It was the summer of 1996.
Before Facebook, Youtube, and plunging male V-necks, there was a bright and shining era of American narrative known as “The Family Vacation.”
My great family was then and still is in the habit of joining throngs of beloved relatives each summer at a glorious little “campground” in Alpena, Michigan for a week of good, old-fashioned quality time. The stories from these trips are endless, filled with unicycles, broken arms, French Merlot, and third-degree burns. Unfortunately the story I want to write about here involves none of those things. Perhaps another time.
This was the summer that Uncle Ken bought a speedboat.
We were all beyond excited about this particular purchase. Canoeing was great, sure, but this was a speedboat. The word “speed” made up 50% of its name and we couldn’t have been more thrilled. All of the uncles drove this fine vessel, but for some reason my memories of Uncle Glen’s behind the wheel remain most vivid in my memory. Perhaps it’s because he had a sailor’s mustache. Or maybe it’s because he had the highest ratio of crazy in his blood. Probably a combination of both.
During one particular boating adventure, my younger brother Zach and I were in the water holding on for dear life to our second-hand tube while Uncle Glen whipped as back and forth across the lake. Our cousins Liam and Donal were laughing at us from the boat, but you could tell that they were terrified as well.
After a few minutes of screaming like schoolgirls, I looked over to my brother Zach only to find that he was, in fact, completely naked. Puzzled and a little curious, I shouted over the roar of the engine, “Why are you naked? What happened to your swimsuit?!” Not even the least bit embarrassed he yelled back, “Oh I lost them back there about two minutes ago! The water tore ’em right off!”
Judging from the almost eeringly enormous smile on my little brother’s face, I decided that naked tubing looked like a lot of fun, so I joined him. Trying desperately to hold on to the tube with one hand, I removed my swim trunks with my other hand, and boy was I right – it was a lot of fun.
Noticing our recent liberation from the bondage of clothing, my Uncle decided to drive the boat uncomfortably close to the beach where my extended family happened to be enjoying the afternoon. As he slowed down and brought the tube around for display, our little Irish butts gleaming in the summer sunlight despite our best effort to hide, my relatives responded with uproarious applause. One by one they stood to their feet, clapping, whistling, and even cat-calling as the two Simkins boys tried desperately to shelter beneath the water.
Eventually Uncle Glen had his fill of nephew beach-time nudity and decided to dock the boat. As he turned off the motor, Zach and I were greatly relieved until we heard him turn to our two cousins inside the boat. “Grab anything that looks like clothes and run,” he said with a smirk.
Thinking that perhaps we had some water in our ears, Zach and I both mumbled something like “Say what?”
But before we had any time to assess the situation or even bargain, for that matter, the three of them had grabbed everything they could find out of our beloved boat and went running and giggling to their cabin.
The two of us quickly jumped into the boat, frantically searching for something that would serve as a covering for us. Zach found himself a small washcloth that would do the job for our mad dash back to safety, while I hit the jackpot discovering a toddler’s life-jacket that I quickly put on upside-down like a bright (and doubly functional) diaper.
Now, the landscape of this humble resort is important. From the shoreline where we were parked, there stood a massive open field with a line of a dozen or so cabins on the far side of this clearing. Our cabin that year was, of course, at the very end of this long stretch.
Unbeknownst to us, our dear Uncle, after dashing with our clothes, knocked on each cabin door and said, “You’re going to want to be on your front porch in about 60 seconds.” So as Zach and I sprinted to our inconveniently distant cabin, holding washcloths and life-vests in place as best we could, we were greeted once more with the roaring applause of our loving family. The hoots and hollers filled the air as our little legs took us to safety as fast as they possibly could.
As you can imagine, our parents had some questions for us. For me, more specifically. Zach’s issue was merely with velocity while mine had a bit more to do with cognitive reasoning. My father was so confused (and mildly amused) by my action, he couldn’t even articulate a proper interrogation.
“Why on Earth would… Did you think that maybe…Is there a reason you…Were you sniffing paste again?”
For the rest of the trip he would refer to us as, “My sons, the strippers.”
I remember feeling pretty humiliated for the rest of that week. To this day any time my family decides to go out on a boat, someone invariably says something to the effect of, “Think you can keep your clothes on this time, killer?” My response is usually something to the effect of “No, I’m not sure I can. I can’t seem to stop myself from random outbursts of complete nudity and it’s made life very difficult. Thanks for bringing it up.” That, or I’ll just burst into uncontrollable weeping and let them guess what triggered the hysteria.
It took me years to realize the difference between humility and being humiliated. For so long I saw the two as synonymous terms and as a result, wanted nothing to do with either. Being humiliated was a terribly debasing state and it didn’t make sense to me that I was being told how God desired that for my life. It seemed cruel and, quite frankly, incongruent with who I felt God was.
But I eventually learned the difference.
Hearing the story of Christ washing His disciple’s feet for the first time was what changed everything for me. Imagining the smell of that room. The strong and distinct pungency of sweat lingering in the air from the day’s travels, the dirt and dust that was undoubtedly cemented to the feet and legs of everyone in the room, and the unmistakable expression of sun-worn exhaustion on the faces of the disciples. I imagine the space had an aroma of its own as well, but I think that the sweet scent of Christ’s love for his disciples overpowered it. John 13 even says that the meal was already in progress when Jesus decided to get up from the table and execute a beautiful act of service and humility to towards his friends.
I’m sure they saw the basins when they walked in. They must have made note of the towels hanging on the railing. I have to think that they expected a young servant to come in and take care of them at some point during the course of the evening. But then their master and king turned everything on its ear once again. Wrapping himself in a towel, he made himself like a lowly servant washing the feet of His disciples – even of the one he knew would betray him just a few hours from that very moment. He would eventually be stripped of his clothes, not by the waves of Michigan lakes, but by the hands violent and hateful officers who wanted nothing more than to see him humiliated and dead.
I remember thinking that my reaction would’ve been a lot like Peter’s – an outburst of disagreement and an unwillingness to let such an infraction continue. I think I share his difficulty with grasping the idea of a savior and king who came, not to be served, but to serve, to give himself fully – not just in a dramatic display of public execution, but in a quiet expression of a deep-seated position of love. And to be honest, my reaction still resembles Peter in many ways. Humility doesn’t make any sense a lot of the time. It often doesn’t seem to “add up” as we understand it, and this radical type of self-sacrifice in the world is often scoffed at – even in the church – as impracticable, illogical, or even unbiblical.
Ken Blanchard once famously said, “Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less” and I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Jesus never seemed to waiver in his understanding of his position – he knew exactly how he fit into this narrative of life – more so then we will ever grasp this side of eternity, I think. I imagine that when people ran up to him like crazed young girls at a Bieber concert, he didn’t lower his head, shuffle his feet and murmur, “Shucks, I’m not that great, ya’ll.” Instead, he always pointed people back to the Father and His kingdom. As a culture we speak so often of our lack, the areas in which we don’t excel, and the talents we don’t poses, but that is false humility at its core because we still end up talking incessantly about ourselves, even if in a pseudo-humble way.
I think Ruth Harms Calkin does a masterful job on the subject of humility in her poem entitled I Wonder:
You know, Lord, how I serve you
with great emotional fervor in the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You at a Women’s Club.
You know my genuine enthusiasm at a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if You pointed to a basin of water
and asked me to wash the callused feet
of a bent and wrinkled old woman
day after day, month after month,
in a room where nobody saw and nobody knew?
Which reminds me of a story I once heard…
Former heavyweight boxer James (Quick) Tillis is a cowboy from Oklahoma who fought out of Chicago in the early 1980s. He still remembers his first day in the Windy City after his arrival from Tulsa. “I got off the bus with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower. I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’ When I looked down, the suitcases were gone.”
I think many of us, if we are really honest, are okay will the “first shall be last” notion that Jesus speaks of as long as we’re the ones in control. But when someone cuts in front of us in line (or cuts us off in traffic, for that matter), we often scream “injustice” and demand vindication.
It is so beautiful to me that Peter of all people is the one who wrote:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” – 1 Peter 5:5
The root of the verb “clothe” means “a roll, band, or girth: a knot or roll of cloth” and is derived from another word that literally means “a slaves apron under which loose garments were girt up.” So the figure carries with it a brilliant exhortation to put on humility as a working virtue employed in living out tangible ministry. It’s Hebrew derivative is the word tapeinos and shows up in some form over 200 times in Scripture. The prominence of the verb shows clearly that the main reference is to an action rather than merely a state of being. So when Peter asserts that we must humble ourselves (or being basic sense of “stooping or bowing down”) it is an active choice not only internally and of heart, but in external deed and movement as well. Our decision to walk in humility as Christ did is not a secret to be secured, but neither is it a service to be flaunted. It is a garment to be worn.
Peter is so clearly drawing from that powerful evening where his master “girded himself with a towel” becoming like a servant, and gave them all the lesson of humility both by word and act. The commentator Bengel paraphrases this passage, “Put on and wrap yourselves about with humility, so that the covering of humility cannot possibly be stripped from you.”
No one is naked. We are all clothed with something. Many of us can be found donning the cloak of resentment, enrobed in the shawl of anger and bitterness, or buttoned up in the coat of depression. But I choose to be clothed in the essence of my Rabbi.
May we throw off the fabric that has entangled for so long and tie ourselves up in the robes of beautiful restoration. Jesus, we want you.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ – Romans 13:14