You Will Never Wash My Feet

As a loveable screw-up, I have a special fondness for St. Peter because he is my constant reminder that God loves not just the worthy but the ordinary. People like me and people like Peter who have high ideals and good intentions but are weak and often fall short of them. And what I love about Catholicism is that the thing that redeems those shortcomings is both the love of Jesus and the grace of repentance, which gives us the faith, hope, and love necessary to try again until we finally stumble into the gates of Heaven.

More to the point, it is St. Peter who gives this post its unusual title. I was talking to a very close friend of mine the other day who is very religious and currently very anxious about the future since this upcoming school year will be her senior year of college. She reminds me exactly of myself during that time of life, wondering what she ought to do and what God wants her to do, struggling with that age-old question: what is the best way to be happy?

I could hear the influence of the general collegiate atmosphere in her voice. The anxiety that demands a plan to attain the ideals of a perfect romantic relationship, lots of friends, and a successful career in order to lead a life full of purpose, meaning, and influence. Throw in my friend’s anxiety of also wanting it to be pleasing to God and it’s easy to see how one could be too overwhelmed to choose anything at all. Being the basically ancient age of 25, I tried to offer her the wisdom that got me through that turbulent time by asking, “how much of yourself do you truly share with God?”

When I was younger and more proudly independent than I am now I had a very similar attitude to God that St. Peter had when he faced the prospect of Jesus the Master humbling Himself to wash his own dirty feet. In the face of Jesus’s offer Peter responds, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8). It’s such an endearingly human response and it was precisely my attitude the first time I imagined what it would be like to actually receive that offer from Jesus. While I had a relationship with God as a (younger) young adult I admit I held back. I would let God share with me moments of questioning, moments of peace, and moments of success but I would never let Him “wash my feet” if you will. I would place a barrier between the most broken pieces of myself and God, limiting my thinking to surmise that since those were the parts of myself I had trouble loving it would be a real risk offering them to God and expecting Him to love them in the face of His many perfections.

But this is precisely the attitude that has to be overcome if one is ever to have the true peace and true joy that marks an intimate relationship with God because, as you will find out if you finish reading the scripture passage with the washing of the feet, this is precisely the part of yourself that God has to love and serve and heal if you are to make it to Heaven. Jesus literally responds to Peter,  “Unless I wash you, you can’t share life with Me” (John 13:8).  

As we experience the love behind this humble service we are healed of our human eyes that only love when we see something or someone loveable and we are slowly able to love more like God does. This, I would argue, is a much more effective testament to His glory than preaching with fire, having millions of followers or attaining political or social influence. Those flashy things mimic the glory of the world, they glorify the self or glorify the cause. Yet God is so much bigger than that, so much grander and far-reaching than that. God is infinite and God is love, which means that truly learning to love not only changes the world you live in now but resonates down through eternity.

And if you find yourself scratching your head wondering how this relates to my friend fear not I am about to explain. Before she or anyone else learns their purpose or accomplishes great things for God they will have to learn to humble themselves and accept God’s tender care in the midst of their misery, trusting that His love is enough. To let go of the sweeping perfectionism the world teaches them to hide behind and practice offering themselves to God in each moment no matter what condition they happen to be in, even those moments where they feel utterly repulsive and would opt to be alone.

The world has a way of wanting to steal the present moment which, wherever you are and whatever you happen to be doing, is your direct encounter with the living God where this love is made manifest. Instead, it offers empty distractions, entertainment, and the temptation to always live in unknown projections of the future. However, learning to reject that fear and go beyond the distractions in order to live in the present moment with God truly gives you the peace of never having to worry about the future because you come to realize that no matter what happens you will always have God and God is all you ever really needed.

 

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Unsolicited Life Advice For My Brother Graduating College

While I could never choose a favorite sibling I have to confess I have different soft spots for each of the ones I have. One particular soft spot I have for my older younger brother, the brother who is older than everybody else but younger than me as I am the firstborn, is the fact that he is technically the sibling that made me a big sister for the first time.

And for the sake of tradition I thought I would celebrate his graduation from college with an old staple from our childhood: some bossy but well-intentioned, usually unsolicited and often uninvited life advice from a sister who has three years of extra wisdom to impart:

Dear Brother,

Graduating anything always triggers pictures of adulthood, reminding you of what you’re leaving behind and leaving you feeling unprepared no matter how much you prepare. But don’t be afraid.

I think the great mystery of life is that the fundamentals about you don’t really change, you keep a lot of the same personality, feelings, and perceptions that you have always had, but your experiences broaden, your confidence grows, and pretty soon you’re surprised that without ever meaning to you’ve actually grown up.

And as you take this next step forward you’re going to be given a lot of advice on how to lead “successful” life.

This advice is well meaning, but nothing can ruin a life quite like worldly notions of “success.” What I mean by that is all too often success in is measured the wrong way and becomes synonymous with things like an impressive career, prosperity, and having what your friends have in every aspect of life from the material things to personal relationships, as if attaining these things were the only way to create a worthwhile legacy and impact the world for the better.

Yet I would recommend entirely rejecting that outlook because that is the one that leaves people living in fear, stressfully trying to control every detail from their diet to their career path and competitively comparing their progress to their neighbors. And I would wish better for you because, contrary to what I would have had you believe during your formative years, I actually love you a lot and there is some big sister part of me that’s always looking out for you, even though I know you can take care of yourself. Your happiness is important to me because the only misery I want in your life is the misery caused by my own self.   

Therefore, I will admit that from my brief experience with adulthood thus far there is one thing I wish someone had told me as I was graduating: “don’t forget to have an adventure.”

By that, I do not mean to suggest that you should spend all your money on a trip to Europe. I simply mean that as you enter the workforce and begin to think about things like health insurance and a 401K, there is so much focus placed on getting ahead and securing the next step on the road to “success” that it can be very tempting to forget to enjoy the step that you’re on. In other words, you forget that even though you’re not technically a kid anymore, life is still the same giant adventure it always has been. You just have to take the time to look for it, since your to-do list will be longer than ever before.

But the incredible thing about life is that you live. No matter what happens somehow you survive everything that gets thrown your way, even the things that at first seem impossible. So worrying is basically useless and the time you would have spent worrying is better spent developing trust and gratitude, the two fundamental things every adventurer needs.

This is the attitude that truly determines success because not only does it lead to greater happiness, it also gives one the courage required to reject the temptation to measure happiness in terms of self-indulgence and end the lie that life worth is nothing if it does not contain a list of impressive accomplishments. It will give you the wisdom to realize the true paradox that an impact is made not through great achievement, but in those tiny little moments that at first seem insignificant but later turn out to be the moments that make life worthwhile. Mundane moments where you are given an opportunity laugh and be silly as you go about your daily routine. To appreciate everything you have as it comes to you. To share your unique essence with the world as you spread the love of God you’ve experienced in your everyday encounters with your neighbors. The ability to live life not as a competition but as the gift that it is, both to your own self and to the countless others you will meet. Because ultimately I know you will be successful for the same reason I love you, not because of the amazing things you do at present or will do in the future, but simply because of who you are. The wonderfully thoughtful and witty young man I have so enjoyed getting to know.

Congratulations on your graduation from college. This is a big day and we’re really proud of you.

Love,

Ellen

 

The Imperfect Match

With several friends and a sibling graduating college this year, I’m left rather blown away by how fast the time goes. This May marks my three year anniversary of receiving my Bachelor’s degree and that sentence makes me feel even older than I actually am.

I’d actually known the college I wanted to go to since my sophomore year of high school and I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter. My decision was semi-controversial because a lot of people wondered why I didn’t attend the prestigious college nestled in the heart of my hometown and almost felt it an act of disloyalty.

The answer was because my now alma mater was a basically perfect fit for my personality as well as my academic needs. However, part of the answer was also because many of the elitist people I went to high school with would be attending the hometown college, and I was tired of having classes with them. I bear them no ill will, I just found everything they did remarkably homogenous and it exhausted me. They dressed the same, talked the same, thought the same, had the same political views, attended the same country club (literally), had the same hobbies, played the same sports, and no one was brave enough to break the mold because they were so proud of fitting into it in the first place.

And when I visited the campus, which is classically beautiful and full of southern charm, I stopped inside the bookstore and before my eyes was a giant Clinique counter like the kind that is usually reserved for the mall. And in that moment, I knew I’d made the right decision not to attend because while their academics are impressive and they take care of their own, ultimately their core values and mine do not match up. This was abundantly clear to me as I saw that giant make-up counter next to a sea of Vera Bradley everything. Because while Vera Bradley might be universal in campus bookstores, why prominently feature a giant make-up counter?

Granted, most people let these types of things go, but I’m not most people. To me it just cemented the unspoken ideals of the school, and unspoken values are just as important as the spoken values outlined by any organization because I would argue they play a greater role in determining the environment in which you will be participating. And the unspoken values of this school was the pursuit of worldly perfection. A school for the elite, not simply those who want to become that way but those who were born that way and have been bred to perpetuate it. The girls at that school would need their expensive, high-quality make-up because they are expected to play their part of the genteel lady who is educated and groomed for the ivy leagues and who never has so much as a hair out of place. Not everyone at the school fits that mold obviously but they as a university greatly prefer those who do.

And I am certain I don’t fit this mold. I was certainly not raised to, because my parents were not interested in whether or not I was a perfect and elite person who only spent time with other perfect and elite people. Their primary concern was that I should always strive to be a good person, especially good to other people no matter their circumstances. And I had no interest in stepping on the assembly line of this university so that I could walk out impressive and perfect in the sight of the world, because I was worried I would lose my center. That I would get so caught up in being the type of person they wanted I would forget who I was or worse start to believe that I truly was perfect and elite like them. It was a risk I was not willing to take. As I said, I went to high school with this type of person and in my opinion as they live in their refinement they lose the one of the finest gifts life has to offer: gratitude. Because the trap of that sort of pride is that every gift becomes an expectation, something that you grow accustomed to or feel you deserve and you lose the joy of receiving it. You become like those people who can go on a weeklong, five-star vacation and opt to make fun of the one bad meal they had rather than discuss the amazing views of the ocean they saw every day. I think that’s why Americans are so agnostic/atheistic, because when there is nothing to be thankful for it is more difficult to believe that there is someone to thank.

And with these observations in mind, I attended my alma mater and enjoyed most every day with my imperfect match.