Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Break with Tradition

Annually since 1987, with one exception (in the spring of 1996 when I was on leave from active ministry), every Maundy Thursday I have scheduled a Footwashing. I find it one of the most moving stories and services in our faith and worship: Jesus, Word of God and Voice of Creation, silently kneeling, all but naked, before his feckless disciples and washing their dusty and increasingly antsy feet. In the same way he gives his Body and Blood, he bestows this touch as one last act of love and compassion, of utter devotion to them--and he does it in full awareness of their mercurial loyalties.

Their courage will fade like mist. The disciples and the promises they made in the gathering dark--to stay with Jesus, to fight with him, to die with him even--will scurry away at the first glint of Roman steel in Temple torchlight. On freshly-washed feet they will abandon him. With the Sacrament still on their tongue they will betray him. His most vocal supporter will deny him, if with a terrible, truthful word: "I do not know the man." Never did, really. Any of them. Maybe will. All of us. Some Day.

Anyway, the story in John 13 is full of drama and pathos, Jesus the Lord, serving his friends. "Having loved them," the Evangelist says, "he loved them till the end." Who can begin to imagine the rationale behind either clause? And then he gives them the new commandment, a new mandate (thus, maundus, Latin for command, and Maundy Thursday)--that they love each and another just as he has loved them--not just in this kind of moment, either, but from the beginning and to the end.

One could spend an entire evening, an academic career, a ministry, a life, trying to plumb the content and ethical implications of that command.

In the past, on the Thursday before Easter, I have scheduled such a service and gathered those who came in a circle of chairs. I would take a bowl full of warm water and kneel before my parishioners, to bathe one of their feet and dry it with a towel. As I did, I spoke to each of the mystery of God's grace, the cleansing that God's mercy affords. I would sometimes recount some particular struggle they had endured since last we met in this particular way, always with the assurance that wherever they went from this circle, God and we were going with them. The water on their feet signified it.

It is a powerful intimacy. I am aware that, in all likelihood, I am the first one since that person's mother to wash, maybe even to touch, their feet. Tears come. One said it was like baptism, or baptismal renewal.

The Primitive Baptists and the Brethren practice Footwashing as a Sacrament. I believe the rest of us should, too--it is clearly instituted by Jesus. It conveys grace. Alas. Not everyone does. But I do. Many I have served loved it. One family had a "footwashing bowl" thrown for me at a local potter's. Another, after one of my many knee surgeries, gave me a small garden cart to push myself around on it, to ease the burden on my legs.

One of my adversaries in a former church contended that the Footwashing was about me and not Jesus. She said I just did it for attention, for association, for self-aggrandizement. Perhaps she was right. Or right in part--false or theatrical humility can be a powerful sacramental of pride. Still, I have scheduled these services. Tried to exorcise the pride by doing the service. By teaching others to love one another in this particular way--just as Jesus did and commanded that we do--so that we might let the circle of love and service begin to broaden the scope of our love for one another.

Not this year. My people here have let me know they are "uncomfortable" with such intimacy, and increasingly so--nor only with words, either. This is the only church I have ever served where attendance at the Footwashing has dropped during my tenure--and precipitously so. Last year, my mother, sister, wife, and three other people were the only ones to bring their feet to the circle. There 30 empty chairs.

Sometimes grace and compassion means letting people walk or scurry away, or never show at all. Sometimes trying to love as Jesus does means dying, as he did, to expectation or preference.
And so I am not doing it this year. I do not want to be irritated with those who do not come. I do not want to be unloving by asking folk to do what, for one reason or the other, they can't do. If I rise from the floor, as I did last year, with angry and hardened heart I prove my adversary right, and I do not want it to be about me. I want it to be about Jesus. About his love. About our loving one another.

That said, tonight will not be the same. At least for me.


Rachelle said...

Tom, this saddens me on so many levels. That someone would accuse you of self-aggrandizement, when it is SO obvious where your heart is, grieves me deeply. That so many of us, more and more, are uncomfortable with the simple intimacy of footwashing makes me sad, and scared for our world. That they would refuse to show up, and make you feel bad or wrong for even wanting to hold the sacred Maundy Thursday ritual... it's just endlessly sad. We have Jesus, and we have each other... not much else matters. Yet we are too frightened to engage with one another on any kind of deep level.

It makes me wonder... if so many people are so afraid of intimacy with others, how can we possibly be having an intimate relationship with Christ? I think it may not be possible.

I KNOW that for you, in your heart, that ritual has never been about you. To the extent that you're human, your selflessness may never reach perfection. But I know, as those close to you know, that it has always been about loving Jesus, and loving each other. Bless you for that, Tom, and may God bless and comfort you in your grief; surely he joins you in it.

Anne L.B. said...

I can't imagine anyone who's participated in foot-washing (from either place) saying there's any pride involved. If we practiced this profound gesture (as Jesus said), we'd have far fewer scisms in His body.

Tom, I pray you will persevere without taking into account the numbers. God weighs by the heart, not the number of toes.

D. Lynn said...

Of course, it's a lot easier being the foot washer than having one's feet washed. That's the Peter in us. So, why not submit to footwashing, maybe from the children's Sunday school class? Or are we too proud? That really is the question the adversary is trying to make. The adversary is placed there to challenge us. Lord, keep us from the time of testing,but...sometimes we need it.