One week, several years back, I spent a great deal of time on my knees. I wasn’t at prayer; I was cleaning the kitchen in the Mainstay Ministries office building. Because of an economic downturn, we were consolidating our office space, moving from the Annex building across the street, which had a kitchen of its own. But before I could combine that kitchen with our existing kitchen in the main office, I needed to empty and clean one kitchen, and rearrange the sadly neglected space in the other. That entailed moving the Coke machine and the refrigerator, cleaning under them, dumping and sorting the clutter that gathers in communal spaces, reposition the eating tables, storage cupboards, ditching junk and scrubbing every inch. Hardly what I would call dancing moments (I have been looking at dance as a metaphor for living in God’s sacred rhythms).
Now all this effort was complicated by the fact that somewhere in all this, while leaving my daughter’s house I took a misstep, twisted my ankle and fell to the ground. Since it was closer for me to crawl to my car by the curb and much less humiliating than scooting back up the walk to her front door, I drove off not knowing whether I had broken anything. At least I could drive.
Amazingly, after icing my foot and elevating my ankle, I was able to meet grandchildren that night at the movies (using my father-in-law’s cane, which I kept, fortuitously, when we cleared through the remains of his estate). By Sunday I was walking without it; by Wednesday I was back to mopping floors at the office on my hands and knees. This, however, was accompanied by moans and groans since during my misstep, I had also scraped my left knee like a little kid falling off a bike, and in order to get up I had to maneuver the right ankle (which had the funniest bruise—large and dark, clothing the whole joint like a 19th-century gentleman’s spat) just so. I’m sure our staff thought I was trying to gain their sympathy and attention. (Of course I wasn’t, though it does seem to me that some of them might have given me a hand, crippled as I was and as unpleasant the task.)
All the while, pressing onward in my private war against aesthetic criminality—I don’t mind living without much money, but I hate disorder and ugliness, which often happens in office places where there is no police-warden type to keep the material things in
shape—this little phrase kept nudging my thoughts: “Do you understand what I have done to you?” These words are spoken by Christ from the Gospel account where He washes His disciples’ feet. “If I then, the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet.” John 13:1-15.
So I wasn’t dancing. I certainly wasn’t praying, but I spent a week at 370 South Main Place in Wheaton, Illinois in a kind of foot-washing season. Next on the list was clearing out and cleaning the women’s bathroom (we were condensing five bathrooms from the two buildings into two bathrooms in the remaining building). And just to make sure that I didn’t lose my battle against aesthetic crime, I stopped and clipped magnolia blossoms from the yard of the Annex we had sold. I arranged them in two glass vases for the office kitchen tables. Beauty is persistent; it will make its way up through the ashes—the debris of economic collapses, the rubble of neglect and negligence, but perhaps that is because it is also nurtured at the cost of someone’s willingness to serve.
“Do you understand what I have done to you?” No, none of us will ever understand, but spending time on our knees scrubbing up everyone else’s mess isn’t a bad place to start. This knee-work is akin to the stretching exercises ballet dancers perform at the studio barre—bending and stretching, bending and stretching. There are no pirouettes, no pas de deux of any merit until the dancers have done the secret labor of knee-work, exercises that make the muscles flexible, the body lithe and the limbs graceful.
Missteps, uncomfortable as they are, dangerous as they might be, can bring us down. And from time to time, that isn’t always a bad place for us to be.
Other projects involving Karen right now are: Working with teams of Christian women to design Retreats of Silence, in both 24-hours and three-days formats, through the aegis of Hungry Souls. Developing hospitality initiatives that train Christian men and women how to use their own homes in caring outreaches through the Open Heart, Open Home ministries. Launching the Global Bag Project, a worldwide effort that markets sustainable cloth shopping bags to provide sustainable incomes for bag-makers in developing nations. Researching the impact of listening groups while overseeing some 240 small groups over the last three years. Experimenting with teleconference mentoring for Wannabe (Better) Writers. Designing the Tales of the Kingdom Web site.