My Sunday School’s Bible lesson’s title a couple of weeks ago was “Serve Humbly” – great lesson! (“Explore the Bible” literature, Lifeway). The background passage was John 13:1-38. You know the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, right? The point of the lesson was for the reader to follow Christ’s example of serving others, an especially fitting story for the season, but there is more to this story than meets the eye (or should I say “foot”?).
The Teacher was commissioning the disciples to do this for one another. The reading material mentioned that some churches take this practice of foot washing literally by hosting foot-washing services, while many Christians believe this demonstration is more about serving others in practical ways. While I believe the majority is correct, I do believe that if you have never experienced a real foot washing service, then you have no way of understanding the real moment of humility in this account. Bear with me…
I was raised in a foot-washing church and I remember as a young adult participating in a foot washing ceremony. In case you don’t know how it works, for my church, women were together in one room, while the men were in another. Without any real organization, all the ladies would remove their shoes (and since the service was planned, we all had clean, well-manicured feet, in case you are wondering), and we would take the clean towels and warm bowls of water and take turns kneeling down to wash and dry one another’s feet. You may mistakenly think this was the humbling part – not really. Even if some participants were to have had dirty feet, which they didn’t but I am sure the disciples did, that is not a particularly humbling thing to do, really. There are so many other things one could do that would be far more humbling than just washing feet – think about it. I’d rather wash toes than change a dirty diaper in children’s church, and that is still do-able without much abasing on my part.
The most humbling part of the foot washing service is the moment WHEN…
a saint of God (like Ms. Ollie, in my case) kneels down to wash my feet. That is when the tears begin to roll and I think I should be washing her feet instead! This is what Peter felt when Jesus kneeled down to wash his feet. This is this missing piece from this repeatedly told story, and without actually experiencing the foot washing, you may miss it. I think most Christians get that you are supposed to serve others, and are mostly glad to do it. It feels great when we help someone in need or donate time and money to the poor and needy. BUT, how are we at letting others serve us? Hmmm…
Personally, I am great at always being the one whom ministers to others. Yes, let me help you. Can I write a check? I’ve got some time to volunteer! Oh, I was happy to help them – Thank you. But, don’t you think for one moment that I need ministry from you! Here’s why I don’t need anyone to help me – even though I come across as an extrovert, I am really an introvert. Even though I am extremely transparent, I am also a very private person. I know it sounds paradoxical, but this only child is used to being alone, and I’ve learned to like it! If you hurt my feelings, you will NEVER know. When I feel overwhelmed, upset or depressed, I go to my room, close the door and curtains, turn off the lights and crawl into bed by myself for a good crying jag. When I am sick or sad, I don’t want anyone around me. I am a self-sufficient sufferer. But is this what Christ wants for Christians? Simply, no.
In Lauren Winner’s “Mudhouse Sabbath” she eloquently details Jewish bereavement where during the first week of mourning (“shiva”), others come and sit with the mourner. You will note that while Mary mourned the death of her brother, Lazarus, some other Jews were there with her:
“When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.” John 11:31
You will also recall that during Job’s calamity his friends came and sat with him for seven days, saying nothing, just sitting with their friend.
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13
In her writings, Ms. Winner writes about the Jewish practices she misses since converting to Christianity with one of them being the art of mourning, and specifically being comforted by loved ones during these somber seasons. Christians aren’t particularly as good at this as Jews. We close ranks during death, and we respect others’ wishes when they do the same. But Ms. Winner recalls that during those seven days of the Jewish shiva she is struck by the “sheer crush of people. People in the den, people in the kitchen, people crowded out on the terrace and pressed into the hallway. The mourner who wants to weep in his cups alone is out of luck. On those days when he desires nothing more than to crawl under the covers and shut out everything that breathes and has three dimensions, people pack into his home. On the last day of shiva, friends come and escort him, holding his arm or inching along his side, out of the driveway and down the street and around the block, a symbolic (but not merely symbolic) reentry into society. Then twice a day for a year, he is forbidden to pray alone and commanded to pray with people, showing up at synagogue to do right by his dead, and say Kaddish for them, not alone in his den but there in the community of God’s faithful.”
We Christians are not good at allowing people into the sad periods of our independent lives, are we? Why no, because we are much too dignified for such a “public” display of grief, sickness and frailty. Dare I say that we are simply too proud? I think this may be my problem. In David Anderson’s “Gracism: The Art of Inclusion”, he states, “to take the prayers of gracism to a higher level, ask the person to whom you are reaching out to pray for you. This takes you out of the superior position and places you under the grace and spiritual support of someone else who may otherwise have perceived that you are not in need of him or her but are there to only reach out…When I allow you to lift me up, while it may be humbling for me, it is dignifying for you.”
When Jesus said that he was teaching the disciples to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14), that meant that at some point someone had to be the recipient of the other’s grace. When Peter wanted to refuse Jesus’ gesture of grace, Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). When we don’t allow others to minister to us, we cannot personally experience the grace of Jesus, as He desires us to, nor do we grant the opportunity for others in the body of Christ to serve as Jesus did. What a disservice this is to us personally and to the body of Christ experientially.
When I brought this point of view up to my class, we had a good debate about the other reasons we suffer alone – We don’t want to impose on others. When there are those who are always too needy in the body, we don’t want to be counted as one of them. We don’t want to be a bother to others. While all of these reasons sound noble, they are actually pride disguised as “false humility”. Have you ever heard someone say that “if I showed up at church the walls would cave in!” This, too, is an arrogant statement. It sounds like humility, but it is actually false humility. No one can out sin God’s grace. The blood of Jesus can cover any and all sins. Likewise, when we refuse to be comforted as Jesus prescribed we are not submitting to the teaching within the biblical foot washing lesson.
“Remember when Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water (John 4:7)? Jesus started the exchange by asking for something He needed. How dignifying! This woman who may have lost all self-respect and dignity must have been amazed by the fact that she was being asked to meet a Jewish man’s need at the community well. Everyone has something to offer. Unfortunately, when we are in the power position, it becomes increasingly difficult to allow ourselves to be served in a spiritual way. Yet Jesus allowed himself to be served by this Samaritan woman. The apostle Peter had a hard time with this lesson…Peter thought it humiliating to allow himself to be served by Jesus. Yet Jesus clearly communicated to Peter that this must be done, not because Jesus needed dignifying like the woman at the well, but because Peter needed humbling” ~ David Anderson, “Gracism: The Art of Inclusion”
Whether due to false humility or pride, never allowing people to minister love, comfort, mercy and grace to us is depriving the church from functioning as Jesus designed, and is a demonstration of pride. My prayer is that I will become someone who fully embraces Christ as He intended: I want to “have part with Him.” I don’t want to bypass anything that is written in God’s precepts of divine wisdom. No matter how uncomfortable it may be for me, I want to fully surrender to the experience of being in the body of Christ.
How can I live this out?
1. Recognize my pride in moments when I think others are not good enough or spiritual enough to minister to me.
2. Share my needs with those whom I am ministering to so that I do not assume and remain in the “superior/power position” of the relationship, as David Anderson pointed out.
3. Submit to another’s gesture of kindness and aid when they come to my aid, whether solicited or not.
4. Allow others to share in my grief and resist the temptation to close them out.
5. Be more transparent with my small group, and not be afraid to share my less than finer moments in order to debunk any erroneous ideas that I have it altogether.
How can you live this out?
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Award-winning Author Gina Duke is a wife, mom and Director of Women’s Ministry at her local church. With a B.S. in Organizational Leadership, she is able to bring a clear word for authentic Christian living. Through her book, “Organizing Your Prayer Closet: A New and Life-Changing Way to Pray” (Abingdon Press), she imparts 1 Peter 4:7 with the gift of structured prayer journaling. If you would like to schedule Gina to speak on prayer or host a prayer journaling workshop, click here for more information. You may also follow her on Twitter and Instagram @TheGinaDuke.
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