Saturday, April 4, 2015

Upending Grace

She was so old. And lovely. Her skin had that ivory, crepe paper transparency of very old and frail white women. Articulate. Intelligent. And, no longer in control of life's most personal functions. I spent about 20 minutes cleaning her, changing her gown and linens. She was mortified. "I am so sorry you have to do this," she said. I told her, "I know you don't want this. If Jesus could wash the feet of the disciples, it's my privilege to care for you." It seemed to calm her.

Jesus stripped off his robe, clothed himself with a towel, and crouched down to wash the road weary feet of the disciples. Peter, perhaps used to the facelessness of a servant performing this function, found this too great an intimacy from the man he called master. Reading the passage through my biases and filters, his reaction feels like more than just attempted politeness. He seems truly uncomfortable with how this reverses roles, and upends norms. But Jesus tells him, "If you don't let me do this, you don't have a part of me."

We went without steady, or much of any, income for nearly four months. We lost our savings, and my silly, but loved, little car. Needing the care of others in broken and vulnerable moments makes me intensely uncomfortable. I want to protest, and apologize, or worse, hide the mess in my heart, and pretend nothing hurts. I remember the night I made a conscious decision with my small group from church (aka the best group of friends I've ever known) to tear down the walls of pretense, share my tears, and practice lamentation. The woman sitting next to me lifted sad eyes to mine, reached over, and gave me a hug. The group joined in our suffering. They held together my messy heart, and for the first time in my life, I knew the full capacity of human grace.

Recently, a dear friend received a gift in a sum she cannot hope to reciprocate. An amount that makes you question yourself, to be certain you never abuse the position you hold, or the words you share. A form of grace that upends roles and norms. The type of gift one will never find adequate thanks for. It struck me, in trying to help her experience this as an offering of love; sometimes humans deliver such a grace to us that we can never repay. One that mirrors the great, wide, incomparable grace God offers us. When our pride keeps us from experiencing the fullness of human grace, we miss the chance to see an earthy presentation of God's grace, and perhaps, we miss the opportunity to be spurred into such grace-giving to our human folk.

These graces all required an overwhelming intimacy. Jesus, on Holy Thursday, washing dirty feet, cleaning between dusty toes, demonstrates a collision point of supremely human and divinely godly action.

I was surprised to discover how uncomfortable others are with the idea of a foot-washing service at church. Perhaps, because intimacy has been such a key theme as I put our last few months into perspective, and because it characterizes the work that healthcare workers give every day. But then, I remembered how much work it took for me, just to talk about the depth of my confusion and emotional suffering with our closest friends.

I believe I absorbed a message at some point telling me I must appear whole, saved, in control. I internalized a notion that need undermined my lovableness, and ruined my exterior show of completeness, knowledge, and Christian privilege (in words of my former days, my "testimony"). I got so good at denying my humanity that I emotionally abandoned it. I locked it behind multiple doors in the house of my soul, and sealed myself off, not only from self-awareness, but from the ministering presence of other humans.

I was Peter, denying Jesus, or anyone, a chance to get close enough to leave a part of themselves on me, or take a part of me with them. 

It took years of therapy, and the last two years of un-learning god, and re-learning God, and the last year of learning about glorious, glorious humans, to jettison the pride and falsehood and sheer burden of being needless.

Maybe it's not a foot-washing at church for you. Maybe it's accepting charity. Maybe it's taking a meal. Or sharing a sin. Or an agony. Or a secret that undermines you every day. Or, maybe for you, opening up yourself to true human contact means receiving a compliment, or a condolence, without brushing it aside. Maybe, it's asking others to rejoice with you over the kind of thing that may seem mundane, but just makes your heart sing.

I'm convinced we see the face of God most fully, not in buildings, or nature, or religious experiences, but in the face of our fellow humans. I pray we open ourselves up, not just as givers as grace -- a lop-sided, power-sustaining notion of living, I think -- but as people in need of grace.

May you see God this week. May you open yourself to receive a grace you can't repay, and rather than it humiliating you, may you know, know, know, you're loved.

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