Foot Washing and Cross-Bearing

Have you ever washed someone’s feet? I have. A couple times in various contexts. It sounds gross. But it wasn’t. Really. In our day, our feet are protected from wear and tear. We drive or ride to get to work, school, and home. We rarely walk more than a hundred yards and when we do, we wear Nike or Keen. What’s more, our streets and sidewalks don’t have slop and feces and trash on them. Feet today are as clean and cared for as they have ever been. So washing someone’s feet today is not as offensive and disgusting as it could be.

But back in the first century, it was. It was down right rank chore. It was reserved for the lowest person on the household totem pole. Nobodies, house servants, washed feet. Feet which had more than jam between toes (let the reader understand). If this kind of foot washing was a profession today, you can bet Mike Rowe would give it a shot.

In John 13, Jesus and his disciples eat their last meal together. Things were tense: Jesus said someone was going to betray him. But at one point, it got a little awkward. Master Jesus strips himself of his outer garment, drapes a towel around his waste, gets on his knees and starts and starts scrubbing the filthy, fecal feet of his disciples. And then he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Everyone is offended. Or perplexed. Later in John 13, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (v. 34). As a matter of fact, if the disciples love as Jesus says, the world will know they follow Jesus (v. 35).

So what’s this all about? Was Jesus really telling his disciples to become literal foot washers? Didn’t Jesus know that shoes and boots would be invented and our feet would be protected and clean(er)? Is Jesus saying that the ultimate sign of love is to wash someone’s dirty feet?

Foot washing is a parable. An illustration. A foreshadow. Of what?

The cross, of course. That’s where John’s story is going. On the cross, Jesus goes low in humility–much lower than he deserves–and deals with all the muck and mire and trash and feces in the disciples’ lives and ours. That is “how” Jesus loved the disciples. Not merely by washing feet but by washing them in giving himself up for them. Elsewhere, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 John 4:10). As a servant who washes feet strips down and forfeits their personal dignity, Jesus was striped of much more than his robes and dignity. He lost his connection to the Father because he became sin, a curse for the disciples, for us so that we might come to God. He washed away the muck, yes. But he became the muck. He lost it all. He radically gave himself up. In washing their feet, he gave up his rights to be “the man,” and he became the servant. In dying for their–our–sins, he became the man on the cross. That is love. Foot washing equals cross-bearing.

But Jesus doesn’t just give up himself so we don’t have to. He gives himself up so that we can. And if the disciples, if we, love this way–radical, self-giving for the good of others–the world will know we belong to Jesus. You want to follow Jesus? You get to wash feet. You get to die. That’s what true love is. We love without any fanfare. Without any recognition. Without anything in return. Friends, this is a high calling. May God help us!

And then there’s that word in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The world might be able to argue against our doctrines and worldview, but it will not be able to argue against our love. The world may object to justification by grace and prayer to a God we can’t see, but it will not object if we lay down our reputation, power, control, resources, comfort, convenience for others. The world may not like the idea of a Triune God being worthy of all glory and praise, but it will always be attracted to radical, humble, everyday self-sacrifice.

People may not join us, but they will know we have a different Master. A Master who serves. A Master who washes feet. A Master who bears a cross. Let’s be people who follow our Master.

A TED Talk That Raises More Questions Than It Answers

In this five minute TED talk, commentator David Brooks provides some penetrating insights into the human condition. The contemplative listener will rightly respond to Brooks’s talk by asking, “Well, how does that happen?! How do I experience that salvation? Where does that forgiveness come from? I am powerless to wrestle with my sins and win! O, who will deliver me from this body of death?!”

There’s only one answer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give it.

Watch his short TED talk now.

Why You Should Consider Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent

This year, our church is observing Lent and we’re kicking it off with an Ash Wednesday gathering. I wanted to write a brief post on one reason you and/or your church should consider observing Ash Wednesday and Lent (and why you should not).

Your church should consider observing these church traditions if it makes sense missiologically. By that, I mean if observing these traditions sparks gospel conversations with outsiders and builds bridges with the lost, it might be a good thing for your church. Living as missionaries in our culture demands that we become like those we are trying to reach. In other words, we learn how the people around us speak, dress, eat, converse, recreate, relax, celebrate, persuade, discuss, debate, etc. We engage with them in these practices as they do without compromising the gospel (and by extension, of course, our holiness, morality, etc.). In other words, we compromise everything but the gospel itself.

The classic text on this idea in Scripture is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. There Paul says,

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

When Paul says, “I have become all things to all people” he means he lives like a particular culture, but not at the expense of the gospel. Why? He does “it all for the sake of the gospel.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent are, for good reason, primarily associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Here in the Capital Region (Albany area), only about a quarter of the total population professes some kind of religious affiliation. Of that group, around 70% identify as Roman Catholic. Because of this, basic missiology says that observing Ash Wednesday and Lent could be a contextual “win” for us. It is well known that Lent for some Roman Catholics (either individually or congregationally) can be legalistic or ritualistic. We want to do it differently. If we do, it will naturally build a bridge to the nominal and lapsed Catholics (and others) in our community and, by God’s grace, spark conversations so we can graciously talk about a Christ-centered and gospel-driven Lent.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent is a prime opportunity to zone-in on lamenting our sin, repenting of sin, looking to the cross, and anticipating Easter. It is a season of intentional and focused spiritual formation, and that’s valid reason to observe. We’re trusting God to do a work of grace in individuals and as a church. However, in the bigger picture, our spiritual formation should serve as a gospel witness to nonbelievers. Ash Wednesday and Lent can be tools to shape us. But they can also be tools to help us be good missionaries.

So consider your context. Is it a heavily Roman Catholic area with many nominal church attenders? Are there many former Roman Catholics in your area who have fond memories of Lenten practices?

On the other hand, if you are in an area where there are no Roman Catholics, you’ll need to consider what’s best for your context. No matter where you are, if you want to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent to give your congregation a “cool worship experience,” because “it’s hip to be ancient,” or to provide them another box on the church calendar checklist, then you had better think twice.

In the end, remember that everything we do is “for the sake of the gospel.” That was Paul’s motivation, and it should be ours, too.

Ash Wednesday at Grace Chapel

Wednesday, February 18, is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period before Easter (46 including Sundays). The word Lent comes from a Latin word meaning “spring,” which comes from an earlier Germanic word meaning “lengthen” or “long” (since the days get longer in spring). At Grace Chapel (a non-denominational, Protestant Evangelical church), we’re encouraging our congregation to observe this season—not to merit favor with God or even because it’s hip to be ancient. We want to take advantage of these valuable observances so we can dive deeper into the gospel. That’s it. It’s really all about Jesus.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent are not commanded in Scripture. Therefore, we’re free to observe them or not. However, there’s a few reasons you may want to consider observing them. Ash Wednesday and Lent can provide us the opportunity to:

  • Connect with the historical church. Our faith is not born in a vacuum. We aren’t the first of our kind. We have descended from a great community of faith which has gone before us, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent have been significant traditions.
  • Be confronted with reality of death and our need for Jesus. How often do you think about death? Ours is a death-averse culture, but we must face the reality that we are all going to die because of sin. In the midst of this bad news, however, the good news of Jesus’ death for us is our glorious hope.
  • Freely experience sorrow and lament. Individually and corporately, we make little room for mourning our sin and brokenness. This season provides a ripe time and space for that.
  • Fast with anticipation. We fast (abstain from food or other things) to deny temporal pleasure in order to pursue the ultimate pleasure of knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus as we long for his kingdom to come.

So to kick-off Lent, our church will gather this week on Ash Wednesday to lament and confess our sin, meditate on the glories of the gospel, and worship God.

Our Ash Wednesday gathering will be an interactive time. One aspect of the gathering that some Protestant Evangelicals may balk at is what Christians have historically called “the imposition of ashes.” This is when you receive ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Why would we do such a thing? Isn’t that meritorious? religious? legalistic? ritualistic? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Ashes and dust in Scripture are symbolic of the brevity of human life and picture repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19; 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). The ashes are simply a tactile and solemn reminder that we are finite creatures and death looms over us all; they are drawn in the shape of the cross to remind us that in the midst of this bad news, there is infinite hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up-front: the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, and observing Ash Wednesday or Lent can’t save us. At the same time, even our repentance can’t save us. God alone saves us through his Son Jesus! Repentance is a response to God’s saving work, and while Christians are by no means required to participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, we are praying that God might use these rituals to drive our congregation to repentance and faith in Christ. Who knows whether or not, in his grace, God will use these instruments to spur renewal in the hearts of individuals and our congregation as we anticipate the glory of Easter. Of course, this should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life! However, Lent provides us with a special time to zero-in on this as a church community. This approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is undeniably Christ-centered and gospel-driven.

So if you are in the Capital Region, consider joining us this Wednesday, February 18 at 7pm at Grace Chapel. Even more than that, whether you join us or not, consider how you might take advantage of these forty days to repent of sin and fix your eyes on Jesus.

How to Pray with Other Christians for an Hour

Group prayer. What images and feelings does that phrase conjure up? Or here’s a better question: when was the last time you had a meaningful, energizing time of prayer with other Christians? Chances are those times are few and far between. I know they are for me. But I want that to change.

Yesterday, before the sun had started its day, I met with two other men to pray.

We prayed for nearly an hour.

It wasn’t awkward. It wasn’t boring. It wasn’t forced.

It was genuine. It was vibrant. It was beautiful.

Hear what I’m not saying. “We’re awesome because we prayed for an hour!” Hear what I am saying: when we take the time to pray, especially with others, beauty happens. We experience God, together. After all, isn’t there something to spending quantity time doing something? We always want more quantity time with our spouse, our kids, our hobbies, our physical fitness, our entertainment, and on and on. But then when it comes to the spiritual disciplines, we are too quick to defend: “Well, the heart is what’s important. God wants quality more than quantity after all!”

Do you say that to your spouse on date night? Do you say that to your kids during a family outing? “Well, honey, we had a good 15 minutes here. It was real. But I need to get back to Game of Thrones.” Talk soon!”?

Of course not. You’d be a fool if you said that. And you’d miss the point.

The goal of a good date or a family fun night or coffee with a friend is both quality and quantity time. You want the best time for the longest time available. Prayer is no different–even (especially) prayer with other Christians. Too often, Christians gather to pray and most of the time is taken up with requests and stories and then, at the end, a few people pray for a couple minutes.

Friends, this is not okay. This is not okay for me or for you or any Christian. This is not a matter of praying better or longer so God will love us more. That’s despicable moralism. This is a matter of learning to walk in step with the God who has graciously redeemed us through his Son Jesus Christ and because of that redemption now calls us “son” and “daughter.” This is why we take time to pray. Do we feel our need for prayer? Do we make the time to pray?

We may feel the need and carve out the time in our busy schedules. Yet there may be one more obstacle, especially when it comes to group prayer: What in the world could possibly sustain prayer so that we are actually praying rather than watching the clock go by? Let me share with you what my friends and I did yesterday morning. I hope it’s helpful.

We began by reading Psalm 92. We started with Scripture because prayer starts with God, not us. He is the host of this feast. He starts by speaking through his word. We answer God. (The psalms, in particular, help us here; they teach us how to respond to God.)

I slowly read Psalm 92 (in other situations, it may have been appropriate to read it two or three times), and after finishing, we started with adoration. I said “Let’s reflect on the psalm considering what we see here that showcases God’s glory and power and beauty.” We praised God for these things in short to medium length prayers back and forth. We didn’t go around in a circle or in order. We just prayed.

After several minutes, I said, “Let’s consider how these things we’ve praised God for move us to confession. What are we like when we forget God is like this?” We confessed our general sins related to the psalm and any particular sins we had been dealing with. This was a profound way to practice the command, “Confess your sins to one another.” It was humbling, enlightening, and powerful. I learned about them. They learned about me.

After several minutes of confession, I paused and said, again, “Now let’s move on to thank God for how he has redeemed us through Christ and how he is working his grace in us even now. What in this psalm moves us to thank God for what he’s done?” The psalm is about God’s mighty “works.” So back and forth we went, reflecting on God’s works in creation and redemption and thanking him for his mercy on us sinners.

Finally, we moved into supplication (or petitioning/making requests). I paused one final time to say, “Let’s ask God for him to work change in us so that we become the kind of men we ought to be. Let’s pray for our families, our friends who don’t know Jesus, or those who are suffering.” We ended by asking God, like children ask their father, for him to do something. We asked him for daily bread. We asked for protection from the evil one. We asked God to work in our lives and in our world.

By time we were done, almost an hour had passed and the sun had risen. God had indeed been gracious to us.

You don’t need to do exactly this to pray with other Christians. This is just a simple way to pray. But this simple way might be something the Spirit uses to kick start your group prayer life.

What ideas do you have that might help cultivate healthy group prayer?