Friday, October 23, 2020

Getting My Feet Wet

Many years ago, at a Christian camp site in the Adelaide Hills, I was chairing a meeting of a couple of hundred Pentecostal pastors from various denominations. In a rash moment, I announced, ‘I want to suggest that we do something different tonight as an expression of our unity in Christ. When the service is concluded, why don’t we go back to our rooms, collect a towel, and return to the auditorium so we can wash each other’s feet?’
This was a surprising thing for me to do as I am actually rather conservative. But every now and again I experience a rush of blood and before I know it, I am out on a limb. Anyway, it was impossible to retreat now. I had committed myself and I had to follow it through.
I had first experienced a public foot-washing service in a Slavic Pentecostal church in the early 1970s. Stepping inside their building was like being instantly transported into a church in a Russian country town. The hall was plain and simple, with high, painted concrete brick walls. Because of the large windows, the morning sun shone generously through the glass and it was as bright as day inside. The long benches were crowded, with the men sitting on one side of the centre aisle and the women on the other, although there were some young people at the back who broke the pattern.
They sang Russian songs with Russian instruments – accordions, guitars, mandolins and I think at least one balalaika – and they responded fervently to the preaching. I still remember clearly the loud, deep-throated ‘A-meen’ of the men as, with solemn faces, they affirmed the Word in unison; and the enthusiastic ‘slava gospidu’ (‘praise the Lord’) as they thanked God for his blessings.
Many of them had escaped dramatically from oppressive Communist regimes in long treks across Siberia or through China. Some had been led by prophecies which had warned them to avoid certain areas where they might have been arrested, or to travel by night for safety. They had a deeply-ingrained faith that was born from the pain of persecution.
It was their custom each month to practice foot-washing as a sacrament. They wrapped towels around their waists as Jesus did, and with plastic bowls of warm, clear water, they knelt to wash one another’s feet, men to men and women to women. If there had been any kind of disagreement or broken fellowship between brothers, this was the time to set it right.
Of course, they used to joke about the fact that they would wash their feet very well at home before they came so their feet would be clean enough to wash at church!
Most churches don’t practice foot-washing as a sacrament. Certainly, unlike baptism and communion, it offers no clear depiction of the passion of Christ. But it is one way of expressing submission and servant-hood, and for these Slavic saints, that was enough.
At the camp, my suggestion that we should wash each others’ feet was greeted with mixed response. Some pastors looked at me shocked, their eyes wide with surprise and in some cases, dismay. Others greeted the suggestion with furrowed brows of disapproval. Some looked quizzically at their neighbours as if to say, ‘What!’ Some smiled in an embarrassed sort of way. Others just shook their heads in disbelief. A few nodded in a manner that seemed to imply, ‘Mm, good idea.’
But the suggestion had been made and the deed was to be done.
At the conclusion of the service, we collected some bowls and buckets from the camp kitchen and re-gathered for the foot-washing ceremony. Or, I should say, about half of us re-gathered. A number were conspicuous by their absence.
My memory of everything we did that night is rather hazy. But I clearly recall that somehow I finished up sitting before Andrew, a friend who was then the Superintendent of his denomination in Australia.
‘Barry, let me wash your feet,’ he asked kindly.
If I felt diffident about washing his feet. I was well out of my comfort zone when he asked to wash mine. I was not used to people doing personal things for me. My mother had died when I was young and I was pretty independent. I felt embarrassed and unsure.
One of the Slavic young people once told me that while the act would evoke in her a sense of unity and servant-heartedness, there were also feelings of awkwardness, vulnerability, exposure and humility. This was how I felt.
But I was the one who had suggested the whole thing and I could hardly refuse to participate. So I removed my shoes and socks and placed one foot in the bowl. He cupped his hands in the water and gently poured it over my foot. Then he wiped it with the towel. I placed my other foot in the bowl and he repeated the action.
Now it was my turn to wash Andrew’s feet. Afterwards, we prayed together.
In the thirty years since that time, I have on occasion initiated foot-washing services in other places. Once or twice at retreats for Bible College students and once at an elders’ meeting in our church. Every time I felt uncomfortable. I know right now that if I were in a meeting where someone else were to spring a washing of feet service on me without notice, my natural inclination would be to escape while I had the chance, like those ministers at that camp so many years ago.
But I hope I would have the courage to humble myself and to break the foolish conceit that tempts me to believe that my reputation is important and that people’s opinions matter more than God’s. Sometimes it does us good to step outside our boundaries, especially when it means doing something that has the potential to make us feel embarrassed or ill at ease. What is embarrassment but an expression of our stubborn pride? And what is pride but the very thing that took Jesus to the Cross?
Jesus said, ‘You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you’ (John 13:13-15, ESV).
Aw, what the heck. Let’s just do it.

Barry Chant

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Barry Chant is a regular speaker at church services, seminars, conferences and conventions. Hundreds of thousands of his books have been sold around the world. He has degrees in arts, theology and ministry, a diploma in education and a PhD in history. He was the co-founder and former president of Tabor College, Australia.

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