And a Little Child Shall Teach Them: Lessons in Diakonia

Article excerpt

My family and I moved to the Washington, D.C. area toward the end of Lent last year. Since we knew no one who could take care of our young children, when it came time to keep the liturgies of Holy Week we looked for an Episcopal church where they would be welcome. We discovered a parish not too far away that offered child care on Maundy Thursday and had a special Good Friday service for preschool children-so off we went.

When it came time for the foot-washing-an occasion of awkward silence in many parishes-we were struck by the number of people who went forward and how attentively and comfortably they washed each other's feet. Old and young, male and female, people of many colors and languages, all participating in an ancient and rather intimate ritual of menial service. We felt too new and too laden with children to go forward ourselves, so we went home feeling rather lonely, aware we were in transition, separated from our previous community and not yet a part of this new one.

Later that evening, after the baby was snuggled into his crib, I was wearily participating in another kind of ritual-our five-year-old's bath before bedtime. After he was washed and scrubbed, Benjamin sat on the edge of the tub waiting to be dried, cheerfully dripping and chattering on with his customary telling of stories about his imaginary friends, monsters, heroes, and dinosaurs. As I knelt to dry his feet I suddenly felt I was back in church. This moment was an invitation to the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday, too. These familiar, beloved, small feet also needed to be washed, just as much as the larger feet of strangers and fellow Christians. It dawned on me that drying Benjamins feet was at that moment as much a fulfillment of Jesus' call to "do as T have done to you" (John 13:15) as washing the feet of parishioners when I am serving as deacon in the liturgy.

Although I was ordained to the diaconate in the late 1980s and have woi'ked as a deacon for most of those years, since I have been staying home to care for our children it has often been hard to hold on to this identity-I feel more like a mom most of the time. I have joined the millions of women and men who try to balance several vocations in different locations: work and parenting, home and office, iactory and school. Sometimes I see the connections; at other times, juggling these two dimensions has been awkward, with the diaconal vocation seemingly set aside by the immediate, pressing, ever-present needs of an infant or toddler.

And yet I have begun to see that my definition of "diaconal duties" may be too narrow, and in fact I have been practicing a "domestic diaconate" all along. Until now diaconal ministry was for me closely connected to the institutional church: volunteering in a diocesan soup kitchen, working on a parish staff, planning and providing hospitality at a diocesan retreat house, editing and designing religious books, participating in the liturgies of the parish. Caring for young children at home does not fit that institutional definition. Yet perhaps I have unknowingly been enrolled in another kind of school for deacons as I have tended to the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of these little ones. If deacons are to be "in the world," serving "all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,"1 then it can be very good practice to Ieam servanthood by parenting little children.

So I have been thinking lately about what our children have taught me about being a servant. Not just in the Upstairs, Downstairs sense: when Benjamin orders us with all the authority of a five-year-old to get him a glass of milk, we parents usually respond, "No, we are not your servants. You know how to pour that yourself." And yet at a more profound level-as one Christian to another-we are his servants, for we have in fact chosen to lay down our lives for him. When Benjamin is poor, we feed and clothe him; when he is weak, we give him our strength until he finds his own; when he is sick, we hold his hand and soothe his fever; when he is lonely, we cuddle him and wipe away his tears. …