October 27, 2009

Foot Washing: Removing the Embarrassment

2009 1530 page6 capN CONNECTION WITH THE LAST SUPPER, JESUS INSTITUTED THE FOOT-washing ceremony, a ritual that has experienced widespread neglect in Christendom. The Adventist Church stands among only a handful of denominations still observing the practice. But the reality on the ground is that a high percentage of its members find reasons to skirt attendance at their local churches when “Communion Sabbath” comes around. Why?
I suspect it has something to do with the foot-washing service. The awkwardness of finding a partner for the exercise; a special-needs person finding there’s no one present with the sensitivity to handle their case; single persons—visitors and members alike—finding themselves shoved off to a room on their own.
I can comment on each of the awkward moments just listed—and more—but it’s the case with singles that concerns me here.
Let’s face it, the foot-washing ceremony is alien to the culture of perhaps the majority of Adventists—and, if we should speak frankly, makes them feel (at least, a tad) uneasy. And wouldn’t it be prudent not to introduce into the observance innovations that can cause embarrassment?
2009 1530 page6I’ve tackled this issue before—and am fully aware of bucking a popular tide. But two recent impressions sparked this editorial. One came while editing the strong theology piece that appears on pages 14-16; the other happened when I ran across a recent article by Darlene Reimche in the Canadian Adventist Messenger (July/August 2009). The article, “Towards a National Adult Singles Ministry,” had nothing to do with foot washing, but my mind instinctively formed a link to it.
So far as I know, there’s nothing theologically wrong with married couples washing each other’s feet at Communion. My wife and I have participated in that arrangement and most likely will again, especially in retreat settings and the like.
But I’ve always felt uneasy with the practice for a general church setting—because of the not-so-subtle message it sends to members who don’t belong to that “club.” The article in the Messenger asked the question: “If a single from the community came to your church today, what kind of welcome would he or she receive? Would single people be loved and accepted into God’s family?”
What my mind did at this point (with apologies to Reimche) was to see the question in the setting of the foot-washing service. Suppose the day that that single person from the community chose to visit was “Communion Sabbath”? Are married people able to understand how that visitor and other singles belonging to the congregation feel when they’re asked to head for a room by themselves? As the Messenger article said, married Adventists need to “understand what it is like to be single in a couples’ world.”
“Our church is doing a good job of expanding the term ‘family,’” Reimche acknowledged, “moving from a traditional definition to one that includes singles, widows/widowers, single-parent families, extended families, expanded families, step-families and blended families. We are attempting to become a true family of God!” But “in many places,” she thinks, “the unmarried church member is not feeling the inclusion.” She spoke of the trauma experienced by our “never-married friends,” who feel they “don’t really fit in anywhere.”
Of all the things we do as a church, the Lord’s Supper is the last place people should be made to feel awkward, embarrassed, or in any way diminished. Jesus designed the service to empower His followers to walk together in unity, oneness, and service. It’s meant to break down every wall of distinction, not perpetuate or emphasize them. At the Lord’s table, the “seats” should be adjusted to the height of each participant. There should be no embarrassment in the Master’s presence. 
Roy Adams is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published October 22, 2009.