Legend has it that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built on the spot where Jesus was born. Most of the entrance was filled in with stones hundreds of years ago, leaving a narrow opening into the church that’s less than five feet high. This was an ancient security system, preventing pilgrims from bringing their carts and livestock into church. Long after creaky cart wheels and donkey poop stopped being a problem at this holy site, even short pilgrims like me must bow to go in, which is why the entrance of the Church of the Nativity is known at the “humility door”. Like the accidental creation of Silly Putty, as far as I’m concerned this is one of the greatest church innovations ever.
But even before there was a humility door near the spot where God humbled God’s self in a trough for us, all houses of worship have made use of the body to prepare the heart to come before the Holy One.
For instance, last Sunday after church I went with Charlie to the Sikh Temple across town to thank them during worship for helping out with Jersey City’s interfaith, homeless family ministry. Before entering the Gurdwara we were asked to wash our hands, cover our heads with scarves and remove our shoes. All I know about Sikhism could be written on a gum wrapper but by the time I got to the sanctuary my body told my soul to humble itself.
Saying the Pledge of Allegiance at Jersey City’s last City Council meeting reminded me that this civic ritual is the only time outside of worship when I do something physically with a crowd of people to prepare my soul but for some reason, this time when we covered out hearts with our hands and stood I imagined cracking my head against the humility door.
Setting aside the question of whether we should say “under God’ in the pledge, how as a nation can claim that we are?
The one thing I know about all religions is this: there’s no calling upon God without humility. Otherwise, God is nothing more than a pile of our own resentments, opinions and prejudices draped with a flag and crowned with a crummy, tinsel halo.
How can we declare that we’re under God when our current national motto is “Us first”? How can we reference our shared deference to the God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad when our response to the poor and those seeking refuge is building new walls and more jails or when we revile each other and call it patriotism?
At least for now, I wish that instead of standing for the pledge we could bow. I wish that we could acknowledge that we have always failed to be all of the things that we have striven to be, ask forgiveness, if not from God than at least from each other, and for the courage and strength to try again.
Dear God, when we call upon you in any place, for any cause, until we have bent the knees of our hearts, please don’t listen to us. Amen.