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JOHN DEMPSTER: Feet-washing shock brought with it wondrous moment of perfect clarity

By John Dempster

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Joy Clarkson with her book Aggressively Happy.
Joy Clarkson with her book Aggressively Happy.

Feeling God was far from her, Joy almost skipped the Maundy Thursday service. But here she was, squeezed in at the end of a row, when she realised that Father Max was washing the feet of those sitting adjacent to the aisle, just as Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet.

She was horrified, conscious of her unmatching socks, faded canvas shoes, and exceedingly smelly toes. The old priest knelt beside her, tenderly immersed her feet in a basin of lukewarm water, washed and dried them thoroughly, kissed them. Assurance long-sought flooded in. Jesus would wash her feet, she realised. She was precious to God.

Joy Marie Clarkson is an American-born writer and academic, host of the Speaking with Joy podcast, who has just completed a PhD at St Andrews University on the relationship between the arts and theology.

Her recently-published book Aggressively Happy, drawing on her own experiences as someone with “general anxiety disorder” discusses strategies for finding happiness.

HN columnist John Dempster at his book launch for 'Singing for God' at CLC Books Castle Street..
HN columnist John Dempster at his book launch for 'Singing for God' at CLC Books Castle Street..

Joy shares lots of helpful advice, urging us for example to care well for our bodies, to enjoy unashamedly the things we like, to share good stories. All thoroughly Christian, though you’d find the same advice elsewhere.

The book is at its most powerful when Joy speaks about the quagmire of doubt she faced once again when someone she loved passed away. Eventually, she issued God a challenge, saying in effect, “If you want me to keep believing, you’ll have to show me you’re there.” Two things happened.

Her iPhone began playing, it seems spontaneously, a song of deep significance to her faith. A butterfly fluttered in front of her, landing on her outstretched finger. “Did you send her to me Lord?”

Joy quotes 20th century rabbi Abraham Herschel: “Each of us has at least once in their life experienced the momentous reality of God.” Faith, he adds is “loyalty” to this event.

It’s in moments like this, when we see the world wondrous, when we glimpse the beauty which constantly breaks into everyday life that we are truly in touch with reality. And faith is choosing, despite periods of doubt and despair, to live in loyalty to the unexpected gentle song, the delicate butterfly, the God who sent them.

And above all, Joy writes, “I am choosing to live my life in loyalty to the moment I understood that Christ would wash my feet.”

READ MORE: JOHN DEMPSTER: Cate Otanes’ journey into Christian faith

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