|For Grace W.
Because I never said “I love you,” for which I’m sorry.
I did then, and I still do.
The foot washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday is, for me, among the most meaningful Holy Week practices I used to observe. The degree of physical intimacy involved in washing someone else’s feet or in having one’s own feet washed is of a far greater magnitude than is usual in most other worship experiences from my tradition. Holding someone’s bare foot in my hands, or having my own foot held in someone else’s hand implies a profound level of love and acceptance of the whole person—not despite, but including one’s imperfections, failings, and inadequacies. The commemoration of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples affords a moment of vulnerability that allows both the servant and the one being served to experience unconditional love.
It’s not often in this world that we encounter unconditional love. Jesus expressed unconditional love to his closest companions even when one of them was a traitor and another of them was about to commit the greatest moral failing of his life. I suspect that it was this show of unconditional love from Jesus that led to Judas’ remorse and that enabled Peter to eventually return to his Lord.
I know from personal experience how redemptive and transformative unconditional love can be. I want to share with you two such experiences, one in which I received unconditional love, and one when I was privileged to share unconditional love with others.
My experience of receiving unconditional love took place during my first visit to Jerusalem, when I spent a semester at Jerusalem University College (JUC) as an undergraduate student. That semester was a difficult time for me because my parents were separated and on my very first day of classes I learned that there was no longer any hope of reconciliation. My parents were headed for divorce.
One morning, as I was sitting in the gardens of JUC trying to pray for my family, the Holy Spirit spoke into my heart: “Joshua, you are wholly and completely loved.” Receiving that message was not merely comforting, it transformed my relationship toward my parents, with whom I was so angry and disappointed. The unconditional love I received transformed the natural need-love I had as a child for his parents into the divine gift-love that comes from being loved by God. God’s unconditional love set me free to love my parents who were hurting me and loving me imperfectly, and it set me free to love others who do not love me in return. That freedom to love was essential for me later in life during the difficult days of my pastoral ministry.
The second experience of the redeeming power of unconditional love I want to share took place when I was a student chaplain at a women’s detox center. One can imagine how daunting it was for me as a seminary student on my first day at the detox unit. I was fully aware of my inadequacies, and even the partial awareness of the immense struggle the women were engaged in was sufficient for me to tremble in my shoes. How could I be helpful to these women? Would I be able to relate to them? Would my theological training be relevant to their needs and experiences? Could I be a sign of God’s presence with the women at one of the lowest points in their lives?
On that very first day, as I was introduced to the detoxing women, the addiction counselor who was in charge of the unit invited the women to ask the new chaplain any questions they might have. I suspect that the counselor herself had doubts about my abilities. “Don’t hold back,” she told them. “Ask him the toughest questions you can come up with. Let’s see what he’s made of.” And the women readily rose to the challenge. The toughest question they asked was: “Is addiction a sin? Does God condemn alcoholics and drug addicts?”
In that moment the Holy Spirit didn’t speak to me, but he gave me words to speak. “Look,” I said, “to answer your question you have to know something about God and about sin. You have to know that God loves you unconditionally. God looks upon each and every one of you as his child and he wants what’s best for you. Sin is the name God gives to the actions and activities he knows are going to hurt his children. He tells us not to do those things because he loves us and he doesn’t want to see us get hurt. But even if we do them, that isn’t going to change his love.
“Addiction isn’t something that anyone who loves you would want for you, and it isn’t anything you would want for your own children. But just like you would never stop loving your own children, no matter how deeply they went into addiction, the fact that you have an addiction doesn’t change God’s love for you.”
Talking about unconditional love on that very first day at the women’s detox center was what opened the door to a successful ministry with the women there. The message of God’s unconditional love won me an acceptance among the women and a credibility with them that enabled me to build meaningful relationships with them. Talking about unconditional love laid a foundation of trust that gave the women the freedom to share with me their fears and their loves and their imaginings. I discovered that Jesus has made friends with people far beyond the walls of the Church.
Recently I have been reminded of one of the most admired spokespersons of God’s unconditional love to my generation, the late Fred Rogers. On his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mr. Rogers spoke in non-religious terms to children about unconditional love, affirming on every episode that “I like you just the way you are” and “You make each day a special day by just your being you”—simple words that actually get to the core of Jesus’ Gospel. For when Jesus announced his messianic ministry, he proclaimed the LORD’s favor. Jesus intentionally avoided pronouncements of judgement and condemnation; he spoke rather of healing, redemption, and universal acceptance of those struggling under the tyranny of Sin. In his own way, Mr. Rogers proclaimed God’s favor fearlessly in a way that melts the most hardened of hearts.
In this YouTube clip Mr. Rogers sings “It’s You I Like.”
Mr. Rogers’ unconditional love was modeled on the actions of Jesus. In a recent StoryCorps interview, François Clemmons, a cast member from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, describes a non-religious reenactment of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Foot washing strips us of pretense and permits the expression of unreserved acceptance and unconditional love. It opens us up to receiving the liberating message that we are all of us wholly and completely loved.