Thunder and lightning woke me from a dream this morning. I was dreaming that I was at the beach, in a big house with my whole family. That beach trip was an annual affair for most of my life, a regular reminder about where I belong; where I’m anchored. It doesn’t happen anymore – my family grew and got complicated, my grandparents slowed down and my grandpa Bobby died this winter. My grief over the loss of that beach vacation is bigger than I expected. We never did anything particularly special: just cooked and ate together, told stories and laughed, sat on the beach or played silly games. Lots of people do all that every day, in their own homes.
But I live alone. I have for most of my adult life; I prefer it. I’ve had roommates – good ones and bad ones – and I know the value of community and companionship. But I am an independent creature. I like my space. I prefer it this way. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m unaware of what’s missing. That week at the beach was something I relied on – a counterbalance to the rest of the year’s solitude. I had a good system in place, with ample time alone and just enough chaotic time together. When the counterbalance disappeared, I felt it deeply.
Love Feast has been a counterbalance, too. I am a pastor, so I’m usually speaking or leading or facilitating. Even when I’m not the one in charge in the room, I’m still the pastor which means I am still, in lots of unspoken and sometimes even unacknowledged ways, in a position of authority. It’s a mess, a tangled mash-up of theology and practice, both helpful and unhelpful. I work hard to assume the priesthood of all, to share authority, to invite others into leadership, but ministry is, by necessity, a lonely gig. No matter how much we talk about mutuality and community, when there’s one person (or two, or three) who are set-apart with the assumption of spiritual authority, there’s a hierarchy.
Love Feast – the day that we recreate Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – has always been a corrective. Yes, I usually plan or lead the service, but when it comes time to obey Jesus’ command to wash each others’ feet, things change. I am not up in the pulpit or leading a service anymore; I sit on the same folding chair in the same circle with everyone else. I take off my shoes and expose my feet – even the weird, misshapen nails on my pinky toes – and sit, quietly, awkwardly, while someone else ties a towel around their waist, kneels before me, and invites me to put my toes in the basin of cold, refreshing water.
Someone else touches my toes. They pour water over my cracked heels, and tenderly massage the arches. They pull my ankles out of the water, put my feet on their knee, one by one, and carefully pat each one dry. Sometimes, they’ll even make sure to draw the towel through the crevices between my toes, making sure my whole foot has been cared for. Then we’ll both stand up and that person will wrap me in a bear hug and whisper in my ear that they love me.
It is easy for me to kneel and wash someone else’s feet. It is powerful, and meaningful, and relatively easy to do. I am accustomed to inhabiting the posture of servant and the role of authority – both of which show up in the kneeling and washing. If I’m the one serving you, then I get to decide how it’s done. If I’m the one washing your feet, then I get to decide how intimate I want to be about it. Sometimes, choosing to serve is the same as choosing to be in control.
But when someone else kneels and washes my feet, I’m not the one in authority anymore. I don’t get to decide how closely or firmly or thoroughly this other person decides to touch me. I don’t get to decide what words of care they’ll whisper in my ear, and I am not the one orchestrating my own experience of worship or fellowship or revelation.
That is terrifying. And for me – someone who lives alone and does things how she wants and when she wants to, someone whose schedule and plans are rarely interrupted by the preferences of others, someone who is often the authority figure in whatever room she shows up in, someone whose life includes a lot of in-control-serving but not much out-of-control receiving – it is deeply, deeply uncomfortable. And it is deeply, deeply necessary.
I am so sad today. I woke up from that dream about what used to be one of my life’s counterbalances, and then I remembered that another one has been violently cancelled, and I started crying. I cried while I walked the dog, I cried while I drank my coffee, and I am crying now, writing this.
A few weeks ago there was a poem by Lynn Ungar
going around about how maybe we should treat this time of social distancing like the Jewish sabbath, and adopt the practices commanded by God:
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
But what if the people to whom I have committed my life don’t live in my house? What if they are always hundreds of miles away or, right now, only a couple miles from me but barred from gathering tonight, not permitted to have their feet touched, prevented from washing mine?
There are a bunch of opportunities to remember Love Feast online today. I won’t be participating. I’m not going to give myself a pedicure or pretend to take communion alone in my empty house. I can’t bear to pretend that staring at a computer screen meets the need – my need – to be removed from control, humbled, touched, and loved. I long for the day that we can be together again. I pray that God will help me receive love in other ways, ways that I might come to recognize more readily because I have been shaped and formed by this one that I am grieving so powerfully.