Archive: 2017

Open to Receiving
August 13th, 2017
John 13:4-9

That whole scene makes one squirm a bit, doesn't it? It wasn't quite as awkward at the time as it seems to us, since the washing of guests' feet by servants was a common courtesy in those days when almost all travel was by foot. But there were no servants there that evening. And when Jesus himself, quietly and very naturally, sets out to perform this modest, practical act of care and kindness, it is not received comfortably by the disciples. Predictably, it was Peter who blurted out the uneasiness everyone was feeling; saying in effect, Master, this is wrong. It's backwards. You're not washing my feet. Not you of all people. It's not your job. My feet will be just fine. Why don't you just sit down and relax.


Peter, you see, wasn't the kind that needed to be taken care of, helped, ministered unto or served (except, of course, in certain usual, legitimate ways, by persons who were designated to serve.) I can assure you that I would have felt exactly as Peter did and so would a lot of you. Most of the time for many of us, at least, the grace of allowing ourselves to be aided, tended to, given to, and helped, is a very elusive grace. In fact, like Peter, the knee-jerk reaction is to repudiate it, dodge it, and to turn it around.


Do you remember the story from a winter years ago now?  In West Virginia, where the snow was particularly deep and drifting was very bad, one Red Cross rescue team moved with snowmobiles back into the mountain areas where they were aware of people living alone in cabins right in the path of the worst of the storm. Reaching one particular cabin location, they found it completely buried by a huge drift and by what appeared to have been a minor avalanche from the slope above. After digging part way down, they used a pipe to probe for a window.  They felt the pipe break through and they yelled down through the pipe, Is anybody in there. We're from the Red Cross. And a voice came back up the pipe, Yeah, I'm in here all right. But it's been a right tough winter and I don't see how I can give anything to the Red Cross this year.

A rather vivid example, I should think, of this stubborn clinging to being a helper rather than the receiver of help.  It really is more than a comical quirk, though. It is actually one of the more serious distortions or perversions of strength - this disdain for accepting what others have to give us; that is, what God gives us through others.


Did you notice Jesus' strong reaction to Peter's saying that he just couldn't let Jesus wash his feet? Jesus said, If you can't let me do this, then you have nothing in common with me. Now, that's quite a twist, isn't it? We've heard the obverse of that; where someone says, If you really cared; if you really loved me; if you were a real friend; if you were a good Christian, a good son, daughter, parent, you'd help me. But, Jesus zeroes in on the opposite side - something that, though somewhat more subtle, is just as real. Peter, if you cannot accept care, comfort, being served, help, you cut yourself off from me.  Peter, if you cannot relax your all-sufficient, or macho, or self-contained, self-made, impregnable stance even with me, we're not really in fellowship. We're not in touch with each other.


Do you begin to recognize any of this? It's not everybody's problem, but it certainly is for a great many of us. At its less serious levels, it reverberates in comments like ...Oh, I do wish you wouldn't put yourself out like this.  It makes me so uncomfortable ... or, Now you've got to let me find some way to repay you.  I absolutely can't stand to just take your help like this ... or Please, don't get anything for me.  I'm just fine the way I am. I much prefer to take care of myself.

But, at its more spiritually strangling, destructive levels, it is thought or expressed as ... I cannot bear to let you see me like this.  Just leave me alone. ...or I am ashamed that I would get to the point where I would need this kind of help. ...or I'm not the sort of person who should need all this.  I'll never feel right about this. ... or I just can't stand sympathy! ...  or If I'm not allowed to pay for this, then I don't want it. ... or I just can't stand to be beholden to anyone. ... or Jesus, there's just no way I will let you wash my feet.  It's just not me.


What it boils down to, I guess, is that for some of us, to be on the receiving end of care or kindness or empathy, is to feel strangely threatened and vulnerable.  And we'll resist it, fight it, as long as we can.

It's been my observation over the years that some discover this in and about themselves most forcefully at the time of their first major hospitalization.  And especially for men, I think, who for the first time are restricted to their hospital beds, the ego trauma almost supersedes the illness as a form of discomfort.  There is a mixture of panic and chagrin and repugnance that now someone else will actually bathe them, shave them, bedpan them, expose them, touch, comfort, nurture, adjust, assist them.  Squarely in the manner of Peter saying (in effect), Good Lord, I really don't want this.  There's something wrong with it for me.  Hospitalization leaves some cringing, as if to say, How can I have been reduced to a condition where I must be cared for and helped? ... or Who am I when I'm like this ... being helped?


Grief does it to people, too.  One positive thing that sometimes comes out of deep, personal tragedy is the long overdue recovery of the ability to receive and accept what others have to offer; to allow one's self to be comforted and to be nurtured.

For still others, the aftermath of a divorce has laid them open for the first time to the fact that not only are there kinds of undergirding, assurance, encouragement, and aid that one cannot provide for himself/herself, but that receiving it is deeply good, rather than demeaning.


But, it is meanwhile true that for some of us, we just seem to have to be brought so low that we feel that we have nothing to give, before we become open to receiving.  And that's kind of crazy, don't you think?  What kind of contorted quirk is there about us that moves us toward this beyond all help, one-sided, self-contained, self-sufficiency - so much so that we have to re-learn by force something so basic and necessary and deeply good as this grace of receiving?

That phrase, beyond all help is a rather telling one, don't you think?  He/she can't be helped is one of the cliches we use occasionally in giving up on someone.  It is usually said glibly and unkindly rather than thoughtfully.  But, nevertheless, do you hear what it says?  The despair is not over what is wrong with him/her.  The loss of hope has to do with the putting himself/herself beyond reach; again, beyond all help.


Well, whatever that is for those of us who have done it to ourselves, it is not admirable and it is not strength.  Very much to the contrary, nothing makes a person stronger than being able to accept help.  No one has greater resources than one who can happily and naturally draw strength and affirmation and inspiration from others.

I read about research having been done on the phenomenon of geese flying in a V formation on their long flights north and south.  It was discovered in wind tunnel experiments, that that is not done by the geese for appearance sake.  That particular formation creates an air flow and uplift that adds more than 70% to the flying range of the flock, compared to each goose flying on its own.  Fortunately for the geese, they seem to be able to deal with whatever goose ego that might otherwise tell them ... Look, you're an adult goose.  You've got two good wings.  You're intelligent.  Don't you think you ought to be able to do this without accepting the help of all those others?


No ... no one is more deeply alive and living with more absolute clarity than one for whom the flow of care and help and giving and power flows both ways.  No one gives more than one who knows how to receive much.  That is, it is a little like Jesus' warning about not trying to take the splinter out of the other person's eye unless you have known what it is to remove the log from your own eye.

I suspect that that is why some of the kinds of giving and helping and aid have gone badly in our life together as a society.  They perhaps have gone badly because of just this; it came from people who themselves deny or reject the whole experience of receiving, needing, being helped, cared for,  ... as beneath them or beyond them.  So, the giving and helping was often detached, clumsy, and insensitive.  To be completely grace-fully helpful, one has to be a complete person.  And one who cannot or will not receive is not a whole person.


I like the way the incident ends.  Following Peter's initial recoil and after Jesus tells Peter that Peter's openness to this kind of kindness and service is absolutely essential to the bond and the closeness between them, the light seems to come on for Peter.  Then, Lord, he says, not only wash my feet, but wash also my hands and my head.

And for those of us who suffer from this idiotic personal impasse, often it can be gone that quickly ... with just one or maybe a couple of ventures into letting go of the all-sufficient, need-nothing, self- captivity.  I had no idea it could be this easy and this good ... I don't know what I thought I was proving, who I thought I was impressing, what I was afraid of. ... I would have never believed how much help there was to be had until I let it happen for me ... Lord, just don't wash my feet but my hands and head as well.


Something we were withholding made us weak, wrote Robert Frost, until we found it was ourselves we were withholding from the land of living.  And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

Think about it ... won't you?

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