I just got back home from church.
On Maundy Thursday, in lieu of the traditional service, at our church we have...a church supper, pretty much like other church fellowship meals, with bread and stew and dessert. But at our church we incorporate John's account of the Last Supper, in word and song, into our meal, and we celebrate the Eucharist as a part of the meal. Our observance also provides "teachable moments" for our pastor to explain the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist, and to talk about how the way we worship is grounded in Jesus' last hours on this earth with his friends. We've been observing Maundy Thursday this way ever since "we" were "they" to me, which is something like seven years ago. Every year it runs a bit more smoothly; every year we attract more people.
If I had to pick a word that encapsulated the mood of the evening, I'd choose caring. Not in a saccharine, superficial way. Real caring.
Caring when my mother almost tripped down the stairs. Back on Christmas Eve she took a header off a step elsewhere in the church and broke her wrist, an accident that has made her lose confidence in her footing, and even more prone to falling than before. This time, though, she was gripping the railing with her good hand and caught herself. A disabled woman, someone new to me who was standing next to me, approached Mom and haltingly asked, "Are you okay? Are you sure you're okay?" She let us pass her in the line so we could get down the next flight of stairs together.
Caring when members of the worship committee washed our hands and rubbed them with lotion. They do this every year. It's a very moving act. It's ironic, isn't it, that in our culture the people we entrust to bathe us and otherwise attend to our intimate needs are usually at the very bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Not too long ago I was reading a book about caregiving in which a nurse talked about how important it was to her personally to do her job in a way that minimized the shame that dependent people often feel about having to rely on others for the most basic of care; that she felt this was a part of her caring vocation. I thought about that, having my hands washed for me. I also smiled to myself, remembering my dream this morning; sometimes it's nice to just have someone touch your hands.
Caring when we served one another at table. Because my mother is so frail, because she's hard of hearing and because she can get anxious and confused in out-of-the-ordinary events like this, I find myself always on guard, watching to see if she's okay, if she needs help or prompting. And -- I'm ashamed to say this -- sometimes I feel resentful having to do this, especially in a worship setting. I think, "I wish I could just lose myself in this moment, instead of having to divide my attention." Tonight, though, looking around...I saw so many people who are also taking care of parents or grandparents or kids. In one of our church families, every member carries the burden of a different medical condition; they all have to take turns being "the strong one" for one another. Sometimes we church people make "servanthood" sound like some sort of special ascetic practice, when for most of us at some point in our lives it's just what we do; it's the attitudinal aspect that needs work, not the work itself.
Caring when we shared the peace. I had been concerned about the disabled woman we'd met on the stair landing, because I couldn't figure out who'd brought her to church, and I wanted to make sure she was sitting next to someone who would look out for her. (I think one of the silver linings of always feeling different from the norm is that we different folks tend to look out for one another.) But the woman wound up at the same table as our pastor and his wife; a good place to be. When it came time to share the peace of Christ, she got up and made a beeline for our table, where for reasons I'm not quite sure -- maybe because I had said, "Thank you," and meant it, when she'd been concerned about my mom -- she threw her arms around me: "The peace of Christ be with you!" she exclaimed with a big grin. I responded, "You know, I am so glad that you're with us tonight. Is this your first time at our church?" "Oh, yes," she responded, beaming, "and it's wonderful."
Caring when our pastor read Jesus' High Priestly Prayer from the Gospel of John, where he prays for his friends -- for all of us, at all times and in all places:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.
Now the irony of the evening: The Jesus who prays this prayer for all of us, who has moved us all, for all our various reasons, to come together in our little parish week after week in his name, to care about him and what he has to say, and to care for others on his behalf, comes to the point in his life where the caring seems to disappear -- where his anguished prayers to be spared are not answered; where his friends won't stay awake with him in his distress; where they all run away, and leave him to his fate.