The flickering flames illuminated the meal on the table and the faces of those sitting
around it; Jesus had gathered with his disciples around the table for what would be the
last time. The time had almost come for him to walk the road of the cross – to suffer and die. However, before it was time to take the physical suffering of the cross and its torture, Jesus needed to face a different kind of suffering; one of his twelve closest friends and apprentices was going to betray him and he knew it. Many of us in this situation would crumple under the pressure. However, in the midst of the sorrow of betrayal, Jesus served Judas.
In an unprecedented act, during their meal, Jesus rose and took off his outer garment,
essentially leaving only his undergarments on. This was a sign of intimacy or “into-me-see.” In the midst of betrayal, instead of protecting himself, Jesus exposed himself – he became vulnerable.
Jesus grabbed a bucket of water and put a towel around his waist; he was going to wash
the disciples feet around the table. In ancient tradition, no Jewish person could ask
another Jewish person to wash his or her feet. This was reserved for a slave; someone you regarded as lesser. With the full knowledge that Judas would betray him, Jesus still
washed Judas’ filthy feet; feet caked in dust, mud, sweat, and animal excrement. Jesus
gave Judas the dignitary of honoring him as human and would treat him no differently
than any other friend. Showing humanity the power of love, Jesus reached for and
honored for someone who did not have the ability to reciprocate the sacrifice.
It had been 15 years since I had last seen my Grandfather; I was 27 and working hard to
heal my inner self and build a healthy foundation to start a family without unforgiveness living in my heart. I had seen the damage that unforgiveness does to the heart and I did not want to pass that kind of baggage to my future children. I knew I was still holding my
grandfather in contempt for the pain he had caused my family fifteen years prior. I
wanted to be free from the burden of bitterness and the stickiness of unforgiveness.
The last time I had seen my grandfather was when my father died; I was 12 years
old. My paternal grandfather treated my family horribly during the already painful season following my father’s death. Through my teenage years and into my twenties I had worked to release the contempt I felt towards him but I still believed there was more work to be done – I wanted to engage a better and more redemptive story of forgiveness.
I woke up one morning and decided it was time to try to find a way to contact him. I’m not sure what pushed me to action, I just knew it was time to begin the process. I didn’t have a phone number, an address, and I didn’t even know if he was still alive. I searched online and found nothing so I decided to call a mutual relative to see if they had his contact information. Our mutual relative gave me the number they had but told me that they hadn’t communicated with him in years and frankly didn’t even know if he was alive. My search ended that day with nothing but dead ends and I wondered if it was meant to be.
The next day I was driving home late in the afternoon and my phone rang with a number from a Florida area code. I answered, only to hear the voice of my grandfather – a voice that only existed in the recesses of my memory. It felt like I was hearing the voice of someone I thought had died long ago. We awkwardly talked on the phone for about a half hour and while he still sounded like the angry old man I knew all those years earlier, it was fairly pleasant.
Apparently the day after I called our mutual relatives, he called them out of the blue for the first time in years simply to catch up. Shocked, they told him that I was trying to reach him and they gave him my number.
After getting off the phone I wasn’t sure what the next step would be. After 15 years of no contact it was hard to imagine building a relationship over the phone with a man in his eighties who lived in on the other side of the country; especially with someone I had no common memories with since I was 12 and most of which were not pleasant.
After a few months of processing that phone call, Samantha and I decided we needed to go to Florida to visit him. I didn’t know the condition of his health and I figured I had a window to visit so I could release the burden of unforgiveness I had held since being a child. I called to ask if we could visit. Surprising, he told us we could come to visit in a few weeks. We quickly bought our hotel and plane tickets and once the date was set the fear set in.
When we arrived we called him and told him we were in Florida. Apparently I was not alone in feeling fear – he started to back out of wanting to see me. After being in Florida for two days and not seeing him, I began wondering if it was going to happen. In the middle of the afternoon on the third day of our trip, I got a call; he was ready to see us. He asked to meet at a Denny’s Restaurant and we agreed. I find it amazing that some of the most important conversations of our life happen around tables and food.
We pulled up into the Central Florida Denny’s and saw him waiting for us. My stomach sank but I pressed forward. I had 3000 miles between here and home pushing me into that restaurant – I wasn’t going to turn back now.
We walked in and sat at a non-descript beige table in an almost empty dining room at two in the afternoon. As we exchanged awkward pleasantries I examined his face; a face I knew well as a child; a face that represented the wonderful memories of my father and a face that represented the pain he caused our family. I examined him in the way I would if a dead person was brought back to life. I can’t remember the food I ordered but I can remember the table. I remember sitting with my elbows on the table, observing him as he shared.
About halfway through our time I felt it was time to move beyond pleasantries into the deeper purpose of this meeting. I started to share why I had traveled across the country to see him. I told him that I was choosing to forgive him for the pain he caused our family. Even though my voice was shaky and my palms were sweating, I gave him the dignity of looking into his in the eyes as I opened my heart. It felt like I dropped a heavy backpack of unforgiveness on that table, never to pick it up again. He looked at me and was dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting me to say that, and although the guilt and pain was shouting through his eyes, he couldn’t muster the strength to receive the gift I had just given him. It was as if the pain was too great so he changed the subject.
We sat and talked at that table for almost two hours. When we got up to leave, he shook my hand and I said good-bye and we walked back to our car. I watched him get into his car through my rearview mirror as we drove away. I never saw him again; he died three months later.
Some tables are beautiful because of how they are decorated and others are beautiful because of the people around them. This was different. This table with its laminate top, half used ketchup bottle, and glass salt and pepper shakers looked the way you would expect any Denny’s in Central Florida to look like and the person on the other side of this table represented years of pain, sorrow, and fear.
However, this table became the sacred place that allowed me to look into the eyes of my enemy. It allowed me to notice the beautiful blue color of his eyes and it allowed me to examine his face –a beautiful gift because parts of his face reminded me of my own father’s face – a man that I still deeply miss.
This table gave me the opportunity to look at my grandfather and for the first time, exchange my anger with sympathy, pity, and love. I learned forgiveness at this table and I will never be the same because of that nondescript alter, I mean table, in Central Florida.