  Or god.

This is especially convenient, since, as I inferred earlier, the strongest influence on my spiritual practices and theological bent, are strains of Western Buddhism – and though there may be nothing precluding god there, there’s also not a lot of attention to the Divine.

Yet ever since I spent three months hanging out with the critically ill, the dying and the dead, and with the newly grieving, god keeps creeping into conversations between me and my partner.

At first, it was stories about my chaplain intern peers, most of whom have personal connections to god.  “God” was an easy word for them to say, a powerful presence to evoke, and often a source of comfort and guidance.  While honoring and respecting their theologies so very different from my own, I struggled honestly and explicitly with what that meant or could mean for me.

I didn’t think I would become a god- believer.  Truthfully, I just don’t think I’m built that way.  But I did wonder what I might be able to glean for myself from their faith and their experience of the Holy.

It turns out, and I knew this before embarking on my chaplaincy experience, I may not know God (or god), but I am a big fan of the Holy.

Or the Transcendent.  Or Sacred Glue.  Or That Which Is Greater Than Ourselves.  There are lots of names which point in the general direction that can never be fully named.

One of the ways I struggled with the implied notion of god was around Divine Intentionality.  One of the most favored expressions among my peers was, “the right chaplain always shows up.”  This is very comforting when you are a total newbie and about to enter the ICU to sit with a family whose only son is on life support; or when you are the one carrying the beeper for the whole hospital, answering all the calls for trauma emergencies; or that same beeper will wake you in the middle of the night to hold the angry/anguished family after their daughter/sister just died of a drug overdose.

“The right chaplain” implies — falsely promises — that if you aren’t ready, then you won’t be called.  And it means — again, sometimes falsely promises — that if the beeper goes off, despite your trepidation, you must be ready.  Divine Intentionality says so.

So everyone glommed onto this adage and its inherent wisdom, offering it as a pep talk at the start of a 24-hour on-call shift.  Everyone, except me.

I was, it will be no surprise to those who know me, the skeptic in the group.  I would inconveniently ask, “What about all the Spanish- speaking patients who number too many for the one Spanish-speaking staff chaplain? Are they getting the right chaplain – which would either be someone whose Spanish was mediocre or was assisted by an interpreter or got no chaplain at all?”

My own experience of learning at the expense of patients is an indicator that it might have been the right experience for me, but surely not for them (who got an ill-informed intern who was all thumbs).

So this idea that god ensures that each patient gets the right chaplain every time seems far-fetched, at the very least, and self-serving at its worst.

So, with my skepticism fully I hand, my partner and I, unconsciously, yet with a holier-than-thou tone, began to attribute all our good luck to god.

God meant for us to find the most opulent AirBnB option on all of Cape Ann at a bargain price.

God meant for you to leave me the last Klondike bar in the freezer.

God needs you (definitely not me) to take out the trash.

It was our way not of embracing this problematic notion, and not embracing god as well, but resisting them both.  It was clever and embarrassingly arrogant.

A decade or so ago, when I still claimed the title of atheist proudly, I was looking through a catalog; in it, there was a wall plaque I found compelling.  I couldn’t tell you why I was drawn to it, but lucky for me, I didn’t resist.  I bought one for myself and one as a gift for a friend. It hangs in my bedroom.  On it is inscribed, in Latin, the words from the headstone of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung:
bidden-or-unbidden-God-is-presentIt translates as
Strange thing for an atheist on a social worker’s salary to spend her precious funds on, but, as they say, god works in mysterious ways.

Returning to the present day, I am noticing a shift in my voice, and perhaps even in my partner’s.  (Well, not in my partner’s.  That’s just projection.)  Just a bit.  Not a full out transformation.  When we make our clever jokes about god’s presence in our lives, the mock and the snark seems to be dissipating.  I can only speak for myself, but there seems to be more of an open question than an outright dismissal; a “who knows” rather than  a straight-up defensive posture.

The word isn’t so charged as it was before, leaving room for god to be something other than limb-ridden and narrow, a god who saves parking places for lucky bastards while allowing free-lance journalists to be beheaded.

(I know, I know, you god-believers want to chime in now about Human Will.  About the presence of evil.  But to my mind and heart, if it is god’s will that one person survive a car crash, then it’s god’s will to let a child starve.  You can’t have it both ways.  If god is truly Love -with a capital L – then it’s a kind of love that is fierce, awesome, devastating, and profoundly ugly…as well as redemptive, generative, merciful, and mysterious.)

I don’t know where this having god as an additional housemate is going to lead.  Not too long ago, I apparently referenced god in the course of a casual conversation with a UU friend.  I didn’t notice, but she did (pleasantly so, I think).  So I guess god is showing up not just in conversations at home, but elsewhere in my life.  Maybe it will serve this purpose, so aptly described by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, in her book, Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language:

“We need God language to awaken the imagination; to point, not to name; to help us to move beyond material realities to the meanings of life and of love, to the truth that there is more of beauty and care I this world than we can comprehend or capture I our scientific explanations.”

When I have an opinion on the subject, I tend to side with those who advise that if you look, you can find god anywhere and everywhere.  And if not god, then That Which Is Holy.  Or traces and echoes and lingerings of it.  Most certainly one can look upward, but also be sure to look all around, as well as inside and in the eyes of another.

And maybe, just maybe, if you are having a particularly hard time of it, you should come over to my house.  Who knows who or what you just might find there.

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A Game of Chess: The New Jim Crow Over & Over (Part II)

As I have written about in Part I, I am currently “reading” (listening as I drive) to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This book was chosen several years ago as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s CommonRead – where the whole denomination is encouraged to read a common book in order to encourage a common conversation.

From reading this book, I am learning about various everyday non-criminal activities that were made criminal by vagrancy laws and applied primarily to African Americans. Such a “mischief.” Or “insulting gestures.”

This is serious stuff, for as we know, such twisted law results in torture and murder, as the killing of Emmett Till – who supposedly whistled at a white woman, though that is in dispute – is a horrendous example.


Another activity made illegal during the “Southern Redemption” era was for Blacks and whites to play chess together.


When I heard this, I was like

wtf Then I remembered what I learned in my Hebrew and Christian Scriptures classes.

In reading Black Liberation Theology and Feminist Liberation Theology, we read in the story between the official lines of the Bible (or the law or history). If someone is making a law about something – for example, if Paul is saying that women shouldn’t speak in church like in 1 Corinthians 14: 34-36:

(As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.[a] 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

– it means is that somebody is already doing it. And more than likely, more than one somebody.

Women were speaking in church (and some men got all upset and felt threatened and so Paul, probably one of them, caved – because Jesus included women, so that was all on Paul, not on Jesus). And rightfully so.

African Americans and whites were playing chess together, or else there was no need to make a law against it.  So, when you think about it, it was probably a subversive act, happening at a time when the powers that be needed not only for there to be a racial divide, but for it to be wide and hostile.

You can be competitive when you are playing chess together, but it’s hard to be hostile.

StNicholas1 playing-chess-in-central-park.jpg.pagespeed.ce.YGFkmMoq7ASo, let’s be sure we keep playing chess together, okay?


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Furtive Movements: The New Jim Crow Over & Over (part I)

Maybe you were like me when the George Zimmerman trial was going on, shocked (not necessarily surprised) that the defense would come up with something so totally messed up as to say that Trayvon Martin was not unarmed because he used the ground upon which he was standing (and defending himself against an unprovoked aggressor) “as a weapon.”

In case you missed it then, or want to be reminded, here it is, described in an article from The Daily Beast:

Martin, who was on his way to his father’s house after buying a bag of Skittles candies and a can of drink, was not unarmed, said [Mark] O’Mara [defense counsel]. He was armed with a concrete sidewalk, on which he slammed Zimmerman’s head.

It drove me crazy.  Certainly, this must be an oddity.  A freak of the legal system that was just one element that fed the whacked ultimate findings of that court that acquitted Zimmerman.

Yeah, right.

Just this week, I heard on the radio a report about young Black men killed by police officers.  The report was based on an investigation conducted by the intrepid folks at ProPublica (winner of 2010 and 2011 Pulitzer Prizes).

Lots of bad news and overwhelming evidence for racist trends and patterns.  Again, shocking (I never want to lose that sense of shock), but not surprising.

Like, how Black men in this nation have a twenty-one times higher risk of being shot by a police officer than a white man has.  Twenty-one. Not 21% higher risk. Twenty-one times higher.

2100I knew there would be a heart-achingly, enragingly higher risk for men of color, but I would not have guessed at that number.

As if that were not bad enough, the thing that took my breath away, despite my cynical stance on these things, was that in at least one case, one police department (NYPD) when providing documentation after a police officer shoet and killed someone, they noted that the now-dead suspect had as a weapon, “furtive movements.”

Furtive movements.

Not as a precursor to gaining access to a weapon.  Not as a reason that drew the police officer’s attention.  Listed as weapon.

Just so we all are clear — especially those of us (me included) with race privilege who have short attention spans and big blind spots – this is not a modern-day invention. There is history here. Far too much history.

not this mischief

not this mischief

For example, in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she describes the era on the hinge of Reconstruction being abandoned (federal troops were pulled out of the South) and the era of “Southern Redemption” being firmly, brutally established.  Racialized vagrancy laws were continually defined and refined to make mundane activities into criminal ones. “Mischief” and “insulting gestures,” were made into criminal offenses.  You can view a “book trailer” (about 3 minutes long) to get to know Alexander’s book’s premise here.

The folks over at this blog I was newly introduced to — Interracial Jawn (self-described as “an interracial couple discusses pop culture, tv, movies and current events from their unique perspectives as a very white guy and a mostly black woman”) – put together this informative Ferguson Flashcard (it’s #3).

used with permission of the authors

used with permission of the authors

This shows us the hateful roots of today’s systematic racism in yesterday’s and last century’s and last two and three centuries’ systematic racism. This so happens to show the parallels between the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and modern-day “tactics of law enforcement.”

You don’t have to agree 100% with the analogy to still see the truth of what their flashcard reveals: never was it true that electing a Black president meant the end of racism in this country.  This is not about individuals and bias.  This is about systemic racism that continues to infect our nation.  It is not easy to face; it is even harder to endure.

We are called, as people of faith and people of conscience, regardless of our place in this culture and nation, to not turn away and do what we can to undo this and make the world new, standing (and sitting and leaning and laying) on the side of love as we do.

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Forget the Blessings (poetry)

for T.C.

Forget pious blessing chatter.

The nice-nice that assures polite company

the world still spins properly.


It doesn’t.

It’s off kilter.

Your son is gone.

All is not right

in the world.


Should you take my advice,

don’t just set it aside.

Cast that shit away.


Throw the mother-fucker

to the furthest reaches

of the field,

or the river bank,

or your tiny backyard,

keening as your arm

whips back in shock.


Don’t just forget

the pious chatter:

smother it.


Let it fall

to the hard ground.

Place your workman’s

heel on it

and crush

the damn thing.


Lift your foot,

stomp the remains,

guttural excess

leaking unbidden

from your throat.


What is left to you,

what is left in you,

is nothing

but surrender:






There are no blessings.

Not today.

Posted in Chaplaincy, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Nobody, but Nobody, Can Make It Out Here Alone (sermon)

First Parish Church of Groton, Groton, MA

Karen G. Johnston, Intern Minister

October 12, 2014

(a link to the audio of this sermon is here)

Let me begin with gratitude. For you, this body of people who makes a place for me and my calling to ministry. For this body that carried me to this place, up these stairs, and to this moment. For this planet earth, with its bodies of water, its landmasses, its place in this vast universe.

Thank you for this journey we have begun together, I as your intern minister and each of you as my teachers, my companions, my inspirations, and no doubt, my source of curiosity and delight. Thank you for the trust you are extending to me – you, Unitarian Universalists, who are free in your pews and I, Unitarian Universalist, who is free in this pulpit – may I earn that trust.

May we grow great things together.


So this is the assignment. The theological theme for this month’s worship is sanctuary. So when you – that is to say, when I – prepare worship for today, be sure to include sanctuary. Whatever that means to you.

Oh, right, this will be your first time in the pulpit, so remember that they want to get to know you.  Tell them something, but not too much. Be sure that you don’t talk about yourself so much that people can’t hear their own lives in what you are saying.

Don’t forget that for more than one person sitting in those pews, a heart is breaking.  Be of comfort to them.

And, by the way (I am learning to pay attention to the by-the-ways…), the children will have built a sukkah for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. It will be on display for the congregation and the community. There will be an invitation after worship to spend some time in the sukkah. Weave that into the service, if you can…

Nope. Not daunted. Not me. I have been known to take on a challenge or two (like adopting two children out of the foster care system as an only parent – they were two and nearly four when I first met them; they are 18 and 20 now).

So I was like: bring it on!

And then I was like: Oh. My. Goodness.

What to do when daunted? When in need of a dose of courage? When I need to show up, even when I think I can’t or don’t want to, but have to, I remember Maya Angelou’s wise words (from her poem, Alone, read earlier in the service):

quote-nobody-but-nobody-can-make-it-out-here-alone-maya-angelou-323359It’s not just for courage-making. It’s good for grief-consoling. And hope-inducing. And heart-mending, this coming together with one and for one another.

Though church language often has “sanctuary” to mean this location where we are gathered – a room, a material space – much more compelling to me is sanctuary as embodiment and as process. Sanctuary as human interaction, rather than bricks and mortar, is so much more in line with our Unitarian Universalist covenant of relationality and accountability to one another and the wider world.

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Sometimes sanctuary is concrete, is shelter around us. Like the sukkah which is traditionally connected to harvest time. And gratitude, as well, for the shelter that was found and made during the forty years of wandering the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.

Similar shelters in daily life were a source of protection for shepherds – people who could not remove themselves to a safe place, but had to create it with found objects and faith in their god, as they continued their task of providing for the betterment of their community.

We could say that sukkah gave the shepherds two kinds of sanctuary, two kinds of freedom: freedom from wild animals and the unfriendly elements of weather, and freedom to provide for the needs of the community’s suImaniPerry-240x300rvival. I first learned those two concepts of freedom – freedom from and freedom to – from an interview with Dr. Imani Perry, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.

Typically, at least in American society, we think of freedom as freedom from – she calls it libertarian in nature: this kind of freedom says “leave me alone” or “don’t tread on me.” It says you can’t impose your values or religion or needs on me. This kind of freedom is particularly important in a society with over-empowered majorities and disenfranchised minorities. The religious right of conscience that informs our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle is rooted firmly in this concept.

Yet freedom to is given short shrift in society at large and sometimes within our own UU congregations. Dr. Perry calls this second kind of freedom “liberationist” because it is about undoing domination “that gets in the way of us living healthy lives…and how can we actually create things that are meaningful and joyful.”

With this form of freedom, we are called to engage, rather than disengage. This freedom, no more and certainly no less, is a natural consequence of our seventh principle proclaiming and affirming the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part.  It is often true that we are only able to create those things that are meaningful and joyful when we have experienced a sense of sanctuary.

Sometimes sanctuary is freedom from something – from ragged days, from consumer culture, from time spent without intention.

Sometimes sanctuary is freedom to do something, on someone’s behalf, to create safety for oneself and others, to grow compassion and justice in the world.

As I mentioned in this morning’s pastoral prayer, Unitarian Universalists – and thousands of other people of faith and conscience – are gathering this weekend in Ferguson, Missouri.  Yesterday there were 3000 people marching, 60 of whom were UU.  Now 60 doesn’t sound like so much, but percentage-wise, we are talking 2%.  Let me tell you, in the U.S. we UUs are nowhere near two percent of the population!

They gathered, marking the site of where 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed, was shot and killed by police; where one side of a community reacted with militarized police force to the deep aching rage of race betrayal in our country, bringing not justice or understanding or healing, but further salt to a wound we all – and our nation — carries.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

I remember one image from the just days after Mike Brown was murdered. It was after the initial police response and the protests in response. The image is a photograph, taken not far from the patch of pavement where Mike Brown’s body lay for hours before being properly tended to.

It is where four poles and a tent roof were put together and a voter registration booth was erected. It was a somewhat ramshackvoter-registration-fergusonle sanctuary, built by people whose aspirations were to continue to build up their community and their people, bit by bit, vote by vote, voice by voice. Instead of scarred, the voter registration sanctuary marked that place as sacred.

Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

My message this morning to the young ones was not just a walk down memory lane for some of us as we, too, tried to entwine our aging fingers together in the form of a church and steeple, being reminded again that we are not as limber as we once were.

marquis1hands1It was a theological statement. Church is not the steeple, it’s not the physical building. To find true church, true sanctuary, we need to abide by the wisdom of that simple childhood hand game: see the people, see not the edifice. Be the people in full embodiment, in our being here for each other and for the wider world.

I want to share with you another example from Ferguson. Rev. Barbara Gadon is the lead minister at our UU congregation, Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, MO – just down the road from Ferguson. I have never met Barbara, but as the ripples began to take shape after Mike Brown’s murder, I watched through online forums how she was working so diligently to support her UU congregation’s response to this tragedy.

I reached out to her over social media, offered gratitude and support. Because I was in the right place at the right time, I ended up connecting her with our UU Standing on the Side of Love point people (anyone could have done it; it just happened to be me), so that the wider word about UU justice efforts in Ferguson could get out. Rev. Gadon continues to share updates on the work of her and other local UU churches through the Standing on the Side of Love web site, including notice and reports about this weekend’s activities.

This is what Reverend Gadon recently shared with the Standing on the Side of Love community. On the surface, she’s not talking about sanctuary. The word never enters into what she wrote. But I wonder if you can hear it here, see it in the choice her congregation is making, with its weekly Tuesday-evening-vigils and their bright yellow Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts:

“A few weeks ago, the prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County announced yet another extension for the grand jury [deciding the judicial fate of the police officer who shot Michael Brown], this time for January 7. Delay is a time-honored strategy to dissipate energy and to take advantage of the public’s short attention span. It felt like a calculating move, lacking in respect for all those waiting and praying to know if there would be justice for Michael Brown. When I arrived at our Tuesday night vigil at the church, it had started to work on me. I had gone from outraged to raggedy and disheartened. I thought: who is going to even show up after this?

Rev. Gadon continued,

Then I started seeing people arrive, one by one, two by two. And when our lawn had filled with people in yellow t-shirts, carrying bright yellow banners, it was like the sun came out again. My heart was lifted. I could keep going. I remembered my favorite line of Eleanor Roosevelt’s: ‘Courage is as contagious as fear.’”

standing_on_the_side_of_loveDo you hear the layers and layers of sanctuary?  The disheartened loss of hope that was eased by people showing up, one by one, then two by two, being sanctuary for one another? How this church, largely white and in a well-to-do suburb of St. Louis, understood its sanctuary in solidarity – every Tuesday evening for the past two months – with the hurting, angry people of Ferguson, the majority of whom are people of color and many of whom are living in poverty? How those Midwestern UUs could don their yellow Love shirts and know they were held in a wider, loving ocean of other UUs across the nation, who Stand on the Side of Love?

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

When we create sanctuary together, offer it to others, seek it for ourselves, when we exercise both freedom from and freedom to, I believe we are on the right path. Sanctuary just might be about creating space for us to gather and be our best justice-seeking selves. It just might be about creating safe space for people of differing abilities to find their gifts and share them in covenantal community. It could be about making space for joy or pain, for anger or doubt, for hopelessness and gratitude and all along, we say,

“Yes: you belong here, among us.  We are your sanctuary and you are ours.”

I leave with you this vision given to us by the wise Elie Wiesel:

“What then is sanctuary? The sanctuary is often something very small. Not a grandiose gesture, but a small gesture toward alleviating human suffering and preventing humiliation. The sanctuary is a human being. Sanctuary is a dream. And that is why you are here and that is why I am here. We are here because of one another. We are in truth each other’s shelter.”

 May it be so.




Elie Wiesel quote from “Caution Church Ahead,” by Victoria Safford, in the book, The Abundance of our Faith

Concepts of freedom to and freedom from come from interview by Krista Tippett with Dr. Imani Perry,

“Alone,” by Maya Angelou, published in Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, 1975.



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Metal May Well Revert (poetry)

I am posting this poem here, as my dear friend’s mother died last night.  I wrote it 5+ years ago for my friend about her mother.  The time has come for my friend’s grieving…

Metal May Well Revert

for Naomi
to its natural state.
Rust, oxidation, salt hastening
its back, back, back to earth.

Bone is less exact.
Fractured, yes, even broken,
it returns: bone to bone,
parts to whole.

It is written
dust to dust.
So it is with bone,
shards turn porous,
devoured by bacteria,
time, our fading memories.

Shattered, however,
it becomes metal
not via its own volition,
but surgical intervention.

Carbon composite,
eventual, actual stardust,
the stuff of which heavens are made:
one moment expanding nebula,
same moment elderly mother’s broken hip
all night on cold linoleum –
she didn’t want to be a bother.

Her stardust does not heal like it once did.
Her mind does not recollect like it used to.
All that iron, zinc, copper, nickel trace:
once loamy soil, then homegrown kale,
then heart, tendon, lung, bone.
None of it, what it used to be.
Until she reverts back
to her natural state,
Alice remains.

Turns out we are all
scatter and combine,
the dust she once was,
is now, ever will be.

The time will come,
when you will grieve,
your tears will make mud,
your fingers smearing
the stuff of her body,
the life of yours,
the whole of the universe
on the wall of our mutual world,
marking our coming,
marking our going.

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Prayer Inspired by Shantideva Prayer

This pastoral prayer is adapted from prayers of Shantideva, an 8th century Buddhist monk and major source of inspiration to the Dalai Lama, who references the original prayer often. There are many translations, some of which contain the whole text; some of which do not. This is my particular riff today. Feel free to use it or adapt it yourself. Let me know when you do (you can leave a comment here). Proper attribution is most appreciated.

May I be a guard for those who need protection; when I seek protection, may I find it and share it.

For those who wish to cross to a further shore, may I be a boat, a raft, a bridge. May I be open to the companionship of others as I make my way to places still before me.

May I be a lamp in the darkness for all who seek it; may that light be never extinguished from my own sight and my own heart.

May I be a resting place for the weary and be healing medicine for all who are sick; may I know the salve of others for my own afflictions, whether of the body or of the mind, or of the heart.

Where others see scarcity, may I see a vase of plenty, a tree of miracles.

As part of the boundless multitudes of living beings, may I bring sustenance and awakening, freedom from sorrow, and may I delight in our common existence.

Holding most tenderly those with broken hearts, let us sit together in stillness.

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