For some parents, the expectation that they could be dressed in evening wear and sitting on a 5pm train, headed for a formal dinner, children happily settled with the babysitter, car legally parked at the station, is more a pie-in-the-sky, never-in-a-million years, Tough Mother type-challenge. The kind of thing 2 parents, desperate for a night out together somewhere fancy, might tell each other they could manage, right up until 4.45pm on the day they had scheduled this record-breaking stunt…
This was a challenge we set ourselves about 3 years ago when we were living in Hampshire and Jack’s boss generously asked him to represent their squadron at a Mansion House dinner in London. I was the plus one! It all sounded very glamorous when the prospect lay in the future. The problems crept in when the time came to execute the plan.
As a frazzled mum still not getting much sleep, my outfit was a bit thrown together. A beautiful dress lent by a friend with a flouncy wrap-around jacket I fished out of the back of my wardrobe that might be fashionable again now but, ironically, probably wasn’t back then. I think I’d done my hair earlier in the day so all that was left was an early tea for the kids and my make up.
Jack came home with 3 minutes to spare and we had the ‘You said the train left at 5.30’, ‘No, the train timetable has always had the train scheduled for 5pm’ unhappy exchange that other couples might recognize. Something had to give so it was half my makeup. We set off for the station with the kids nowhere near ready and me even further behind, still doing up the belt on my jacket, seat belt not done up, in a screech of tyre marks.
It wasn’t the romantic start to our journey we might have planned, if we’d done any proper planning. Just normal levels of civility seemed unachievable as we tried not to miss the train. It might not be considered good etiquette to abandon your car by someone else’s driveway but etiquette, like romance, took its leave of us at the first set of traffic lights. And who can really claim to have ever mastered the council’s handy RingGo system of parking. More accurately, Ring and have a 10 minute blood-pressure-raising chat with a robot, whilst simultaneously trying to delete the details of old cars you no longer own and debate with yourself whether missing the train or getting clamped is your preference, then throw yourself at the train doors as they’re shutting. So instead of RingGo, we went for the driveway option and I prayed no one would key the car as I tottered along for the train in my unfamiliar heels.
We made it to the platform just in time and I spent the hour into London wondering how I could rectify my wonky face. At Waterloo, I accosted some make up girls in the station’s Boots to help me. I emerged to find my husband booking an Uber, then, realizing I’d forgotten to apply deodorant, I ran back to Boots. Once I was finally ready, I found my husband staring at his phone. We’d missed the Uber. We decided to start walking along the river and order another one. We had time.
Maybe Uber had the hump with us after we failed to pitch up for the first ride because after that we tried unsuccessfully and repeatedly to arrange a replacement one. To make matters worse, every black cab in London seemed to be busy. Before long we had NO time. I took off my heels and we ran along Embankment like we’d seriously overdressed for a half marathon. Eventually, a cabbie took pity on us and we arrived at Mansion House like a reverse Cinderella, with me trying to hide my dirty feet inside my shoes.
The drinks reception was coming to an end, leaving barely enough time for us to check the seating plan before the banquet began. Our names were listed on the top table and we were sitting apart. As we processed into the Egyptian Hall behind guards with swords and trumpets and a sea of people clapping, I felt overwhelmed and nervous.
I knew no one apart from Jack and I wondered what I might possibly have to say that would be of any interest to my dinner companions. I try to read the news and keep abreast of current affairs. I try to read something more highbrow than The Gruffalo every night. But to be honest, I’m still struggling to follow Brexit 3 years on and I am more likely to read the Sainsburys Magazine than anything with chapters, at least whilst our youngest still wakes us at night. Everyone on the top table seemed to be decorated with medals and chains, including my husband. As I took my seat, I was conscious that I had nothing comparable to indicate my value or status. Just dirty feet and a borrowed dress.
But then the loveliest thing happened. I found myself seated next to a padre, with whom I immediately had lots in common, our shared faith within the military community meaning we had shared friends and interests. And on my other side was an older gentleman, who was married to one of the alderwomen, a man similarly without medals or chains. He was one of the best dinner companions I have ever had, a true gentleman, making me feel as though it was a privilege for him to be sitting with me.
At the end of the meal, a cup of wine was sent around the room for us to share, traditionally known as ‘The Loving Cup’, something I had never heard of before. As a reference to a time when drinking at a banquet might have left you unguarded and vulnerable to attack, the person on your right removes the lid and offers you the cup, whilst the person on your left guards your back as you drink. You do the same for your neighbours and the cup travels around the table. The padre served me the cup, whilst the gentleman stood guard.
Jack and I left the party holding hands and laughing about the unexpected fun we had shared during a night that had got off to such a bad start. It was one of those experiences of joy that you treasure fondly because you hadn’t anticipated it.
All these months later, I’ve been reminiscing about it, maybe because I’m planning a trip to London soon and something has triggered the memory. And in my nostalgia, I’ve been struck by what a wonderful picture that night provides for my faith.
Each and everyone of us is invited to join God’s top table but how many of us are unsure of our invitation? Have we left it too late? Are we deserving enough? Do we know enough? Aren’t others more worthy of a place? Are we clean enough? We may belong to a church but still feel keenly aware that we have dirty feet, feet we may try to hide, hoping no one will notice if we keep them far enough under the table.
The night that Jesus was arrested and subsequently killed, he shared a final meal with his closest friends- a former tax collector, several fisherman and possibly one more learned man. All of them were ordinary people, all of them had dirty feet. To their astonishment, before the dinner, Jesus took a bowl of water and a towel and he washed their feet for them. In doing so, he was showing them that they didn’t need to be clean to eat with him: he himself was the means of cleaning them.
So what does it mean to be cleaned by Jesus? The Bible explains that we are welcomed into the party simply by admitting we have dirty feet, by humbling ourselves enough to acknowledge we need Jesus to clean us. He promises that from that day on we can be sure of our place with him forever, wherever our walk takes us.
But if we get cleaned up, why are we not then perfect? I look at friends and people around me most days and think they are living life better than me. If I have been cleaned up, it’s often not obvious. I shout at the children, I am controlling and impatient, inflexible and lacking in faith. Struggle, fail, change, repeat: that should be my hashtag.
But like me comparing myself to all the other people at the top table, this comparison with others is unhelpful. The person I should compare myself with is the old Katie. The one who would be even more shouty and controlling without my faith. Even if it’s not always apparent, I am different, yet every day I still need more help. Like the disciples who would have needed their feet cleaning every day after walking around the dusty roads of Palestine, we also need to be cleaned daily.
And that’s where the loving cup comes in. Once we have been saved by Jesus, the invitation is then to drink from the same cup that Jesus offered his friends at that final meal. We are to try and live as he lived, following his path, with its tough choices and sacrifice. Again, we may wonder how this could be possible. If we mess up on a daily basis, how can we live even a little bit like he did?
When the banqueting cup was sent around the table, it was the padre who helped me to drink from it and the older gentleman who had my back. And it’s a bit like that when we follow Jesus. Jesus himself helps us to drink- he provides the means to keep following him- and God protects us in our attempts. In this way, we are completely surrounded in a heavenly embrace.
The padre’s job at the dinner was to say grace. And that’s what this all boils down to: grace. Undeserved love. The love that invites us to the party is the same power that enables us to keep on keeping on. All we are expected to bring to the party is humility and obedience. Humility to say we need help, obedience to try and follow our helpmate.
The unexpected part of the party is the joy that flows from accepting an invitation we might not initially have wanted to receive or that left us overwhelmed when we turned up late and unprepared, feeling unworthy or poorly dressed. But I have often thought the best nights out are those we didn’t want to go on because they have the greatest capacity for surprise and joy.
Those nights are a gift.