While serving as one of the night shift supervisors for a Midwestern police department, I arrived at my locker one evening to don my blue uniform, and spotted my boots sitting atop the bench. Someone had shined them. Whaaat? Who would polish my boots?
I discovered the deed had been done by Bud, one of the new guys on our shift who had previously served as a paramedic. When the rest of the team learned of it—and I made sure they did—there were hoots and jeers and accusations of ingratiation, though the terms they used were much earthier.
Bud reddened from the teasing, but joined in the laughter. Afterward he sought me privately to clarify his motivation. He hadn’t done it to win any points with me. He explained that when he worked at the hospital, there was another paramedic who pastored a church. That man would always polish his coworkers’ shoes. It was, he said, his humble service—his ministry. Bud was touched by the man’s humility, and decided to bring that servant spirit to the police department. He started with my boots.
His reward, thanks to me, was ridicule. I was moved and deeply ashamed. I never forgot that.
Twenty years later I was serving as men’s dean at Wisconsin Academy. I wrestled with how to make the ordinance of humility more relevant to the guys. Washing dust from someone’s feet after a long journey once had great utility. But to our Adidas-shod young men, not so much.
Then God reminded me of Bud.
Soon one of the symbols of Sabbath’s approach in the dorm was the dean assuming a posture of servitude at the feet of the students, shining their shoes. Sometimes students would volunteer for the duty as well. A paramedic’s selflessness was still contagious decades later.
Jesus demonstrated humble service by washing His students’ feet. He was flipping traditional roles upside-down: the Teacher serving the students. Then He said, “You should also wash one another’s feet.” I think it’s clear He meant far more than just removing dust. He was talking about doing laundry, changing bandages, cleaning toilets, shining shoes. What tasks seem beneath us? Those are the duties He entreats us to perform in humble service.
It is especially powerful when foot washing, in whatever manifestation it takes, flips arbitrary social strata: elders serving youth; architects serving the homeless; cops with shiny boots serving felons.
Our ordinance of humility is so much more than ritual. It’s an exercise—a rehearsal. It is the calisthenics of humble service. Too many people excuse themselves from the opportunity to invigorate their humility muscle. That’s sad.
Jesus Himself exhorts us to assume a posture of servitude before journey-worn souls. And help them shine.