“On Your Knees”
The First Parish of Watertown
January 30, 2011
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Reading from The Tenth Parallel Eliza Griswold
For me as a six year old, going out to play often meant sneaking next door to the dark, cool church. I learned to read by standing at the pulpit and practicing the Bible’s cadences out over the empty pews. I saw the Bible – sitting open on the brass lectern, a red satin ribbon marking the page – as a book of spells, one whose extravagant metaphors, whose terrible and powerful parables were ways to call God down to earth….. I saw my loving, distant, distractible father caught between two worlds. One was a place of worldly decisions and unexpected phone calls; once I watched him rip the rectory’s black rotary phone right off the wall. The other was a sacred realm in which he was a servant, not a leader. When I was twelve he was elected the bishop of Chicago….At his consecration, my father lay facedown on the cathedral floor with his legs extended and arms outstretched, his body forming the shape of the cross. There was something about this act of utter surrender that terrified and angered me. What right had God, and these strangers in the pews, to demand my father’s life?
When are they going to let Dad up? I asked my mother. Although I feared for my father, I also feared for myself. What did God want from us, anyway? I grew petrified of God’s will. What if he were to swoop down and ask me to submit also?
Reading from “Hating the Blues” by Jamey Hatley
After breakfast on Saturday, my mama would turn on the radio, and the blues would growl out, eclipsing my cartoons. As Mama finished up her weekend chores, the throbbing jagged noise of Muddy Waters, BB King and Koko Taylor mingled with the scent of pine sol and bleach. Sometimes she would call to my daddy that one of his songs was on and they would share a low, private chuckle about old times. Grown up times. Mississippi times…. There was always plenty of grown up talk to eavesdrop on. And always, there was the blues.
Can’t we listen to something else, one of the tribe of cousins would ask. Please?
Y’all don’t like these blues? Keep living and see if you don’t start to like ‘em. Just keep living. This instruction was always followed by laughter and shaking heads. Just keep living was a threat, a dare. Keep living because the blues were somewhere. Out there. Waiting to get you.
The smoky twilight of Saturday blues rolled over into the dawn of Sunday gospel…. When we listened to a radio broadcast, the preacher’s voice trembled and boomed and warned against the kind of sin we could find in that Saturday music. In church, we sang a song for communion: I know it was the blood for me. The congregation responded in a low rumble that rose into a wild shout in the middle and was a whispering moan by the end. My Mama was one of the ones who passed around the little cups of grape juice. Jesus had died for me. The juice, the blood, was for me. This music was for me. But those voices made me fear salvation as much as sin. I had the same reaction to both the blues and to preaching. Each in its own way talked about something hidden and dangerous. I didn’t want either.
During Black History month, one constant was the father of the blues, WC Handy. A formally trained musician who traveled all over the world, the blues found him. The story is that he fell asleep waiting for a train and woke up to find a man playing the weirdest music he’d ever heard on a guitar. This chance encounter sparked a passion that became Handy’s life work…. But we all knew where this was going. Black History lessons had an inevitable destination: Civil Rights and slavery. I felt embarrassed and pained when we were shown footage of sit-ins and protests, and that Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed in Memphis, my home. Memphis was a place so bad that men who were black like my daddy needed placards reading I AM A MAN. King had come to help and got killed for his trouble. How could I possibly repay that debt? Repay the blood that was for me?
Once we moved into slavery, things got worse. The line drawings in our textbooks of enslaved people dragging sacks of cotton and their ramshackle houses didn’t just hit close to home, it was home. I feared my classmates would know I was that kind of country. Textbook, slavery-time country…. My parents had lived on plantations as sharecroppers. Until they died, several relatives lived in the same houses where they sharecropped. My grandmother’s house in Mississippi had no running water. She lived there until the house burned, then lived with my great uncle Moses, who had running water and indoor plumbing installed in 2003. When he died two years later, the house and its new plumbing reverted back to the plantation owners. Never mind that he had paid the taxes on the property. This was the blues. This was me.
I first thought I hated my parents’ music because I didn’t belong to it. All I could hear was despair and gloom and whining about the past. But when I grew older, I hated it because there was no denying I belonged to it… The shadow of plantations, poverty, and slavery caught up with me. The music made the horrors of my textbooks real. And ugly. And alive. I made the blues a container for everything I was ashamed of.
I don’t know why, but in my family there is a vague tradition of responding to certain situations with the phrase “On your knees, knave.” I would like to blame my husband for this, because he is an Anglophile and the word knave seems right up his alley, but I am pretty sure the repetition of this phrase comes from my brothers. I became convinced of this after googling it and learning that this phrase is attributed to Catwoman. For those of you who are younger than me, or older than me, or perhaps grew up in a more cultured environment, let me explain. Catwoman, one of very few female characters, is a nemesis of the fictional billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who works undercover as Batman, helping victims of criminals. Batman was a live action show, but during the parts when good and evil battled it out, the violence was cartooned in, with “BLAM” and “KAPOW” filling the screen. My brothers and I loved this show, and one of my favorite pictures is of me and my brother Barry dressed in leotards, with black ballet skirts tied around our necks and little kitten headbands on, to get the bat ear effect. Since Barry is now 46 years old and the head of a construction crew, this picture could, in the right context, bring him to his knees….
Now, of course, I know that Catwoman was not the originator of the phrase. But I do think we can give her credit for popularizing it among those who might not have studied medieval England. My computer actually had Julie Newmar’s recorded voice. One click, and I heard: “Now if you all assume positions of subservience, we can complete this caper with a minimum of jeopardy and danger for all. On your knees, knaves!”
Subservience. That seems to be what it all comes down to. Certainly in family life there is a lot of jockeying for who will do who’s bidding, and why. My children spent much of the month of December urging me to “bow down, bow down before the power of Santa.” This would make me a knave to capitalism, I guess; or if you are less cynical, it could make me open to mystery and the magic of abundant gifts from the universe. The lessons we draw are not always the ones intended. On my computer, when Catwoman instructs her men, in the background, I could hear Batman whispering to Robin, “She’s playing right into our hands. I planned it this way.” She thinks the henchmen are bowing to her desire, but it is all actually subordinate to a much grander plan. And perhaps the church fathers believed that Griswold’s demonstration of complete submission showed faith in a grand plan, too.
The image Eliza Griswold paints, of her father face down on the floor of the church, is like being on your knees, and then having your kneecaps shattered. It isn’t enough to bow down; he has to be trampled and overcome by the power of God, or the church rites. I find it a little bit painful to think of a child witnessing her father lying on a stone floor, unable to assert that he is a man. In my mind, in the shadows of the cathedral I see the men in Memphis that Jamey Hatley writes of, so invisible that they have to carry signs proclaiming “I AM A MAN.” I can hear the anxiety in that question: “When are they going to let him up?” What is really being asked is, will they let him up? And will he ever be the same now that he has been in that position? Being laid that low is scary, and often seems without purpose. It is not part of a rite of sanctification; at least not consciously. Instead, it communicates a lack of control, a lack of authority over even our own lives. The image conveys something of brokenness; simply no longer being able to stand, unable to bear the weight of our days. It is the position of powerlessness and whining that Jamey Hatley despises in the blues. In a passage from that article, she says “I was resolved to never be like those desperate people. Nobody cried for those who sang the blues. They did all their crying themselves.”
Both Hatley and Griswold were afraid of the powerlessness they witnessed. Yet I do not believe that abasement was the true message; — not of the religious tradition of consecration, or of the music from the Mississippi Delta. Instead what was intended was an acknowledgement of powerful forces beyond our control. But this is a message that feels very different to someone who is essentially in control; assumed to be a leader, or a parent; than it feels to a child, or to someone without much power. Both women – one white, fairly wealthy, Northern and Episcopalian; the other black, Southern, and a member of a family Baptist church whose minister was shared with another congregation – started the process of leaving church behind as children. They needed stories and images that showed them how to feel in control, able to make good decisions, and feel part of something uplifting, not an evocation of pain and submission to invisible forces. A few months ago my husband, Mark, reported a conversation with another minister we both know and like. Mark comes from a more traditional religious background than I do. Even as a Unitarian Universalist, Mark identified as a Christian for a long time; until I either corrupted him or helped him to see the light, depending upon your point of view. I, on the other hand, have failed to evolve at all. I was born into the humanist strain of Unitarian Universalism, and have never strayed. This minister friend of ours had been asked to lecture at a gathering of Unitarian Christians, and Mark said, “oh, yes, Andrea has done talks for them before.” The response to this was incredulity. Why would they want her? What could she possibly have to say?
Now I know that this was all good natured, and that it was based on an understanding of my non-theistic faith and I dutifully laughed as it was recounted for me. But actually, it hurt. Humanism is not a complete rejection of Christianity; it is a rejection of exclusivity. It is an embrace of more than, and in many ways derives from the message of Christian unity. Today we sang a hymn which includes a Lord with hands. I may not have faith in that kind of being myself, but that does not mean I don’t understand and feel the request for comfort; or the need to grab on to something that will help us get up again. Life is hard, no matter what we believe in. And pretending otherwise makes it harder.
There is another hymn I like, which we didn’t sing today. It says that “we are the earth upright and proud:” and that wind is music in our mouths. It ends with the assurance that love will win at length. I grew up with this hymn, and was both surprised and annoyed in seminary when it was ridiculed. “HA,” said a friend defiantly. “Show me someone who feels upright and proud.” Well, when you put it that way…. It’s not exactly an invitation to raise your hand, is it? I flash on George Bush, unable to come up with any mistakes he might have made. But maybe the point is that we NEED to feel upright and proud, and singing can make it so – even if only for a few moments.
In the yard at the parsonage right now there are butterfly bushes that have been quite literally bent in half by the weight of the snow. Their crowns are cemented to the ground by icicles. These split branches are not specifically part of any grand plan, but their posture is part of nature’s design. When the snow melts, they may stand again. They may not. They might have to be trimmed way back. But either way, little purple flowers will bud, and monarchs will find their way here.
Traditional religion demands an acknowledgement of forces that break and bend us. It rejects the idea that we are naturally good and that life gets better because of anything we may do. But embracing humility and a lack of personal will is every bit as deadening as rejecting it. Sometimes we can’t afford to feel weak, or to be reminded of how bad life can get. We might not ever get out of bed in the morning if we think too much about the suffering in the world, let alone in our own lives. Believing that we have some control; that we have choices in how we respond to events and that how we live our lives makes a difference is not the same thing as saying that we have complete dominion, or that we don’t make mistakes. I experience the hymn – which is number 303 — as emboldening. It can help the weak feel strong. It reminds us we are planted in something bigger than we can really comprehend. I love the image of wind – aimless and external to me, and maybe unwelcome – yet making music if we just open our mouths and let it pass through us. I see people, molded as little clay whistles for the wind to sing through.
Silke Plesch and I talked a little bit about the ideas in this sermon, and she shared some books with me. One contained a poem by Wallace Stevens – 13 Ways of Looking at A Blackbird, which I once saw performed by this amazing artist who had made three enormous scrolls of beautiful paper, with different lines from the poem and images of blackbirds painted in different seasons, and from different angles. The artist turned each backlit scroll to create an illuminated movie, almost, as the poem unfolded. The lines in the book are these: “I do not know which to prefer: the beauty of inflections, or the beauty of innuendoes; the blackbird whistling, or just after. The author, Mark Epstein, talks about Western ideas of the self as inflections; the ability of the individual to whistle. We celebrate ourselves, and our powers. Buddhists, he says, emphasize the space around the self – the empty area where there is no real self, but which somehow hints of a life we can’t quite grasp. It is not discounting the whistling, but noticing more – how the air vibrates after the note stops. The world is changed as much by the aftermath as by the song itself.
This is not just a Buddhist view of wholeness. Much of the Western concept of prayer also aims at this kind of non-being for individuals, who were radically dependent – on each other, and on God. The original Christian prayer tradition was inherited from Judaism, and except for prayers of mourning, which were done kneeling, people stood. Kneeling was not even allowed on Sundays, because it was a day dedicated to joy. Prayers were psalms, sung as hymns of praise and thanksgiving. I still feel hymns as prayers. They create one body of us; they generate wholeness both within and among us, and a belief – at least for a moment – in a world with a different reality. We can feel that there is peace; there is comfort. It doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering, or feeling broken; but it means we aren’t threatened by our pain. We have a wider perspective on it.
Western Christianity changed over time, as it reflected Roman rule. The idea of submission to larger authorities led to kneeling as a way to recognize the church as consecrated space; or to honor the power of the resurrection. But, really – in church, we don’t need to be told to submit so much as we need permission to feel as bad as we do, sometimes. To pray, to mourn, to know that we might not have control, but that we will be all right somehow. Faith should make us less afraid – of our own lives, and of the world. It should not MAKE you bow down, but it instead accept us when we are on our knees; and help us accept ourselves in that position, too.
I chose the hymn “Precious Lord” partially because it has the kind of complexity that the word prayer conveys. There is a combination of helplessness and comfort that evokes the traditional image of bedtime prayers: children on their knees, faces hidden by hands, a warm bed and the invitation to the invisible kingdom of dreams, where anything is possible. A parent alongside, with a hand on the child’s back, offers security, predictability; a little companionship in the vast night. Thomas Dorsey wrote this hymn after his wife died in childbirth, and two days later, the baby died as well. Dorsey, who was a blues musician, is now known as The Father of Gospel, largely because of this song. Dorsey said he sat at his piano and let the song some to him like drops of water from the crevice of a rock hanging above his head. What an evocative image – the weight of grief threatening to crush him; the tears not welling up inside, but falling, water wearing away stone; reshaping his life. The last words Martin Luther King, Jr. ever spoke were a request for this song. Ben Branch, a Chicago musician, had come to Memphis to support the garbage worker’s strike. He and his band were going to play that night. They were in the parking lot of the Lorraine Hotel. King leaned over the balcony and inquired how Ben was, and then asked him if he would sing Precious Lord that night. “Sing it like you’ve never sung it before,” he said. Branch answered, “I sure will, Doc,” and when King straightened up, a shot rang out, and he was dead. There was no song that night. But a few days later, at his funeral, Mahalia Jackson sang “Precious Lord.”
Jamey Hatley did not continue to hate the blues. She said she remembered her turning point the way a sinner who recalls her moment of salvation. A college professor played “a live recording of BB King and Bobby Bland. When Bland, four hours late and on the far side of drunk, approached the microphone and sang his apologies to the crowd, you could hear the roar of genuine adoration rise up. It was amazing… a connection to people through heartache and pain. It was using joy and strength to overcome misery, not indulge in it. I suddenly understood that I had been mishearing the blues all this time. This was not about powerlessness or control. It was about transformation. That old imperative to keep living wasn’t a threat. It was encouragement.”
Keep living. That is the message we come here to be reminded of. Through grief and fear; through joy and success, keep living. Sometimes we may come to church to find ourselves. We want strength and confidence and assurance that we can act for good in this world; or at least in our own lives. Other times we may come simply to be around others; to be part of that air that is changed simply by the gathering of people who, for whatever reason, get up and bring themselves through these doors, looking for a hand, perhaps; or ready to offer their own.