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John 13:3-5: Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Monday morning was bright and sunny here in Grand Haven, but I was wrapped in a blanket on my sofa, fireplace turned on, pretty sure my furnace had conked out.
Pretty sure, because I don’t actually know how to tell with these things. It was cold in my house, but not freezing. My smart thermostat wasn’t displaying anything, but I didn’t know if that was its fault or the furnace’s. So – reluctantly – I called the heating company.
I say reluctantly because I’m always afraid it’s going to be some stupidly small problem – a switch on the breaker that needs to be flipped or something – and I’m going to look woefully ignorant. Which, to be fair, I am. But I don’t want to be confronted by that ignorance. I don’t want to need help.
A month and a half ago, I was forced into needing help. I’ve taken a hiatus from writing on the Twelve because back in February I tried to learn how to ski and broke my thumb instead. As a result my dominant hand was set in a cast for five weeks, which made things like typing and cooking rather difficult.
Getting wind of this, one of the elders at my church came over and insisted on bringing me food and cleaning my kitchen. I was mortified. I tried to protest. She looked at me, gently but sternly, and said, “Laura, people are going to want to help you right now. You need to let them. That’s part of being community.”
She was right, of course. And I wasn’t in much of a position to say “no.” I kept getting egg all over my cast and holding a knife with my left hand would have led to far greater injury. And at the end of the day, deliveries of casseroles and desserts and baked goods wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
Vulnerability is a virtue hard come by in our society. We’d prefer to depend on our own bootstraps, to live within the veneer of impenetrability. We keep ourselves just a little bit distanced from each other – even those we love – as we establish our tiny, autonomous kingdoms.
Which is why the idea of foot washing – a Maundy Thursday tradition – makes most of us uncomfortable and some of us scandalized. There’s very little about the foot that’s beautiful. Flaky skin, rough callouses, bunions. To have someone kneel before us and touch our feet – for an extended amount of time – forces us to confront our own, fleshy shelves with all our imperfections and insecurities. The feet could just as easily be our too-big nose, our muffin-top mid-drift, our thinning hair, our flappy ears, our knobby knees. And as we place our feet in the water, we’re asked to allow those selves to be caressed, to be held, to be loved. It is a needy, vulnerable place. And we don’t do well with vulnerability.
In a NY Times interview this past Sunday, Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), says of our current situation, “I think it’s painful for everyone to know there’s just not a lot of room between anybody and the very edge. It really does run counter to the whole American story.” COVID-19 forces us to confront our fleshy, insecure selves and acknowledge that the wall of impenetrability we thought we had built for ourselves has some gaping holes in it.
But Bowler also states – without minimizing the trauma, the tragedy, the scope of it all – that “the more we see fragility, sometimes the more we understand what an incredible miracle it is to have been created at all.” We’ve been given a “higher and higher view of our gorgeous and terrible humanity.”
She goes on: “We’re learning right now in isolation what interdependence feels like and what a gift it is, and the more we’re apart the more we realize how much we need each other. We’re allowed to be like beautifully, stupidly needy right now. We’re allowed to FaceTime people and be like, I feel like a mess, and all I want to do is be loved.”
We’re trying to parent, teach, and work at the same time, and coming up short three ways.
We didn’t know what lonely could feel like until now.
We live with the constant fear that someone we love will get sick.
We’re running numbers in our head as we stand in line at the unemployment office.
We’re grieving silently, alone, unable to bury our dead or honor their life in community.
We feel guilty at our own anxiety, knowing many others are in more fragile situations.
We’ve been confronted by our weak, vulnerable, fleshy selves. But in that confrontation is incarnation. The utter miracle of humanity, of bodies, of organisms and ecosystems, and the dance of dependency arising from the allowance to be beautifully, stupidly needy.
I hope this pandemic is shorter-lived than folks are saying. I hope the suffering ends, the death ends, the fear ends.
But I also hope, at the end of all this, when life returns to some semblance of normal, that we don’t lose the societal and cultural permission to be beautifully, stupidly needy. That we’ll be better at picking up the phone and saying, “I just need to talk right now.” That we’ll continue to write cards and bring hot meals to our neighbors. That needing help won’t be a source of shame, but an invitation into community.
I hope we become more comfortable placing our feet in the water, extending our whole selves, insecurities and all, to be held and loved and cherished.