Sing Praise

“Sing Praise,” Kathleen Kirk

In Sunday School today, the children are asking What is Family? in the context of the eight points of Progressive Christianity. They are reading a story about all kinds of families called “Chocolate Chip Cookies” and looking specifically at point #3:

#3:  By calling ourselves Progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who seek community that is inclusive of ALL people.

The Children’s Affirmation today is this:

I am part of the community of life that includes ALL people.

We adults could say the same thing.  Last week Amy in her Compassion reflection, and Charline in her comment, also wanted to include animals in the community of life, and all creatures.  So our all-inclusive Adults’ Affirmation today might be this:

I am part of the community of life that includes all people.  And animals.  I am part of the community of life that includes all creatures.

I find I’ll be including plants, and trees, which the ancients and farmers and those who work in the wild often include as sentient beings, signaling to each other about weather changes and the onslaught of bugs. The plants may be powerless to prevent bad stuff from happening, but they appear sometimes to be sending out the alert.  Like animals in our community of life, plants sometimes need the tender loving care of humans.  In general, all the less powerful creatures in our community of life need our tender loving care.

And that leads me to Tim Minchin, and a graduation speech he delivered recently at the University of Western Australia, his alma mater.  He’s a very successful man, the kind brought back to give graduation speeches to inspire young people setting out on their adult lives and their careers.  My son, inspired by Minchin, sent me the video of the speech, and I also sought out the written text at Minchin’s website.  Tim Minchin is a composer, musician, singer, actor, and comedian.  He played Judas Iscariot in the revival of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and he wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, on Broadway, based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a powerless child who finds magic in her fingertips and a way out of a bad situation.  Tim Minchin is a delightful, funny man who had an unconventional career path; he’s 38 years old, and very wise.

Here is his 8th point, from the nine life lessons in his graduation speech.

8. Respect People With Less Power Than You.
I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with – agents and producers – based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.

I already liked the guy when I heard his first seven points, but this one made me love him.  “Respect people with less power than you.”  Respect everybody, even the “lowly,” the wait staff, the person who cleans the hotel room and shines your shoes. Minchin has seen how the powerful behave, and he doesn’t always like it.  Because he is himself successful, he has the power to choose not to work with those he does not admire. Of course, he always had that power, and I imagine Tim Minchin has always chosen to work with people who respect even those with little power.  Any of us can choose respect, and to give tender loving care to the less powerful.

And that leads me to Alice Walker, and her book, The Color Purple, in which some of the less powerful human beings here in America during a certain period of our history were treated very badly by the more powerful.  And some of them learned to treat each other badly, as a result, and some chose the path of tender loving care.

I was reminded of this beautiful book—you may have read it or seen the 1985 movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg—by the November issue of The Sun, a magazine I love (with no advertisements in it!).  The Sun celebrates the work of the past with a feature called “The Dog-Eared Page,” and in November, the month of praise and thanksgiving, that page comes from The Color Purple.

I’ll read a few excerpts from the excerpt in The Sun.  In The Color Purple, the main character of Celie is writing letters to God and, especially when her faith in God wavers, to her sister, Nettie, who has gone away to Africa.  In these excerpts, she tells Nettie about some conversations with her friend, Shug Avery, a lounge singer with a radical love of God.  Shug not only sings God’s praises but also sees the whole earth doing it, too.  I’ll be reading the words exactly as they are written, reflecting the dialect of the deep south, Georgia in the 1930s, as spoken by the black woman, Celie:

All my life I never care what people thought bout nothing I did, I say.  But deep in my heart I care about God.  What he going to think.  And come to find out, he don’t think.  Just sit up there glorying in being deef, I reckon.  But it ain’t easy, trying to do without God.  Even if you know he ain’t there, trying to do without him is a strain.

          I is a sinner, say Shug.  Cause I was born.  I don’t deny it.  But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be?

          Sinners have more good times, I say.

          You know why? she ast.

          Cause you ain’t all the time worrying bout God, I say.

          Naw, that ain’t it, she say.  Us worry bout God a lot.  But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like.

          You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him?  I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that?

          But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that.  Unless I want to.  There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.

          Like what? I ast.

          Oh, she say.  I can lay back and just admire stuff.  Be happy.  Have a good time.

          Well, this sound like blasphemy sure nuff.

          She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church?  I never did.  I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show.  Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.  And I think all the other folks did too.  They come to church to share God, not find God.

Celie has a little trouble with this new concept, so Shug asks her what she thinks God looks like, and Celie reveals that she pictures him as a white man, the one in power. Shug tells her that if that’s who she’s looking for in church, that’s who she’ll find—the white man’s God at the white man’s table.  But Shug has a different idea:

Here’s the thing, say Shug.  The thing I believe.  God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for.  Trouble do it for most folks, I think.  Sorrow, lord.  Feeling like sh*#.

          It? I ast.

          Yeah, it.  God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

          But what do it look like? I ast.

          Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself.  I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be.  And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.

The conversation goes on, with Shug awakening Celie to her song of praise, and to a deeper awareness and attentiveness to all creation:

…Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t.  But more than anything else, God love admiration.

          You saying God vain? I ast.

          Naw, she say.  Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing.  I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

          What do it do when it pissed off? I ast.

          Oh, it make something else.  People think pleasing God is all God care about.  But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

          Yeah? I say.

          Yeah, she say.  It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

          You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.

          Yes, Celie, she say.  Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved.  You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

It’s a lot for Celie to take in, and she tries to balance Shug’s glorious vision of the world with what she herself has seen and experienced—a stepfather who beat her and had children by her, a husband she knows only as “Mr.” who has emotionally and physically abused her. In Mr.’s angry world, white man is in power, victimizing him and making him victimize others. But Celie is beginning to imagine something new:

Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?), not the color purple (where it come from?).  Not the little wildflowers.  Nothing.

          Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool.  Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr.—‘s evil sort of shrink.  But not altogether.  Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.

          Man corrupt everything, say Shug.  He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio.  He try to make you think he everywhere.  Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God.  But he ain’t.  Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug.  Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

 

La la la la la, I can’t hear you, Man Who Thinks He’s God, White Man’s God, Whoever Is In Power Treating Those Less Powerful In a Bad Way, I can’t hear you!

It’s not easy to block out the bad messages of false gods.  As Celie says:

But this hard work, let me tell you.  He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightning, floods and earthquakes.  Us fight.  I hardly pray at all.  Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it. 

So both responses remain.  Radical acceptance and praise—Shug’s song.  And defiance of what needs to be defied—Celie’s way, on her way to the song of praise.  It’s Tim Minchin’s way, too—choosing not to work with those in power who treat the less powerful badly. We have a choice, and we need discernment—to know when to fight back, when to sing out, and when to notice the two are one, as in the song “We Shall Overcome.”

Comments

  1. Ronald Bell says

    This Reflection touched me and resonated. Thank you Kathleen.

    It reminds me that respectful, inclusive Love has many moods and faces, each uniquely appropriate for different places, situations and times, calling for discernment, decision, voice and actions —all-the-while standing humbly and boldly in one’s truth.

    Tim’s, Shug’s and Celie’s ways are all live options and pop-up like paths before us.
    As you say: “We have a choice, and we need discernment—to know when to fight back, when to sing out, and when to notice the two are one, as in the song “We Shall Overcome.”