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footwashing and faith

Doing this as a public post... A friend and I had a discussion in her LJ that meandered onto the topic of footwashing, and I promised a post here about the two most meaningful footwashing experiences I've had. I should preface it by explaining that my church does recognize an annual footwashing event. It is optional; and because there is great variation among congregations over matters like men washing women's feet, it is handled in various ways depending on where one goes to church. I don't have any outstanding memories of attending these events during my childhood, though I do remember teachings on footwashing. The practice in general has never seemed strange to me. It has been something I associate as part of my faith tradition. I do, however, understand and respect why many people find it disturbing and have difficulty applying it meaningfully to their own faith.

I wrote on footwashing as part of my theological statements submitted to the ordination committee. I only got part of one page--the entire statement was on baptism, communion, and footwashing. What I said is that my views are very divided. For some people, I think that footwashing is a very sacred thing. Some even experience it that way after having an initial hangup about it. It ends up being beautiful and even healing.

For others, the significance of the act is lost because we do not wash each other's feet in this society. The teaching on footwashing is deeply cultural. The point is to represent servant leadership by doing something that was very commonly done in that time: washing the feet. It was a ritual thing that was done in travel, and feet were especially dirty because they were the primary mode of travel. There are other passages about feet that illustrate this point. If a person doesn't receive a traveling minister, he (or she) is supposed to "shake off the dust from the feet" and go on. This isn't just a sign of moving on. It is leaving the dirt for the person to clean up. In Ephesians 6, there is a metaphoric picture drawn about putting on shoes by making oneself ready to proclaim the gospel. With this metaphor, it is possible that we may find other ways to connect with the significance of footwashing. There may be others as well.

If I had not been limited in space in my statements, I would have shared these stories. They illustrate why I take a rather creative approach to footwashing events. Having said that, I would also have to teach before I did anything creative. It wouldn't necessarily be long. (See below.)

In 2004, I attended a conference in Los Angeles with a group of people who were affiliated with a ministry called Mariposa. The ministry was begun as a peer support network for people with mobility impairments--most of these people were polio survivors living on the Mexico/southern California border.In the 1990s, the group went online, and I became involved as they sought to build their understanding of blindness. Their online presence also led to the inclusion of some other people outside California. One of these was a lady named Lynna, who had a degenerative condition called Charcot-Marie Tooth disease (CMT). Lynna lived in Nashville, and when she decided to attend the conference, we went through a dance of setting up our flights so that I would stop in Nashville and she would board, etc. This would be the first time we met in person.

I was not afraid of meeting--I had been meeting people in person after forming friendships online since 1991. But it was a new experience for Lynna. We also had the added dimension of being very conscious of how we handled disability issues. Both of us did this every day; but doing it with each other was a different story. We had been discussing disability issues very vulnerably via email; and it made us feel very vulnerable, perhaps more so than we might have otherwise. I was keenly aware that I was going into a group where everyone had something in common that I did not, and I would be the oddball. This, again, was not abnormal; but it was perhaps more the case than it usually was because on top of the sighted factor, everyone else's general disability was the same. One of my great concerns was my mild hearing impairment, which can present disastrous social problems in an echoing room--and at the time I had no hearing aids.

Lynna and I exchanged a lot of emails ahead of time in which we exchanged basic information and questions. I think perhaps she had more than I did--I had been around numerous people with disabilities throughout my life, but she had never met a blind person. It all ended up being quite funny when the flight attendant told her, "Meghan is very excited to meet you." Meghan (my Seeing Eye dog) was sound asleep under the seat.

Lynna didn't ask one question in her emails. I learned about it later in the weekend, and she was relieved when I told her the answer was no. She wondered if I might want to feel her face. Fortunately, I had enough rpaport with her that I could simply explain that this is apparently a great movie scene that I wish had never been invented. It is nice and intimate between two people who are very close, but I don't ever have any inclinations to touch people's faces and really don't sit around wondering what someone's face looks like.

Much of the significance of the footwashing experience would be lost if I did not talk about Ruth and Viry... They came to the conference from Mexicali, and both spoke broken English. Both were polio survivors. I did not know the extent of our ability to communicate with each other until late into the second day of the conference. My prior experience with Hispanics who did not speak much English was that they stuck together and avoided me. I speak broken Spanish; but why speak with someone who can't speak your language when you can hang out with someone who can? (I had so much to learn!)

We met on Friday morning, and I noticed that they were interested in my braille while I was taking some notes. I passed a piece of paper around with everyone's names on it, and that was the extent of our interaction until later. After the afternoon conferences, Lynna and I began to talk about our desire to get to know Ruth and Viry; and about that time they came down the hall in their chairs. We tried to move out of the way, and Ruth called out, "I'm coming, and you're going away!" We didn't move out of the way after that.

At dinner, I let Ruth heap my plate. I was very self-conscious about food: about what I ate and how I ate it, how I fixed my plate, how much help I took and whether I came across as too dependent, etc. But I realized that Ruth was trying to connect with me, trying to treat me well, to show me that she wanted to be my friend. What one cannot do with language one can often do with actions. We stayed up late that night, and we got hungry for pizza... I called the pizza place, and the person didn't speak English. Viry had to order the pizza!

We began to communicate that night. And we found that it was ok to use whichever language we could find words in. Sometimes there were no words, and it was all right to just be present. At one point Viry said, "We have lost the day with you. ... I don't know the words." We only had one more day left.

There were other conference sessions on Saturday. The four of us decided to skip. We wanted to do our own footwashing together. It was a very unique experience. The three of them had great shame issues surrounding their feet, which had atrophied and in Viry's case were tiny. I had totally other issues: I wanted to do this without being assisted. So much of my life, I either can't do something or am not allowed because someone has a fear about it. I couldn't verbalize this to them--I didn't have my own English words, let alone Spanish ones. Fortunately it wasn't necessary. We all had those issues about needing to be able to serve each other. Viry could move around independently for short distances; but Ruth and Lynna could not get on the floor to wash each other's feet. Part of the arrangement was that we all would take a turn washing each other's feet. (This was going to be one long afternoon.) I don't remember exactly how we set it up; but we managed to arrange it so that there was assistance when needed and not when it wasn't. We didn't have any annointing oil; but we did nave a bottle of lotion. This ended up working better anyway... After washing the person's feet, we put lotion on, and while massaging it in, we would speak something affirming to the person and then pray for the person. Ruth and Viry prayed in Spanish. Most often I did not understand them; but I learned that day that I really can worship and pray when someone prays in a language I don't speak. I learned how much power the voice has in prayer, and that is a memory I will never forget.

That evening we had a big worship service with all the conference attendees. Most were standing and singing (in English). Next to me, Ruth was sitting in her chair and wearing a headset where (eventually) someone would interpret the service in Spanish. I didn't know if he was interpreting the music. But the longer we sang, the more uncomfortable I became, standing there apart from her. I finally sat down and put my arm around her. She took her headset off and laid her head on my shoulder; and I felt like I had taken down some huge brick wall. I don't connect with people in worship very often. I wish I had more "Ruth moments."

During my seminary years, one of my professors held a commissioning ceremony at the end of every course he taught. The furst time he did this in a course I took, he considered having a footwashing service. Our student body is theologically diverse, and this has been a heated discussion every semester. He attempted to resolve it initially by doing a handwashing service. I was not at all offended by this. In fact, I found it very appropriate in my case.

Thinking of the verse in Ephesians, my hands are what I use most often to spread the gospel. I don't often travel on dusty roads and get my feet dirty. I do, however, shake a lot of hands, touch a lot of things, and need to keep my hands clean for the sake of my immune system. I also have great pain in my hands because of rheumatoid arthritis, and I need my hands anointed and prayed for so that I can keep using them for the very practical things that I do: typing and playing the piano. So when he took my hands, washed them, and prayed for me, I was actually so touched that I almost forgot to return the gesture.

A new (or at least modified) theology on footwashing...


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 10th, 2011 11:04 am (UTC)
Foot washing
I have never experienced foot washing. The closest I came was prior to surgery, a spiritual group I'm involved with at my church anointed the affected foot with oil. It was so meaningful.

I don't know if I could participate in foot washing because I'm so self-conscious of how deformed my left foot is. I'm told it's not *that* deformed, but doctors paint a very different picture from people who tell me it's not *that* deformed. Doctors only look for the deformity.

Having medical and other professionals touch my feet is very different than having someone in another context do the same. I'm not self-conscious when doctors or massage therapists touch my feet as it's their job. They see all kinds of feet, therefore, mine are just one of many.

If others touch my feet, I'm much more self-conscious because they don't have training in dealing with deformed limbs, training that would allow them to get past the deformity. It was very different at the spirituality group though because I didn't take my sock off. The pastor didn't have to touch my actual deformed foot when he anointed it with oil. He simply put oil on the sock, therefore, I was saved the embarrassment of having him see the deformity.
Jul. 10th, 2011 11:41 am (UTC)
Re: Foot washing
One of the disadvantages of growing up with numerous medical interventions is that we become used to medical mumbo jumbo. (Remember that I have touched your feet.) Doctors are used to examining the insides of feet (muscles, ligaments, etc.) These are places that people do not look at when they do footwashing. Therefore, when an average person touched your feet as pert of a footwashing, they would not notice these things or care. You are much more conscious than anyone else in your life ever will be, simply because you are accustomed to caring about this. When other people look at your feet, they will see a foot. Your feet are not mis-shapen or atrophied (because you walk on them). The issues I described in my post were very noticeable, even through socks. For these ladies, there was no getting around their feet in any circumstance. Having someone touch their feet was very liberating for them because of the effort they had put into finding ways to avoid having their feet touched or stared at. I really don't have a comparative experience in my life.
Jul. 10th, 2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
From the perspective of a non-Christian, foot-washing is a revered practice in many other religions for some of the same reasons you cite. It is deemed humbling to touch another's feet, which are the lowest part of the body. For Christians to reverse the order and a priest or saint wash the feet of a commoner was a huge juxtaposition at the time.

Among many Hindus, the feet of a saint or guru are holy. The term "lotus feet" is often used to show how highly they are regarded. In approaching a holy person. is is common to bow and touch or kiss their feet.

This is common in Buddhism as well. I had the privilege of seeing the "laying Buddha" in Bangkok years ago, and still recall the beauty of the inlay on His lotus feet.

I know you are probably very aware of all this, but I found the discussion interesting!
Jul. 10th, 2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
I don't know a lot about foot washing practices, but this entry taught me something I didn't know. Thanks lots for writing/sharing something so special.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah Blake LaRose
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