Full Worship Service from March 19, 2023 – “On the Threshold between the Pandemic and a New Way to Live”

“On the Threshold between the Pandemic

And a New Way to Live”


Worship Service for

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tippecanoe County

West Lafayette, Indiana

March 19, 2023 – 10:30 a.m.

The Rev. Jennie Barrington, Settled Minister

Nicole McCabe, Director of Religious Exploration

Pianist: Richard Maddux

Special Music: Denise Wilson

[And an Ensemble from Blue Moon Rising]

Worship Associate: Don Gresham

Producer: Noemi Ybarra; Sound Technician: Larry Guentert


Gathering Music “Somewhere (There's a Place for Us)” by Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim


*Our prelude is, “Earth Abides,” by Philip Aaberg. Aaberg’s inspiration was a post-apocalyptic novel by the same name by George R. Stewart. The novel depicts how a community of people live, in the wake of a global pandemic. Aaberg wrote, “It is peace, not struggle, that I sought to represent in this simple piano music,” saying that, for him, the novel engendered hope.


PRELUDE “Earth Abides,” by Philip Aaberg

Opening Words from, Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

[Our readings for this morning’s worship service are from the two post-apocalyptic novels, Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, and Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Our opening words are from George R. Stewart’s, Earth Abides:]


“Genius is the capacity for seeing what is not there... The great thinkers of the world must necessarily have made their reputations by sensing what was not there, and looking for it and discovering it, but the first requisite for making the discovery, unless it depended upon mere luck, was the realization that something unseen was there to be discovered, something lacking in the picture.”

Chalice Lighting from, Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart


“The people who live in any generation do much, he realized, either to create or to solve the problems for the people who come in the generations later.”

Our Covenant


Love is the Spirit of this Church,

And Service is its Law. This is our Covenant:

To Dwell Together in Peace,

To Seek the Truth in Love,

And to Help One Another.”

Opening Hymn #18 What Wondrous Love


Time For All Ages


Singing the Children and Youth to Religious Exploration


“Go Now in Peace,” by Natalie Sleeth  

“Go now in peace, Go now in peace.

May the love of God surround you

Everywhere, everywhere you may go.”


Offertory “Simple Gifts,” by Joseph Brackett


First Reading from Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart


[Don: Our first reading is from Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. Written in 1949, it’s a post-apocalyptic novel about a small community of people in Southern California and how they live, in the wake of a global pandemic. In this excerpt, the protagonist, whose name is Ish, is gazing over his abandoned neighborhood when he sees evidence of someone else living in a house a couple miles away. In the morning he sees a pillar of smoke, as if from a chimney. And in the evening he sees “a faint but unmistakable light.” So he drives there, with his dog, whose name is Princess. And he meets a woman a few years older than he is, whose name is Em. Em invites Ish into her home.]


“After the sudden release of the laughter, he was trembling. All his body seemed growing weak. He felt, almost physically, more barriers breaking--those necessary barriers of defense, built up through the months of loneliness and desperation. He must touch another human being, and he put forward his hand in the old conventional gesture of the handshake. She took it, and doubtless as she noticed his trembling, she drew him toward a chair and almost pushed him into it. As he sat down, she patted his shoulder lightly.

She spoke again, once more neither questioning nor commanding: ‘I'll get you something to eat.’

He did not protest, though he had just eaten heartily. But he knew that behind her quiet affirmation lay something more than any call of the body for food. There was need now for the symbolic eating together, that first common bond of human beings--the sitting at the same table, the sharing of bread and salt.”


Second Reading from, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel


“August said [to Kirsten] that given an infinite number of parallel universes, there had to be one where there had been no pandemic, and he had grown up to be a physicist as planned, or one where there had been a pandemic but the virus had had a subtly different genetic structure, some miniscule variance that rendered it survivable, in any case a universe in which civilization hadn’t been so brutally interrupted. They were discussing this at the top of an embankment in the late afternoon, where they were resting and flipping through a stack of magazines that Kirsten had taken from a house… ‘I still think you invented the parallel-universe theory,’ she said, but one of the things that August didn't know about her was that sometimes when she looked at her collection of pictures, she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life. You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you're in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth. There are dentists. She tried to imagine this life playing out somewhere at the present moment. Some parallel Kirsten in an air-conditioned room, waking from an unsettling dream of walking through an empty landscape.”

Special Music “Light in the Window,” by Carrie Newcomer [offered by Denise Wilson and Larry Guentert]  


Sermon “On the Threshold between the Pandemic and a New Way to Live” [Rev. Jennie]


I’ve been watching a new Hallmark Channel series called, “The Way Home,” in which the main character, a fifteen year old, in the present day, named Alice, is able to time-travel, back to the late 1990s, when her mother was fifteen years old, and they were best friends. Now if that plot sounds derivative, please stick with me. The series and its tone are not the standard arc of a happy ending that viewers have come to expect from Hallmark Channel’s romantic comedies, quite the opposite. In, “The Way Home,” Alice time-travels back to the time before her mother’s younger brother Jacob went missing, then her father died in a car accident only a few months later, and she and Alice’s father separated. And what Alice learns from her time-travel is that a person cannot just go back in time and reverse nor erase tragedies that affected her family for years to come. There are some people who went missing and we cannot locate them. There are loved-ones who died and we cannot bring them back. As her mother’s friend, Elliot, says to her, “What happened in the past is what happened.”


Yet back in that happier era in Alice’s family history, there was a buoyancy and camaraderie, laughter and sharing meals together, family trips out into the country, and music and singing. There was love and there was joy. The series’ writers and actors being present to that wide range of emotions is what makes it so gripping, and tender, and helpful to viewers who are processing grief and loss.


In a recent episode, Alice goes back to New Year’s Eve, 1999. Of course her friends have been told that the world is on the brink of a global disaster: Y2K. They throw a big elaborate party for which everyone has to wear futuristic outfits. The teen-hostess, Monica, walks Alice around the house saying, “That room is dancing, over there is drinks and snacks.” Then she points to a large white-board and says, “And here is our poll: ‘What do you think is going to happen at midnight?’ The best guess wins a prize!” The teens have created a list that is fanciful and fun:


#1 Computers rise up;


#2 Aliens Invade [the next two are more somber]


“Planes fall from the sky” and “The Sun Explodes”


My favorite is: Dinosaurs Wake Up!


The next one is one I had to look up. It says, “The Big Crunch.” It was an erroneous theory that the earth’s gravity would make it collapse in on itself.


The second to last one could be a whole ‘nother sermon on a later Sunday. It says, “The Dawn of the Age of Aquarius.”


And for the last one, the teens wrote, in all caps, “Nothing!”


This week marks the three-year anniversary of when the pandemic began. It’s an anniversary that I think we have all been feeling, if subconsciously. It’s right below the surface of our emotions. The days, weeks, and months of the worst of the pandemic are not something we need to revisit. No one has to talk about that if they don’t want to. But now that the worst of Covid is behind us, finally, we are on a threshold between the pandemic and a new way to live. Three years ago, we did not know what to guess might happen from the global disaster that we were told was imminent. And that is understandable. There’s no way we could have known. If you could go back in time and be with our three-years-younger selves, what would you say to them?

Computers did rise up. We all learned to use technology in ways that I certainly had not imagined I would be able to learn. Aliens did not invade, though we did see some very mysterious balloons in the sky. The sun has not exploded. But our awareness and urgency around the climate crisis is far more heightened now than it was three years ago. And technically we are supposed to be in the Age of Aquarius now. Though when we look at the political climate in our nation and around the world, it certainly doesn’t feel like a new era of harmony and understanding. And the teens in the Hallmark series had guessed that perhaps nothing would happen as a result of Y2K. And in many ways they were right. But the one thing that we cannot say about the pandemic is that it didn’t change anything. Our nation is changed now; indeed, the whole world is changed. Every person on the planet was, in some way, effected by Covid. And I don’t think anyone had an easy time of it. A few weeks ago, I was visiting our older members who live at Westminster Village, and we were talking about the fact that the anniversary of the pandemic was coming up. And one of our older members said, “Covid changed everything.” And I wondered, is that really true? That’s the question that I have been exploring. I felt that I needed to come to an understanding of what the world has been through, these past three years, so that, in my conversations with you, when you want to talk about the pandemic, I will be able to be appropriate and helpful.


If I could talk with our three-years-younger selves, I would say: Some things will be okay. We will be okay. Our church will be okay, in fact it will be better than okay. Our church will be thriving! We will, again, have the Art Fair, and share meals together, and make music and dance and sing, and even pass around the offering plates which were lovingly made by Roy Barnhart. We will welcome in new visitors and friends and families and members. And there will be times during the pandemic when we will experience the transcendence of virtual caring connections, and creating new art forms, and joking about parallel universes and feeling like we are on another planet. And we will selflessly give away precious things to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, discovering that doing so eases our grief. There will be moments when we feel at peace with the world, and our place in it. We will have those transcendent moments, but they will be few and fleeting and infrequent. So we will have to help each other notice them when they do happen and reach out to intentionally make them happen. I would say to our three-years-younger selves, “We will make it through this, and you will not have to do it alone. We will make it through this together.”

In order to reach an understanding of what we have been through these three years, I have been reading post-apocalyptic novels about communities of people and how they live in the wake of a global pandemic. The two masterpieces I found are: Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, which was written in 1949, and is set around Berkeley, California; and Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, which she wrote in 2014. And reading these novels was very helpful to me. But it was a trippy thing to do. Some of the ways things are described, some of the images, put you right back there. So I would recommend that if you are going to delve into apocalyptic novels or movies or series, it helps to create a container for yourself, so that you’ve set aside the time and space to pause and process those images of communities beset by tragedy.


When a post-apocalyptic novelist writes about a pandemic, a pandemic isn’t what they really want to write about. What they want to write about is their vision of how communities live after civilization has collapsed. They could have picked an atomic war or a climate disaster; they just happened to choose a pandemic. For George R. Stewart and Emily St. John Mandel, their vision is of a way of life that is simpler, less self-interested, more generous, and connected to the natural world in ways that are more reverent and respectful. There is a misconception about the word, “apocalypse.” An apocalypse is actually not the end of the world. An apocalypse reveals things that existed and were true in our world, but which were hidden. Aaron Ferkenstad wrote about this misconception in his blog post for the King of Grace Lutheran Church and School, in Golden Valley, Minnesota, in October of 2021, called, “The Apocalypse Isn’t the End of the World.” He wrote:


“The most common perception of the final book of the Bible is that it’s about the catastrophic destruction of the world. When you hear the word ‘apocalypse,’ you might think about Hollywood movies of zombies, volcanoes, ice ages, alien invasions, or more. But do you realize that there is a cosmos that endures the final destruction at the end of the book of Revelation? The last two chapters are about what comes after that. There’s still a world, but it’s a renewed and restored one! “Post-apocalyptic” is a great place to be, not a terrible place. [He goes on to write] In the Bible, the Greek word ‘apocalypse’ does not mean the catastrophic end of the world. The English language has completely misunderstood and mangled the word. The word ‘apocalypse’ means to reveal or to make something visible (as in Matthew 10:26—“There is nothing concealed that will not be apocalypsed, or hidden that will not be made known”)… So what is the book [of Revelation] revealing? It exposes and lays bare the true nature of the universe.”


So in choosing to write about a post-pandemic society in California in the twentieth century, what George R. Stewart really wanted to write about was that human beings’ relationship to nature was out of balance, and in need of correction. He wanted to write about a post-anthropocene age when human activity was no longer the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The recently reprinted edition of Earth Abides begins with an introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson, written after the pandemic began in 2020. Dr. Robinson wrote that Stewart’s novels, “always came back to inquiries into the nature of civilization, [and] how individuals are formed by their societies, and how societies fit into their landscape.” Stewart envisioned a society without racism, without anti semitism, and in which the guns no longer work. Dr. Robinson adds that, “Seventy years after first publication [Earth Abides] is still bringing needed news about the importance of seeing things whole and taking the long view.” What the main character, Ish, anguishes about is that the children born after the collapse are not intellectually curious. They are not motivated to reflect on what the advances of civilization had been, nor to make plans and provisions that will benefit the generations to come after them. The massive store of books in the U.C. Berkeley library may be left forever unopened. That is heartbreaking to me. Yet, by years after their pandemic, the generations younger than Ish have attained a sense of peace, and acceptance of their world and their lives. When he has become a very old man, Ish asks his great-grandson, Jack, “’Young man, are you happy?’ The young man looked startled at this question, and he glanced in both directions before answering, and then he said, ‘Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am a part of them.’”


It is that sense of acceptance and peace that we are missing, that we are longing for, now, in this threshold time in the wake of our global pandemic. We long for the time when those moments of transcendence and joy are no longer so few, infrequent, and far between. I have talked with my colleagues about their experience of how members of the congregations they are serving are faring in these times. We talked about this at some recent brainstorming sessions exploring the Soul Matters monthly themes. This month’s theme is vulnerability. And my colleagues are sensing a great deal of anxiety, depression, and malaise, especially among young adults, children, and youth. That may not be what you are sensing from people around you. But research is showing that the pandemic’s toll on mental health is heavy, all around the world. How do we overcome that and how do we cultivate wellbeing in this threshold time? The guidance we need is in the novel, Station Eleven, which is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. In the wake of their global pandemic, some classical musicians and actors form what they call, “The Traveling Symphony.” There are small settlements of survivors all around the Great Lakes in Michigan. The Traveling Symphony circuits around to them, bringing them performances of Shakespeare and the great classical composers. They travel in old flatbeds that are horse-drawn. Painted on the first caravan are the words, “Because survival is insufficient.” Ms. Mandel credits those words as being from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, written by Ronald D. Moore, in September of 1999. The Traveling Symphony’s mission is to keep the arts alive, to keep humanity alive, and to convey to people, beauty, joy, and hope.


Many of you are familiar with Station Eleven, especially since, in 2018, it was the book chosen for “The Big Read” for Purdue and the Tippecanoe County and West Lafayette libraries. And I would love to talk much more about it with you! When talking with my colleagues I said that I believe that the experience of vulnerability can lead to experiences of transcendence, including collectively, such that they bring a community together, instead of its being just a bunch of individuals. But, I asked them, how do we get there from the experience of everything that we’ve lost? –because it doesn’t work like a math problem, this isn’t like a screenplay with a happy ending. Yet in these novels, there’s love, there’s generosity, there’s friendship, there’s keeping the arts alive, there is hope--  And my colleague, the Rev. Karen Johnston said, “That’s it! Exactly! That’s it exactly! We are in this liminal time when we are longing to know what is going to happen next and we can see the other side of it on the horizon, we just aren’t there yet.” And then she quoted the lyric from the Carrie Newcomer song that Denise Wilson and Larry Guentert played for us so beautifully this morning, saying:


“Now the old has already passed away
But the new is too new to be born today
So I'm throwing out seeds on the winter snow
As the cold wind begins to blow
Standing here on a new threshold

I can see a light there's a light in the window.”

Rev. Karen said, “Getting there doesn’t work like a math problem and it isn’t a screenplay with a happy ending [she said], It’s going to be years. This is going to take years.”


I believe her and, as it turns out, our wise older member at Westminster was right. Covid did change everything. I Googled, for myself, the question, How many people worldwide died of Covid? It’s 6.8 million. We will have to allow each other spaces to grieve those losses, and treat those spaces with tenderness. But the gift that the experience of the pandemic has given us is all of the beauty, friendship, love, and good-natured humor that was there all along; it was just waiting to be revealed. I’ll close this morning with these words from the conclusion of Station Eleven. Many years have passed since the pandemic hit, and Clark is an old man, in a community in an old airport in Michigan. He is remembering his friend, Miranda. He thinks that she became a shipping executive:


“Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac, at the planes that have been grounded for twenty years, at the reflection of his candle flickering in the glass. He has no expectation of seeing an airplane rise again in his lifetime, but is it possible that somewhere there are ships setting out? If there are, again, towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain?”


Let us have faith in the shared-marvels our awakening world might contain.


Closing Hymn #95 There is More Love


Chalice Extinguishing by Kevin Jagoe


When the candle dims, The wax almost spent
The light turns amber like a sunset
Still it provides light, Still it provides heat
Still it can kindle new flame
And pass its glow on, and contribute to new illumination
When sunsets turn to new days, when seasons transform all.
When the candle dims, all is not lost.

Hope continues, uncertain and true,
like candlelight, ready to spark again.
All is not lost.


Special Music “I Am Ready for Change,” by Carrie Newcomer [offered by Denise Wilson and an ensemble from Blue Moon Rising  


Benediction [from, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel]  


“Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side? If nothing else, it’s pleasant to consider the possibility. He likes the thought of ships moving over the water, toward another world just out of sight.”