Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to Abba. Having loved those who were in the world, this love was present to the end. The devil had already set upon the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that Abba had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:1-17, 31b-35
There was a time in my life in which I was a young and promising church leader. I was connected to many people and conversations about where, what, and how the church would prosper in the future. I was desperately intent on saving the church or at the very least I wanted to preserve a small space for me in it.
While in this role I read many pieces about worship, mission focus, and theological application. I advocated for what I believed to be helpful in nurturing church and holding church leadership and systems accountable. I was right in some but mostly I was passionately misguided. I was part of some really interesting projects that may or may not have led to goodness, healthy, and positive change in the church. I do know that I was really intent upon being a part of something that was righteous, caring, compassionate, and sought to be like Christ in the world. I imagine we could have numerous conversations regarding the effectiveness of these endeavors and we would discover a varying degree of success as often as we could find folks that affirmed or opposed what I did.
I have been out of church leadership for almost six years now. Not being in leadership has been a painful process. Becoming a church leader was a process that utterly transformed me. Not being a church leader was a process that utterly destroyed me. Pain and suffering are no longer strangers nor are they the defining factors of my life. I have found new life.
I still read those articles on worship, church growth, and mission. I have a different lens I read these with these days. I am a social worker. I am a co-occurring therapist that works in community mental health. When I first began this role I placed my ordination certificate and seminary degree on my wall alongside my Master of Social Work degree. I was not ready to let go of the painful past, nor move into that new life that awaited me.
A couple months ago I moved my office. In this move I did not put my ordination certificate or my seminary degree up on my wall. They reside in a file cabinet in my office. There is no malice or anger in this action. I just felt moved to embrace the new life as a Social Worker. It was liberating. It was scary. It was peaceful. It was.
When I was wrestling with new life and holding on to my church leadership identity I hated hearing, “But you will always be a part of the church.” or “You are still a minister, just in a different context.” It wasn’t the sentiment behind these statements that hurt but the actual severing of the identity to which I nestled my mind, body, and spirit to and her absence that hurt. I was not able to see the forest through the trees as I was healing.
I am new life I am blessed to work with folks that embody the “wounded healer” in ways I never experienced as a church leader. In living with the daily hurt and woe of others I am reminded of the healing path that my own life has taken. I am also reminded that positive self-care is important in treating others. I cannot treat others or be present for others if I am not healthy myself. There it is right there…in this text from John that will be read at my churches by many church leaders, “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” The root to loving others is to first love yourself.
I am at peace with new life. I have made friends with my role outside of church leadership. I still minister. I have a congregation that consists of those suffering from mental illness, addiction, and that are bound in systemic generational poverty. I have no supporting church body. I do this in the margins of church. I am a secular missionary seeking to be light in a world so full of darkness that despair and woe are torches that illuminate our cave.
Now, I read articles on budget cuts and witness how this will impact my congregation. The limited resources that we have to work with will become even more limited. The hopelessness will become bolder. The despair becomes a brighter light. The cave deepens and the shadows cast upon the walls dim. Eventually, we will no longer be able to see the dirt under our nails having long forgotten the reflection of our own faces; we no longer see the reflection of humanity amongst those around us.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in which Jesus dinned with the disciples and readied all for his impending death. A meal was shared. People were physically nourished. The mental dimension was readied for a shift as the body was equipped for the journey. Care was administered.
I used to approach today with a solemn demeanor and a steady face, a sort of Ash Wednesday Lite. I never really gave myself the opportunity to do something different. I did not give this day another thought. I packed it away with most other things that reminded me of my life as a church leader. There my posture stood. I supported my wife as she performed and led the faith through this period. Me abiding by the supportive spouse role and showing up for a meal, helping out, and preparing for Easter Day (one of the few times I go to church).
I am not sure what is entirely different this go-around. It might be the thought of becoming a father again and how I want to model faith in community for my children. It might be the exhaustion from witnessing the evisceration of public mental health and substance abuse services in Oklahoma. I felt moved to read this text from John.
I felt a connection to the darkness offered in this text. Amongst the meal, the cleanliness, and the love is hope. A hope that I missed before. Jesus is preparing for us to go it alone. He is saying, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Where is he going?
When I went to seminary, a loving older, more conservative member of my home church warned me against being ruined by all that academic stuff I would be exposed to and told me to measure my faith against the question of, “Where did Jesus go when he died?” I quickly lost focus of this question amongst the hardship of classes and the fellowship of community at seminary. I am reminded of that question now.
Jesus was preparing us to go it alone. Jesus was preparing himself to go to hell. Jesus literally was entering a space where despair and woe are rampant. Jesus was preparing to empty himself of all he had to check-in at the marginalized motel. Jesus was going to hangout with my congregation.
If you have not been in relationship with someone that suffers with mental illness, addiction, or poverty you are missing out on Jesus. It is a challenging world full of unhealthy actions and broken trust that desperately wants love. “Where I am going, you cannot come.” But y’all must love each other as I have loved you. Jesus is saying, in order to do this you must love yourself as I love you. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is a far cry from the way we treat those with mental illness. We are failing in being disciples in the absence of real and equitable treatment for those wrestling with the disease of addiction. We do not practice self-care and love ourselves as parts of God’s fearfully and wonderfully made creation waste away in poverty. We are failing to understand the purpose of Jesus feeding our bodies and washing our feet. We get fixated on righteousness as cleanliness and divide up the remnants of Christ’s cloak before it is even of his back.
Today is a reminder that in the midst of the darkness, it the heat of the moment hope is not lost. There is a way out. We have a choice. We are empowered to move towards healthy. We cannot go where Jesus is going because Jesus lives there…Jesus doesn’t leave the despair, the hopelessness, the brokenness. Jesus lives there so that those that encounter the hurt, the pain, and the brokenness of mental illness, addiction, and poverty are not alone. We are called to not live there so that we might be those that Christ calls to enter that space and shepherd of siblings to the Promised Land of health. Our very health depends upon this.
Jesus prepares us for this journey and warns us of the dangers. Nothing is as it seems. Here, Christ puts light to the shadows of our cave and draws us out into community. Fear subsides. Anger relents. Wellness embraced. Wholeness found. Community realized. Today is a day of action. Today is the first day of your new life.