As a boy, before bed, we’d kneel together in a small circle, the five of us, and say a prayer in turn…”And now I lay me down to sleep”…my knees would start to get tired and fidgety by the time my father finished talking to God but there was an innocence and comfort in our fellowship. The smallness of it all. The bigness of the world outside.
As a boy, I consistently wore out the knees of my pants from play. Always crawling or tumbling or kneeling or jumping. My mother would patch up my britches and I’d wear out the knees all over again.
As a boy, I would play at sport with my friends around the neighborhood. We’d kneel in a huddle to plan our attack, drawing with a stick in the soft earth, whether it was football or capture the flag.
As a boy, I would watch my mother work in the garden, kneeling in the dirt. She would weed, she would plant, she would pick to provide for her family. I learned to do those things too while kneeling beside her.
As a boy, I played little league baseball and the coach would have us take a knee before a game. He’d give us a pep talk, then send us out to play. “You’ve got this. Remember you’re a team. Rely on each other. Have each other’s back out there,” he’d say.
As a boy, my parents would take us to church every Sunday. We’d kneel in the pews to pray. We’d kneel before the altar to receive communion; the body and blood of a man persecuted and misunderstood by his society.
As a boy, I began to learn about war. I was enthralled with photos of valiant bravery, horrific bloodshed, and soldiers kneeling beside the grave of a fallen brother. I would see veterans take a knee on Memorial Day. I would kneel beside them to honor the dead; to honor sacrifice.
As a boy, I began to learn about inequality and hatred. One day, playing with friends around the yard, I used the “n” word without knowing what it meant; certainly without knowing what it symbolized. (I heard someone use the word on the playground at school.) My father called me over (he was working in the yard), knelt down beside me, and calmly explained the meaning of the “n” word. I was old enough to have seen the images of snarling dogs and angry fire hoses during the Civil Rights Movement, the images of slaves who had endured countless lashings, the images of smiling white faces under a hanging black body, and a man who embodied peace and change lying in a pool of blood outside a Memphis motel room. And my father calmly explained why it is abhorrent to use the “n” word to address or describe our fellow brothers and sisters. My father told me he never wanted to hear me speak that way to another human being again. (And my father was born white and raised with privilege in the Deep South.) I knelt down beside my father and cried, for shame and for injustice. My father taught me to be on the side of right that day.
As a boy, I fell in love with a girl. I was eighteen when we were walking in the woods and I proposed. I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I’d seen it done in the movies. I considered kneeling before a woman to be romantic and chivalrous. Prostrating myself at the feet of a girl and putting the fate of my heart in her hands. I knelt by way of pleading…by way of begging her to be with me; to please be kind and grant me her favor. She said yes. Then we knelt together before the minister who married us.
As a boy, I finally learned what real pain was when my wife left me and the world crashed in on me. I was forced to my knees by life’s harsh realities. I was forced to my knees again and again as I grew…”I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
And born of these lessons, I became a man; especially when I became a father myself. And especially as my new family taught me the meaning of selflessness.
As a man, my duty is to lift my family up. I protect and provide.
As a man, it is my duty to turn to friends, neighbors, community (anyone in need) and lift them up. A man kneels down, if need be, to lift up the people around him; give them a hand, give them a knee to stand on to reach the next branch of the tree, give them a strong back to carry them onward.
As a man, I teach the lessons that I was taught and lead by example. I work the soil with my daughter beside me, I kneel to tie my son’s shoe lace, I bend a knee to my wife’s wisdom. I fall on my face, grateful, at day’s end. “And if I die before I wake…”
As a man, I can’t imagine being face down on the ground while another man knelt upon me. (Much less three men.) Knelt upon me with the same knees we played together with as boys. The same knees we prayed together with as brothers. The same knees they proposed to their wives with. The same knees they claim penitence before God. Perhaps, if I found myself in that position, I’d call for my mother in the garden. Perhaps, as life ebbed, I’d long for the sweet, deep breaths of summer as a boy. Perhaps I’d wonder if I was a man at all.
I pray this chain of hate will finally break.