We don’t kneel as much as we used to.
And even though I write this in the middle of Easter season when my congregation doesn’t kneel—we stand in amazement that we share in the new life that makes it possible for us to stand at all—I’m not just noticing a paucity of religiously motivated kneeling. We don’t kneel as much as we used to in the course of our day-to-day lives.
Tessie Dormer is dead, for example. Tessie was a housekeeper of the old school, who cleaned floors on her hands and knees and couldn’t quite believe that a mop could do the job, even when it ceased to be a very good idea for her to be crawling around. She stopped, finally, after the day she got down to scrub her bathroom floor and couldn’t get up. She crawled to the phone, and crawled back and finished the tub before the ambulance came and took her to the hospital, where doctors discovered that she’d somehow broken her back.
Most of us don’t care quite that much about our floors. If we do, we can find a Tessie and pay her to do our kneeling for us.
We don’t kneel because we don’t have to.
We’re missing something.
Not backbreaking labor, to be sure—but sometimes honest labor with tangible results can be an effective balance for a life lived largely with intangibles like whether our students are spiritually formed as they should be or how it is possible to be visionary in the midst of change that moves faster than we can. Scrub your floor on your hands and knees and you see how clean it is. Spend a day crawling around installing a room of carpet, and it’ll be there for years. Sink your knees into the dirt of your garden a few times and come harvest you can eat the literal fruit of your labors.
Kneeling isn’t just about work, though. Sometimes it’s about reward. One kneels to be knighted, for example, and some do it with panache—absolutely erect, eyes atwinkle, with humility but with an understanding that the honor is deserved.
Oh—and one can kneel for absolutely unearned and absolutely unexpected honors as well. Remember the story of how to catch a unicorn? The glorious medieval tapestries that now hang in the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in New York drag out the story a bit—there are seven tapestries, most of which feature men in hunting regalia not catching a unicorn. But the centerpiece of the story has a virgin kneeling quietly as the unicorn comes and rests its head in her lap. You can only capture a unicorn, the legend goes, if you are not intending to catch a unicorn. Kneel in innocence, and one might just wander by. The unicorn, of course, is a symbol of Christ. Kneel with that a while.
Which returns us to the religious. My friend Charlie hadn’t exactly been kneeling quietly waiting for Jesus—more like passed out waiting for death. But Jesus found Charlie and pointed him in the direction of sobriety. As his head began to clear, Charlie explained to me his new favorite prayer posture. “I get on my knees now,” he said. “I always prayed, but I was usually coming up the alley asking God, ‘so what are you about?’, like he was one of my buddies. Somehow it dawned on me—you’re not talking to JoJo, you’re talking to the savior of the world. And if he showed up, I’d be flat on my face in front of him. So—kneeling feels like the right thing to do now.”
And indeed, some people upon entering a church acknowledge the presence of God by not just kneeling but by moving through that pose into a graceful little embryonic tuck, as small as they can be, a symbolic reminder before they stand again. And others turn around their chairs to lean on as they kneel, not in a passive posture but in active struggle, trying to discern the will of God and to get their whole selves, bodies too, in line with it.
There are as many ways to kneel in prayer as there are to kneel in work or play or quiet. Find yours. Literally. Now, unless you’re reading on an airplane. Take your time. It’s a nice change of perspective, some balance from the constant reaching. Chances are you weren’t tapped as a leader in theological education on account of your humility, but it’s a virtue that exists in balance with others, and perhaps a solid kneeling posture is a good base from which to lead.
And here’s the bonus. On your knees, you’re at child’s eye level, and there’s a great deal to be learned there. Indeed, it’s preparation for our final lesson. Philippians 2 assures us that ultimately every knee will bow at the name of Jesus. And perhaps it is just thereby that we can enter the kingdom as little children.