A Ray of Darkness
This year during Lent our church is putting together foot care kits to distribute to the homeless at The Stewpot on Maundy Thursday, the day we remember that Jesus washed the disciples' feet.
We are also going to revive a real live foot-washing experience that I and others started at The Stewpot eleven years ago.
In this worship service we welcomed 12 homeless women and men at a time into a darkened candle-lit room. We played an Acapella recording of There is a Balm in Gilead –"there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."
While the music played we took glued-together shoes and smelly socks from the cracked and withered feet of the homeless, and we gently place their feet in warm water. We spent a few moments massaging their feet with soothing oils, and foot powder and medical disinfectants. I then read the scripture (John 13:1-17) about the foot-washing in the upper room and we said a prayer together. We repeated this service over and over with all who chose to participate.
The first year we did this foot-washing, it was truly a moving experience. I watched a mumbling mid-40’s mentally ill white woman relax her tensed-up body and move into silent contemplation. I saw a shriveled up, worn-out old African American man hum along to the music and then spontaneously offer a prayer of his own suffering and redemption. It felt good to participate in this service especially on Maundy Thursday, but what I was not prepared for what happened next.
Another volunteer decided that we should actually wash each other's feet. After all, she explained "the disciples were not just told to wash feet, they actually got their feet washed."
Now, the last thing I needed was for some preachy do-gooder to give me a theological reason to have my feet washed. After all, I was the theological expert in the room and there is just something I don't like about getting my feet washed.
What I wanted to do was find a gentle way to get out of the foot-washing. I figured I could weasel my way out by telling the volunteers that "we did a good thing today," then I could give a polite outward response of "no thank you," thus hiding my inward response which was "ARE YOU CRAZY, I’M NOT GETTING MY FEET WASHED!"
But, I also knew I was going to have some problems getting out of this. The first problem was that even "no thank you" would have been way too close to Peter's proclamation to Jesus that he would never let Jesus wash his feet! The second problem was that Jesus was apparently ready to cut off contact with Peter if Peter didn't get his feet washed – I certainly didn’t want that to happen to me. The third problem, and most powerful for me, is that I just have a hard time saying no. Begrudgingly I sat down in one of the chairs to receive my foot washing.
What happened next I have a little trouble explaining. What I can say is that the very uncomfortable moment of a foot washing became a very deep and powerful moment for me. In fact, that foot washing brought back some issues I thought I had worked through a long time ago. But as a wise friend of mine once said "we don't get rid of our issues, we just become aware of them, and awareness makes all the difference in the world."
At any rate, sitting there with my feet in a basin of water, I began to contemplate what was so disturbing about having my feet washed when I myself had just washed other people's feet. What came to me was an old hard truth I often struggle with, which is this: I am willing to give love, but I am not so good at receiving it. I am willing to help others, I'm not so good at admitting I need help.
I am trained to hear other people's vulnerabilities, but when it comes to letting others see my vulnerabilities, I had very little skill at all. Whether we are talking about the cracks in my feet or the cracks in my life, a broken toe nail or a broken heart, the wart hidden on the bottom of my foot where no one sees, or the painful warts of my past hidden on the inside where only God sees, when it comes to sharing these kinds of things, I would just as soon keep my shoes on and keep on walking.
Like many in our culture I have been taught that to be wealthy (at least by the world's standards), to be a man, to be an American is to be invincible, independent, and in need of no one at all. It's all completely antithetical to the vulnerability of a foot washing.
What I was being offered in that experience was nothing other than to be touched, to be cared for, to be nurtured, to be massaged. It was a chance to be comfortable in my own skin. In those waters I could come clean and admit that I am not invincible but vulnerable, not independent but in need of community and friendship, not self-sufficient but in need of salvation.
The truth is, I was being offered good news in that foot washing, the same good news that Jesus offered his disciples in the upper room, but good news like that is often not easy to hear.
A fifth-century Syrian monk who wrote under the pen-name Dionysius had a term for a paradoxical moment like this. He called it a "ray of darkness." Dionysius knew that there are times that are dark, confusing, and filled with pain, but he saw these times as rays of darkness because they cut through our lesser light of understanding and point us in new and meaningful directions.
A "ray of darkness" makes no sense until we remember that we can see some things only in the dark – things that are invisible to the light of day. Some truths are illumined only in the darkness.
When you see a ray of darkness it is a moment where painful self-knowledge and truthful God-knowledge come together. When you see a ray of darkness it is a moment where hidden thoughts and emotions and motives are put right in front of your face so that you cannot avoid them. You have to do something with them.
That is why a ray of darkness is such good news. There's no shame in the truth of who we are; the broken and blessed beloved of God. There's no shame in the truth that our lives on earth are a mess and that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
And it's not depressing. What's depressing is the desperation spent in trying to pretend otherwise.
When you see a ray of darkness, it is a moment where you understand that God does not go around the pain in your life, but God comes through the very wounds in your life.
Maybe that's what Barbara Brown Taylor meant when she said "sometimes things get really scary before they get holy." And maybe that is what Lent is pointing us toward also. So this year during Lent watch for the ray of darkness, which is none other than Christ himself.