One afternoon I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees. I typically opt for a mop, a far more efficient and dignified way to clean floors. Yet, at that time, I found myself compelled to do a “deep scrub” of everything in our home, from the handrails on the stairs to the intake grates of the HVAC system. The pandemic had that effect on me.
It was a rare moment of solitude and quiet. My husband had taken our two kids on a nature walk with the dog. Summer sun poured through the kitchen’s two windows, but I was cool in the air conditioning. As my arms pressed and circled the soapy rag on our cork floors, I found myself in a meditation. On the ground, as low as my body could be, away from distraction, I saw the kitchen in new ways. The yogurt handprint on the fridge, the splash of pasta sauce on the low cabinet next to the dishwasher, the tennis shoe scuff marks on the baseboards—all more visible now.
The change in perspective from adult height to the floor made me care more deeply about details I hadn’t noticed while walking my way through the kitchen. I saw how hurry leaves a residue and how self-involvement makes stains. How, without any intention at all, the cells of our skin slough off and land in nearly invisible layers on the floor to be dusted. There is no way to exist without leaving something behind for someone to clean up.
The Changing of a Suffix
Growing up, I was not expected to clean up others’ messes. We had live-in maids, but we preferred to call them “house cleaners.” For the sake of not raising spoiled kids and teaching responsibility, my mom taught me how to clean a window when I was eight. Spray with acrid blue cleaner, wipe with a paper towel—dirty to clean in a few waves of the hand, like a magic trick. Other than the occasional fingerprint on glass, I hadn’t had the tangible experience of dealing with someone else’s detritus.
In Luke 22 the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the greatest. It’s one of my favorite biblical moments because I believe Jesus is trying his best not to roll his eyes. Jesus responds, “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But, I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.” The easy church-youth-group interpretation of his response is that we should serve others, maybe at soup kitchens. But there on my kitchen floor on my hands and knees, I thought of servanthood as not an action but a way of being.
In the years between the pious ambitions of my youth group and my adult life as a mother and wife, I confused servanthood with servitude. That small suffix changes everything. Servanthood is a choice, an attitude. Servitude is being forced to serve other people. If I’m honest, I’ve often felt forced to serve my family, especially when cleaning our house.
But Jesus came as a servant, the kind who cleans up after others. He chose servanthood. And as a servant, he knows more about humility than most people. You can’t crawl around on a floor and be prideful. The one who chooses servanthood lives in grace, humility, and joy. Those of us who feel forced into servitude are full of resentment and frustration.
On the kitchen floor, dipping my stained washrag in and out of the plastic bucket, I watched the warm water grow muddy from the dirt left behind by my children’s summer feet. As I freed the floor of our family’s grime, I was struck with new awe and wonder for the women who cleaned before me. I saw Lupe, the live-in maid who was like a grandma to me. Even as a child I was almost as tall as her, a tiny little old woman who spoiled me with homemade tortillas after nap time. I saw her thick glasses and permed hair, her baby blue gingham delantal with bric-a-brac detailing, and her unapologetic smile. She hummed Julio Iglesias songs and scoured our colorfully Mexican tiled kitchen.
Our God of the Kitchen Floor
I did not deserve the clean kitchens of my childhood. Yet, I had them. I thought of Lupe and the other women who scrubbed our floors, of the grace they extended to me, forgiving my fallen crumbs and stray bits of after-school snacks. Forgiving my ingratitude.
I imagined God in a new way, as a woman on the floor scrubbing. A God who notices small, forgotten messes, remains of tiny traumas, and the marks of people going places while you are left behind. A God who is humble, in the truest meaning of the word—in Latin humilitas, meaning “on the ground” or “of the earth.” A God who knows we all leave marks and stains, yet cleans them up anyway. The one on her hands and knees in the kitchen, taking the time to scrub the floor carefully and thoroughly, because of who she is and what she knows is possible beyond the mess; not because the mess-makers deserve it.
Something shifted in me. It took me by surprise. In an odd, unexpected instant, I had found joy. I had met God.
Cover image by Heather Ford.