My Not-So-Brilliant Career as a Footwasher

So Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Is that as gross and awkward as it sounds to our modern ears?

The answer is yes. Possibly even more so.

Imagine washing the feet of someone who gets around primarily by walking and who wears sandals all the time. And there are no cars yet, so the streets are pretty much covered in animal muck.

Foot washing was a necessary task in Jesus’ time, and it was one of the most important gestures of hospitality. It was also considered so disgusting and demeaning that a master was not allowed to order his Jewish slave to do it.

Now imagine Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, putting on a towel and stooping down to do this chore even some slaves wouldn’t do. No wonder Peter’s response was something like horror: “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus did, and then he washed eleven other pairs of feet. Then he asked his disciples if they understood why.

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,'” he said, “and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master…”

I’ve been thinking about footwashing this Lent, trying to figure out what the equivalent is in my own life. Now that we have showers and close-toed shoes and cars, what is it I’m supposed to be doing?

I believe it was Shane Claiborne who likened washing feet to scrubbing toilets. Seems like a good analogy to me. I think of that often when I’m cleaning my own house, when I don’t want to bend my knees and get down in the muck and mess.

Reflecting on this is good for me. My mother was not a great housekeeper, and neither am I. Mostly I just don’t want to take the time to do chores – not when there are so many other, better, things I could be doing. More noble. More important. More uplifting.

But Jesus says, Get in there. Wipe away that grime. Don’t let your pride get in the way. I don’t care who you are. I’ve set you an example.

But even more than housework, this applies to my job. I’ve mentioned before that my job is boring, stressful, undesirable. I certainly never wanted to work customer service. As much as I’ve learned from my job over the years, it’s also true that most of the time I feel like it’s a waste. I have a fancy degree. I’d rather be doing so many other things, and I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about that when I should be working.

This Lent I gave up surfing the Internet at work. It was my guilty pleasure: when I was on hold, or when I felt like there was nothing else to do, I’d look at a blog, a window on someone else’s life, and escape my own life for a minute.

It felt like a tiny vice, something everyone did from time to time. But I realized the more I did it, the less I wanted to serve. I felt annoyed at customers for interrupting my reading. I felt annoyed at the universe that I was stuck in the land of gray cubicles. I felt annoyed at God for not showing me a way out of this dead-end job.

So this Lent, I’ve focused on just serving – and trying to do it joyfully, as worship. Trying to see our customers as Jesus, as loved by Jesus. Trying to do my job, a job many would say only the desperate would take, generously and freely, just as Jesus did.

I have a lot to learn about the Lord’s gentleness and humility. My instinct in many situations is still to say, “That’s not my job!” or “They don’t pay me enough to care.” or “Clean up your own mess!”

This Holy Thursday, I pray for a different kind of attitude, a gentle and quiet spirit, an emptying of myself, a willingness to be a student of my Teacher.

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Do Whatever He Tells You

The five little words are printed on a card that leans against my computer monitor. We’re in our busiest season here at work, fielding call after call with mere seconds between, and this is the best way I can think of to get a good word into my day. My eyes rest on it in those tiny moments with nothing to do, and I try to burn it into my brain, let it remake my heart.

There are twelve cards in the series I printed out, twelve bite-sized bits of Scripture from the Gospel of John. Some of the early ones feature lofty language for a tiny piece of paper, talking about the Word that was God in the beginning, full of grace and truth. And then there’s today’s little offering: “Do whatever he tells you.”

That’s weird, I thought when I first flipped it over. Seems like such a mundane, everyday quote when stacked against the gorgeous language of John’s high theology. Just something Mary said when she and her son were at a wedding. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said to the servants who had just run out of wine to pour. Why memorize that line? Why not the actual facts of Jesus’s miracle, the glorious aftermath?

Still, my eyes kept returning to it throughout the day, my mind turning it over like a river spinning a rock. Do whatever he tells you. I like to think she said it with a smile, like, Come on in, the water’s fine. This woman hardly hesitated at the thought of having God’s baby. I mean, really, after that, what wouldn’t you say yes to?

It starts to dawn on me slowly, this meaning I’ve always missed before. Those nameless servants who listen to her simple words get to participate in a miracle. The very first, in fact. They didn’t know Jesus was special yet. They didn’t know Mary knew anything about anything. But they listened to her. They did what he said, and they ended up in the middle of a miracle.

They start to thrill me, these five words. They start to leap off the page. I answer the phone with a joy that goes beyond forced customer service cheer. I wonder what he’ll tell me to do today. I wonder at what moment I can take that plunge.

Thankfulness and the Writing on the Wall

This image shows the view from the carpark &qu...

The carpark “Rest and be Thankful” near Arrochar in Scotland.

Confession: I’ve been seriously struggling with that whole “attitude of gratitude” thing lately. Ironic, I know, given the season.

It’s been quite a month at our house: a broken laptop, two pairs of broken glasses, a stolen purse, an ER visit, and a cold that’s come back three (3!) times. All of which, I hasten to assure any family members who may be reading this, seem to have turned out fine, or at least as fine as could reasonably be expected.

But still there’s this gnawing in my chest, this voice in my head that whispers, You deserve more.

When I show up at my colorless office, it’s hard to remember the things work has to teach me, easier to wish I was in grad school pursuing my dreams.

When my partner applies for job after job with no luck so far, it’s hard to hope, easier to worry about our long-term financial situation.

I could go on, but I won’t.

And I know that all these things are what we like to call first world problems. I have a job, a job that is not exciting but that ensures both of us have insurance and food and a place to live and some money left to give away to those who have less, and yes, even to have fun. But it’s all too easy to lose my perspective, especially in this consumer culture where cravings for More make the world go round.

Today I got a nice reality check: I volunteered at a free dental clinic, a huge one that happens once a year in my state. People camp out overnight in the cold like it’s Black Friday, but instead of a great deal, most of them are just hoping for some pain relief, for some friendly care they can’t get any way else.

I wasn’t that skilled of a volunteer, not being part of the medical community, but I did what I could, helping a few Spanish speakers navigate, fetching the dentists more gloves. But it was so amazing just being there, seeing the dental professionals pour themselves out for their patients, seeing the patients start to relax, to smile with confidence for the first time in a long time.

In the volunteer lounge, they’d pasted all these patient comments up on the wall. The comments from a single day plastered one whole wall and started to creep down another.

“Thank you for doing God’s work.”

“I can never repay you for what you’ve done for me.”

“I will be praying for you today and during your work tomorrow, that you can help many others like you helped me.”

“Everyone was wonderful. Thank you for being so kind to me and smiling.”

As I read their gracious, overflowing thanks, the lightbulb started, belatedly, to go on. An entire wall of thanksgiving for something so basic – something I took for granted: for care. Care for their flawed bodies and, maybe even more than that, genuine care for them as people, as dignified, beautiful human beings.

I realized it’s not the job and the food and the privilege I take for granted: it’s also the love with which God has blessed me. Some of it has come from friendships and relationships, some of it straight from the source. And I remember vividly specific times I wept and prayed for that love, prayers I didn’t even believe could work, prayers to a God I did not know.

And I realized, looking at that wall, that thanksgiving doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s a cycle that starts with giving: we give what we can, and we’re reminded how much we were given, and the thankfulness we feel overflows into even more giving.

May I actively seek an attitude of gratitude at this time of year and always – because it keeps the cycle going, because having so freely received, the only loving thing to do is freely give.

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Today is one of those days that leave me wondering if I woke up in a strange mirror universe where no one speaks my language.

I hate those days.

I love communicating things to others, helping them understand. It’s why I love teaching and writing. In college, my teachers didn’t praise my papers for being brilliantly original – and in creative writing, I’m far from a master wordsmith – but gosh darn it, people have told me hundreds of times that my writing is clear.

Apparently that’s pretty important to me, because on days like today, when I feel like no one gets what I’m saying, I get disheartened really fast.

Customers. Coworkers. Church members. Loved ones. I’ve had misunderstandings with them all today, it seems. And since I’m wired to seek understanding, I wonder, Since my words don’t work today… what do I do?

Honestly, I don’t even know how to pray today. I can’t articulate my problems. I don’t even know what to ask for.

So on a day like today, silent prayer is a real blessing.

Because it’s easy to forget I don’t need to use words. God knows what I need before I ask. The Holy Spirit intercedes for me, prays for me when I don’t know what to say.

I can relax. I can know for the first time today that there’s no danger I won’t express myself well, that I won’t be understood.

I can simply be still and know God is there.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Afternoon break, in the conference room where I’d tried so hard to articulate myself (and seemingly failed miserably) less than an hour before. How wonderful to embrace the restfulness of silence in that very same space.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

My Top Distracting Thought During Prayer and What It Means

So, after almost three weeks of daily prayer, what kind of thought pops up most frequently in my should-be-clear mind?

I think about what I’d rather be doing or what I think I should be doing instead of praying.

I wonder if that email I’ve been waiting for is sitting in my inbox.

I can’t believe I still didn’t finish the dishes!

Ooh, great idea for a blog post…

It’s relentless, this flood of thoughts about alternative universes in which I’m doing something else, either something that’s more fun or something that feels more productive.

And here’s what all these thoughts really mean: I can’t possibly be satisfied right here, right now. There are so many other, better things I could be doing.

And then I realized I actually think this kind of thought all day long. Most people I know do. It’s evident in what we say to each other. Particularly in the place where I currently spend the most time: work.

“Tomorrow’s Friday!”

“I quit, let’s go to Hawaii.”

“Things will be different when I’m in charge someday…”

It’s so very tempting to think and say these things when I’m at work in my gray, dim cubicle maze of a building. I wonder what it all means. I wish I were anywhere but there.

But what I’m really saying is, No thanks, God, I don’t want to be thankful for the fact that I have a job. I’m not interested in appreciating the current moment. I don’t think there’s any value in my presence in this place. There’s nothing to learn, no way you can use me.

Weird to think about, how resistant I am to appreciating the present. I hope that my struggle to stay present in the moment through prayer can spill over into the rest of my life.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Ended the day kneeling on that fuzzy orange bath mat.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Words Vs. Silence

Have you ever stopped yourself in the middle of a sentence, cutting off a rant that had been going on for minutes, and think to yourself, Wow, I’m being a jerk?

Well, I kind of hope it’s not just me.

It was one of those crying-in-my-cubicle days, one of those days when I realized something about myself, and ultimately I’m glad, but the realization hurt. I realized that too often, without even realizing it, I use words to tear others down rather than build them up. It’s generally not malice, it’s just carelessness, but it still hurts people.

Luckily, I know the antidote to carelessness. The opposite of carelessness is mindfulness.

So prayer today was especially meaningful. In mindful silence, I could lay down the burden of the words I’d wielded earlier. I could practice refraining from speaking as a gesture of peace. I could center my mind on divine forgiveness. I could cling to hope for change.

Today was a reminder of why silence is precious.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Knelt on the bath mat again. The orange, fuzzy bath mat. The weird setting helped me take myself less seriously… and take the prayer more seriously.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Modular

(Photo credit: derekbruff)

About a dozen of us came to the church in the dark, an hour before the Sunday morning service, and formed a circle on shabby folding chairs around our teacher. Our expressions were serious and determined. We wanted to learn how to Really Pray. We figured there must be lots to learn, since Sister Shirley’s class would last for six weeks.

I still have the little card she gave us, the one with the instructions. It’s lived for years in my threadbare first Bible. Essentially, Sister Shirley told us, Centering Prayer is as simple and hard as this:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.

3. When engaged with thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Turns out, there wasn’t much more to teach us. The six weeks were more like a support group, meant to get us in the habit. Sister Shirley checked in with each one of us, gently, about how faithful we’d been to our prayer practice over the previous week.

We struggled. Our lives felt too crowded and urgent for silence. Some days, we forgot all about the Centering Prayer thing. Often, we tried to pray and fell asleep instead.

“When that happens,” Sister Shirley instructed, “just thank God for the rest.”

I’m still grappling with these simple instructions. It seems so hard to do so little! And I’m way out of the habit now. I’ve found room in my life for so many more things than just sitting there in thankful enjoyment, in quiet relationship with God.

Which is why I’m glad you’re reading. Sister Shirley knew: these kinds of simple things, it’s hard to do alone. We need each other.

And if you want to use these four simple steps to follow along at home, I’d be delighted. Leave a note in the comments if you’d like to share your experience.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: taken on my lunch break, in the training room. Crazy, dreamlike thoughts floated through my mind and I tried not to get stuck in them (with limited success). I think I actually did fall asleep for a minute. When it was over, I mentally conjured Sister Shirley’s expression of patient encouragement.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

A Lesson on Privilege Learned Through Tears

I remember staring down at scuffed gray linoleum floor, slumped against the flimsy wall of the work bathroom stall, and crying my heart out. More than anything, I cried for shame. I felt my own privilege like original sin, something I had never consciously chosen that nonetheless lived in me. And now it was out there, and I couldn’t believe how ugly it was, this thing that had been inside me all along, like how I might feel about watching my guts literally spill out of me.

I had said something insensitive to a coworker – not out of meanness, simply ignorance. I’d misremembered the country in which she was born, out of which I later learned she had been carried as a small child, a refugee too tiny to walk. I might as well have said, I know you’re one of those people, they’re pretty much all the same, right?

She corrected me, her voice a little bitter, but mostly very resigned. And instinctively, like flinching, I tried to cover up what I’d said. “Oh, I’m sorry! I knew that! I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…”

And then it hit me, the tiredness I’d heard in her automatic response. She’d heard this many times before. She knew I didn’t mean it, but that didn’t matter. My comment showed, more than anything else, that I wasn’t thinking. I had never thought about the  place she came from. I had never had to think about it. I’d have been utterly shocked to discover she knew nothing about my home state, but I realized her entire home country was a blank in my mind.

And it dawned on me that that was the definition of privilege. The privilege of not knowing, not caring, not needing to understand the things that shape, often painfully, another person’s life. The ability to leave them blank in my mind. The ability to hide that fact for years until I slipped and made a careless remark. The ability to get away with it.

She kept working, but I fled to the bathroom to cry. The patterned floor blurred under me and I wept for her, subjected daily to a river of ignorant, callous remarks like mine. And I wept for myself, for the depth of my ignorance and apathy and wretchedness. Because I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but I did. Unknown even to myself, I was part of the problem.

I confessed my sins on that bathroom floor and I felt it more than anything I’d ever mumbled in a church.  And I all but heard the voice of God saying to me: Let me mold you through this. You have to change, and I can help you.

I felt the significance of the moment, of actually realizing I had something to learn from my pain even in the thick of it.

But then I did two things wrong.

First, I went back to my coworker and apologized through all my snot and sobs. I told her, once more, that I had meant no offense. She hugged me, expressed concern over the disproportionate drama of my reaction, tried to laugh it off. I realized belatedly that this tearful apology came from a selfish place. I was trying to get her to say it was all okay by upstaging the hurt she felt.

I went back to my desk and finished the workday, and then I did something even worse.

I put it out of my mind. The pressure of the moment over, I forgot my sin against my coworker that had so broken my heart. I let myself slip back to the old way of thinking, where my worldview was the normal one and anything else was weird. I didn’t hold on to that tension, that discomfort, that could have moved me to active compassion. I hardened my heart to the voice of God.

I know it’s not too late. There will be many moments in my life when I see myself clearly and can accept the divine invitation to change. Looking back, I’m grateful for that moment on the bathroom floor when I realized what ugliness I held inside and how little I usually cared about it. I treasure the memory of those tears, and I treasure the voice that still sometimes tells me, So you just looked inside yourself and felt terrible? Stay with the feeling. Keep your heart open to the pain others feel, keep your ears open to the words you’d rather not hear. I can give you the strength to change, and you can be part of my renewed world.

“The kind of sorrow God wants makes people change their hearts and lives. This leads to salvation, and you cannot be sorry for that.” 2 Corinthians 7:10a, New Century Version

Parables and the Insult of Grace

English: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyar...

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Epternacensis

This post is part of a synchroblog about parables.

Your mom gives you an ice cream cone because you’ve been crying, and she also gives one to your sister who kicked you and made you cry in the first place.

You pull an all-nighter on that group poster project and get an A, and so does your classmate who just printed out the illustrations.

You get a good performance review and a raise, and so does your coworker who constantly shows up late and leaves early.

Face it, who would be happy with that?

These are the kinds of examples Jesus uses in many of his parables to illustrate the kingdom of God. Those of us who grew up hearing these stories often think of them as… well… stories. We see them as hypothetical. We forget to insert ourselves within them. And if we do, we end up realizing how blatantly unfair most of them are, how contrary to our own typical views of justice.

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) is a perfect example of this. A landowner hires a group of men to work in his vineyard early in the morning, promising to pay them each a denarius, a standard daily wage for such work. Then he hires another group at 9:00. Then he hires more people at 12:00, 3:00, and finally, almost at the very end of the working day. Each time he promises to pay them “what is right.” And then, at the end, he pays them all the same, a denarius.

Of course, those who were hired first and have worked the most are outraged, even though they are receiving exactly what they agreed to earlier. Suddenly, by comparison with the others, they feel they should be receiving much more. “Can’t I do whatever I want with my money?” asks the landowner. “Or are you just being envious because I am generous?”

If I honestly insert myself into this story as one of the first workers, I have to say my reaction is shock, followed by anger. I think the reaction those workers have is a very natural one. From their perspective, this story is unfair to the point of being insulting.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that God doesn’t care about justice in a here-and-now sense. Even a cursory knowledge of Scripture clearly shows God’s desire for workers to be treated fairly, for people to care for one another and to work for justice. Isaiah 58 is one strong example among many (“On the day of fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers… is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”), as is James 5 (“The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you!”).

So to me, this story clearly doesn’t tell us how God feels about actual workers and bosses. But somehow, it doesn’t seem right either to say, “Oh, this is a story about Heaven, it has nothing to do with the here and now.”

I read this story as a story about God’s nature of generosity. Rather than being fair in a human context, God chooses to be more than fair, rewarding us with grace, with second and third chances even when we screw it up. And that’s not all: we are called, also, to be generous rather than fair. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in Heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In a similar passage, that last line is a little different: “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”

So this is a story about God, and it’s also a story about us. God’s ways are not our ways, but they should be. Our feelings of anger and indignation at the injustice of grace are natural, but with supernatural help, we can learn to love grace and strive to mimic God’s mercy. Just as God loves us through all the worst things we do, God wants us to love our enemies and desire the best for them. Even when they kicked us in the shins and made us cry. Even when they’re lazy and undeserving. Even when they flame our blog posts, hold political views we abhor, or disrespect us. It’s natural to want to give people what they deserve, but God wants us to give them what they don’t deserve, to be generous instead of envious.

And that’s the brazen beauty of Jesus, drowning his insults in love through his stories. Those of us who have ears to listen past the first shock, let us hear.

*****

If you liked this post, check out some other great pieces people wrote for the synchroblog!

Jesus’ Parables are Confusing? Good! – Jeremy Myers

Parabolic Living – Tim Nichols

Seed Parables:Sowing Seeds of the Kingdom – Carol Kunihol

Parables – Be Like the Ant or the Grasshopper – Paul Meier

The Parables of Jesus: Not Like Today’s Sermons – Jessica

Penelope and the Crutch – Glenn Hager

Changing Hearts Rather Than Minds– Liz Dyer

Young Son, Old Son, a Father on the Run – Jerry Wirtley

Twentysomething Jesus

Sleeping office worker.I’m sure it will shock no one to hear that sometimes, sitting in my gray cubicle with the angry ringing phone, I get a little discouraged. Honestly, it’s not that the pay is low; it is, but I have enough to provide for my modest needs (and many wants) and not so much that I can’t sympathize with those in true need. It’s not that the work is boring and there’s no room for advancement, although those things are true too. More than anything, it’s feeling lost, irrelevant, hidden away in the windowless building like so much obsolete office equipment. Are my gifts wasting away in there? Shouldn’t I be using them for God? Will I ever figure out what I should really be doing?

I think many in my generation feel this way. As kids, we were told to dream big. As college students, we looked forward to our futures. Then, on our own in a precarious economy, we realized sometimes it was hard enough to keep or get any job. I know I used to feel like my horizons were unlimited, and when I hit the job market in 2008, I felt like I’d walked into a sliding glass door I’d never known was there. There are exceptions, of course, and many of us have rallied beautifully, creatively pursuing our dreams even when they look different than we thought. But for many of us, keeping the vision alive through the daily grind is, let’s be honest, hard.

On those kinds of days, I like to imagine what Jesus was doing when he was my age. Nothing too interesting to the outside world, apparently, considering all we know about it. We do know he worked with his hands, probably for the family business. It’s clear from his later life that he read the Scriptures and thought about what they meant a lot. He also no doubt spent a good bit of time watching the subtleties of nature, their slow cycles: storms telling the weather, fig trees blooming, grain growing – or not – from scattered seed.

I love thinking about those years of his life, hidden from the world, but known to God. Jesus never spoke to his disciples about that time, or if he did, the words were not preserved, making the experience doubly lost. But I know he didn’t see them as lost. He often speaks of secret things as precious to God, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. He says God loves the prayers we pray in secret, with our door shut, and the fasting we hide from the world, and the money we give so sneakily even we barely realize it. Those who want credit for their acts of devotion, he says, have already received their reward. They can either have it now or later, and they’ve chosen now. But they’re going to miss out on the surprise God would have kept for them, something more beautiful than they could ever request or imagine.

So maybe I’ve learned something from my twenties after all, even though they haven’t gone the way I’ve planned. Realizing the meaninglessness of the dreams I used to nurture is surely a kind of meaning in itself. Maybe God is slowly teaching me that it’s not that I used to dream too big, but that I’m still not dreaming big enough.

Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself to get through days in the cubicle.

But I’d like to think Jesus is right there with me.