When I was young, we used to have all-night prayer meetings occasionally, and sometimes all night “watch night services”. These were times when we stayed at church all night, praying and on one occasion, fasting.
Sometimes there would be footwashing and communion during these times. There would also be a lot of prayer, and some preaching and singing. Interestingly enough, everybody was so sleepy that I’m not sure how much they were praying or just repeating the same thing over and over again. At any rate, a few of these occasions stick out in my mind.
On one occasion it must’ve been a sectional meeting, because I remember some teenagers that were not normally at our church being there. I was probably 9, 10 years old or something like that. I can remember trying to stay awake and it was so hard for me. We were going to stay there until 6 o’clock in the morning. These teen kids laid down on the pews to take a nap during the session and I remember thinking how carnal they were. I managed to stay awake the whole time, largely because I didn’t want to be like them and their “bad example.” In retrospect, I figure they had more sense than anybody there.
I remember the relief when it was finally over, and watching the sun come up as we went home. Of course, the next day would be completely unproductive, because we were all sleeping the day away. Now, I really do not see the point in that, because you can pray whether it’s day or night, and we made up our sleep anyway.
Apparently, my dad didn’t see the point in it either, because after those few times I have in my memory, we never had an all night service again. During the watch night services, after that point, we never stayed all night long. However, service would start a little bit later, and we would usually make it till midnight, or close to.
I remember communion being a big ordeal. First of all you would be told several services ahead of time, so you could “get your heart right.” Because, the slightest little thing that you had in your heart, whether it be bitterness against someone, unforgiveness, or even some unknown sin you had not figured out that you had done yet…any one of these could mean that you were “taking the Lord’s supper unworthily.” I’m not sure, from memory, exactly what all that entailed, but it was very severe, and it meant that you were going to have some awful punishment from God.
So, there was usually fasting and prayer a few days before you went to take communion. Right before you took communion, there was usually another time of repenting, just to make sure that you filtered out every sin and repented of it. Then you could take communion, but only if you had the Holy Ghost. Otherwise, you were still under that horrible curse of whatever might occur as punishment for taking the Lord supper unworthily.
I remember the first time I took communion at a different location, in a more liberal church. I was amazed at the difference. Although it was taken seriously, as in thinking about the Cross, everybody was invited to partake, regardless of whether they had the Holy Ghost or not, even children were included. I was blown away!
I began to think about why all the fear and scare tactics had been heaped upon us at those times, And why the taking of the Lord’s supper was so rare. I really never figured it out. I know the Bible talks about taking the Lord’s supper unworthily, but it never really seemed to be, on a surface reading, exactly the huge fearful issue that I was accustomed to. Anyway, I always dreaded communion, because I was afraid that there might be some stray sin that I had forgotten to repent about. I had this irrational fear that God would strike me dead if I forgot to repent of something.
Also, crying seemed to be a necessity. While I always appreciated the seriousness of the representation of what we were doing, I couldn’t always summon tears about it. I know that Jesus died for us on the cross, and sacrificed for us, but he did it so that we could have joy and salvation. Sometimes I didn’t feel like crying. However, there was something inside me that was afraid that if I didn’t, I would be taking it “unworthily.” When I think about just this one fearful ceremony, I realize anew that there are so many reasons I suffer from anxiety.
Foot Washing was a whole story in and of itself. We were told to wash our feet really good before we came, ironically. Then, all the women would go in one room and all the men would go in the other room. I remember that some women would be wearing their pantyhose when it was time to wash their feet. It felt really weird to be splashing water on feet clad in pantyhose. Everyone would be crying and praying and speaking in tongues while they washed someone else’s feet.
The problem for me was that I was extremely ticklish on my feet. I would be trying to be all serious and spiritual, but the minute their hand would brush over the bottom of my feet my feet would jerk. This didn’t lend to a very spiritual atmosphere, so I’d always feel guilty. However, in time as I grew, I learned to still myself to where the jerking would be less, or I would warn them before they washed my feet that I was very ticklish, and to avoid the bottom of my feet. That way everybody could still stay spiritual, weeping and praying, instead of giggling over my ticklish feet.
After the foot washing, there would be a lot of hugging and apologies “in case I’ve ever offended you”. Now, thinking back, I’m not sure exactly where all the traditions surrounding this really came from.
When Jesus washed his disciples feet, it was because there was dung and dirt on them. He took that role instead of having the usual servant do it, in order to teach them that the master needs to be a servant to his followers. Nowadays there’s no reason to be washing each others feet, unless it’s just for the symbolism. Most everybody has a shower to wash their own feet, and none of us really walk through dung to get to church.
Anyway, throughout my time growing up, as my father begin to fellowship more and more in the “conservative” circles, I began to see some very weird things happen. For example, if a young man had a “hero worship” for one of the preachers, he would often come and say “I just want to shine your shoes would you let me shine your shoes?” Or, he would come and say “I need to wash your feet brother… I just need to wash your feet.”
This was in direct contrast to what Jesus was trying to show his disciples. He didn’t say “Peter you come wash my feet”. In fact, He said “no, you’re not going to wash my feet, Peter. I’m trying to teach you something here. I’m going to wash your feet.”
Although the pastors did wash feet during foot washing services, I don’t remember ever seeing a pastor just walk up to someone and say “I need to wash your feet…I just want to show you I’m here to serve.” Yet, interestingly enough, as I began in my middle adult years to study the Scriptures concerning the role of a pastor in one’s life, the Bible spoke clearly about a pastor being a servant.
This is in direct contrast to what I saw during those times when people wanted to just polish pastor’s shoes, or wash his feet….especially since those preachers often let that happen publicly, (at least the shoeshine).
Anyway, I still don’t see any need in our culture for foot washing services. I think we can show our servant hood to one another in other more practical ways, like providing a new tire for a widow who can’t scrape the money together. Or, babysitting the children of a single mother for free so that she can have a day off. The idea was about servant-hood, not cleaning somebody’s feet.
However, I digress.
In discussing all night services, one in particular stands out in my mind. I was young, but I don’t remember exactly how old. I would say I had probably not yet reached my teen years, or if I had it was early on in my teen years. I just remember one “watch night service” where my dad brought an alarm clock, and began preaching at about 11 o’clock at night. He was talking about the end of time coming (in the rapture). As it got closer and closer to midnight, he began to talk about there just “being a little time left.” It was a very emotional and impacting message, (obviously, since I remember it so many years later). The fear was tangible, and I literally felt for a few moments during it that the rapture would definitely take place at midnight.
He didn’t say that, of course, but it was a very powerful object lesson. The repentance and fear in the building was palpable.
After the new year being such a serious thing for most of my life, it feels odd now to be celebrating a New Year’s Eve with my children at home. I know a lot of people play games or have friends over, and we have played games at times, but even now, every New Year’s Eve I think about those services with the fear and the exhaustion, the communion and foot washing. I wonder how many children are sitting in church, paralyzed with fear, thinking the rapture is about to happen, and afraid they may not measure up.