A Heart of Thanksgiving from a Posture of Humility

Read about Head of School, Jim Knight's reflection on humility as we approach Thanksgiving.
As a young parent, I considered what I would pass down to my children. Of course, faith in God topped the list. From a life of faith, what characteristics would I prioritize? The list is long. Would it be kindness, courage, temperance, love, or perseverance? I landed on, among a few others, thanksgiving. I wanted my kids to grow into thankful people who daily recognized the blessings in their lives and, who out of abundance, were prepared to serve. To cultivate a life of thanksgiving, the prerequisite is humility. So I had a vision. I would seek to cultivate in my children a posture of humility that would result in the heart of thanksgiving resulting in lavish service and giving to others.
I have always loved history. It was my major in college, and I had the privilege of teaching the subject for 14 years. Along with history, I have come to appreciate the beauty and complexity of art and its impact on the human person. Combining history and art is of great significance to me. My favorite sculpted work is Michaelangelo’s Peita, and my favorite painting is Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. They both portray themes of compassion, forgiveness, humility, and trial amid an important historical context.
Another favorite is the painting above, Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Fribourg. Several things come to mind as I pause to view and reflect on the piece. Of course, the physical surroundings are a large part of the work: the snow-covered ground and the visible breath from the nostrils of Washington’s horse convey the harsh, cold morning of an eastern Pennsylvanian winter.
In December 1777, General George Washington moved the Continental Army to their winter quarters at Valley Forge. Earlier that winter, the Revolutionary forces had suffered defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia had also fallen into British hands. By December, the troops were exhausted and suffering from the bitter cold, hunger, and low morale. Necessities like food and clothing were in short supply, and disease ran rampant through the camp. The troops would make Valley Forge their home for the next six months.
The physicality of the painting and the environment at Valley Forge comes through. What strikes me even further is Washington’s posture. His knee is bent in reverence, and his head is bowed in prayer. Historically, bending the knee has been reserved for servants, peasants, and rank-and-file soldiers. Kings, nobles, generals, and senators were used to being praised, honored, worshiped, and respected. They were typically on the receiving end of an ordinary citizen’s prostrate position of service and humility. Those in authority were not expected to kneel or even bow.
To see Washington bowing down in service, humility, and prayer to God is uncommon. However, it is the aspect of the painting that is the most striking to me. Fribourg’s spiritual emphasis is at the heart of the work for all the visceral imagery of the painting. We live in a world that is both physical and spiritual.
Daily, I spend most of my time operating in and thinking about the material world. This seems reasonable: One can’t survive without tending to material concerns. However, when I view paintings like the Prayer at Valley Forge, I am reminded that we are indeed spiritual beings and that I often neglect my spiritual nature to my detriment. I pay inordinate attention to the physical as if my spiritual part were nonexistent. Upon reflection, I consider this unhealthy and unbalanced.
In the painting, Washington displays humility, service to God, and a lowering of his pride as he bows. He acknowledges that for all the physical realities surrounding the revolution and his army, a spiritual reality also needs attention. Washington bowing in prayer to God represents taking time to care for the spiritual and eternal. I must ask myself, “How often do I take on a posture of humility and tend to spiritual matters before God?” Not nearly enough.
A similar example of humility and service was displayed by Christ the night beforeHis crucifixion. In the upper room, he dared to wash His disciples’ feet. How could he? Just a day prior, He had been hailed as a king. He entered the streets of Jerusalem in honor and glory. Kings get their feet washed – they don’t do the washing. His disciples should have been bowing in His presence. Instead, He lowered himself. What a radical act.
Christ’s act was certainly practical. Foot washing was necessary for the dirty, dusty ancient world. However, foot-washing was more than a practical task. For Christ, it also represented a spiritual reality – our need for forgiveness and reconciliation and His offering of grace through sacrifice. In washing feet, Christ brought the physical and the spiritual together beautifully. Less than twenty-four hours later, He gave the ultimate sacrifice and set the ultimate example on the cross. He was a king not sitting on an earthly throne wielding power over His subjects, but a suffering servant – the King of Kings – humbly taking care of our spiritual needs.
General Washington would soon become the president of a newly formed country, yet he bowed. Today, we consider bowing silly, odd, or weak. Why would we ever submit to another – a parent, teacher, grandparent, coach, boss, or even God? That’s silly or outdated. We should only submit to ourselves. We are in control and make our own lives. The fact that I am using the word “submission” may even be bothersome to most. Submission is a “dirty word.” Today, we value the powerful, the independent, the self-made, and those on top. We scoff at the humble and those who might ask for help and ignore those who prioritize the spiritual. It is all about our material needs. Life is all about our way of meeting those needs and providing for ourselves.
To me, it takes incredible courage and strength to be humble and to focus on one’s spiritual nature when others trod down a different path bent on resume-building solely focused on material success. It takes strength to bend the knee. It is also very wise. To ask others for help or advice is not a bad idea. To ask God for help or wisdom is a great idea.
As I prepare to give thanks next week, Fribourg’s Prayer at Valley Forge aids my reflection. I am reminded that we live in a physical and spiritual world and that the spiritual reality of my life needs more attention. I also realize that humility, reverence, and reliance on God and others is not a sign of weakness but an act of strength and intelligence.
I pray as you view General Washington in prayer that you will also be inspired to practice humility, ask for God’s help, and exercise your spiritual muscles and that you will give thanks for the many blessings in your life and the life of our community.

Pacifica Christian High School

A college-preparatory, Christian, liberal arts high school in the heart of Santa Monica.