Heart of Worship

July 2, 2005

Last night I think I witnessed the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life.

It's been done before, yeah. We have a "foot-washing" service every year at R.D.Y.C., and it is beautiful. There is dim lighting and endless embracing and tears and snot (yum) meandering down the faces of people you love--people who love you. Every single time, it has this way of melting me.

Last night at worship, it was no different. They led us into the sanctuary by family groups; gently pulled off our shoes (fuzzy slippers, in my case). Sit wherever you want, Brittany Jones whispered, extending a hand to the pews that sat silent in the candlelight. The stained glass mural of Jesus, I noticed, was lit up at the front of the church--between that and the flames that danced up and crouched back down into the wax, the sanctuary glowed.

I glided into a fairly empty pew and took a seat, but my eyes didn't move from where they stared at the candles. They were on either side of the pulpit, arranged in what looked like two menorahs--a hierarchy of flames, each flicker of light raised a few inches above the last. I studied this intently, my thoughts coming in bursts as spontaneous and spiritual as the leaping flames themselves. I've come to realize that more than any of the other elements, I find God in fire.

I heard a shuffling behind me, and my heart sank before I even gyrated to face it: Troy, Katia, and a few others had filed into a pew a few rows back, not a sound escaping them. (That's a first.) They must not have seen me, I figured despondently, and folded my hands and stared into flames. There was a stringed instrumental humming from the stereo, this really provoking stuff that they'd played at worship for a few nights in a row--and arranged all in the pulpit were three big chairs towering over three big basins that would later be filled by three big silver pitchers of lukewarm water.

The setting was perfect.

Aaron Ward stood up once everyone had been ushered in, the Holy Bible unfolded over his palms, and read us the story about Jesus washing His disciples' feet. Christ said something about how if we did not allow Him to wash us clean, then we had no part with Him. And "As I have washed your feet, so must you wash one another's feet."

Aaron looked us carefully in the eyes and explained, in that calmly passionate tone he uses when God speaks through him, what we would be doing that night and what it meant to do it. "I cannot imagine," he thought aloud, "what it would be like to have my Savior kneel down and wash my feet."

That was all he needed to say.

I was only awkward for a split second after people started standing up and leading friends to the basins--I was afraid, at first, that no one would ask to wash my feet. Troy would have volunteered, but he was so far behind me, he probably didn't even know I was right here. He would ask Kat or Kirsten or someone else he loved more than me or...

"Alys."

Fear turned to gratefulness, chill to warmth, in the span of a second.

I turned around. Smiled. "Yeah."

"Can I wash your feet?"

I nodded and stood easily from the green cushions and the wooden confinements, maneuvering out to the already-crowded aisle to meet him. He fastened his arm in mine and we waited in the streamline of people that prefaced the place of...well, cleansing--the spiritual cleansing that comes from the love networking over this place, and the physical washing that takes place to represent it.

Feeling confident, once we neared one of the huge chairs and I saw Matt's feet being washed, I dipped around a few people and got close enough to touch my hand to his shoulder. I take the chance to pray for Matt whenever I can. He's probably one of the most insanely lost people I've ever met, but I still love his guts. It's kinda weird.

Troy trailed after me and reached for Matt's hand. We stayed in that position, arms outstretched and prayers cracked open like eggs in a recipe for blessings all over our friend's head, until Matt's partner finally towel-dried his feet and the two slowly switched places. I prayed for the other person too, though now I can't remember who it was. I wanted to pray for everybody. I wanted to touch, to love, to live forever with every single one of them.

Then, suddenly, the chair was empty. Matt and his friend slipped through a break in the circle, and the rest of us stood there with our eyes shining and our faces solemn, looking at each other and silently offering up the chair to anyone who wanted to take it.

Troy gave me an inquisitive raising of the eyebrows, and, again, I nodded my consent. I felt my body rise up and ease into the chair: large, arching, cold, formal, smooth. Felt my elbows perch on the armrests as my glance fluttered instinctually down, humbled by the reverence with which all my brothers and sisters in Christ dutifully, lovingly rested their palms all over me, and the willingness with which Troy kneeled in front of me and prepared to wash me clean.

Half of the time my eyes were closed--I wanted to pray. Half of the time, they flickered open--I wanted to see.

It didn't take more than a few moments for the tears to emerge.

I pretended that his face was His face, and his hands were His: holy, perfect, anointed, and yet so near, so touchable...so chock-full of self-sacrificial love, driven by an unconditional desire to serve. I thought about my life up until this split second, the way I'd grown up hating myself until He took me in through these people, the only ones who dared to touch me and transform me.

And now, I am clean. Maybe I don't deserve it, but I am loved unfailingly. That is the definition of grace.

Once I was done, my feet cold and cleansed and dry in the still air of the sanctuary, I felt them hit the carpet again. Hand by hand, the fingertips of the R.D.Y.C. peeled away from my shoulders and I stood, brushing my cheeks with the backs of my hands. I went willingly, but the truth was that I never wanted to stand up. I never wanted this to end, the praying and crying and washing and releasing and loving. I wished I could have kept my feet doused beneath that cool sheet of liquid for the rest of my life, hands of servitude scrubbing away at the lowliest part of me, making all my imperfection something okay, something to forgive. If I could exist eternally in a worship service, I would. I cannot even dream up something that equates to what heaven must be like.

Troy and I switched places then and I did my part as a servant, a follower (the beauty and dignity of which they never tell you about in school)...but for this part I didn't cry. Actually, I couldn't keep my smile from enamoring my whole face and dragging my soul along with it. Troy's feet were ticklish. Every single time I would circulate my fingers between the toes, he'd struggle to suppress giggles and twitches.

I thought for a moment about how good it felt to be on the giving end, even though the receiving end brought so much release.

For a while afterward I just moved from chair to chair, praying for good friends and for total strangers and watching them pull each other into embraces and reluctantly let go. Just observing them would have made me a Christian instantly. Girls had their arms draped over one another like silk curtains, stroking each other's hair and pressing their cheeks together in sisterly communion. Guys gave out big, strong hugs as freely as they would have given spare change...I will never forget Matt and Joel Trigger after they washed each other's feet, the way they locked into an embrace for what seemed like ten minutes straight, right there in front of everybody. The brothers loved each other. Somehow, it was the most masculine thing I have ever seen in my life.

At one point I spotted Bryant over on the right side of the pulpit, hunched alone on the carpet behind the podium, surrendering. I leaned beside him and squinched my eyes shut, rubbing circles on his back (like he did for me once, long ago) and praying for him until I ran out of words. He didn't leave from that spot all night. A few of the guys came to him after the service and tried to coax him into going to bed, but he wouldn't budge. All he did, eventually, was lift his head and gaze into the healing eyes of Jesus, where he was again transfixed.

All it takes to tear me up is the fact that at R.D.Y.C., I never doubt love. The people everywhere around me are not blood-related, they're not bound by family ties, at least not most of them...but in them I see perhaps something closer than even family, something deeper than even truth, something stronger than even death. Something I've spent my entire life hungering for--not a feeling, but a choice: love. Somewhere to belong. People who believe in me. Jesus Christ. Love.

And I knew that even those who knew nothing about God would be able to feel the simplest, rawest, most important part of Him there, just by existing in our love.

After a while of wandering around and letting tears trickle, I came to kneel at the altar, where they poured. Lizzy Colby was already there. First I put my hand on her back and smiled into her wild blonde hair, but when she was finished with her prayer and I had drawn her into a hug and released her again, I folded my hands over the pure wooden railing and allowed myself to melt individually, singularly and soberly on my knees before Jesus. It wasn't enough that Christ had placed His heavenly arms around my body and wrapped me up in shining red love; after the thoughts in my head had been bleeding out for some time in surrender, I felt a soft, physical, very human touch on my shoulder--a hand. At first the touch was so warm, eager, and gentle that I mistook it for a feminine palm--but I almost immediately knew better.

Troy drew away within a matter of moments, but the place where his hand had been was tinged with this lingering warmth that spread to the rest of my body when he was gone. My brother in Christ, I thought deeply, honestly, soulfully. I finished my prayer and rose shakily to face the rest of the sanctuary. The streams careened from the corners of my eyes, but by then I was accustomed to the blurred vision, the sudden dipping of my heart into sweet salvation, the strong taste of salt on my tongue.

I didn't have much else to do except file back into my pew, so I did. For a while I sat there in solitude. When a close friend spotted me in the faint light, sometimes they would come and sit with me momentarily--wrap their arms around me while we prayed for each other, our faces buried in one another's hair. But despite the continual atmosphere of surrender that progressed in the room, the river of tears emerging from my eyes slowly dried up...the smile returned from my position in the observer's seat. And oh, what a perfect view I had: brothers and sisters, pulled, drawn, bound by God to adore each other, even as their imperfection sometimes made it hard. Even as Satan lived somewhere, anywhere, everywhere else, he wasn't here, not now. Only One was reigning from the flames, the One we all belonged to: omnipresent, unconditional, eternal. Father. Creator. God.

I took a second to avert my eyes upward and ingest the radiance of Jesus' portrait over the altar. I noticed something that I have never seen in the stained glass before or since: every single characteristic of my risen Lord. It must have been so hard for the artist to encompass all those elements, all the different traits that make Him who He is.

Around Him flowers burst into bloom and animals flitted by: He is God the Creator. His feet seemed to shine with this immortal luminescence, holy and stainless: God the perfect. Yet He extended His hands outward to envelop everything and everyone: God the inviting, God the forgiving. His eyes, warm and wise, could have melted a rock into a bubbling pool of lava: God the loving. The very gesture with which He addressed us looked so calm, so still, so definitive, like He was trying to show us something--like if we leaned in close enough and studied the lines of His human palms, we'd see the holes pierced through them, the blood that had dried there, the most ancient, most prevalent, of birth pains.

See what I have done for you, He whispered. See, My child, open your eyes--I love you.

My eyes stung and swelled. I turned my gaze.

Troy was next to me.

Before my mind had any say in the matter, my head tilted instinctually over to his shoulder and rested there, finding its niche close to him. I felt my body edge into love. He placed his head on mine, and somewhere between the initiation of the mutual contact and the eventual reluctant separation, my eyes fluttered closed. I'm not sure how long I remained there, but I know that when I managed to sit up again, some degree of my individual strength flooded back in and I realized that He was washing my feet over and over and over again, every day of my life.

When suddenly Troy covered his face with his hands, bent down in the pew, and started to shake with indiscernable sobs for the first time that night, his attempts to stay strong and masculine and dry-eyed defeated, I questioned nothing. All I did was let his tears bring back my own.

"I love you," I managed through the crackling in my voice, through the frailty of myself.

Falling from somewhere just above the ceiling, or maybe just beyond the stars; descending slowly from the fans that churned the humid summer air; drifting gently over every single one of us like a blanket on a chilly winter morning, or a merciful cloud over the sun in the heat of the day, or a strong, enveloping fire at night; a tear hit the floor, a heart received a whisper, and the words echoed back.