take off your shoes
This past Thursday night wasn’t really the night to take off my driving moccasins in public. I had earlier walked several miles down Woodward Avenue, from the governor’s Detroit office to Comerica Park to catch the final inning of an opening day baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, and my feet had paid the price. They stunk. No other way to say it. And, even without the fumes, mine aren’t the most attractive set of wheels.
But here I was, taking in a Last Supper service at this little white church on Grant Road and it was go time. Foot washing service — a reenactment of the Last Supper, the final night before Christ would head to the cross. Father Kenneth Tanner cast as Christ, on his knees washing the feet of the congregation. Stoll, feeling more like Judas than John, tucked into a pew in the middle of the sanctuary. My gut told me to pass on this activity, ride the bench until communion. Keep the driving mocs on lockdown.
Context: Even without the foot issue, feet washing has traditionally freaked me out. Eight years ago, the winter before Kimberly and I tied the knot, I was asked by a family member to take a catechism class as a requisite to marriage. I posted perfect attendance, which for me is a rare exploit. Final night was a foot washing ceremony in the basement of the house where the classes took place. When I got downstairs, the festivities were well underway and I found a room full of men bawling and yelling in tongues. I checked out, plowed back up the stairs, and found a pub a short walk away. At that point in my life, I preferred having a drink alone with my shoes on over a bunch of weepy gents rinsing up each other’s feet while they moaned out words I couldn’t understand.
Eight years can either melt or harden a heart. Mine, I guess, has been sitting under a heat lamp lately. Eventually, on this past Thursday, I pulled off the mocs, rolled up my khakis a couple of times, plopped my feet on a kneeler and waited my turn. A few minutes later, I was cramming back tears as Ken dried those feet with a towel and said something about his belief and prayer that wherever my feet went, they were following the footsteps of the savior. “Wherever your feet go…you take the kingdom of heaven with you.
As he washed, the only thing I could feel was vulnerable. I was exposing a piece of me that I’d rather no one see, especially someone I had come to love and respect enough to call father. There really is no emotion behind this except fear, with a spot of shame and uncertainty.
Why did I feel judged? I know Ken well enough to know he could care less what my feet smell and look like. He’s there to wash and dry. I walked back to the pew, barefoot, and realized I’d just been stripped and served at the same time. It opened me up for a set of closing days of Holy Week that would be cleansing and transformational. In the immediate hour to come, I would weep violently crouched on that kneeler in front of me in the most prolific outpouring of tears since the last night I saw Jan Willem Vester — a brother of sorts — alive in December of 2009. In the three days following, I would finally embrace a sacrifice I had never confronted on such a deep level.
Underpinning this entire episode was the fact I am seeking healing right now. Life is a walk toward healing, for sure, but there are times of acute need in this category…times that pop up when we have other priorities. Big decisions face me these days and I am responding in juvenile ways. Indecisive, short, unfocused. I need a swift kick in the ass. And yet, I’m asking for a good old fashion mending. And as I look for the mending, I am compelled to be vulnerable in ways I never imagined. Not vulnerable in the pop-evengelical-sit-around-a-table-and-tell-other-grown-men-your-deepest-darkest-secret sort of vulnerability, but instead the type of vulnerability that only comes when we kick off our mocs as Christ kneels at the basin. Waiting. Beckoning.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and head as well.”
To be sure, there are a lot of different ways to approach that passage of scripture and I am sure very few of them have even a remote relation to my approach.
I think my overwhelming tendency is to approach Christ’s offer to wash with a hefty dose of reluctance because I am scared of judgement. I am a chronic pursuer of approval; have been that way my whole life. This has more than once led me to let’s just say guard the truth. I don’t mean guarding the truth in the sense of an investigator pursuing the absolute bottom line facts of the matter. I mean guarding the truth in the sense that I don’t let the entire cat out of the bag. I may show you the tail or the nose or the whiskers, but that whole cat is not coming out of the bag. Some might call this not disclosing all the facts, but I have come to call it “being dishonest.”
Let’s apply this dishonesty to the upper room. Christ is sitting there, waiting on my feet to end up in the basin and I refuse to take my shoes off. I’m not interested in disclosing the filth that’s underneath because I want to avoid judgement. I’m not openly lying to anyone, but I’m not giving the truth.
I was once in court and had to tell a judge the entire reason I was in her courtroom. She told me that she needed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This wasn’t because she was a curious bystander — this was because she was charged with metering out a punishment worthy of the crime. Had I withheld truth, I may have seen a lesser punishment. But I know better. As I gave the truth, humiliation washed over me like never before. And then came judgement. Neither was fun. Think about the story of Adam and Eve. When they told God the truth, they found themselves royally screwed.
Back at the feet of Christ — whether soaking our feet, or feeding us bread, or hanging on a cross — we start down a similar path. As we disclose, he should be mortified, appalled. We should be humiliated. Judgement should follow. But Christ wants us naked for one reason: to deliver healing. Jesus was telling Peter that he could not be clean until he participated in this sacred rite. “The deal is this: I’ll wash your feet, and you’ll be clean. Nothing else to it. I’ll take care of the judgement on another day.”
Rewind back to that courtroom from two paragraphs ago. When I faced judgement, I wanted an advocate and couldn’t find one. Lawyers can only do so much. I needed someone to do one of two things. A) Walk through the back door of the courtroom and convince the judge that I was a good guy, or B) Tell the judge that he would take my punishment on himself. Neither thing happened. If you know the story of Easter, you know my hopes were not, however, unfounded.
The harsh reality, which really isn’t all that harsh in the long run, is that if I want this whole process to lead to healing, I’ve got to first step out of my shoes. Some of us trot around town in driving moccasins, others in steel toes, ballerina slippers, dock siders rubber garden shoes, shit kickers, Crocs, cleats, crampons, flip flops, wingtips, flats, stilettos or wooden clogs. They all need to come off before a proper foot rinsing can take place. And when they do, I’ve come to find that hands of judgement are no where to be found. In their place are the hands of a surgeon. To wash. To heal. To mend.