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Kneel Down and Fight

Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1990s was, like so many other Southern cities, struggling to find an identity and possessing a hollowed-out urban core before the generation that would usher in renewed downtown development and gentrification came of age. Plagued by political corruption, haunted by enduring effects of redlining and racism, the Iron City’s suburbs were still largely fractured along the fault lines of segregation and economic inequities.

To be a teenager growing up in this context was to be confronted with a confounding reality — a region ruled largely by conservative politics funded significantly by apocalyptic-laden evangelical preaching, yet surrounded by the rotten fruit of generations of neglect and apathy toward the material needs of the poor.

By God’s grace, I did not discover this in the church, at least not initially. My charismatic evangelical community was largely racially integrated, orbiting around “mercy ministries,” possessing a default figural reading of Scripture that would warm the hearts of any Cappadocian. And while we would never utter the words of any Catholic creed, my church did prime the pump for me to eventually become sacramental. If God shows up in the charismatic gifts, why not also the bread and wine?

Moreover, this was the community that introduced me to skateboarding, Vans sneakers, and “hardcore” music. After years of trying to be like my brother, the basketball star, I set out on my own course and embraced an “alternative” aesthetic, which was traditioned to me by older youth-group acolytes. I was happy to take on this identity, for while being a scrappy player, I didn’t have the height to excel in Amateur Athletic Union ball like my brother.

So I jumped headlong into the world of Tooth & Nail and Takehold Records, while imbibing a healthy sonic diet of, to name only a few, MxPx, Underoath, and my favorite band of the lot, Few Left Standing, which dominated the early years of Furnace Fest (a local concert series). My mother never fully bought my argument that the lyrics were deeply Christian. I suppose she had her own sacramental vision, and the seemingly demonic screams of the front man did not sufficiently embody an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. However, I loved it … Few Left Standing gave voice to the angst (and hyperbole) of teenage suburbia, even if it was overly dramatic at times.

One song that has remained with me to this day became something of a mantra for me: “Kneel Down and Fight.” This phrase mapped onto my Pentecostal imagination, marinated as it was by John’s apocalypse and a healthy dose of revivalism. I have come to believe, however, that this song title captures in capsule form so much of what I have come to believe about prayer as an adult and an Episcopal priest.

The fuel and fund for our life in Christ is found in kneeling, in learning to live now as we will live then. “One day every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Paul writes in Philippians. The night before Jesus died, he also kneeled to the Father, in prayer and humble abandonment to the Divine Will. About this posture, Pope Benedict XVI writes,

The gesture: Jesus assumes, as it were, the fall of man, lets himself fall into man’s fallenness, prays to the Father out of the lowest depths of human dereliction and anguish. He lays His will in the will of the Father’s. … He lays the human will in the divine.

When we kneel, we also are caught up in this story. We kneel, in other words, to be raised up by the one who carries us to the Father. The Shepherd kneels to take up the lamb on his shoulders. The King kneels, only to be crowned with thorns on the cross. Like Solomonic kneeling with arms spread toward heaven (1 Kgs. 8; 2 Chr. 6), his arms also were splayed open, yet, on the hard wood at Calvary. Thus, like the leper who kneels before Jesus, we kneel, and pray, “Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Matt. 8:2). Kneeling embodies the reality of prayer — it is a movement that happens in us, and one that happens to us.

Indeed, in his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson reminds us that prayer, properly construed, happens in the middle voice. You will likely know that with respect to grammar, voice refers to the form a verb takes in relation to the subject when it acts or is acted upon. So your elementary school English teacher would say “I act” is the active voice, whereas “I am acted upon” is the passive voice.

We could equally say, “I pray” is in the active voice, or “I am prayed for” is in the passive voice. The point is that either we are acting or being acted upon. The middle voice covers those times when the speaker actively participates in the results of an action that another initiates. The vision is that two wills operate, “neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other” (p. 103). Peterson fleshes this out in the following terms:

I do not control the action; that is a pagan concept of prayer, putting the gods to work by my incantations or rituals. I am not controlled by the action; that is a Hindu concept of prayer in which I slump passively into the impersonal and fated will of gods and goddesses. I enter into the action begun by another, my creating and saving Lord, and find myself participating in the results of the action. I neither do it, nor have it done to me; I will to participate in what is willed. Prayer and spirituality feature participation, the complex participation of God and the human, his will and our wills. We do not abandon ourselves to the stream of grace and drown in the ocean of love, losing identity. We do not pull the strings that activate God’s operations in our lives, subjecting God to our assertive identity. We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice). We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice). (pp.103-4)

This might seem like a thin distinction, but nothing could be further from the truth. To pray is to learn that we align our wills to the will of God, who wills in us to pursue him in the first place. To pray is to learn that my will often prays for what is wrong, and God wills to draw me into what is good and right. Indeed, Romans 8:26 says nothing less: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Prayer is, then, a joint venture, a relational partnership with the God who is present to us even when we are not present to God. In kneeling, our hearts also learn to kneel with and in Christ, who kneels to the Father on our behalf: “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and began to pray” (Luke 22:41). Hence, this is where the battle is won. If the Christian life is anything, it is first and finally an act of submission in a world that hates this very word. But submission to God is an act of love and hope, for it is indeed a surrender … a surrender to grace. So I encourage you: Kneel down and fight.

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