Seen a bride and groom wash each other’s feet?

Foot Washing:
As a wedding ritual?

Foot washing by UK artist Dinah Roe KendallBy BENJAMIN PRATT

After a long career in ministry, I was astounded when I first heard the idea.

A friend said, “I attended a wedding recently and for the first time witnessed a mutual foot washing by the bride and groom. Have you ever seen that?”

“No,” I said, “I am flabbergasted, but I love the idea of including a foot washing for all that it symbolizes.”

Since that conversation I have asked many clergy and friends about the idea, and nearly all were as surprised as I by the concept. I extended my question to some of my colleagues in the ReadTheSpirit circle of writers and, finally, I did begin to get some responses from others who have seen this idea taking hold. Paul Hile, a young caregiver who occasionally writes columns about his experiences with his wife Grace, says that they have attended more than one wedding where a foot washing was included.

The more I ponder this idea, I am grateful. And, I am challenged.

How about you?

Pope Francis certainly seems to understand the challenging symbolism of this act. One commentator used the phrase “beautiful iconoclasm” to describe Francis’s public appearance last year to perform a foot washing ritual at a juvenile detention facility where the inmates who he served on bended knee included a Muslim girl. This was the first time the world’s news media paid any attention to his approach to this ancient discipline, but it turns out—in later news reports—that he had a longstanding practice back home in Argentina of foot washing in jails, hospitals and caregiving facilities, including pregnant mothers and AIDS patients.

Foot washing as a symbol of humility, hospitality and service has been a part of many faith traditions for centuries. It grounds a relationship in equality and promotes humility towards—and care of—others. We are told of Jesus performing foot washing in John 13: 1-17, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The Qur’an says “For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.”

In our ritual-starved society, mutual foot washing as a wedding symbol could deepen our life-long commitment as marital partners as we live “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.” Remember, love is what you go through with someone, as I have written before.

As a caregiver for my wife during the last few years, I have often had to attend to her bodily needs when she was not able to do so. At other times in our marriage, she has reciprocated. Simple daily gestures of love and care demonstrate our commitment to be here for each other through the muck and mire of life’s needs. We are not in this journey alone; we are on the journey together as equals.

When we celebrate a marital union, the inclusion of mutual foot washing could deepen and dignify the marital commitment to be life-long caregivers and receivers on life’s journey. With so many of us living longer lives, the vast majority of us will likely become a caregiver of our partner. But, caregiving and receiving can be part of our lives early in the marriage also.

So what better way to symbolize our long term commitment to love, service, hospitality, presence, and hands-on equality than including mutual foot washing in our wedding ceremonies? This single, prayerful, powerful symbol could deepen wedding celebrations significantly.

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(This column was originally published at www.WeAreCaregivers.com and can be reposted and shared with this credit line.)

Changing the Tune at the ‘Organ Recital’

By THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT

Pipe Organ consoleHelen, my mother-in-law, died at age 94. One of my delightful memories of her was her chortles when she recounted the evening gathering of folks for dinner at her retirement home. Someone might share an interesting memory or event of the day. But most often each person would share an update on chronic ailments involving any number of body parts.

“We’re starting the Organ Recital,” Helen would laugh.

You might be chuckling, too, assuming that these recitals are limited to the aging, but I observe them among all groups. Something in us wants to tell our stories. It is absolutely fascinating to me how the discussion starter dramatically changes the tone of an experience.

I’ve sat through my share of Organ Recitals, haven’t you? Sometimes it’s a healthy sharing of concerns in the forefront of our daily living. Of course, it works best if everyone gets to participate—and the listening is genuinely supportive rather than prone to advice.

But consider this, if you’d rather change the program in your group.

Tired of all that focus on organs? I’ve found that a single question tossed up in the group, like the opening coin toss at the start of a game, can have considerable effect. It can be as simple as asking about how the plants are doing in someone’s apartment, or a remark about flowers viewed through the window, what birds have been observed around the grounds—or who visited recently. This is the stuff that connects and binds us and dispels fear and isolation.

A close friend recently told me, “I got a circle of folks in my parents’ assisted-living home to start talking about Finnish saunas the other day. We had an old Finn in the circle and, before we knew it, we were rip roaring along about saunas, beloved trips, the woods, wood gathering, starting fires—on and on. We danced verbally around a crackling fire and formed community by sharing stories.”

Just yesterday a Home Depot employee came to our house to inspect some work. We ended up telling each other stories. He told me he was the only person of color in the school when, as a teenager, his family moved to Pittsburgh. One student constantly picked on him, and he finally confronted the bully, telling him to meet on the football field at lunchtime to settle this matter.

The bully was a member of the football team, and the captain of the team attempted to keep the “rumble” from happening. Students “from the other side of the tracks” gathered behind the one person of color while the football team supported the bully. A truce was reached without a fight when the bully, forced by my new acquaintance and his football buddies, got on his knees and apologized.

I was suddenly shaking hands and congratulating a man for his courage, a man I had only met 20 minutes earlier. We knew each other through that story. A bridge was built while standing on it.

Something deep in us wants to sit around the literal or verbal campfire or dinner table and tell stories or listen to others. We become members of the long train of story-telling families. We know ourselves and each other by our stories.

th Carrie Newcomer Quaker singer songwriterAs I was finishing this column, I discovered a kindred soul in singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer in a new ReadTheSpirit magazine interview. Talking about the power of personal stories, Carrie says:

“I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

“Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

While Organ Recitals have their place, perhaps there are ideas in this column that will help you change the program in your circle.

We all can start singing a wider range of tunes.

A death in the family? ‘Be tender and gentle with yourself.’

A Death Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

American tombstone by Steve Evans via Wikimedia CommonsWhen my father died, I gave myself the straight-forward advice that I had shared with others who had lost someone close throughout my long career in pastoral counseling: “Every emotion, idea and action in your life over the next six months pivots on your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions, plans or changes for the next year. Pay careful and cautious attention. Be tender and gentle with yourself.”

It was not long until I forgot my own advice.

Life, following the funeral, became filled with the janitorial functions that follow any death. I had to clean out Dad’s house and sell it and his car, the total of his life’s possessions. I handled the tedious probate of his will and paid his debts. This was, of course, on top of my already busy life as a father, husband and professional counselor. I did spend some time, especially in the first two months, with family and friends talking about the impact of losing my father.

I thought I was doing well. But, what did I know?

After settling my father’s estate, my brother and I each inherited about $7,000.00. Not a significant sum, but more than I had anticipated. After the tedious work was finished, the emotional tension began. It pressed me in night dreams and day dreams. The images were intense, exciting and constant. Each was different but with the same focus—I would give away large sums of money to support causes I value deeply. In one dream, I imagined plopping $50,000.00 on the desk of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I unleashed $75,000.00 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help victims of famine and violent storms. The list grew; the funds didn’t. The images of giving away money I didn’t have obsessed me. One day, in a bit of panic, I called a broker, gave him my inheritance and told him I needed him to make a lot of money—so that I could give it all away one day.

The plan was in place.

Then, the stock market crashed and most of the money was lost. Wake up time! It was then that I remembered the admonition to myself at the time of Dad’s death. “Everything in the first six months is about your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions or plans in the first year”.

Time to step back and get a new perspective on what is happening. I began to search for the answer to what was really driving my urges to give away money I didn’t have. I began to face and feel emotions that I had worked hard to ignore, feelings that accompany vulnerability. Underneath all of my busy-holding-it-together exterior I was feeling like an orphan without parents, and I was especially aware of feeling very empty, lonely and powerless.

What I came to realize was that my intense images of giving huge sums of money away gave me a feeling of power. In truth, my power felt very limited. The benevolent images helped me cover my feelings of frailty, sadness and loss. They were definitely not the basis for a plan. They were mirrors reflecting the struggle of my soul. When I was feeling least potent because of the loss of my last parent, I turned to a fanciful image to mask my vulnerability and to make me feel vital and powerful.

As I reflect on this chapter in my life now, I also realize that it revealed a very positive trait of my character and soul: that I feel most valued and potent when I am giving to someone in need. That is when my soul sings. The images of giving money away were fantasies, not plans. They reminded me of who I am when I am responding as one crafted by God. There was both frailty and grace in my journey through those months.

As you encounter “family holidays” this year, think about all of the men, women and children you will encounter who are still within a year of a deeply felt death. And remember my advice, even if I forgot it for a while: Be tender and gentle with one another.

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Do you speak Motherese? Could we learn Parentese?

Mom and baby by Ian DethOne joy of reading is discovering new words. Sometimes, I even remember them!

Motherese, a totally new word for me, made me ponder, even question, its appropriateness. Motherese describes the whispered communication between a mother and her baby that strengthens the familial bond. Some theorists suggest this whispered communication, cooing and humming, is the source of music in the long history of human evolution.

Certainly, I know that women have been the primary nurturers of children down through the ages but the place of fathers in the nurturing process has increased in our time. My immediate response was to talk back aloud to the book I’d been reading: “Shouldn’t the word be Parentese?”

I thought I might have hit on another new word, but a quick dip into Wikipedia revealed that I wasn’t the first to suggest Parentese as a more inclusive concept.

I want to underscore the importance of this reality but not in a way that diminishes the vital role of mothers. I want to reflect the presence and importance of mothers, fathers, even grandparents in strengthening the family bond. Fathers and mothers both have gifts to share with their offspring, but I want to especially voice the importance of fathers’ whispered communication to their young. Fathers and mothers both give warmth, tenderness, and gentle caring along with strength and competitive skills to children.

One of my sweetest, most tender memories as a young parent was the ritual of presence with my young daughters. When one of our infant daughters would awaken, especially during the night, I usually changed her diaper and then carried her to Judith for nursing. I often sat or lay next to them during nursing. When finished, it was my opportunity for whispered closeness. I would tuck my daughter’s tiny head under my chin, one hand holding her bottom, the other her back, and I would walk. I especially remember those nocturnal walks, the house dimly lit by street lights, when we would walk slowly around the house, up and down stairs, bouncing gently, while I hummed, sang, cooed and listened for the burp and the sleepy yawn. Even when sleep was assured, I sometimes continued the walk, treasuring those moments. Judith and I both shared our gift of whispered communication with our daughters.

Judith and I are blessed by being friends with some young families who have welcomed us as surrogate grandparents. I treasure watching the partnerships they nurture while rearing their children. We saw this with our own daughters and their husbands as they reared their families. It speaks well of marriage partnerships with neither parent dominant in setting boundaries and cherishing their children. Mutual love between partners and mutual role sharing with children are crucial. Love in action is a beauty to behold.

Parentese is a loving word, a musical word, a spiritual word, reflecting the sacred in the midst of our daily lives.

‘Establish the work of our hands …’

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations …
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past …
We spend our years as a tale that is told …
So, establish the work of our hands—
O establish the work of our hands.

Excerpts of Psalm 90 adapted from the King James Version

HANDS

By BENJAMIN PRATT

It always comes on a slant
a glint of light
a tilt of my head
a twist, turn or torque of my hand—
but in a flash it is my father’s hand,
the way he tilted it or let it droop.
His hand.

A sweet warmth connects us across decades
bathed by this tender memory:
His hand gripping,
twisting as he torqued a baseball,
teaching me how to throw a curve,
or thread a fast ball in just above the knees.

His hands taught me arithmetic—
add, subtract, multiply and divide—
with a stub of pencil.
And patience.

I don’t recall his voice saying, “I love you.”
His hands said it.
He often asked me to stop by the garage,
especially after a big game the night before.
He’d crawl out from under a car,
wipe his greasy hands, light a cigarette.

“Come over here,” he’d say,
as he put his hand on my shoulder and introduce me as his son.
Maybe the only time he’d touch me.
Then he’d describe my playing ball the night before.
I’d get real quiet and red as he’d go on,
hand on my shoulder, feeling pride, swelling pride
in my playing the game he loved.

His hands were always stained—
two yellow fingers from too many cigs.
His nails were always black—too
much grease to wash away.

His hands were always kind, never cruel,
even when my mother insisted I had been so bad
I needed a good beating with the belt.
He’d call me into another room, slip out his belt,
pull the ends together, hold in both hands, push it into a loop
and snap it together to make a deafening crack.
I’d scream!
He’d yell, beat the bed, crack the belt, scare the hell out of me!
I’d cry and he’d tell me to respect my mother.
He’d leave me alone. Return to her.
I don’t think he ever hit me once.
Lucky me.

Then, his hands trembled when he aged.
Mine now tremble sometimes, too.

Once we went together to visit mother’s grave.
He suddenly said,
“All the grave stones on this side of the cemetery are flat,
on the other side, they are large monuments.
Your Mom and I are on the side where everyone is
equal.”

It happens seldom,
always on the slant.
We reconnect.
His hand
becomes my hand.

 

Touch Has a Memory

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Picture of the Communion Service at Prism the alternative Baptist Assembly strand 2008 Blackpool

Photo by Ian Britton, released for public use via Flickr and Creative Commons.

Some phrases grab me, hold me and stir me. I let them rummage around my soul forming images. Sometimes those images are formed into words. “Touch has a memory,” by poet John Keats is such a phrase. Three memories flash across my mind. The first is a memory of skiing with my daughters in Vermont when they were 6 and 8. The second is comforting my grandson when he was ill at 14 months. The third is  serving my mother communion for the first and only time.

As you read these three short passages, think about the many ways your hands touch others, perhaps on a daily basis as a caregiver. Why should we perform this service for another day? Over time, does anything we do really matter?

One answer: Touch has a memory.

1. Cold

From Saturday ’til Thursday
the thermometer never peaked
above zero.
Novice skiers were we,
undaunted by the cold,
squealing and chilling
as we rode the blanket-clad lifts.
Two runs down powdery perfect snow;
into the lodge with chattering teeth.
Off with gloves and boots.
Tears form as their chilled,
skinny bodies shake.
I rub and rub
their feet and hands,
even put their tiny feet
in my mouth
blowing back warm smiles.
A little hot chocolate,
then, “Dad, it’s so much fun.
Let’s go again.”

2. Wet

Temperature rising,
spitting up, cranky,
no longer his sweet talcum smell.
He can’t help himself.
I can’t comfort him.
I shed our clothes
and step into the shower.
Vomit down my back;
urine down my front.
The shower washes it away.
Then, it’s over.
He snuggles into my neck.
We rock in the gentle warmth
of healing water,
baptized in love.

3. Broken

I press communion bread
gently but firmly into her palm.
Hands so gnarled and twisted
by rheumatoid arthritis
they could not fully
close nor open.
“His body broken for you,”
I murmur.
She lifts her face.
Smiles.
Our eyes hold each other:
Mother and son.

Lou Gehrig: The stricken hero was ‘The Luckiest Man …’

(Originally published June 29, 2014.)

By BENJAMIN PRATT

This week, Americans are remembering an inspiring moment that happened 75 years ago in New York City, when a man stricken with a disorder that eventually would kill him declared himself, “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth.” As I am publishing this column, fresh news stories about this anniversary are popping up in newspapers nationwide—from the Wall Street Journal to Newsday.

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself "The Luckiest Man."

Once rivals, on July 4, 1939, Babe Ruth enthusiastically hugged Lou Gehrig, who had announced he was dying and at the same time declared himself “The Luckiest Man.”

The man who made that declaration was Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”—first baseman for the Yankees in the 1920s and 1930s, when baseball was by far the most popular sport in America. He earned his nickname for the strength and endurance he showed throughout his career. Gehrig played 2,130 games in a row from 1925 to 1939. He had a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs. He drove in more than 100 runs in 13 consecutive seasons.

In 1939, at age 36, everything changed for Lou Gehrig. In the spring he lacked energy, looked thinner and less confident at first base and in the batter’s box. His performance was so poor that he removed himself from the Yankee lineup. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he was diagnosed with amyotropic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the rare, debilitating disease that attacks the body’s nervous system. It was eventually called Lou Gehrig’s disease. So Gehrig, one of our country’s most revered sportsmen, knew he would become more and more helpless.

That summer, Gehrig agreed to go public with his diagnosis. His fans clamored for a way to show their love for him. That groundswell led to the July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and a special program between the first and second games of a double header. Gehrig was surrounded by his Yankee teammates, including his former rival Babe Ruth. They were joined by their friends once known as “Murderers’ Row”—for the ruthless power that Yankees lineup showed in the 1927 World Series. The festivities included the retirement of Gehrig’s Number 4.

When Gehrig himself stood before the microphones, he began:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

Gehrig turned to thank his many friends in baseball, concluding: “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

But then Gehrig did something unusual. He talked about his family—the people who would become his circle of caregivers. He started by poking fun at his wife and mother-in-law: “When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter—that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body—it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed—that’s the finest I know.”

He ended his brief talk this way: “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”

The crowd applauded for two minutes!

Many friends rushed to offer Gehrig new roles that this great star might fill in his waning years. The only one Gehrig accepted was an appointment by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to serve in a special post granting parole to some of the city’s more deserving prisoners. Gehrig refused to allow any media coverage of his work, in this role, but he did pay many visits to correctional facilities to help prisoners who might deserve paroles.

He never complained. “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition,” he said at one point.

Then, just shy of two years after his Appreciation Day, on June 2, 1941, Gehrig was gone.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ‘THE LUCKIEST MAN’?

Benjamin Pratt cover Guide for CaregiversNo, none of us is Lou Gehrig. No one could be. But consider this …

When I was interviewing for my book, Guide For Caregivers, I constantly heard from caregivers about the remarkable people they were serving—and about the sense of purpose and courage they shared in facing tough odds. Many caregivers across our nation understand the kind of attitude Lou Gehrig expressed 75 years ago.

One of the most moving statements I heard, in my research, was from the father of his disabled son, who came home wounded from his military service. Here are just a few of that father’s words to me:

“Since my son got wounded I have often thought how I wish we could get our life back—you know, as it was—comfortable, simple, and familiar. And, I often felt angry or jealous, as well as guilty, for thinking I wanted my life back. …

“But, the unexpected just happens to us and we are coping. We are on the front line—in the trenches—all day—every day. This is our life … and our lives have to be lived as best we can. Our son was doing his job when that damn bomb went off. None of us will ever get back to the life we had.

“One thing feels pretty strange to me now—I’ve never felt more like I have a reason to stay alive than I do now.”

No, this proud father never called himself the world’s “luckiest man.” But I do know that he is deeply grateful and his life is full of purpose.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)