It's Not Over Until We Can Sing
July 12, 2020, Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland, Texas
I haven’t been sleeping too well lately.
But let me go ahead and defray some assumptions before they happen. What’s been keeping me awake isn’t what poet Wendell Berry so aptly describes as “despair for the world growing in me.”
What’s been keeping me up is the fact that I have been lucky enough to choose some really engaging, fun, and un-put-down-able books. And that means I’m usually in bed at a reasonable time, but I keep the light on far past the point where my eyes start drifting closed, turning the pages for just one more chapter!
I’m hoping we might have some readers among us today, some of those folks who, like me, really, really love reading. You might know the “can I read just one more chapter?” experience. But if TV or movies are more your speed, this metaphor still works. You might have become intimately familiar with streaming video services’ autoplay feature far into the wee hours of the night, asking if you want to watch just one more Cutthroat Kitchen episode before you stumble off to bed. But whether it’s books, movies, or television episodes, this kind of relationship to a story can tell us a lot about our relationship to being somewhere in the middle of our own story.
When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was called Oryx & Crake. This is a sci-fi novel by Margaret Atwood set in a near-future dystopia. In the book, a devastating plague has decimated the human population. One human survivor becomes the accidental caretaker and teacher of a new species of genetically engineered humanoids, referred to as the Children of Crake. This species is intentionally designed to survive the disease and thrive in its aftermath, destined to become a possible successor of humanity. But the scientist who engineered this new species could not extinguish the desire for story, myth, and meaning-making that it inherited with its human genetic code. And so their caretaker tells them story after story to describe their place in the world, and they receive each story gratefully and hungrily, singing in celebration throughout the telling and retelling of each myth.
The second sequel to Oryx & Crake is one of the books I read so eagerly this summer. In this third book of what became a trilogy, the Children of Crake meet a new band of human survivors of the pandemic, and learn new stories from them. But much in the way that some people can’t stand characters bursting into song in musical theatre, some of the human storytellers grow irritated by the praise songs that the Children of Crake sing continuously. One of the most commonly repeated lines in this final volume is an exasperated “please don’t sing yet.”
Needless to say, the world of these books had quite a different—and rather uncomfortable—resonance in our Covid-19 world.
These days, “please don’t sing yet” isn’t just a line intended for laughs. It’s literal life-saving health advice. Forget singing like angels and speaking before thousands! Right now, if we were gathering together in groups, singing constantly, like the Children of Crake, many of us probably wouldn’t be here right now.
But in the book I was reading, the refrain of “please don’t sing yet” was a different kind of signal. It became a narrator’s shorthand: we’re in the middle of the story. Please let me finish telling you the story. Then you can sing.
In both cases, we understand that you just can’t sing in the middle of this story.
Still, I know I’ve been wanting to rush to the end of this chapter so we can get to the next one. I want the slate to be wiped clean, to start a new book, to be able to sing together again without fear. Maybe you do too.
But we’re in the messy middle now. Spoiler alert for some forty-year-old movies: we’ve just learned Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite.
I hate to break it to you, but now is not the time for song.
We talk so much about beginnings and endings. New beginnings are exciting for almost everyone. It’s easy to be hopeful when you’re starting a new hobby or learning a new skill. It’s even easy to be hopeful when a clear end is in sight: the end of something important carries a sense of completion, accomplishment, and the turning of the page—provided you can summon the fortitude necessary to get there.
But it’s a lot harder to be hopeful during the messy middle. Part of why I stayed up half the night reading even though there was no possibility I could finish the book in my hands, part of why I told myself “just one more chapter,” was my eagerness to find out what happened next. I couldn’t just let the story be, put a bookmark in between the pages, and put it away. When you’re in the middle—whether you’re talking about a book, a story told aloud, a movie, or a global pandemic—it’s very easy for things to sort of lose their shape.
Rev. Dr. Chris Davies, a queer clergywoman in the United Church of Christ, wrote in a Facebook post recently,
“One day at a time, sweet love. One breath at a time. I know it's overwhelming, of course it is. Things are unraveling, and it's impacting us all in different ways. The systems as we know them are falling to pieces.
(Aside: I believe resurrection is coming and possible and we are doing it now. But it's hard to see resurrection when you are in the grave.)
We are grieving those whom we have lost. We are missing the patterns of being we don't have access to. We are missing the people in our lives who used to be touch points, ...and touch is off the table for so many.”
When routines fall by the wayside and our normal landmarks for what a “successful day” looks like are constantly in flux, we desperately want the clarity of a beginning or an ending to mark that this time has mattered somehow. We stumble forward, looking for a point where we can just pause, breathe, and gather our strength to move a little further without being able to see the end yet. In times like these, there are no shortcuts. There is no skipping to the next chapter. As Kathy Fuson Hurt reminded us in our reading today, the only way out is through, and “the way out is the way hard.”
This is the very moment when, instead of trying to rush ahead, we need to exercise the discipline to root ourselves right here in the unsatisfying present. Like the Children of Crake, we’re being asked to save our singing for the end of the story. And as with them, it takes a lot of reminders. Remember, their urge to sing, to hear and tell stories, comes from the genes they share with humanity.
And this is when we get the most benefit from trying to persist, with great gentleness, in the spirituality and rituals that have sustained us thus far and made the unsatisfying present tolerable, or even joyful.
And really, this is where I invite you to think about what being present with this community has done to help ground you. If you’ve lost someone, as we did in my family several months ago, chances are your church community has been there to help keep you from sinking. This church—the UU Church of Midland—has a minister in Rev. Emily who loves you dearly, who won’t stop loving you simply because you’ll be transitioning to a new minister soon. You have a team of dedicated staff and volunteers to help make not just this church’s services, but the practice of this faith, as meaningful to you as they have the capacity to do. This church is not alone in that. UU communities across the country—indeed, across the world—are all engaging in this sustained, difficult, disciplined process together. We are not alone.
But your leaders—your ministers, your staff, your volunteers—cannot do this work of persistence and patience all by themselves. UU religious educator CB Beal reminds us,
“[We need a] collective willingness to try new things; to keep showing up for video conversations, classes, and worship. A willingness to choose to be in community regularly as much as possible, even in new ways…None of [your religious professionals] have ever done this before, and we will likely not do it again in our lifetime. We are all inventing this as we go along by trial and error, following health guidance and our leaderships’ best creativity.
…Our collective tolerance and patience for what is less than optimal is being tested…It is not the skill of our leadership that's being tested, but rather our collective tolerance for something that might be "good enough."
Good enough to keep us feeling somewhat connected. Good enough to remind us of our spiritual and religious rituals. Good enough to connect us with a moment of learning. Good enough to share in community and have people bear witness to our lives. We can join in community and recognize that being present together at all is a gift.
Being in community is a decision that the community, not the professional, makes, and that's far more than good enough. During a pandemic, it is extraordinary.”
It is extraordinary. This is the extraordinariness of the middle of the story. It lacks the flash and pizzazz of the start and the finish. It’s not the inviting overture or the bombastic grand finale. But it’s enough to remind us where we are. It’s enough to remind us to keep turning pages. Just one more chapter.
Continuing the words of Rev. Davies,
“I am praying for the lump in your throat and the ache in your arms. I am holding you in my heart with love, that you may feel the love of people even from afar who care about your BEING and surviving and thriving.
This will NOT last forever, even when every day feels like a decade. This will not last forever, even when the world around us is behaving like we are "back to normal," whatever that means.”
What are your rituals? What is showing you hard evidence—good enough evidence—of your own persistence and patience? What is helping you survive, thrive, and be? What’s keeping you going until the next chapter?
All around me, I see evidence of patience paying off. In my home state of Maine, it’s true that some are acting as though Covid-19 is a distant memory; but the governor here recently reinstated a requirement to wear masks indoors in public, recognizing that the choice not to wear one was leading to a rise in cases. Black Lives Matter protestors faithfully donning masks and making a practice of diligent hand hygiene, even while protesting urgent injustice, is another example of what it looks like to be patient and persistent. Recently, many UU churches have seen white congregants using discipline and persistence to move through fear and fragility and engage in antiracism practice. This is the kind of persistence and patience that oppressed people—people of color, poor people, queer people, disabled people—live daily. This is the kind of patience that can sustain us in times when the fuel of pure hope is hard to come by.
Even something as simple as learning to bake your own bread—needing to wait for the first and second rise while the yeast does its magical thing and expands the dough—takes patience. Like anything, it can become a ritual of comfort, a persistent practice undertaken for the goal of sustaining you.
Whatever your practice—church, study, prayer, cooking, art, gardening, journaling—know that it is good enough, worthy enough, to sustain your spirit and guide you through this hard night.
The story of Covid-19 isn’t over. It won’t—it literally cannot—end until our persistent and patient actions write the words that can lead us to the next chapter. We can’t rush ahead by staying up at all hours and saying “just one more chapter” to ourselves. Our storytellers are gently—and with a little exasperation—reminding us “please don’t sing yet.”
But being in the middle teaches us how to wisely build the bridge of our intentions, our practices, our words, and our actions. Each action that we undertake with patience and perseverance writes another word in the story. Each gets us closer to the next chapter, word by word; move by move; breath by breath.
I know I’m eagerly building that breath for the end of the story, when we can finally sing out again.
But until we get there all together, I’ll be trying my best to persist, to be patient, to put the book down and go to sleep. And before this is over, I expect to hear, over and over again:
Please. Don’t sing yet.
Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things"
Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake and MaddAddam
Rev. Dr. Chris Davies, Facebook post from July 10, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/revdrchrisdavies/posts/10100954592520790
Kathy Fuson Hurt, "The Way Through"
CB Beal, "What Your Religious Professionals Need Right Now" https://www.uua.org/leadership/library/professional-needs