There are some strange things that I do in my life, unusual life choices made for spiritual reasons. I don't bow down and worship the sun or erect huge monolithic structures in the desert. However, the religious sacraments that I observe may seem just as odd to the ancient people who built the pyramids and sacrificed goats. I am a Christian, taught to love others and love God unconditionally. Much of the incredible, revolutionary message that Jesus taught came through symbolic acts, which later became part of Christian worship services around the world.
The most beautiful of these acts and my favorite Christian ritual is the act of foot-washing. I remember being a child and loving that part of the church because it meant I could play with my friends in the sanctuary while my parents others went off to the mysterious side rooms to play with towels and water tubs. But as I grew up, I really enjoyed and appreciated the symbolic significance of foot-washing - an act of humility and service based on Christ's radical decision to wash the feet of his disciples.
So because of Christ's instructions to do likewise, about four or five times each year I rinse the feet of someone during our worship service. It is truly humbling and powerful. It is also incredibly awkward, or at least it was at first. There are few comfortable conversation topics to engage in while peeling back the dress sock off an elderly man's foot and handling his callused toes. Sports? Probably not, since we're in church and everyone around us is humming hymns and praying. We usually chat about the weather or talk about our mutual acquaintance in the fourth pew.
While the state of some feet and certain odors might not be too pleasant, in fact, some are downright ugly; the ritual itself is incredibly beautiful. I am reminded of both Christ washing our sins away and the spiritual importance of serving the elderly and helping others.
For worshippers in my church, the end of foot-washing, like the beginning of meals, nearly always features another important ritual - prayer. It struck me recently that the tradition of saying grace before a meal seems almost more cultural than spiritual. The only thing more awkward than foot-washing is accidently starting a lunch conversation with a Christian whose head is bowed in silent prayer.
Not wanting to limit my verbal offerings of thanks to God to only the moments before I devour a bean burrito, I'm starting to pray at other moments of gratitude. I'll offer a naked grace before my morning shower or before I fill up my Honda with gasoline, although at the fueling station I'm always fully clothed.
However, probably the most peculiar religious decision I have made in my life has been the adoption of a vegetarian diet - something not intrinsically biblical or even followed by any of the three ministers in my family. I owe a lot of this decision to one of my favorite statements - "peace begins with the fork."
This lifestyle doesn't exactly help my popularity at large social events when I ask if there are any soy burgers that could be grilled on a separate barbeque, and it's always funny to see the puzzled looks in restaurants when I ask if there are any vegetarian options, something that's usually only asked by secular hipsters or atheist eco-warriors.
My closest friend and old roommate is studying theology at the graduate level at a seminary in Atlanta. He told me how strongly he disagrees with the concept of vegetarianism as a stage on the path to Christian maturity. I think he used the word "vehemently." I allowed him to lecture me a little, but I told him no two spiritual journeys are the same. We argued back and forth a little, quoting different Bible verses to try and make our points, but to no avail. If only there was a Christian symbolic act to reduce that tension and instead of arguing, focus on serving each other as Christ would do. Now that would be a bold move. Not because he's a close friend who I was in the middle of an argument with, but because I lived with him in college and I know what his feet look like.
Martin Surridge, who studied at Walla Walla University, now lives in Georgia.