Several years ago I was on a church service trip in Nicaragua. A group from our church had traveled there to help out by delivering medicine and other supplies, building homes, and serving in a clinic. Such a venture is noble in many ways. It is also gratifying. You get to see yourself as helper, a giver, and a doer. You are doing something to respond to human need and suffering.
A week into the trip, the tables turned. I was there with a group of young people from our church, two of whom were my own sons. One of my sons became desperately, even dangerously ill. Suddenly, I found myself shorn of my role as giver and doer. Instead I was on the needing end, the receiving end. I needed friends I hardly knew. I turned to doctors whose language I could not speak. And in more than one instance I had to count on the kindness of unnamed strangers, really placing myself and my son in their hands. It was humbling.
It was also disarming to go from giver to receiver. My world was turned upside down. One day I was the strong one, independent and self-reliant. The next I was in many ways "weak," and quite dependent, as I sought to cope with my son’s illness in a land and culture I didn’t know.
We’re in the midst of Holy Week for Christians. Today (April 5) is Maundy Thursday, so-called for the Latin word for commandment, mandatum, and Jesus' words to his disciples as they ate together on Thursday evening of Holy Week, "I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you."
The story of Maundy Thursday, which tells of Jesus' Last Supper, has become especially meaningful for me. While this narrative appears in all four of the canonical gospels, it is a little different in each one. But in none is it more different than in the fourth gospel, the Gospel of John.
It is there, in John, that the element of foot washing is incorporated into the Last Supper. According to John, Jesus at one point removed his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt at the feet of his disciples with a basin of water to wash their feet, drying them with the towel.
This story is taken, most often, to be one where Jesus sets an example for those who would follow him. They are not to be haughty but humble. They are not to expect to rule and reign but to serve. They are to be willing to take off their good clothes and get down and dirty. It’s a powerful story.
But in the midst of it there's a little twist. That night when Jesus came to Peter, arguably the lead disciple, Peter refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. With a touch of righteous indignation Peter exclaimed, “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!”
What was going on? At some point in pondering the story, I could see myself in Peter, a man who was, it seems, more comfortable giving — and in the giving role — than receiving.
Of course, it is often said that, “Giving is more blessed than receiving.” What is not so often added is that giving is, at least for some, also easier than receiving. Giving can be an act of power, while being on the receiving end can make us utterly, and uncomfortably, vulnerable.
Many of those who have taught me my own faith and modeled its meaning to me have been generous givers. They were the first to serve, the last to be served. They were always ready, it seemed, to volunteer, to go the extra mile, to take on a new assignment. These are not small matters. God bless them.
But there was one thing that seemed to trouble these generous givers: receiving. Receiving may not be so blessed as giving but it may be harder. Sometimes it’s the matter of receiving a gift. "Oh, you shouldn’t have," we protest. Other times it may be something as simple as receiving a compliment, which we turn aside with quick protests of being undeserving. And sometimes, as for me in Nicaragua, it is finding yourself really at the mercy of skill and kindness of others.
At any rate, it occurred to me at some point that there can be grace in receiving, in learning to be a generous receiver.
So when Peter protested to Jesus, "You shall never wash my feet," Jesus' response was not accommodating. (“Perhaps this is uncomfortable for you? Well then, never mind.”) It was blunt. “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” At which point Peter, whose face one imagines to have fallen on hearing Jesus’ words, said, “Then wash me all over.”
Peter was to be a leader of the new movement that would go on after Jesus was gone. But leaders too are followers. Givers are also receivers. “We all live,” remarked Martin Luther King Jr., “eternally in the red.” Gratitude may be where the spiritual life begins.
These days as a speaker at events and conferences I’ve had to learn, in the words of a mentor, “to take my applause.” Not every time but often enough, following a talk or speech, one receives the gift of heartfelt applause, even on occasion a standing ovation. I found this awkward, uncomfortable, and I exited the stage as quickly as I could.
Then someone wiser than I (a large pool that) commented, “You know, you need to learn to take your applause,” meaning that I needed to stand there and receive it graciously as the gift it was. “After all,” he added, “life is an exchange of gifts.”
In Nicaragua, I learned the truth of that latter observation about “life being an exchange of gifts.” I also learned that there is grace in receiving, in generously receiving the gifts that others would give to us, a lesson that Maundy Thursday annually brings to my mind.