What You Can Do

Have you been watching the events of this week, wondering what you can do? Here is one small, but important way you can make a difference.

I saw this in an email from the journal Image. They ran a piece on one of James Baldwin’s book No Name in the Streets, and then gave you a list of Black-owned bookstores where you can buy it.

I know that a good start on getting a handle on racism I. America is to read books by Black authors. Long ago I started weaning myself from Amazon, so this was a very welcome suggestion. I can find important books to read and support Black businesses.

So I found a bookshop in D.C. and ordered the Library of America’s anthology of Baldwin’s essays.

If you are expanding your horizons by read literature by People of Color, then here is the link for you to find and support a Black business!

You can order today from these black-owned independent bookstores.

Enjoy!

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A Tidal Wave of Hope

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BLM

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When I first saw the signs, I was a little puzzled. BLM. Why were people carrying Bureau of Land Management signs at a protest rally?

Then I had the “doh” moment. Being from Alaska, I saw the initials BLM a lot. But outside of Alaska, at this time in our history, BLM means something entirely different. Black Lives Matter.

I have written in other posts that for years when I heard Black Lives Matter, internally I thought to myself, All lives matter. Living in Medford, where Blacks make up a minuscule part of the population, I didn’t think about Black Lives a lot. I thought about the people in my congregation, and the various unhoused people we serve. I thought about friends and acquaintances.

I believed, deep in my heart, that all people did matter, and to single out one group created a partiality that did not need to exist. I did not embrace Black Lives Matter because I felt, as Dr. King stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and Black Lives Matter seemed to focus just on injustice in one place. God loved all people and wants justice for all people, and injustice is not just a Black issue.

Then came the murder of George Forbes, and somehow all those arguments began to look like a justification for ignoring an incredible injustice in our country. Suddenly I realized Black Lives Matter.

Diner Theology

I say “suddenly” but in fact this had been brewing in my head for a while. It started with Rick’s death.

Rick was one of the unhoused people who were attached to our church. He did not attend services, but I was his pastor. I visited him when he was in rehab, I gave him money for smokes,I took him to the hospital when he had a bad encounter with his neighbors or with the police, and I considered him to be a friend. He was getting ready to try rehab again, when he was found dead on the street.

We insisting on doing his funeral right. We got an organist (our church is known for its wonderful organ) instead of getting a cheaper piano player. I dressed up as I would for any funeral. I wanted the people who would attend, most of them unhoused, to feel like we were throwing out the red carpet for him.

And in my remarks, I wanted the people attending to know that God had a special love for them. But there was a problem. Along with the people from the streets, many of my parishioners would be attending as well. And I did not want them thinking that God did not love them. I was going to talk about God’s preferential option for the poor, but I would be preaching that message to some of my parishioners, who were fairly well off.  I did not want to upset them. (Yes, pastors do think about such things.)

And I came up with a way to do it. I talked about Diner Theology. If you have ever been to a diner, you know what this is. The waitress comes around, and if your coffee cup is empty, they will fill it for you. (The best one’s will say, “Can I freshen that up for you, hon?”) Now imagine a diner where the waitress went around ignoring the empty cups, and filling those that were already full. One person at the table has coffee cups that overfloweth, and some have perpetually empty cups. And I told the people assembled for the service, “When your cup is empty, God comes around and says, “Can I freshen that up for you, hon?” God does fill full cups, nor does God ignore empty cups. And I listed how many people there had empty cups. Living on the streets, struggling to cut out a patch of turf that was safe from the police, and safe from predators. Having a mental health system that totally failed them. Not having a decent place to use the bathroom. Being ignored by the people who walk past you. God fills that empty cup with love.

I don’t know why I didn’t see it at the time, but that is exactly the rational for Black Lives Matter

 

Black Lives Matter

I wanted to say, “All lives matter,” but the hard truth was that statement is a lie.

My life matters. I knew that from my birth. I mattered to my parents, to my teachers, and to the various churches that hired me over the years. No one has to tell me that my life matters. I was born with that knowledge and almost every encounter I had reinforced that in my life. I walk into room after room of people who dress like me,   speak like me, who are educated like me, and who share many of the experiences I have. Even some of my unhoused friends call me “sir.” When I pay attention to them, it means something because I matter. Very few times in my life have I ever encountered the kind of situation that made me feel like I didn’t matter. Very few. When I get pulled over by the police, they call me “sir.” When I shop in a store, I am always treated as someone who matters.

But I know this is not so for Black people in America. While respect is freely given to me, they often have to fight for it. Or worse yet, learn to live without it. White people need to say “Black Lives Matter,” because it needs to be heard, and because we need to say it. We need to say those words, thoughtfully and deliberately. We need to understand the point of privilege we have, as well as the price of that privilege. We need to hear the stories that too often go unheard, the stories about what it is like to be Black in America.We need to let people know that their stories matter because their lives matter. I am a minister and stories are my lifeblood. The stories of Abraham, and Moses, and David and Daniel, and Jesus, and Peter, and Paul. The stories of my parishioners, stories about their joys and their concerns. My sermons are full of stories.

But my well is impoverished if I do not also include the stories of oppression that goes on, unseen, around me every day. My well of stories is tainted if it only includes stories of privilege and not the stories of the people who have fight to be seen, who have to fight for the right to matter.

The fact is, the stories I have were almost all written by white people. Even my understanding of the Bible was formed by white interpretors who were writing for an audience that is almost all white. Where are the stories of Asia, Africa, and Latin America? Where were the stories of the oppressed people who live in my own city?  I went through my bookshelves, looking for works by people of color. Excepting works of Buddhism, most of which were written by Americans, I have very, very few. (For perspective, I have more than a thousand books.) I have exactly three books written by Black theologians or social commentators.

And I never noticed that. I tend to buy books that confirm my own biases, and that make me more secure in the world I inhabit. Breaking out of that is very hard to do, and I am thankful for the people who lovingly pointed that out to me, and who challenged me to broaden my horizons. If you at my book shelf you can see that I don’t think that Black writers matter.

Slowly my world is getting bigger.

Coming out of the closet

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” I have to admit that my understanding of Black issues is pretty shallow. How can I say that God loves all people when I am ignorant of many of the people God loves? How can I preach the Gospel, Good News, if I am unaware of what kind of Good News the Black community needs to hear and to experience?

So I am coming out of the closet.

Black Lives Matter.

Posted in Black Lives Matter, BLM, Current Events, George Forbes, Injustice, Racism, religion and politics, Social Justice, Social Ministry, Spiritual Growth | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to Stop Watching

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Tou Thao, Minneapolis Police Department

 

I have been thinking a lot of Tou Thao lately.

He was one of the four cops involved in George Floyd’s arrest. He did not have a knee on his neck, or on his back like the three other policemen. As far as I know, he never touched George Floyd. He just stood and watched it all. People came up to him, and tried to tell him that Floyd was in distress, and he just ignored them. All he did was watch.

He didn’t beat George Floyd,he didn’t kneel on him, he didn’t choke him–he didn’t do anything but watch.

He watched as one of brother policeman slowly strangled Floyd with his knee. He didn’t try to stop it. He did not speak up. He did not say, “Guys, maybe you are going too far.” He just watched as George Floyd died.

I think about Tou Thao, because I am a lot like him. How many unarmed Black people have I seen die at the hand of the police? Too many to count. Of course I was never there in person. I was never in a place where I could have stopped anything. In that sense my hands are clean. Like Pilot, I have washed my hands, again and again, of any complicity I might have in the murder of unarmed Black men and women by law enforcement officers. Like Tou Thao, I just watched. Like him, I have been mostly silent about the grinding oppression which has taken the lives of unarmed Black men and women over the last five years.

I heard the words, Black Lives Matter, and while I never said it out loud, I thought to myself, All Lives Matter. I work with homeless people on a daily basis, most of whom are white. Their lives matter, I could tell myself, and I did my best to make sure their lives mattered. The lives of the people in my congregation mattered, and most of them were white. And frankly, I live in one of the whitest places in American. Fairbanks, Alaska has more diversity than Medford, Oregon. So it has been very easy for me to sit and watch the oppression of Black people, telling myself that I was not racist, these events were far from me, and there was nothing I could do.

And like Tou Thao, I just watched. I watched the protests in Ferguson, in Charlotte, in countless other cities. I just silently watched.

And my silence made me complicit in the violence.

The Rally

Watching Tou Thao made me realize that I am no better than he is. I realized that my voice needed to be heard. I can no longer remain silent.

So on June 1, 2020 I went to my first Black Live Matter rally. I wore my collar, so that people would know I represented a Christian Community. And I spoke up. I did not did use my own words. I simply read the names of 25 men and women, people of color who were killed, most by law enforcement officers. One of the chants at the rally was “SAY HIS NAME!” and people would respond with the names of people died because of their race. It was important to name the injustices done and to name the people who were the victims of that injustice. I remembered back to my Black Church History course in divinity school. Much of the lectures consisted of the names of the people who started the early AME and AME Zion churches. Most of us students heard those names in terror because we thought we had to memorize them. We were furiously writing down the names, hoping a few would stick in our memories.

But we were not tested on the names. We finally realized that these names needed to be said, so these people would never be forgotten. They were the names of marginalized people, who were not a part of the history we normally learned. Yet they were as important as the names of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

So I read names that should never be forgotten.And I want to share them here, so they will not be forgotten.

TRAYVON MARTIN (Walking home with iced tea and Skittles. Shot by George Zinneman, who was found not guilty.)

KEITH SCOTT (Sitting in car, reading. Shot by police officer, who was not charged.)

ATATIANA JEFFERSON (Looking out her window, shot by police officer, who is still under indictment for murder.)

JONATHAN FERRELL (Asking for help after auto accident. Shot twelve times by police, case ended in mistrial.)

JORDAN EDWARDS (Riding in a car. Shot in the back of the head by police officer, who was found guilty of murder.)

STEPHON CLARK (Holdng a cel phone. Shot 8 times, 6 in the back. Officers not charged.)

AMADOU DIALLO (While taking out wallet, officers fired 41 shots by four officers, who were all acquitted.)

RENISHA MCBRIDE (Auto accident, knocked on door for help. Homeowner was found guilty of second-degree murder.)

TAMIR RICE (Playing with toy gun, shot by police officer arriving on scene. Officer was not charged.

SEAN BELL (Hosting a bachelor party, 50 rounds fired by police officers, who were found not guilty of charges.)

WALTER SCOTT (Pulled over for brake light, shot in the back by police officer, who pleaded guilty to civil rights violations.)

PHILANDO CASTILE (Pulled over in car, told officer he had a legally registered weapon in car. Officer acquitted of all charges.)

AIYANA JONES (Sleeping, accidentally shot by officer in a raid on wrong apartment. Officer cleared of all charges.)

TERRENCE CRUTCHER (Disabled vehicle, shot by police officer, who was found not guilty of manslaughter.)

ALTON STERLING (Selling CDs, shot at close range while being arrested. No charges filed.)

FREDDIE GRAY (Beaten to death by officers while being transported in police van. All officers involved were acquitted.)

JOHN CRAWFORD (Shopping at WalMart, holding a BB gun on sale, police officer was not charged.)

MICHAEL BROWN (Shot by twelve times by officer, including in the back. No charges filed.)

JORDAN DAVIS (Killed because he was playing loud music. Shooter found guilty of first-degree murder.)

SANDRA BLAND (Pulled over for traffic ticket, tasered and arrested. Suspicious “suicide” while in jail. No charges.)

BOTHAM JEAN (Shot at home, which police officer mistook for her own. Officer found guilty of murder.)

OSCAR GRANT (Handcuffed and face-down, officer shot him in the back. Officer found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.)

COREY JONES (Waiting by his disabled vehicle, was shot three times by police officer, who was found guilty of murder.)

AHMAUD AUBREY (Jogging, shot by two men who claimed they suspected him of burglaries. Both men charged with murder and aggravated assault” Chyna Smith

GEORGE FLOYD.

I found my voice by giving it others during that rally.

I was able to stand beside people of all colors, and chant with them.

I will no longer be like Tou Thao. I will no longer stand by and watch. I don’t know where this will take me, but as a minister, I am sure this take me deeper into the heart of Jesus.

Posted in Black Lives Matter, George Forbes, Injustice, Justice, Minneapolis, Racism, Social Justice, Social Ministry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where is God in Minneapolis?

Forbes

 One night, around 1 am, my doorbell rang. Even in the Alaskan summer, when it is still light at that time, and people tend to stay up late hours, that was unusual. I opened the door and found my son standing there with a police officer. He had been spending the night with a friend. Steven looked very afraid, and said, “I didn’t do anything,” and rushed past me into the house.

The police officer smiled, and said, “I saw your son with a couple of other boys out past curfew. I wouldn’t have done anything, but when they saw me, they ran, so I had to see if they were up to anything. They weren’t, but I thought I should bring your boy home.”

For me that night, it was a minor inconvenience, and for Steven, a life lesson. But many parents are not that fortunate. It is with great sadness that I write these words. If my son had been black, and met the wrong cop, he would have been shot.

For those of you who know Steven, imagine what life would be like without him. Imagine what I would be like, if that night, instead of receiving a friendly life lesson, my son was killed.

I don’t know about you, but I watched with horror the incident between George Floyd and the police. I watched as he was laying on the ground, a police officer’s knee on this neck, moaning and saying that he could not breathe. I watched as bystanders, one of them an EMT, tried to tell the police they were killing Forbes. And I watched as they dragged his lifeless body to the ambulance, after eight minutes of having officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressing on his carotid artery.

The names of unarmed black man and women who have died at the hands of law enforcement officers is long, and depressing to see. I know that law enforcement can be dangerous. I know the police have a tough job. But why is it that we rarely if ever see cased of officers shooting unarmed white men.

And then last night, I watched as an angry mob burned down station house #3 in Minneapolis. I cannot imagine their anger, because when my son ran from a police officer, he was just kindly escorted home, not shot and killed.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

–Romans 8:22-25

I want to put this in biblical perspective. It would be too easy to condemn the protesters. Very few of us really understand their rage. Few of us have endured the injustices they endured. We can all look at these events and know that the world is pretty messed up. Justice, a very biblical virtue, is so often perverted, or ignored. What does it mean for the family of George Forbes to receive justice? What does it mean for a black father to have “the talk” with his kids, where he tells them the way the world is. “If you get stopped by a policemen, you could get killed.”

Paul tells us that all creation is groaning. It groans with injustice. It groans with hatred, with prejudice, and with violence. It groans with grinding poverty that dehumanizes people, and, in the eyes of Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino, is in fact an act of violence against the poor. It groans with the divisions between people.

If you watched the news last night, you saw creation groaning. Groaning is rarely pretty or easy to watch. The anger of a community who knows the system is stacked against them has exploded with groaning. In the midst of all this we have learned that Blacks are more prone to die of COVID-19 than other groups, because of limited access to health care. And the sad truth is, we know that George Forbes will not be the last unarmed black man to die at the hands of law enforcement.

It would be easy to rush in with judgments right now. But first must come a time of prayer. But how do we pray? What is our prayer in the face of the injustices we are witnessing?

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

—Romans 8:26-27

The spirit groans with creation, and with our inability to even form the right prayers for the situation. This is the kind of prayer where we look up to heaven and ask, “Why?” Where we groan, “How long?” This is the kind of prayer that cannot be expressed in words. The is the prayer that arises from a deep place inside of us, the kind of prayer that emerges from our gut as we stand beside the hospital bed of someone we love, as we wrestle with our own inner demons, as we watch the world burn. This is the prayer of someone who has been struck down by injustice, and who can only groan with agony.

That is the kind of prayer we need to engage in before we make any judgments about the right or wrongs of actions and reactions.

We might ask “Where was God during all this?” God was laying on the ground, with a knee on his neck. God was standing in the midst of the inferno of station house #3. God is in the tears of family members and friends who mourn. That may sound strange, but God cannot redeem creation from a distance. God must be in the middle of the mess, and only then can we really see the redemptive power of the almighty.

Kind of like Jesus on the cross.

 

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30

Romans 8:28 is one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture, but also one of the most misquoted. Too often when people quote it, what the mean is, “Nothing bad can really happen to you.” That is far from the truth.

When Paul says, “All things work together for good,” he did not mean, “all good things.” He meant all things. He meant that the justice will meet injustice, and the injustices will be real, but God’s justice is stronger. He meant that love will encounter hate, but hate will not win. He meant that our unity in Christ will encounter divisions, but in the end, unity will win. He meant that Truth will encounter lies, but it is the Truth that will set us free.

We may not see the culmination in our lifetime. We may possibly view it from the other side of eternity. We may encounter injustices in our lives, we may encounter hate, we may encounter divisions, but those are, in the grand scheme of God, only momentary diversions.

In the meantime we do what we can to fight injustice. My wife just opened up a bank account with a Black bank, to help transfer money into Black communities where it is badly needed. I am learning Spanish, so we can do something to overcome the barriers between the Anglo and Hispanic communities in Medford. These are small acts, but we give them to God, who then takes and magnifies what we do.

What can you do?

 

Posted in Black Lives Matter, Evil, George Forbes, Injustice, Jesus, Justice, Minneapolis, Pastoral Prayer, Racism, Romans 8, Romans 8:28, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In the Belly of Corona

Jonah-prays

This is the prayer for the day, Sunday, May 24. It is loosely based on Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:2-9)  when he was in the belly of the Big Fish. 

O God of the Deep,

We call out to you Lord, in the midst of our swirling, troubled world, that seems to be swallowed by this virus.

We call out to you and know that you hear our voice.

It is hard to believe that this world, which you called Good, has turned on us in so many ways, and yet it has. Between the changing weather patterns, that spell doom for much of humanity, and this virus, we are sometimes tempted to ask for a recall on the earth.

Yet, it is our own arrogance that brought us to this place. We believed that were masters of the world and could make your creation subject to our every whim. We believed that we were invincible, and that we could control your creation.

We believed in our economy, in our health care systems, in the hallowed utterances of science, and saw these things as our savior, forgetting you in the process. And now, those things we once believed in have failed us. Our economy is on the ropes, our health cares systems is overwhelmed, and the deep truths of science have become mired in politics.

The issues of the world today have closed in over us, and deep troubles surround us.

Yet it is you who rescue us from the deep, you who bring us up from the pits we have dug for ourselves.

In the midst of staying in place, and wondering if we will ever get back to what we once called normal, we remember you, and remember that our call is not to recreate the old world we knew so well, but to work with you on the New Creation, which  you bring about.

You hear our prayers, as soon as they leave our lips; you hear them before they become fully thought out in our minds.

But we give voice to these prayers, not so you can hear more clearly, but so that we can better direct our concerns to you.

On this memorial day we remember and give thanks for the people who have their lives to protect our country. And we pray for those who have a brother, a daughter, a sister, a son, a father or a mother, or a friend from the fire of battle.

We also remember on this day, those who have given their lives to protect us in hospitals, and care facilities, those on the front lines of the battle against the corona virus. And we pray for those who are in the midst of the battle even as we pray this morning.

So, God of light, and God of love, enfold us in our tender arms. Bring us to through faith, from this raging ocean of confusion, uncertainty, and chaos, and onto the solid Rock of faith, knowing that you have delivered us, and given us the vision for your Kingdom, here on earth, as it is in heaven.

And together we lift up our voices, to pray the prayer you taught us to pray:

 

Our Father who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread;

and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

 

 

Posted in Corona Virus, COVID-19, Jonah, Pastoral Prayer, Prayer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Koan of COVID

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In Zen Buddhism there is a tradition where a Zen Master will pose a koan to his students to help them gain enlightenment. A koan is a question or a story designed to throw the student’s mind off balance, which will help him understand more about the world and about Buddhism, and in the end, bring him closer to Enlightenment. One of the most famous koans is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But there are many, many others. One Zen master asked his students if their eyebrows were still there. Another is a story about three monks watching a flag wave in the breeze. The first monk says, “The flag is moving.” The second said, “No, the wind is moving.” The third said, “No. Your mind is moving.”
They may sound nonsensical, but the student is expected to come up with an answer.
I am beginning to think that God is posing a koan to the Christians today. “What is the Church when it cannot be the church?” A large part of my experience is having people come together to worship. “I’m going to church,” we say, which means both that we are going to the building we call the church, but also that we are going to meet with the people who are part of The Church.
Much of our practice as Christians have to do with groups of people meeting together in our buildings. How can the Church be the Church when we can’t go to church? It’s like a Christian koan.
I have been trying to wrap my head around this for the last two months, ever since we entered into the world of social distancing. I have to admit that I have a very hard time thinking of the Church being socially distant. That is an oxymoron. A church is a series of relationships, people relating to one another with honesty, integrity and compassion, helping each other on our way deeper into the heart of God. How can we do that from a distance? I feel like a struggling Zen student, trying to understand a koan. Except this koan is not a theoretical exercise done in the quiet simplicity of a Buddhist monastery. It is our reality right now. It is every Sunday morning when I walk into an almost empty building to preach to a camera, and every Wednesday without our Food Bank. It’s all those times I am in the office, and the building is completely empty.
How can this be church?
And then I remember that Jesus didn’t go to church. Sure he showed up in a synagogue on occasion, and when he did he usually caused the kind of commotion that made him persona non grata. Once, after one of his sermons, they tried to kill him. (That sermon, by the way, was only one sentence.) His best sermon (the Sermon on the Mount) was given outside. He preached from boats on the shore of Galilee, and on the Temple steps.
I’m going to stop using the word “church” for a while. My traditional understanding of church seems so irrelevant for these days, and that word just confuses me. Instead I’m going to try to understand who we are as the Christian community or as the family of God.
And, like a good student of Buddhism wrestles with a koan, I am going to wrestle with this conundrum, this way of being the people of God in exile. I have to. There s no other choice.
I’ll close with a story from Buddhism.
Suiwo, the disciple of Hakuin, was a good teacher. During one summer seclusion period, a pupil came to him from a southern island of Japan.
Suiwo gave him the problem: “Hear the sound of one hand.”
The pupil remained three years but could not pass this test. One night he came in tears to Suiwo. “I must return south in shame and embarrassment,” he said, “for I cannot solve my problem.”
“Wait one week more and meditate constantly,” advised Suiwo. Still no enlightenment came to the pupil. “Try for another week,” said Suiwo. The pupil obeyed, but in vain.
“Still another week.” Yet this was of no avail. In despair the student begged to be

released, but Suiwo requested another meditation of five days. They were without result. Then he said: “Meditate for three days longer, then if you fail to attain enlightenment, you had better kill yourself.”
On the second day the pupil was enlightened.
Nothing like a deadline!
How has the time of COVID affected your idea of Church?

Posted in Buddhism, Buddhist Story, Church, Corona Virus, COVID-19, Koan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment