I personally have never been one for footsie or foot rubs or really any foot affection. It’s not that I find feet revolting; I’m a barefoot girl with callouses and flip flop tan lines as many months as Ohio will refrain from frostbiting. it’s just that I’ve noticed a tendency for feet to either be damp with sweat or resembling refrigerated meat, and I’m uncomfortable with both. It’s also an area most likely to get skipped in grooming routines, and I’m not eager to come in contact with untamed areas, nor do I wish for others to encounter mine. But for all the dirt-collecting and grime feet may present, my daughters haven’t acquired my aloof feelings. In fact, quite the opposite.
Ethiopians do a lot of kissing. They give kisses cheek to cheek when greeting a friend, kiss an important document out of gratitude, stoop to kiss a doorway, or kiss the cross out of reverence. They will even bend and kiss the feet of someone as a gesture of honor, respect, and thankfulness. When Cypress, my eldest, reminisces about her life and family in Ethiopia, she often tells of how she liked to kiss her momma’s feet. It is touching to envision her, tiny child that she was, participating in a cultural tradition and even in her limited comprehension, attaching emotion to it.
One day she and I were having a particularly rough time. We were doing our classic battle. Her: a quiet altercation. Me: a loud correction. Her: stoic and response-less. Me: producing enough emotion to compensate for her lack plus three others. Her: unable, unwilling, or too uncomfortable to respond. Me: unable to comprehend how one can have no responses, and determined to conjure up appropriate emotion in her. This was the vicious un-merry-go-round we rode time after time, and can still jump on if we aren’t careful.
Our personalities drastically differ in how we process emotion. Our fear responses are different. Our cultures of origin are different. And even when my head knows all this stuff, it has taken so many bad rides for me to relearn how to communicate effectively with her. We can skip the nauseating whirl of misunderstanding and offense and go for a walk now, when I take the initiative that the bigger person - the nurturer - should, and set a tone for respectful exchange. She’s starting to feel less threatened by emotions and more aware that no one can read her mind, and I’m learning to speak a little softer and give more space. Sometimes when I kiss her goodnight, we whisper, “good job communicating” to each other. We’re both proud of the progress our relationship is making.
This particular day, however, we were spinning full throttle. We were both hurt and being hurtful. After some time to myself, I cooled off and knew I needed to take the first step in restoring our relationship, so I sought her out.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” I said. “I should have shared my feelings with you respectfully, using a kind voice.”
She hugged me and said she forgave me, as she is always quick to do.
Then she cautiously said, “I’m sorry, too.”
I hugged her again and she looked up into my eyes.
“Mommy?” She said softly, “Can I kiss your feet?”
I paused. I wanted to suggest a kiss on my face. Maybe my hand? Kissing my feet not only went against all my germ protection policies, but it was a vulnerability I could hardly bear. However, none of my reservations or aching inadequacies seemed a valid reason to say no to her hopeful eyes.
I smiled at her weakly and said “sure.”
She knelt down before me on the kitchen tile and tenderly kissed both of my feet.
My eyes burned with tears. To have my seven-year-old share a precious first family custom with me, to see her making a valiant effort to communicate big feelings, to experience her display her devotion amidst my glaring brokenness, was one of the most precious and humbling gifts I’ve ever received.
Jesus stepped right into the human mess of bickering and betrayal and muddy feet, and got his hands dirty with love. My daughters, without a bit of theological understanding of John 13 or the metaphors of feet washing, have taught me more about unconditional love than any sermon I’ve heard. It’s like forgiveness and grace, the crucial ingredients of this Jesus love, flow with freedom from a child’s heart and they simply start loving with no concern for the inconvenience or dirt they may encounter.
Our messy relationships give us opportunities to live out personalized and unpolished versions of Jesus’s example with his friends, to be on both the giving and the receiving end of unconditional love. How often, especially in motherhood, are we offered the invitation to show up, either kneeling with a towel, or exposing our own dirt? We practice it when we fall to the floor before the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by, the ones we do not understand, the ones we can’t seem to agree with, sometimes to the ones only a third our size, and confess our mistakes with bare hearts. We practice it when we’re offered extravagant grace and we resist the shame-driven urge to tuck our filthy, undeserving feet beneath us like Peter felt, and instead extend them toward a kiss, or a basin of warm water.
Maybe the two best postures for living out this kind of love are either with our knees on the floor before someone’s feet, or bending down and taking off our shoes.
Guest post written by Carrie Lahman. Carrie lives in Ohio with her Mr. Farmer and their two curly-haired daughters, who have taught her more about life than she’ll ever teach them. You can read more stories of vulnerability and grace and shaky courage on her blog at carrielahman.com and find her on Instagram and Facebook.