Feet, yes, but not only

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Uncategorized

I don’t come from a foot-washing religious tradition. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ritual of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, I do. And in my time I’ve participated in my share. It’s just not something native to my experience, however aware I am of the narrative of the upper room and last supper of Jesus with his disciples.

It is jarring imagery: the rabbi washes the feet of his disciples. In first century Middle-Eastern culture the washing of the feet of guests, providing for their refreshment after dusty journeys, was not unusual. It was generally done by house servants or slaves. And that’s the twist. Jesus takes on the role of servant to make a point, namely, that true leaders are servants. He demonstrated it by taking up a towel, bending over, and washing.

I would have been as shocked as those first ones when it happened. In fact, Peter was so taken aback that he refused to receive the profound gesture of humility. For the story, of course, this was all part of the suffering servant theme, one that would extend far beyond foot washing; the feet of Jesus would not be washed, but rather scarred by Roman nails.

In my world foot washing is not a thing, not really, and certainly not for dinner guests, house guests, and visitors. They are welcome to wash their hands or shower up like everyone else. I have discovered that there are other ways to demonstrate servanthood and express humility.

With my daughter’s diagnosis of colon cancer, we travelled with her through the valley of diagnostic testing, chemotherapy, radiation, and finally surgery. It was major surgery, and the end result was the removal of a tumor. The prognosis is good. But the hospitalization and then recovery in our home has been difficult. It has been difficult in particular because phase one of the surgery necessitated an ileostomy. That will remain until the second surgery some months off when the surgery will put her back together with a bowel resection, a reversal. After that, we hope for total remission.

In the meantime, she is living with what over 100,000 American a year experience – the necessity of using, maintaining, mastering, and living with an ostomy appliance. It is not easy. Skills are required and acquired. The correct supplies are critical. And in addition to travail for the patient, much is required of caregivers.

As one who has been in and around illness and hospitals all my adult life, I was not shocked, either by the surgery or its aftermath. But I have never served in the role of support for a patient with an ostomy, and never served in that role for a member of my own family. It has been challenging. The learning curve alone is steep. Many aspects of life are put on hold. But with the right kind of support, like gifted and devoted ostomy nurses, it becomes possible.

In the early weeks, nothing takes place according to schedule, no matter how well you prepare. Accidents occur and emergency response is needed at any hour, like, for example, 1am in the morning. Addressing the problems when they happen are very important, so that the area surrounding the stoma may heal properly.

It was there one time, in the depths of the night, removing a failed appliance, cleansing the area, attempting another application, changing clothing and washing what needs to be washed, sitting afterwards to make sure all is well, that I came to understand what foot washing means for me in this very particular season of life. It means tending to those who are helpless for whatever reason, humbling ourselves to do so, without resentment or a sense of being bothered. It is honoring, washing and tending the body of the beloved for no other reason than it is needful and you are one who needs to do it.

I was surprised that after a while the ritual of giving and receiving became strangely normal, even giving way to levity, simple songs, puns, and stories from other times. There is a very helpful adhesive ring that seats the devise against the skin immediately around the stoma, and for us that became “The Lord of the Rings.” We who work to put it in place have became “The Fellowship of the Ring.” And so forth.

Mostly, I became aware of the love that is exchanged in those moments. There is a surrendering to the time and place, experiencing the holiness at the intersection of human weakness and help. I was surprised by how much changing an ostomy appliance feels like prayer, and perhaps at its heart it is exactly that, a form of prayer in the midst of ritual and loving.

I suppose each one of us finds different forms of foot washing along the way. When Peter refused to accept the gift of washing, Jesus reminded him that he could have no part in the realm of god without receiving such grace. That is true for us. We need to receive the grace that presents itself before us. With dawning acceptance, Peter retorted that, yes, he would surrender to the foot washing after all, and by the way, Jesus could wash anything else he cared to, like his head and hands as well. For us, it is the anything else that we find along the way, especially in those moments, whether giving or receiving, when we become mindful of the bending, washing, loving and submitting. It is then that we are transported to the upper rooms where loved ones wash one another in preparation for the feast of life.

  1. Audrey L Spieler says:

    It is startling and surprising about the humility that we must learn throughout our lives. Like Peter, we don’t take to humility easily….our own or anyone else’s. This post is something I want to share with those at my table tomorrow. Thank you,

  2. Terry Filand says:

    Tim, prayers for your daughter and her healing. As loving parent we do what is needed to serve and love our children. We have a daughter-in-law waiting results of bone marrow tests. Also a granddaughter waiting for a mastectomy soon. I am waiting to see where I can be supportive and caring! God’s Blessings on your family!

  3. Teresa Murphy-Stowers says:

    What an interesting analogy. I understand the settings full well but have never made such a connection. I’ve had a permanent ileostomy since I was twenty-six years old and have always performed self care. The angst you describe and gratefulness for the good seal is the same, but my experience is mine alone. I understand that can change, can become a shared and dependent one. I think of that from time to time and confess my response is most like Peter’s.

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