Summary: Since body language communicates our real feelings, we must pay attention to how we present our bodies to God -- in the words of James Weldon Johnson, "knee-bowed", ready to submit our wills to His; and "body-bent", ready to work for things that matter.
You may not speak a great many foreign languages, but there is one language other than English at which most of us are proficient. That is body language. Whether our mouths can pronounce strange sounds or whether our eyes can make any sense out of different alphabets, we can see body language. Body language is eloquent. Body language is forceful and vigorous. The way we use our physical selves, really communicates.
When I call the children up here for the children’s moment, they use body language. Some of them run and skip down the aisle. They are ready and eager to get on to Children’s Worship and all the good things that have been planned. But some of them poke and slouch and drag their feet, as if to say, “Church is boring. Yawn.” You don’t have to hear a word from the children. The body language says it all.
We got caught up watching body language in the recent election, didn’t we? One candidate was said to be stiff. So he tried to limber up. During one debate he walked all over the stage, trying to be up close and personal. But he couldn’t fool us. It wasn’t a casual, friendly walk. It was more like marching here and marching there. Even his relaxation was stiff. The body language didn’t lie. It communicated.
But then the other candidate had a body language too. His was centered on his face. It seemed to be locked into a perpetual smirk. The words coming out of his mouth were serious and addressed major questions, but that grimace seemed to say, “What, me president? You’ve got to be kidding!” And lots of people – well forty-nine and 99/100 percent of them – thought this was some sort of clown prince. Never mind what the man said. His body language sent a powerful message.
In some cultures, body language is a very formal, very sensitive process. For Asian people, for example, how and when you bow is of supreme significance. To fail to bow is a serious insult; to fail to return a bow is a supreme insult. It says that you consider whomever you are dealing with to be a non-person. It says that you do not respect them. And so not only must you bow, in these Asian cultures; you must also be careful how you bow. I read one Zen Buddhist text that warned its readers not to bow too slowly, lest someone think you were reluctant to show respect. But also not to bow too quickly, lest someone think you had not carefully considered their virtues. Tricky business, isn’t it, bowing?
Well, we don’t bow. We shake hands – a peculiar thing, when you think about it. Somebody has guessed that it comes from the Middle Ages, and that it demonstrated to the person you were meeting that you weren’t carrying a knife to do him in! And how to shake hands – not too limp, lest you be thought a sissy, and not too firm, lest you hurt somebody’s hand. The most interesting handshaker I ever met was the man who used to be the fund-raising officer at Southern Baptist Seminary; Jim Austin’s handshake wound its way over your entire hand and lingered there, prowling around, as if he were trying to raise funds right out of your palm! What eloquent body language he had!
Body language. Girls curtsy for the Queen, good friends hug each other, weary teenagers drop their heads on the table, six-foot-plus men hunch down to try to look smaller. We all use body language to communicate how we feel about those around us. We use body language to express to others what they mean to us.
So what body language do we use around God? What do our personal presences communicate to God? Paul asked us to “present our bodies”. What does your body communicate about your feelings toward God?
The inimitable James Weldon Johnson once wrote a prayer that contains a memorable phrase. In this prayer Johnson spoke about coming before God “knee bowed and body bent.” “Knee bowed and body bent.” That phrase suggests a great deal about how he presented himself to God. Listen to a portion of James Weldon Johnson’s prayer:
O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
“Knee-bowed and body-bent”. “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Your spiritual body language. Let me suggest what it means to present your body knee bowed, and what it means to present your body bent.
“Knee bowed” means that in everything we need to acknowledge and to obey God’s will. “Knee bowed” means submission to the one who has the right to tell us what we ought to do. To present ourselves knee bowed means that we acknowledge that there is no other choice that makes sense other than obeying God’s will.