Thursday, March 24, 2016

Humble Service

"Everyone is Invited"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday an advertisement came in the mail inviting me to sign up for some sort of “sweepstakes.” I didn’t pay much attention to the ad but I did notice the big bold letters of the invitation that promised: somebody’s got to win- it might as well be YOU! I thought to myself that this one simple phrase may indeed be a perfect icon of how many if not most of us in this culture live our lives everyday. We all want to be winners, big winners, and since everybody can’t win, it might as well be me that gets the prize.

From our very earliest days we are taught to compete for the big prizes life has to offer – study hard in school, do your homework, so you can get good grades and go to good schools. Of course, getting good grades means that you have to get better grades than somebody else and going to good schools means that you go to better schools than the other guy. So, right from the very beginning you are taught how to climb up that ladder of success so that you can win the prizes by beating out those who aren’t as strong or lucky as you in life.

And of course the process competing to be a big winner goes on for most of our lives – a life long process of climbing that ladder, beating out the other guy, calling attention to our own importance, crushing an opponent –somebody’s got to win, so it might as well be ME.

Today is “Holy Thursday” on the Christian calendar and the events remembered on this day serve as a vivid and clear illustration of just exactly how counter-cultural the teachings of Jesus are to the way so many of us live in today’s society.

Most people who are even vaguely familiar with what happened on this day before Jesus died will probably conjure up images of “The Last Supper” when Jesus  assembled his disciples for a final meal a before he was crucified and told them to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine in his name.

 But, there was another event that took place during this Last Supper that, to me, is extremely significant because it is emblematic of the very core of everything Jesus did and taught while he was on earth.

During this final meal, Jesus got up from the table and “washed the feet” of his disciples. In those days, “washing feet” was not so unusual. People didn’t wear shoes and feet would get dirty and dusty in the desert sand, so “washing feet” was a way of cleaning up for dinner. The thing that made what Jesus did so unusual is that “washing feet” was something a servant or a slave would do for a master. Here Jesus turns it all upside down. He is the master who washes his disciples’ feet. More than that he tells them and he tells any who would follow in his way in the generations to come that this is how they are to live their lives-  washing each others’ feet, caring for each other’s welfare.

Jesus kneeling in humble service and the invitation to his followers to likewise be servants to the world and to care for one another’s welfare stands in stark and bold opposition to the invitation of today’s popular culture: somebody’s got to win, it might as well be me. Isn’t it odd that some people today think of America as a Christian nation?

While many today may think that living a life of humble service is a wimpy thing to do (only losers act that way), the truth is that living a life of compassion in service to others is what makes us the real winners in this life. In fact, the wisdom of almost every spiritual tradition on the planet teaches that we find true happiness when we make other people happy, we find our own good when we work for the common good, we are only winners when everybody wins in life.

I am reminded of something The Dalai Lama taught:

If you want others to be happy practice compassion
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

On this Holy Thursday I reflect upon that image of Jesus washing the feet of those who were supposedly inferior to him. By doing so he lifted them up to a place of equal dignity at the table of life. I want to follow in that way and you certainly don’t need to be a Christian to want to do this also.

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