It was spring of 2007. America was deep into our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the conversations I had with friends and professors on campus at Saint John's often orbited the new vocabulary of 'enhanced interrogation.' The Abu Ghraib torture revelations from years earlier still reverberated in young people preparing for the 2008 presidential campaigns and we weighed the wisdom of the Bush administration's troop surge in Iraq.

I remember sitting near a row of windows in Sexton Commons cafeteria, looking up from my reading and realizing, all at once, that I was an atheist.

It wasn't a gradual process for me. I had made the transfer from the University of Minnesota to Saint John's University in rural central Minnesota in part to make waves in Saint John's faith community. In the hushed voice of student faith groups that often feel underground and embattled, I'd been told by friends at the U of M that the SJU campus was an attendance-based faith community, in the pews to check boxes. Years of feeling like a sentinel for the church made me bristle at that report, wanting to go and help develop vitality, or conviction maybe, in believers up north. In subsequent years at SJU that intelligence would prove faulty in all the predictable ways. The Benedictines and their student church were earnest and engaged and I still carry lessons gleaned of their generosity.

Nonetheless, I went to SJU and enrolled in a mandated Christian Tradition 101 class, where I developed a bit of a feud with my professor-nun. In the photo-negative of her lessons I found a framework for new questioning. It was a swift retreat from belief over the course of two or three months, and then a cliff. I closed my book that day in the cafeteria and got up to leave, an atheist.

Steps into my walk across the lunch hall, I thought about our soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hundreds of thousands of civilians that Amnesty International and the Red Cross were reporting dead, and it struck me that they were just gone. We had taken everything from all of them. I hadn't realized that even the subconscious notion of an afterlife had until then backstopped my capacity for disgust. 

I made a severe jag out of faith, then lept back in for a half-summer of intense exploration, and left for good the following fall. As time passes you get a sense of how faith filled the house of your person and how, once the house is evacuated of that presence, a shadow is cast over certain corridors. The loneliest are the corners where you used to do your praying.

I never liked Easter itself - pastels make me puke - but the holy weeks of spring were often my favorite. I learned sense of urgency in that season's conversations with my peers and mentors in student groups and bible studies. Lent is a walk in the desert, the approach to great tragedy and a grimaced attempt - sometimes sitting alone in a sanctuary pew - to understand service through sacrifice. These are beautiful if painful lessons for humans to grapple.

It's with that season in mind that I'm writing this little note, of admiration and gratitude.

On the eve of his Passion, Christ kneels to wash Jerusalem's street waste from the feet of his disciples. He knows in a day's time one will betray him for gold, and the rest will deny his acquaintance, as he goes to die in Roman torture. As he washes them he offers the challenge that Christians across the world will recognize in this holy week, that I remember reflecting on so many times in the dim candle and haunting lyric of the Maundy Thursday evening service. As John tells it:

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis
invicem sicut dilexi vos. 

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another;
as I have loved you.

That's where maundy comes from, the latin mandatum, Jesus's command as he cupped water over his betrayers' feet. We are commanded into obligation to one another. No matter how tomorrow they may betray you, we are called to wash the feet of our neighbor. A whole day of holy week is meant to remind us of as much.

For more than a decade now I have ranted about the shortcomings of the Church. I've walked out on sermons and derided theologies from various pulpits and yet, all around me are flooring examples of this impossible commandment lived-true by modern Christians.

Three friends of ours living in rural Benin have tended an orphanage now for six years, sheltering and standing-up young Beninois, because that's the need they see. They were recently visited by Mercy Ships, a massive, floating mini-city of surgeons and nurses who, sharing our friends' convictions, traverse the globe performing surgeries for the most vulnerable people in the world.

When Arizona pastor John Fife heard that Salvadoran immigrants were dying trying to cross the Sonoran desert into the United States, to flee persecution and civil war, he and a handful of friends began sheltering those refugees in their homes, and eventually their churches. They modeled their network of churches on the Mennonites who abetted the underground railroad in slave-age America, a string of devout rebels who likewise saw and defended the dignity of their neighbor and whose profound expression of sanctuary became the beginning of one of the great chapters of religious humanitarianism in American history. Today, the sanctuary movement has graduated to university campuses and entire cities, and challenges our notions of a human's 'legality.'

A friend of our colleague was killed and found buried in a shallow grave in eastern Congo two weeks ago. He was doing field research on behalf of the United Nations because, as his dad remembers, “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world," grounded in his faith.

Jesus of Nazareth spent his last earthly hours washing filth from the feet of people who would betray him, impelling them to remember his posture as they went and tried to engage the world. That is no less than a commandment of heroic selflessness, a willingness to bathe and care even for those that would do us harm.

As billions of Christians worldwide prepare to observe and celebrate this season's somber movements of death and resurrection, I wish them a hopeful and contemplative holy week.  May your Maundy reflections continue to help us set the bar of service to one another.

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