Preparing to Sing – 1/17/21

One of my favorite movies is called “The Dancer Upstairs.”  There is a scene in the beginning of the movie where the driver and passenger in a car are listening to a song performed by Nina Simone called “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”  The song begins the clip you just heard, with Nina Simone speaking rather than singing.  Confused as to why they are listening to this, why the singer is spending so much time speaking rather than singing, the passenger says to the driver of the car, “Why Does She Talk?”  The driver responds definitively, as if no other explanation is required, by saying, “She Is Preparing to Sing.”

When I was a senior high school, I decided that I would join the choir.  My reason for joining was not related to any innate ability or passion to sing.  It was driven by a much more practical reason.  If I joined the choir, I would not have to participate in physical education.  No more running the mile, no more forced participation in the wrestling unit.  Instead, I could avoid that time I would be unnecessarily exerting myself.

In the choir, my plan was to try to blend in with people who had real singing talent.What I did not know was that plan to blend in could not be fully realized.  Our choir instructor required all seniors to prepare a solo to sing for a regional contest.  As soon as I heard that, I panicked.  And I lived in dread each moment until I would have to sing that solo in front of my peers.  To make matters worse, for some reason which I will never fully understand, my choir director chose an incredibly difficult song for me to sing.  The song contained all manner of runs and key changes.  I was certain that when I sang, it would be terrible.  And when I anticipated what was to come, all I could do was worry.

But as the day approached for me to perform, I recognized that I could either remain paralyzed by that fear or I could do something about it.  I began practicing, I listened to others perform the song, I did a run through in front of my family.  I wish I could say this story ends with a beautiful performance, the discovery of a vocal talent which had long been undiscovered.  Instead, when I sang that song in front of my class, everyone recognized why I never joined the choir before.  But even though I was not praised for my performance, I survived.  And I gained from it a confidence that I could do things that I didn’t think I could do, that I could overcome my fears, that even if it was not beautiful, I could sing.

As you get to know me more in the coming months, you will learn that I am a worrier.  Throughout my school years, I was known for this.  I would frequently be seen in class biting my nails, always with a sense of panic before a test.  And during those times, people would give me the worst advice thinking they were helping.  “Don’t worry.”   I also tend to catastrophize.  When one thing goes wrong, I see a whole chain of events which will follow, even if rationally they are unlikely.  And what could sometimes happen when I would feel that way is to feel shut down, to focus so much of my energy on that feeling of worry and the impact that had on me physically, emotionally that I had nothing left to devote to the problem at hand.

Even for those of us who do not have an anxious disposition like me, the past few months have been a time of fear for all of us.  After the events of January 6th, it was easy to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety.  Anxiety about where we are as a country, anxiety about the divisiveness which permeates our society, anxiety about the racial inequalities which become more apparent as these events continue to unfold.  As we anticipate the inauguration next week, we worry about further violence, further chaos emerging from where we are as a nation.

And if you are anything like me, that anxiety can feel crippling.  It can paralyze us, leave us feeling trapped, powerless to do anything to move forward, to know how to keep going.  NCC is also in a time of some anxiety.  You have had two wonderful ministers for a very long time.  And I understand the anxiety that surrounds where this community finds itself right now.  Where will we move to?  When will we begin the search process?  Who will our settled minister be?  How will these changes influence our identity and the work we want to do as a community?  And these worries can leave us feeling stuck, feeling stagnated.

Our scripture reading this morning is one that is frequently used on the topic of worry.  At the time Jesus is speaking, the people lived in a socially precarious time.  They lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. The followers of Jesus felt persecuted by their own synagogues.  And most people had little beyond basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter.  Because their ability to get these things depended on seasonal rains, they had plenty of cause for stress, even about food. It was not unreasonable to feel fear, to lack a sense of security, to experience stress over what the next day would bring.

To be honest, when I read that scripture, it has not always resonated with me.  I can read it like those people who thought they were being helpful by telling me just to not worry.  It seems as though this teaching is just saying to make a decision not to be anxious, as if that is a conscious choice we can make at any given time.

But the more I think about this teaching of Jesus, the more I think what he is saying is that excessive worry is not going to solve our problems, urge us to reach our goals, or help us to overcome difficulties.  That in those times where we feel overwhelmed we should instead look beyond ourselves, to witness the Divine providence which surrounds us.  At the time of this teaching, studying nature and drawing lessons from observing animals, plants, earth and sky were characteristics of sages and teachers of wisdom. Jesus points to the birds, to the lilies, both of which are free of the burdens carried by humans, but still existing, still growing, still thriving.  They do what is within their power to do, but do not fret about what is beyond that control.

Jesus discourages a preoccupation with the future, with what we may lack, with what tragedies, losses, pain may befall us.  This preoccupation can be debilitating, and it can become so debilitating that the gift of today is lost.  It prevents us from being present, from being mindful of what we have right now, the provision that has been given.  And it can leave us stagnated in our worry.

Two of the most common circumstances which lead to our anxiety is uncertainty and change.  Our tendency is to stay in our comfort zones, to resist that which makes us uncomfortable.  But if we want to reach our greatest potential, to challenge ourselves sometimes we have to be willing to let go of our stability, to be willing to walk onto shaky ground.  Because it is sometimes the things which cause us to worry which actually lead to our greatest growth.

What I love about the Mary Oliver poem we heard this morning is the intentionality it expresses.  Its acknowledgment of our power.  That in the midst of those times when we feel crippled by our fears, by our anxieties, we are not without control.  That even in those times, we are given a choice, that we still have power.

We exercise this power when we analyze whether our anxieties lie within our control to address.  In the poem we heard this morning, Mary Oliver speaks of these fears – will the earth turn, will the rivers flow – things over which she has no control, events which have no basis in reason.  When our mental energy is focused on those things we cannot control, we become paralyzed with our sense of powerlessness.  Our attention is diverted from action we can be taking, the power we do hold, the change we can make.  But when we release those things over which we cannot control, we are freed to focus on those things which we can influence, we acknowledge our agency, and are empowered to demonstrate the strength we all possess.

This allows us to reframe the way we think about our anxieties, our fears.  Scholars of the Kabbalah state that anxiety is “a requirement for learning and understanding the inner dimension of the Torah.” That rather than an evil, anxiety pushes us to expand ourselves spiritually, to seek answers to the questions which are central to who we are, like “What do these events mean for me?” and “What do they tell me about my purpose?”  We begin to recognize our fears driving us to resolve our inner struggles, allowing us to fully develop into who we can be spiritually.

Maybe the times in our lives which are consumed by fear, by worry, do not have to define our lives.  Maybe we can view them not as lost time.  We may never see the full realization of all we hope for, never reach a time when we are not anxious about the state of the world, when our lives are not free of concerns.  But we, in any situation, can claim our power and see progress forward.

As we remember the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. tomorrow, I was reminded of Suzie’s remarks last week about how we cannot be neutral on the issue of race.  Either we are racist or we are anti-racist and take action, live our lives according to that stance.  And while we may never live in a society which is not affected by the evil of racism, we can make a difference, we can influence those around us.  Rather than simply feeling anxious about injustice, we can exercise the privilege we possess to make a change.

Perhaps as trying as our times may be, we can see them as a time of growth, a time of preparation for what is next in our lives.  That maybe we can characterize them not as a time of fear, but as something more productive.  As I listen Nina Simone song now, it is not just the singing that draws me in.  It is what she says as she is preparing to sing.  And I have come to realize this is true in my life as well.  That maybe it is not just the singing that matters.  Not just the end result of what I am striving for.  Not just the manner in which others evaluate me.  No just getting through a difficult time or surviving a hardship.  That maybe there is no clear distinction between when I am preparing to sing and when I am singing, when I am striving for something and when I accomplish it.  No distinction between the importance of those two times.  Maybe when I wonder what I am doing, how I got where I am, whether I will make it through a difficult time, whether I will ever sing, maybe I can have an answer.  Maybe in those times, I can say definitively, as if no other explanation is required, “I am preparing to sing.”