Coal miners don’t have time for theory. They want to know the facts, and they want to know them as plain as you can make them. Under the ground you depend for your life on facts that will help you do your job at great risk to yourself and those around you, and get you out of the ground safely with a day’s quota of coal as your satisfaction. It doesn’t matter how hard the work is, each lick you hit is how you’re paying for your house, your car, your vacation, and your daughter’s wedding dress. And depending on one another is crucial to your success. The crew has to communicate and show each other respect under ground.
That’s why it doesn’t pay to get too sissified in how you set up worship when you lead a coalfield church. Plain words are good enough, no need for too much theory and speculation.
So, it was with total disregard for the context of ministry that I set out one Maundy Thursday to lead a special service at a little church on the mountain side. I was going to have communion because that is what Jesus did on the day before the crucifixion. That was simple enough, but there was this passage in John 13 that talked about footwashing. I mentioned it a few times and the people nodded in recognition and talked about how they had seen it or heard of it but weren’t sure they wanted to do it. But being hardheaded like the rock that holds coal in the ground, I was determined to make some kind of washing part of the service. In the politically correct atmosphere of the seminary I had gone to it was told to us that you didn’t have to wash feet, as that could be somewhat crude, getting down there and being so close to the feet of people you don’t know all that well. So it was suggested there that one could have a hand washing instead. I listened and thought about it and this particular year for some unknown reason I decided to have a hand washing service. We would pour water in a basin and wash one another’s hands. No need to worry about socks and hose getting in the way, and we could stand so our aching backs wouldn’t be a factor.
All went well as we went through the motions of this innovative worship. I was smugly self-satisfied that I had done something cutting edge in my little mountainside church.
But then he got up. This man, fresh from the coal fields. He had showered off quickly on his way to church that evening, but the rims of his eyelids still had black on them as he stood up and said, “Preacher.”
You never really know what is going to follow that address. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s just a question or a comment. But it always brings something. And sometimes it brings revelation.
“Preacher. Would you mind,” asked this coal miner. He was a couple years older than me, a stout man whose back was breaking from the intense labor in the mines, but he still walked with dignity and was truly seeking God in this service. “Would you mind if I washed . . . your feet?”
I stood speechless. I really wanted this service to be meaningful, but wasn’t sure anyone had gotten much out of the handwashing thing. It was, after all, a compromise on the text. Coal miners sometimes don’t like to compromise. That’s why labor relations can be so tentative here. But I stood and felt a pounding in my chest as he looked at me with fierce determination.
“Of course you can.” Those words came out before I knew it. Soon I was moving the basin and a towel to a chair where he could do this thing. I was taken with the words of Jesus we had read earlier. “And Jesus took a towel and put it around his waist, and bent down and washed his disciples’ feet.”
By now the church was on full alert. This was a spontaneous moment and they all knew it. The Spirit comes in such moments. I sat in the chair and began to take off my shoes and socks. He bent down and washed me. I felt complete and total humility. I felt bad for taking liberties with our worship that night in order to satisfy the sensibilities a few had expressed. This was what the Lord had done for His disciples, and I felt as awkward as Peter, who said “not just my feet but my head too.” Jesus had to hush Peter for interrupting. This washing was meant to be a symbol of how they were to act when ever they were together. Servanthood is about loving each other, humbling oneself before each other in the community and being willing to do even so basic an act as to wash the feet of those around you, a job usually given to a servant or slave.
Tears accompany humility. There’s no keeping them back. I came to lead worship that night, but found that the Spirit sometimes blows in and leads us. When he finished I told him I wanted to wash his feet. Several others did likewise that evening and we felt the love and grace of God in this simple act of washing.
“Maundy Thursday” is the day Jesus gave a “new commandment.” That’s what the root word of Maundy means, “Commandment.” This could well be called “New Commandment Thursday.” I now know that I’m going to pay closer attention to what Jesus says about servanthood and loving one another. A coal miner taught me.