How Can We Keep From Singing?
Installation Sunday

January 12, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


Stephen Schwartz, "Children of Eden"

In whatever time we have
for as long as we are living
we can face whatever comes
if we face it now as one.
I could make it on my own
let me know that I don't have to
No one really wants to be alone
in whatever time we have.

If at times we are afraid
with so little to believe in
It's al right to feel afraid
I will hold you in the dark.
We could live a hundred years
Or the world could end tomorrow
But at least we'll be together,
in whatever time we have.

(We know life can be a battlefield
-but we won't run and we won't yield)
You'll be my fortress and I will be your shield)

There are times I've been afraid
In a world that's so uncertain
Then I feel your hands in mine
And there's courage in my heart

We could live a hundred years
or the world could end tomorrow
But at least we'll be together
in whatever time…
From this day forward nights won't seem so black
From this day forward we will never look back.
In whatever time we have
We will make the most of time
And we know we'll be together
In whatever time we have.

Sermon "How Can We Keep From Singing?"

I remember a particularly sadistic theatre professor from one of my classes at Northwestern University. It was a children's theatre class, and he wanted us all to improvise a monologue based on a situation he would give us, with one condition : we could use our voices and our bodies, but no language. We were to speak entirely in gibberish. Not being up to this particular humiliation, I protested: "Remember," I said, "I'm an English major. I plan to make my living through the effective use of language!" That didn't fly. I might be an English major but I was enrolled in his class. I decided to give it another try. "I'm a Unitarian!" I exclaimed. "Speaking gibberish is against my religion!"

Of course I wound up doing the exercise anyway and making no more of a fool of myself than the other more earnest students. But now that I have another fifteen years or so of Unitarian Universalist living under my belt, I am not sure I still stand by that old statement. I wonder: is it against our religion to speak in gibberish, or is it a commandment of our religion that we do so?

We are talkers; we are word-smiths. If Unitarian Universalists have one characteristic in common, it might be that we tend to be articulate and share a love of language. Language matters a lot to us, and we are careful with it -- perhaps overly- cautious. Unitarian Universalists, the joke goes, are not very good singers because they're too busy reading ahead in the hymns to see if they agree with the lyrics.

Words. They're not as dependable as we like to think. Just when you think there's shared understanding of what a word means, the times change and you're back on shifting sand rather than solid ground. The church that relies heavily on words for its strength and unity is a church that will never survive the ages. If words were all it took to do good ministry in a community, we could simply meet on-line and conduct all our business by e-mail. Words on screen. No hugs, no smiles or expressions of pain on the face to indicate that someone's suffering, no laughter together, no deep whiff of the top of the baby's head.

The use of religious language is a serious issue, and is worth taking seriously. However, in our grave efforts to use language carefully and accurately to speak our truths, we have often given far less attention that we ought to other ways of expressing our values, our love, our commitments. We have not always fully appreciated the non-verbal expressions that bring us close: hugs, smiles, prolonged eye contact (even when it's a bit uncomfortable for what Garrison Keillor calls shy persons), pouring coffee and serving one another, wiping the nose of a little one who's not our own, taking the care to set out an extra seat for out-of-breath latecomers, taking the altar cloth home to clean it of candle wax. Shaking hands. Singing. Singing together. My favorite hymn asks what I think is an ultimate religious question : "How can I keep from singing?" Really, as human creatures alive on this spectacular planet, how can we keep from singing?

This is a big day for our church. Later this afternoon you are installing me as your 28th settled minister. In a symbolic way, this is a kind of wedding of minister to congregation. We will speak vows to one another: we will covenant in ministry. Someday I will share with you more my sense of destiny about coming here, about how I was serving a really lovely congregation in Maryland but felt just rather stuck in being able to help them get to the next necessary step in their development, and how painful it was to leave them after only a few years. Part of that leave taking was about the particular administrative and organizational challenges of serving a very new church that did not yet have a building of its own or any professional administrative staff. And part of it was my failure to realize how much I yearned to serve a congregation that was already historically established. Part of it was my sense of deep homecoming when I was invited to meet the search committee: Sue Robinson, Marcia Babcock, Virginia Bartlett, Len Cole, Bob Detwiler, Mary Eliot and Carol Neely, and they showed me this church and I felt the spirit of this part of the South Shore (I'm saying all of this now because I don't get to talk much during the service of installation: I just sit up here and get installed, like software).

I wish I could express to you how life-giving and precious it is to have been called to be here with you, to live right in the village center in that beautiful parsonage where ministers have lived since 1878, and to hear the bells chime the hour when I am taking out the garbage or weeding the garden. I hear the bells, and life is sacred. It means so much to me –this wandering UU – to imagine staying put in one place for long enough to live through many ups and downs with one community, to see you grow beautifully grey (or beautifully grey-er), to see your children grow up. When I first considered coming here I was anxious, wondering how ready you would be to welcome a new pastor after having loved Dick Fewkes (and Ellie) for over three decades. I needn't have worried.

I have been weepy and emotional for a few weeks about this opportunity and this occasion, and you're sure to see me crying up here this afternoon again, although I hope not too much. Joanne Howard has made me a beautiful robe for the occasion, and has thoughtfully included a pocket for a ladylike hanky and a lipstick, and she has tucked a little rock from the original First Parish meeting house in there for today, too. I think the ladylike hanky might not do it; I may need a towel.

I would like our ministry together to be like a song whose tune we all know by heart: a simple song of joy and care and praise, laude laude, as it goes in Latin. Pam Wolfe said to me the other day that singing is scary because it's incredibly personal. And Berni and I talked the other day about our tradition of singing in church, about how some people fear that letting go vocally might make them into some kind of holy roller, as though there is a danger that in singing freely, your brain might leak out of your open mouth. I would like us to get over our fear and sing freely together, because I think that in singing together we can say many things that are probably impossible to express in spoken words.

I remember a Martin Luther King Sunday service at my former church in Pennsylvania when we invited a gospel ensemble to sing at our worship service. After that service, I heard more of people remark, "that's the happiest we've all ever been in a worship service." That's the word they used. Happy. Maybe they meant relaxed, in the moment, inspired, uninhibited. But " happy" is what they said.

I think made the congregation happy was to be given permission, in that gospel tradition of praise, to just LET GO. The singers of the Mattie Carter Ensemble taught us that it is in fact a holy thing to LET GO, to let your whole self be an instrument of what they call the Holy Spirit, or whatever you want to call that animating force that makes you clap and shout and not care what you look like doing it, because it's not about you. And it's not a performance, either. Singing in church is not a concert, it's an act of worship. They call it praise, "getting your praise on." "Having a good time in the Lord." I call it getting out of our own way to see what else might want to come through us. And we just can't do it if we're reading ahead to approve the lyrics.

I know that that day in PA I saw at least a dozen staunch atheists singing their hearts out about God and Jesus. They were positively shining. Unitarian Universalist composer Joyce Poley says that when we freely and enthusiastically sing songs whose lyrics we don't necessarily like, we're being gracious and being gracious is good for us! Singing each other's songs, like reading a variety of Scripture, is a way of remaining open to the variety of religious experience; an openness our faith calls us to respect.

Church life requires hard work ,yes it does and many of you know that because you pour out a lot of yourselves into that work. But church is also what can happen when we let go and let something comes through us. I almost titled this sermon "Waiting to Exhale," because it is my sense that many of us in the liberal church are doing just that. Waiting to exhale, waiting to breathe free, waiting to give ourselves permission to sing from our hearts, let our hair down, reveal ourselves more truly to one another. This is what I have meant every time that I have stood up here and said to you, "just sing out! You don't have to get all the notes right!" It's not a concert, and I promise you your brains won't fall out.

I met a waitress once who said, "Well I can't sing, but I make a joyful noise." We all can. There is nothing sadder to me than people who tell me they'd like to sing, but they have a "bad voice." There is no such thing as having a bad voice in singing within the context of worship. If you truly can't carry a tune, you might not want to join the choir, okay, but there's no reason you can't sing out full voice in church. I have heard tapes of myself up here leading worship and friends, I am standing right in front of a microphone and I can tell you I am as flat as can be, and often on the wrong verse. But I am making a joyful noise as an expression of my humanity, and as an expression of joy for being here together with you.

My mother, who used to dandle me on her knee and sing, "I love you/a bushel and a peck" always says to me before any big event: "Sing out, Louise! Sing out!" (like Ethel Merman in "Gypsy"). It's a great blessing on your child to encourage them to "Sing out!" So many of us are raised believing our voices are not worthy to be heard.

Congregations that sing together breathe together. Congregations that sing together find that they have to learn to listen deeply to each other; a good practice for any beloved community. Singing communities are those with rhythm, with high notes and low, with a melody everyone knows and harmonies everyone can learn. Singers get to know each other's styles, abilities and range -- they become intimate through paying close attention to what the others are doing. Singing together requires starting together, knowing where you're going, and ending up as together as you began. No one gets lost along the way.

Singing is an art form of the body, and singing can only freely happen when the body feels free. Tense singers are no good. Over-rehearsed singers often lose their power. And singing is an act of faith -- your sound comes forth from a mechanism you cannot see but can only feel is there.

Singing is religious. It moves us.

In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, a former slave named Sethe is haunted by the incarnate ghost of the daughter she killed as a baby rather than let her be claimed by the slave bounty hunters. The ghost comes back in the form of a grown young woman and wreaks havoc on Sethe's life; she is a vampirish spirit, sucking away at Sethe's life force day by day. Eventually the word gets out in the community that Sethe is dying and a group of church women just can't stand it so they make a strategy to save Sethe, as much as they disapprove of her. One afternoon the ladies make their way over to the street outside the haunted house where the ghost and her mother are living and begin to pray. They better-than-pray. They sing. And oh, how they sing. Morrison writes,

". . . the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash."

The sound that broke the back of words. And of course this sound of the church saints singing does the job; it literally exorcises the demon from the house and Sethe, in a painful manner, is saved. I believe that singing can save us.

I'm not willing to do without words, and I bet you aren't either. But I want to be around when we figure out, as a people of faith, how to make the sounds that break the back of words. How to bless each other through the sacred sound of our voices. All I know is this: it's going to come from a place that we haven't fully accessed yet, and that many of us hunger to.

I encourage you all to sing out in coming weeks. Find your voices, free your voices. Sing in the car, the shower, at the dinner table as grace, at the bedside as lullabies. Remember your favorite old hymns, show tunes, folk songs -- sing them aloud and don't worry about the lyrics. Let your voices ring out, break the back of words. "Since love prevails in heaven and earth, how can we keep from singing?"

Catherine Drinker Bowen reminds us that "all the other arts are lonely. We paint alone – my picture, my interpretation of the sky. My poem, my novel. But in music – ensemble music, not soloism – we share. No altruism this, for we receive tenfold what we give." (Friends and Fiddlers, 1935)

Let us share this tenfold blessing together.

This is a verse of "My Life Flows On In Endless Song" that my Quaker friend Amy taught me. I would like to teach it to you this morning…

I lift my eyes, the clouds grow thin
I see the blue above it.
And day by day this pathway clears
Since first I learned to love it.
The peace of God restores my soul
a fountain ever springing.
All things are mine since I am loved,
how can I keep from singing?


"The voice is a wild thing
It cannot be bred in captivity." - Willa Cather

In coming days and weeks, let us find the power of your voices,
to sing praises, to speak justice, to laugh, to exclaim, to proclaim and to bless the world in one shared and glorious tone. Amen