Washing Feet

As I write, it is Thursday morning, the day traditionally known as Maundy Thursday in the Christian Calendar. It is the night of his Last Supper with his disciples, the night in which he was betrayed by one of those closest to him.

There is some dispute about the origin of the word
Maundy. Traditionally, it is understood to come from the Latin word mandatum, which means a command or order. This interpretation comes from Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:14, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Many Christian groups, including several stripes of Baptists, have understood this to be a third ordinance, alongside the Supper and Baptism. The logic is, Jesus said do it, so we must do it.

The other interpretation is less well-established but at least as powerful. Some argue that the origin of the word is from the Latin
mendicare, which means ‘to beg.” The word is more an image than an act, the image of Jesus bending in submission to his disciples, serving them as a household slave. If you remember the events of that night as John records them, the disciple Peter was incensed and vowed that Jesus would never wash his feet. He was offended that Jesus would do such a thing.

I am torn between the two opinions. ’Til now, I have understood the act as an option, a suggestion more than a command, not really an ordinance; I still believe that the act of washing another’s feet in the regular worship of the church does not rise to the level of another ordinance, but is something that we could do as we re-enacted the events of the night before Jesus’ trial and death.

I am haunted, though, by the other possible definition. To be as humble as a servant, to lower oneself in the presence of another, even those who wish us ill (remember, Jesus washed Judas’s feet also) is far more than a ritual; it is the evidence of a life that is changed. To resist, to refuse, to declare “
I will never…” Well, I wonder what that means.

Does it mean that we have certain traditions that we hold dear that allow no additions? Does it mean that what we are really doing is just re-enacting, observing from afar what might be a good suggestion, but truly not a command? Does it mean that it might be alright for Jesus to be a servant, but not alright for us?

I write this on the Thursday before Easter. Sunday will be here before I know it. I better make up my mind what all this means.

Numbers Game

Do you have a favorite number? I do. The number 7 has been my favorite since childhood. The reason is simple: it was Mickey Mantle’s jersey number. Long before I became interested in any other team or player, I fancied myself as the one who would replace the Mick when he was no longer able to play the outfield for the Yankees.

I was thinking about this the other day because of a radio program I was listening to while traveling between hospitals. A scientist who studies brain development had been asked the question, “what’s your favorite number?” Being analytical and seeming somewhat cold-blooded, he thought the question was nonsense. What purpose would a favorite number serve and who would have one? Surely no one would really have a favorite number.

It turns out that he was wrong. First by casual questioning and then through disciplined research, he began to ask people if they had a favorite number and why. It turns out that many, if not most, people do, for all kinds of reasons. Like me, some have a connection to an athlete (ask all those who wear all those football and baseball jerseys what their favorite number is!). Others like the number that corresponds to their birthdate or anniversary. For all these reasons and more, people have favorite numbers.

As I listened, I hoped that he would announce that the number 7 was a rare favorite, one chosen by a special few. I was wrong. It turns out that 7 is the most common favorite number of the people that he had tested. As he dug deeper, he discovered that seven has been the preferred number throughout history. For example, the earliest preserved manuscripts ever discovered, written by the Babylonians, are full of events that revolve around that number.

Of course, I am sure that you are not really surprised by its importance. Long before the Babylonians got to writing down their thoughts, God had 7 on his mind during the creation. When he came to that seventh day, he looked around and declared all that he saw as “very good.” Because of God’s watchcare over his children, he ruled that the seventh day would be one of rest. When the Bible thinks of what is incomplete, that falls eternally short, it speaks of that which is 666. When, to be somewhat redundant, it wants to declare something eternally whole, 777 comes to mind.

What’s your favorite number? What does it remind you of? I was hoping that my number would be unique, but I have to confess that I don’t mind that I share it with others. I’m glad that God likes it, too, for it reminds me that one of these days, all that he has made will once again be very good.

Looking Around

I mowed the yard for the first time this year last weekend. It didn’t really need it, but it was a pretty day and I wanted to be outside. I wasn’t alone because I could hear the sound of other mowers in the neighborhood.

I also noticed that there was a lot of traffic on the street for a late Saturday morning. Cars are not unusual for the street because it is the main road into the neighborhood. What I did notice, though, was that most of them weren’t traveling at their usual breakneck speed. In fact, most of them were slowing down in front of my neighbors’ yard and looking at something.

It was a turkey buzzard, one of the ugliest birds in creation. Black wings, pocked and mottled red skin stretched across its face, a hooked nose designed for tearing prey, turkey buzzards are spread all across Texas. Anyone who has driven a lonely stretch of Texas highway has come across one of these birds feeding in the middle of the road. More than once, I have wondered if the one I was barreling down upon was going to lift off from the pavement in time. I have seen thousands from the inside of a car; they always survived.

They are rarely seen in the city, preferring the isolation and relative quiet of the country. Whether it was because this one had lost its way, its nest had been disturbed by construction, or it just needed a rest on its way somewhere else, this one had landed next door. When I realized what everyone was stopping for, I indulged in a little arrogance: “Haven’t you people ever seen a turkey buzzard before?” I kept on mowing.

After a little while, I caught a glimpse of something moving out of the corner of my eye, and turned to watch the visitor take a lumbering run and launch himself into the air. He cleared the street, circled the creek, and was gone.

In seconds I realized that I had passed up an opportunity that might not ever come again, I had the opportunity to walk across the lawn and look closely at something that, while I claimed I had seen plenty before, had always been at a distance and seventy miles an hour. My arrogance and presumption kept me from actually seeing something.

I have a feeling that I am not alone in that experience and, I’m afraid, that it is not limited to turkey buzzards. The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I would add that it also leads to blindness, the inability to see what is truly there. It happens in our neighbors’ yards, around the kitchen table, in church. Because we are so sure that we “know,” we miss what is new, what is real, whether it is with our spouse, kids, parents, friends. Or even worship, Jesus, Easter.

The next time I get a chance to look, I pray I will. I’ll pray the same for you.

Escape Artist

Our old dog is a late-blooming escape artist. He’s been hanging around us for over ten years, and we don’t know how old he was when we rescued him from the pound. Until recently, he had never shown any inclination to run off, preferring instead a quick dash into the backyard and an even quicker return to the comforts of the indoors. I suppose those years that he lived on the streets more than cured his curiosity of what lay beyond the fence.

A few weeks ago, though, he disappeared. We had let him out for his daily routine and waited for the scratch at the back door. When it didn’t come, we called, wandered around the yard, even got in the car to drive around the neighborhood. After a good while, we gave up, wondering if his old ways had come back to haunt us. Then, a couple of hours later, we heard the scratch at the door.

These escapades went on daily for a few weeks. It became somewhat embarrassing when the neighbors began to call to say that they had him and would we come pick him up. The fellow who was carrying him in his arms like a baby handed him back to Ellen one day with that look people give you when your kid won’t stop acting up in church.

Something had to be done, and the solution started with figuring out his exit. Somehow, this worn out old dog, after years of zipping from the backyard into the house, had figured out how to squeeze himself between the fence and the gate to freedom. Since the gate slides rather than swings, I had to come up with some kind of fence that allowed it to slide and yet cut off his access. A trip to Home Depot and forty dollars later, I had a fence in place.

As soon as it was up, I went in the house to let him out. He’s a sneak, so knowing he wouldn’t do anything as long as I watched, I went into the house and stood by a window. He streaked for the exit, then slammed on the brakes. He sniffed the length of the fence. He explored every post. He challenged every connection. Then, he trotted back toward the house and scratched at the door. When I let him in, he flopped on the floor and looked up at me as if to say, “Ya got me.”

I experienced an initial flush of victory, but it passed. I had won, but at a cost. In those weeks when he would escape, he had the best of both worlds: the freedom to explore, to discover, to do what dogs are created to do, and the security of knowing that he could come home to safety. I hadn’t built the fence from some concern for safety; I had built the fence out of embarrassment, because of the protests of others, due to someone else’s opinions about what to do with him. I looked at him the other day, sprawled out on the floor, looking out the window into the world. I said, “I know what you’re thinking, buddy. Cheer up. This won’t last forever. Before long, the only one who’s opinion is going to count is the One who created us to be free.”

Dust Storms

The headline said, “1000 Feet High, 200 Miles Wide.” Someone knows how to grab my attention, so I read. It was the brief report of the dust storm this past week that blew in from New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. When the measurements were recorded in Lubbock, the winds were blowing 75 miles an hour and the dust wall was 1000 feet high and 200 miles wide. When asked, one resident commented, “Just another Spring day in West Texas.”

It reminded me of a time in seminary when the sky turned brown west of Fort Worth. I was living in an old two story house on campus with eight other students. Most of them were from places other than Texas. One of them, a farm boy from South Carolina, was particularly fascinated and frightened by the ominous sky.

He began to grill me about what was happening. When I told him that it was a dust storm, he asked me what I meant. I said, “Well, in about thirty minutes, a good bit of New Mexico is going to blow right over the top of us.”
“Is it going to ruin the paint job on my car?”
“It might.”
“Should we shut all the windows in the house?”
“We can.”
“Will it do any good?”
“Nope.”

Sure enough, in about thirty minutes, he began to believe me. The sky grew dark and the air smelled like dirt. Everything in the house and his car turned a faint tan, covered with the grit of the fine particles of dirt and sand. Thirty minutes later, the cold front that had been ushered in by the dust brought with it enough rain to turn all that grit to mud. He said, “What in the world just happened?” I said, “Just another Spring day in Texas.” He said, “I thought the world was coming to an end.”

Funny how life works, isn’t it? When something that we’ve never seen before threatens us, we’re not sure how to handle it. We scramble for a solution. We get our exercise jumping on the panic button. But when we’ve been down that road before, we learn to wait, to watch, to weather the storm. To be sure, one of these days, the world will end. Until then, it’s just another Spring day in Texas.

Counting the Days

Countdowns are important events in our lives. They are reminders to us that important events are right around the corner.

Ask any child of a reasonable age how long it is until her birthday and she will be able to respond not only with the number of days, but sometimes with the minutes. Ask some advertisers and they will (cynically?) tell you that there are, as of the day of this writing, 292 shopping days until Christmas.

While we are not allowed to publish the exact date, our family has been informed that our son will be returning from the Middle East before too long. It will be a good Friday for us. You can take it to the bank that we are counting down the days.

Not all countdowns are pleasant. I recently visited with a man who told me that the doctors had given his wife a few weeks to live. As hard as it may be to say, I cannot imagine that he does not believe that their lives are on the clock - one day closer every day.

As of this Sunday, Easter is 42 days away. Some Christian traditions prepare for the day by entering into a period of sacrificial waiting, seeking to embody some of the challenges that Jesus faced in those last days of his earthly pilgrimage. While this observance has never been a consistent part of my Christian practice, I understand how identifying with the struggles of Jesus’ last days could help someone count down to the joy of Easter.

What I have never been able to understand is how some folks seem not to think about Easter before the day arrives. Like those first disciples, they are surprised that the tomb is empty and everything that they had thought about life has been turned upside down.

Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the reason they don’t count down to Easter. Perhaps, even unconsciously, not to count down is to hold at arm’s length the difference that Easter makes in all creation. To do so would require the realization that in Jesus, God really is making all things new, that death has been overcome by life, that things will not and cannot be the same.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Easter comes, whether or not we count down. But, if we do, it just might begin to make the difference in our lives that all anticipation has the power to do. We’ll never know until we try. As of this Sunday, we have 42 days and counting.

Memory

I have noticed the last couple of weeks the attention that is being paid to a unique group in society. These individuals are recognized as having HSAM, an acronym for Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Simply, and probably inadequately, described, these folks are able to remember every detail of what happened to them on any date that you ask. For example, picking a date at random, if you ask them what happened to them on January 17, 1987, they can tell you everything from what time they awakened to what they had for supper, and everything in between.

This memory doesn’t necessarily translate to being good in math, remembering formulas for equations without effort; nor does it mean that they would win on a quiz show, remembering names and places that the rest of us struggle with. This memory is much more personal, the kind of memory that remembers the victories and never forgets the defeats. The details of these memories never fade.

As well as I can remember, I’ve never met anyone with this gift. I have known some folks who seem to come close by constantly talking about some great victory in the past (the good old days) or not being able to let go of a wound that still stings after thirty years, but I’ve never met anyone who has the gift of remembering every minute of every day that they have lived.

I have said that it is a gift, and I suppose that one can call it that, but it is one that I am glad that I have not been given. Knowing myself as poorly as I do, I still know that I lean toward dwelling on the past, reveling in the glory, wallowing in the failures. Fortunately, I do not remember all of them. I don’t want to think about the kind of life that would be.

I am also not convinced that this “gift” is from God. As I read the scriptures, the kind of God it describes is one who knows us better than we know ourselves, knowing “our lying down and our rising up” (Ps.139:2-3). He is the kind of God who, when our failures would otherwise overwhelm us, “puts them as far away as the East is from the West” (Psalm 103:12). The apostle Paul knew him as the God who isn’t as interested in what we have done as He is in what He can do with us (Phil. 3).

I am fascinated by these folks who can remember every detail. In a sense, they are a wonder to me. But I am glad that I don’t have their kind of memory. I much prefer the kind God has.

Refuse to Speak

The college football season began last weekend and my favorite team got off to a rocky start. Favored by six touchdowns over a team that lost eleven games last year, the first half ended with my team leading by only seven points. The underdog had recovered a fumble, intercepted two passes, and kept the ball twice as long as my heroes. It was beginning to look like a long day.

Of course, the game ended as the experts had predicted. The second half saw an explosion of offense on my team’s part. The other team never scored again, and mine (do you like how I think they belong to me?) gained more yards in one game than they had in their over 100 years of playing football. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

I could not help but wonder what made the difference. Same players, same coaches, same plays. Did the coaches yell and threaten at halftime? Did they all drink some magic potion? The next day’s news articles told the tale.

On his way to the locker room, the coach in charge of that dismal performance pondered what he would say to his charges. Should he yell, scream, reprimand, condemn? Somewhere between the sideline and the locker room door, he decided. Later on, when asked, he said, “I refused to speak fear and failure into their lives. I reminded them of their talent and preparation. And a bunch of mature young men went out and did their jobs.”

“I refused to speak fear and failure into their lives.” How many times have we quit before we have begun? How many times have we told ourselves or someone else that we simply cannot do it – whatever it is? How many times have we snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory? This young coach knew that, win or lose, what they thought and what they did were connected.

All this reminds me of the last few verses of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus is about to leave his disciples and return to the Father. Those followers were a varied group, some of them bold and confident. Matthew does not speak of them. He says that some were doubtful, hesitant. How are they going to survive? What will happen next? Jesus’s words would make all the difference: You’re ready; I’ve prepared you; the world needs you; I am with you. It’s not a stretch to say that he refused to speak words of fear and failure. If Jesus didn’t, why should we?

Bicycle Ride

The first bicycle I ever rode belonged to my oldest brother. As a teenager, he had a paper route that required a bike that was sturdy enough to stand up to the rigors of lousy roads while holding a large canvas bag containing the newspapers. After months of riding around on a used bike while saving every extra dime he could, he bought a brand new Columbia bicycle. It was the size of a small country.

For weeks on end, relentlessly, in season and out of season, I begged him to let me ride his bike. It mattered not to me that I had never actually ridden a bike or that it was so tall that my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals. With the confidence born of ignorance, I assured him that riding the bike was no challenge, that I had watched plenty of people do it, and besides, how hard could it be? Like water on stone, my pleas finally wore down his resistance until one day he said, “Just this once.”

We pulled it up against the curb so that I could leverage its height to gain the lowered bicycle seat. I grabbed the handlebars with a death grip while he steadied me by holding the bars and the back of the seat. With a push he said, “Pedal as fast as you can.” I wobbled away from the curb.

For about five feet, everything went well. But, for some reason, as I made the middle of the street, my straight path began to circle, gravity took hold, and the bike made a beeline for the opposite curb. I can still see clearly the faded blue Volkswagen Beetle parked against the curb that blocked my path to the safety of the grass. I can still hear my brother yelling, “Don’t hit the car!”

As I clipped the rear fender of the Bug, the bike came to a sudden stop, sending me over the handlebars into the neighbor’s yard. As I lay there dazed, with a busted lip and bruised pride, I heard my brother say, “Did you hurt my bike?”

A few thoughts, in no particular order. Sometimes, we’re not as important as we think we are. Sometimes, no matter how fast you pedal, you still crash. “Not now” doesn’t always mean “never.” It never hurts to count the cost before we begin the task. Getting what we want doesn’t always mean getting what is best for us.

Man of Steel

For a Father’s Day present this summer, my kids took me to see the movie, Man of Steel. I had mentioned that it looked interesting and that my favorite comic book hero had always been Superman, so they took the hint and away we went.

I had read that Warner Brothers Studios had been promoting the film in Christian circles, even hiring a company to provide private screenings for groups of pastors so that they would encourage their congregations to attend the movie. After watching it, I could see why they would take this approach: the story of a father who sends his son to save a world; a son who is quietly and humbly obedient to his earthly parents; a powerful man who submits himself to the arrogance of those who don’t know his true identity. The parallels were obvious; but so also were the differences. This savior beats up people, indulges in dramatic deeds that capture everyone’s attention, and finally kills his enemies. It made for a satisfying ending to a movie because the bad guys get what’s coming to ‘em, but the gospel it is not. But another movie might be.

As much as I liked comic books growing up, I loved baseball even more. So, when we had the opportunity to rent 42 – the story of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball – we took it. Named after his uniform number, the film only covers Robinson’s first year in baseball. If you are offended by the profanity of grown men who should know better, or by blatant racism that is embarrassing to watch and listen to, or the cruelty of people who are mean just because they can be, then 42 is probably not a movie for you.

But, if you are encouraged by those who literally turn the other cheek, who bear up graciously and gracefully under the force of hatred, who break down privately, then get up and go back to work, then you might be interested in this movie. If you are inspired by people who have the courage to confess their sins, stand up for someone who is knocked down, and quote a little scripture to boot, then you won’t find your time wasted.

I enjoyed Man of Steel; I really did. It made me laugh and stand in awe of the special effects. But I knew that it wasn’t the truth. I was humbled by 42. It brought tears to my eyes and made me ashamed of my own sinfulness. At the same time, it offered the possibility that people, as bad as we can be, can also be redeemed. It was the truth. Isn’t that the gospel?

The Author