This post was originally published on December 24th, 2014. It was one of the last things I wrote about my experiences with prayer before I lost my faith in God entirely. Re-uploaded in 2018 as part of the archive restoration project. For more on the God question, I wrote about my experiences with prayer on my friend Neil’s blog here.
On Christmas Eve, two years ago, God told me to wash my family’s feet.
I hate saying that God told me to do things. There are days when I don’t believe myself. There are days when I think it’d be easier to just say it never happened, and to stop trying to believe in God at all. There are days when I think about how much choice I have, when I’m deeply sure about a clear command. There are also days when I’m glad I did what I felt like God was telling me to do, because it was powerful in hindsight.
Samantha Field blogged recently about how “conviction” is a triggering word for her. She called her post, “Christians understand your feelings better than you.” In Christian circles, “conviction” means God has convinced you about something. Countless Christians use it as an argument: “God is convicting you right now,” they say, and thereby silence opposition. When I tell friends that I’m convicted about something, they look at me warily – they’ve heard abusive Christian leaders use so-called “conviction” to justify their actions. They said God was on their side, and you can’t question God.
So I won’t tell anyone that they’ve been convicted. I won’t be a Christian that projects and pretends to know others’ feelings. I also won’t tell people what to do because God told me to tell them to do it. That’s just spiritual manipulation. It’s dangerous because it equates disagreeing with me and disagreeing with God, even if I think I’m right. Especially if I think I’m right.
Other people don’t know my feelings better than I do. I don’t know other peoples’ feelings better than they do. I know when I’m personally convicted, though. It just applies to me, my prayer life, and the Infinite One I encounter sometimes. That’s what this story is about.
My family has a series of rituals we go through every Christmas Eve. We have an ornament full of notes, holding all the things we’re thankful for that year. Since each person in the family has a chance to highlight the year’s best moments, and the tradition started before I was born, it takes us hours to read through them all. Mom takes the baby Jesus from the Nativity set, and the younger kids look for him. The child who finds him first receives a gift. We also do the “Birthday Gifts for Jesus,” which is not required. If we wanted to, each of us kids could give something to Jesus and announce it for the family.
Sometimes, we’d perform Christmas-themed plays. I once choreographed a dance to a Christmas song. The younger kids would draw pictures, often demonstrating pious dedication to behave in a more honest or prayerful way in the coming year. It was the most creative and unexpected part of our Christmas tradition.
About halfway through December, I was talking to my mom, and I remember feeling slightly annoyed with her. I don’t remember exactly why, but my next thought was a notion, an intense feeling about what I should do for my birthday gift for Jesus that year: I should wash the feet of my family.
I didn’t want to, really. Not that it sounded too gross – I’d done plenty of bathing children and rubbing my mom’s feet when she was tired – I didn’t like how nerve-wracking it would be for me. Earlier that year, I’d been to a beautiful wedding in which the bride and groom washed each other’s feet, as a sign of service to each other. As I thought about it in the days that followed, though, I thought it would be at least poetic. This would be my last Christmas while living at home, if all went as planned. I wanted to give them a meaningful going-away memory. The thing that was my main reason, though, was that God told me to do it. What I was prophesying, I didn’t know. I just felt very strongly that it would be prophetic.
I was nervous when I waited for everyone else to give their birthday gifts to Jesus. I got a tub, a pitcher, and a towel, and made my brothers and sisters and parents sit down around the table. I told them I planned to move out within a year, and that I wanted to show them how much I loved them. I didn’t say God had told me to do this – like I said, I avoid making such claims if I can.
They watched and listened, curious, and they didn’t realize what I was about to do until I got on my knees and removed my mother’s shoes and socks.
I improvised a little speech for each family member, talking about each of my siblings’ individual strengths, the things I noticed about them. I blessed them as I dried their feet, and the water was thick with dirt because even in winter, we all went barefoot so often.
The plan was for me to move out. My parents kicked me out instead, close to the same timeline.
I started by washing my mother’s feet, and she was the one who I felt most betrayed me. I trusted her, and she was the most subtle in hiding her abuse from me.
My sisters and brothers cried when they saw me breaking the rules of the large family. Older siblings are leaders, authorities, parents. I was giving them a sign of humility.
My father, however, fidgeted with his phone and seemed disconnected while I washed his feet. He didn’t understand what I was doing, and it was one moment that confirmed for me that I was a prophet, and he didn’t understand my conviction. That was okay, I decided while I cupped my hand and used it to run water over his toes, conviction was for me, not other people. I won’t claim to understand his feelings better than he does.
This Christmas, the first Christmas that I’m not spending with my family, I know I won’t be in the ornament of thankfulness. Like my sisters before me, I’ll have my name removed from the top of the list, and we won’t laugh every year about what I was thankful for in 2014, or any year after that. I chuckle to myself, because the things I’m thankful for this year aren’t things they’d write down anyway. My bravery to blog about my support for same-sex marriage, and to go public about the abuse in the family, for instance. The countless experiences I’ve had, things my parents would call sinful and rebellious, things my siblings would be shocked to hear.
I didn’t make any cookies this year, I didn’t let four of my kids gather around me while we rolled dough and made messes. I didn’t grin when I saw my brothers sneaking below the overhanging countertop to steal my baked goodies. I didn’t blast my favorite electronic versions of Christmas music through our living room surround system all month, and exhaust myself making a list of everything I wanted to cook for Christmas Day. I didn’t even think about Jesus very much.
I just went to a lot of therapy, cried more than I ever have as I become more emotionally connected, explored new relationships, and was hugely relieved that I didn’t have to talk to my parents anymore.
I’m so glad I followed that strange conviction to give my family something to remember. They believe that I betrayed them, but I was expressing servitude when I did what I did. Jesus washed the feet of those who would betray and deny him. I’m glad my siblings will remember what I did that Christmas Eve.