Spiritual Disciplines: Service
The Basin and The Towel
As Holy Week nears, we will be celebrating Maundy Thursday. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you are not alone. It isn’t the most well-known of church celebrations. Maundy Thursday is the day the church celebrates and remembers a key event which took place as Jesus and the disciples gathered for what has become known as The Last Supper. As they all gathered and anticipated the Passover meal they were about to partake in, the disciples began arguing about who was the greatest and who was the least among them. In the meantime, no one had taken care of a significant task, especially when there was an honored guest. No one had washed the feet of Jesus or his disciples.
The washing of feet was a task generally reserved for the lowest servant or slave in the household. Why? Because it was gross. And not just in a “eww they have to touch someone else’s feet” sort of gross. The standard footwear in the Middle East at the time was leather sandals designed primarily to prevent the wearer from hurting the bottom of their feet when stepping on sharp rocks. The roads and pathways they traveled were shared with animals. At the end of a long day away from home, one’s feet would be caked with dust, dung, and the debris of the world they lived in. In short, their feet would be disgustingly dirty. And so, before guests wandered about your presumably freshly cleaned and tidied house, it was custom to have their feet washed so all of the filth would not be tracked all over your home.
As the disciples argued, Jesus noticed that no one was coming to wash their feet and took it upon himself to undertake this rather unglamorous task. He put on the towel the servant would wear, picked up the basin, and began to make the rounds without saying a word. He just did what needed to be done, no matter how undesirable the task. To this day, this specific moment is still held up as a primary example of what it truly means to serve others.
While this moment is indeed a powerful example of service, we often miss a very important truth when focus on it, treating it like an isolated incident. Jesus did more than model acts of service for us, he modeled the discipline of service. This wasn’t the first time he quietly went about helping, it wasn’t the first time he took care of other’s needs without fanfare. In fact, I have no doubt that there are countless instances of Jesus living a life of service to others no one but his Father ever knew about and so were never written down or recorded.
To embrace the spiritual discipline of service isn’t to engage in occasional, random acts of service. It isn’t to organize the food drive for the local food pantry or go on a mission trip for a week to paint a house and do a VBS for the local children. Those things are well and fine, but they are not a lifestyle.
The discipline of service speaks to a lifestyle where daily, small acts of service become second nature. Where the instinct is to serve others rather than primarily protect yourself and your self-interests. It is about serving in such a way that no one really notices it is you until you are gone. If you have been around camp very much, then you have likely met Steve “Mitsu” Bishey. And if you have ever had the privilege of working with him as part of the year-round staff, then you know how much of an example of this spiritual discipline of service he can be.
Too often, Steve is the first to volunteer to help in the kitchen when there is a retreat group or clean an entire lodge by himself when we have to do a quick turnover between retreat groups. He worries not about making sure he gets his allotted time off, but about being seen as taking too much time off and neglecting things which should get done. It is his routine to step in and serve, it is his instinct. The day he retires will be a day where many on year round staff will realize just how much he did behind the scenes.
As Richard J. Foster writes, “Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.” He goes on to distinguish self-righteous service from true service. Self-righteous service is service which comes through human effort, expending huge amounts of energy calculating and scheming how to serve. It is impressed with the big deal, showy opportunities to serve. Self-righteous service requires external rewards because it needs to know that people see and appreciate the efforts made. And it is highly concerned with results, waiting eagerly to see if the person served will reciprocate and becoming bitter when expectations are not met. Additionally, self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims, in insensitive and insists on meeting a need even when to do so would be destructive, and fractures communities as it centers on the glorification of the individual.
In contrast, true service comes from a deep relationship with God, allowing one to hear the whispering and promptings of the Holy Spirit. All service, both big and small, is seen as important and welcome. This allows true service to be free from the need to calculate results, delight in the service, and serve enemies as well as friends. True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need, disciplining ones feelings and emotions rather than allowing them to control which service they engage in at any given moment. And finally, true service doesn’t force their service onto an individual or community but listens with tenderness and patience allowing it to bring communities together while quietly and unpretentiously going about the caring for the needs of others.
I hope you get a chance to experience a Maundy Thursday service this year in your local community. It is a powerful, visual, tangible reminder of what it means to live a life in service to others. But even if you don’t, take a moment to consider what your reaction to Jesus washing your feet might have been. Ponder if you would have been willing to quietly get up from the arguing and take on the lowest job in the household.
- If you can, find a Maundy Thursday which includes a foot washing to attend this year as part of your Easter celebrations.
- Take a look at the contrast between self-righteous service and true service. Into which category does your service fit the majority of the time?
- Who in your life is an example of true service? What is one, quiet, non-showy way you can thank them for all they do?
Helpful Resources Used:
- Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster - Chapter 9: The Discipline of Service