by Kris Coffin Stevenson
If you walk in the doors of the church and then realize it’s communion Sabbath, it will make your heart skip a beat. That’s either because you’re so excited to join in, or it’s because you missed your pedicure appointment or your outfit makes footwashing impossible or just because—feet!
If you have not been a part of a church that practices footwashing, you might not understand this hard panic. But since the Adventist church regularly practices footwashing as part of its communion service, those raised in the Adventist culture have had to deal with sock fluff, nylons, tepid water, cold basement floors, foot issues, and the etiquette of finding footwashing partners.
My friend was coming to visit for the weekend and I had forgotten it was communion Sabbath. My friend uses a walker and I knew there was no way she was getting down on the floor for footwashing. What should we do? I decided I would just sit with her in the sanctuary and wait it out during footwashing.
That’s when the Spirit conspired with my husband and me to come up with an alternative. I was thinking about something my friend, Sandy, could do other than wash feet, and I started spinning with the idea of hand washing. It was certainly something I knew we were all familiar with after two years of virus-induced hand washing instructions. When I mentioned hand sanitizer, my husband jumped in with “We could use hand lotion!” Our Arizona winters bring extremely low humidity, as we were discovering, and hand lotion for dry skin is a necessity.
“We could combine hand lotion with hand massages. We can have each person massage lotion into each other’s hands,” I said.
“And end by praying for one another,” my husband added.
The idea might seem outrageous and out of the box to traditionalists, but it just might work. We felt the Spirit’s nudge of approval. But what would our congregation think?
On communion Sabbath, we set up a room each for men’s footwashing, women’s footwashing, and family footwashing. Then my husband, at the end of his homily, encouraged the congregation to take advantage of one of those options or, if they chose to remain in the sanctuary, deacons would come around with hand lotion—Jergen’s Ultra Healing. The most important thing, however, would be the service of praying for one another.
James tell us to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so you may be healed” (James 5:16). We need to open our hearts to bear each other’s burdens. Praying for each other is an action that legitimizes our teaching of the priesthood of all believers.
I was surprised at how many people stayed in the church during footwashing. I was surprised at how many people accepted the lotion. I was also surprised at how many people around me were praying and hugging (I even saw a few tears). Sandy and I massaged thick, sweet-smelling lotion (“repairs and heals extra dry skin with Vitamins C, E & B5”) into each other’s hands, shared our prayer requests, and prayed for one another. With her eyes welling over, she explained how no one touches her anymore since her husband died 16 months previously. The hand lotioning experience meant so much to her in so many ways. I felt the presence of the Spirit in this place as people filed in and joined us for the breaking of the bread and sipping of the grape juice.
After the service I waited to see what kind of feedback we would receive. When you change a cherished tradition like the Lord’s Supper, there can be all kinds of repercussions. (Once at another church, in the interest of saving time and to help with logistics, we set up deacons at the entrance to the sanctuary with plates holding the cups and the wafers. We felt that it would save time and the awkward pew arrangements for serving if people could pick up the communion elements on the way back to their seats. That innovation was given the thumbs down and dubbed the “drive-by communion,” and we never tried it again.)
The initial comments we received after our hand lotion service were all positive. One lady who attends our church in a wheelchair has her feet bandaged and would not have been able to participate in foot washing. She was very grateful that she had not one but two people ask her to do the hand massage. Several other older members said they were happy to be involved with the hand massages because it was too difficult to kneel for footwashing.
Later that week, we met with one of our elders who had been absent that Sabbath because her husband was ill. She told us they were watching LiveStream from home, not realizing it was communion. When they discovered it was communion, they ran into the kitchen, grabbed some grape juice and crackers, and got a bottle of hand lotion. Our elder and her 92-year-old husband were excited to participate from home.
Another member sent an email to several of her friends who live around the country telling about our experiment. One of her friends, in particular, is very traditional, so our member was curious about what the response would be. Surprisingly, the traditional friend was incredibly positive. She wrote back that she wished it would be offered at her own church because her husband was in a brace and would not be able to do traditional footwashing.
Change as Needed
I must admit to being surprised at the response. I haven’t been in ministry this long without receiving a few scars, most of them tied to making changes with the worship service. Communion would seem to be the most sacrosanct of them all. But then I got to thinking about what has already changed.
We have already changed communion to fit with our culture and time period. We don’t use wine with alcohol, part of the culture that our teetotaling, temperance movement church ancestors came from. We eat tiny, strange wafers that hardly resemble the matzoh that Jews use in Passover. In many churches, including ours, there is often a gluten-free option for people who are intolerant to wheat products.
We also celebrate communion an arbitrary four times a year, a number that is not in the Bible but is tied to quarters of the year and how we run our Sabbath School lessons. The New Testament does not give instruction on how often to do communion, but Passover, which is what Jesus was celebrating when he took the cup and the bread, is a yearly festival.
We have even changed the church manual on how to dispose of the leftover grape juice and communion bread. Instead of pouring out the grape juice and burning the wafers (yes, that’s right; the deacons used to make a little fire in the back corner of the parking lot) the manual now says it’s up to the deacons to respectfully dispose of the leftover emblems as long as they don’t consume them or put them into common usage.
We have also changed as a church. Our membership has aged. Statistics say our average Adventist North American population is in their 50s, which might explain the glad acceptance of this innovation. Who is wanting to get down on the floor now? Who is able to get back up, I should say. So it’s not strange to modify part of the ritual to work with the aging Baby Boomer generation. And that, I think, is why we didn’t get a lot of pushback on the hand lotion event.
Today, none of us physically needs our feet washed when showers are available with the twist of a handle. The footwashing piece of the communion service comes from a cultural custom of hospitality done in a country where people wearing sandals walked long distances on dusty trails. Jesus’ servant leadership is a powerful example of being willing to do what is necessary to serve others and meet their needs. It is also a symbol of refreshing the soul after baptism, as Peter discovered when he first declined to have his feet washed and then wanted to dive into a full bath.
Maybe combining hand washing with “ultra healing” hand lotion would bring all of those layers of meaning together. We have certainly learned a lot of new ways recently to wash hands efficiently using hand sanitizer and hand wipes as well as with the traditional basin of water.
Let’s make sure everyone is included in communion. Let’s make sure no one feels awkward. Let’s make sure no one is screened out because of age or disability. Let’s use the elders and deacons as hosts to connect people. Let’s encourage everyone to pray for each other, to lift each other up before God, to let the Spirit refresh us.
But above all, let’s remember the model that Jesus was setting for us. That we must see with his eyes the needs in our fellowship and be humble and willing to help, whether that’s washing feet or hands or laundry or floors; fixing hearts, cars, or broken doors.
Kris Coffin Stevenson is living the first part of her eternal life with her husband in Tucson, Arizona. She has a newfound love for ocotillo and saguaro. You can follow her writing at www.bthelove.net or bthelove on Facebook.