I do not wear shoes when I preach.
It started out as a theological statement: that in worship we come into God’s presence, just as Moses did at the burning bush. And in recognizing this space as holy ground, we (like Moses) remove our shoes.
But removing my shoes is not an empty theological gesture that has no consequences. On the contrary! Every week, I remove my shoes and allow my feet to be visible to all who would examine them. (And my feet are not traditionally something I am excited to show off.)
Moses removed his shoes … and then, in his encounter with God, went on to demonstrate both his best and his worst natures. So, too, do I find that God’s call utilizes my best gifts, while challenging me in those areas where I need the most improvement.
In an act that is both freeing … and slightly unsettling … I remove my shoes each week and allow the less-than-polished parts to be visible. Barefootedness is no longer just a theological signpost; it has become a continual reminder and my weekly, intentional consent to allow my vulnerabilities to be apparent, rather than hiding behind a polished facade.
This week, I am thinking of Shoeless Mo (Exodus 3) and I am particularly cognizant of the unusual places in our lives that God is at work. And I am oh-so-thankful at the opportunity to remove my shoes and come into God’s presence.
In recent years, the ministries with which I have been affiliated (including my present call) have allowed me the great privilege of ministering to people in transition. Whether those people have been college or seminary students, homeless or hospitalized persons, a congregation or a camp board that is trying to shift its focus, in accompanying them on their journey I have been reminded regularly that God is with us in the wilderness (that place of transition between Egypt and the Promised Land and that the wilderness is indeed a sacred space.
In times of transition, we often prefer to put our energies toward projects and plans that will get us into the Promised Land as quickly as possible instead of taking the time to become aware of the grace that God pours out upon us in the uncomfortable wilderness. However, the stories of Israel in the wilderness teach us not only that God is with us in these transitions, but also that the wilderness is an important time in the life of the community.
It has been my privilege to be present with communities in these most holy times and to nurture the community’s clearer vision, not only of the future but also of the good work that God is doing in them every day. To these communities in transition, the good news is this: though we may feel like we are wandering in a barren land, God is most surely at work and we are invited to see God at work where we (perhaps) least expect it.
NOTE: I’m working on updating my Personal Information Form (or PIF), which is the standardized form that Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors fill out when they are looking for new ministry positions. As I do so, I am reading and writing a lot of things about the church, ministry, and myself. Since not all of these things will eventually wind up in the final version of my PIF, I thought I’d share some of it here. Thanks for letting me indulge.
My storm radio alarm woke me this morning around twenty ’til 5 … a little earlier than I had planned, jarring me awake. Despite the darkness, I got up and took the dogs for a quick pee. I confess I was a little harsh in my tone of voice with them, but I didn’t want to stand out in the rain and I wanted them to hurry.
Then, it was right back to bed … just like most mornings. The only thing different on this morning was that I headed down to the basement with a pillow, a few blankets, and my dogs, instead of back upstairs to my own bed. There in the darkness, I heard the tornado alarms begin.
I didn’t hear rushing wind or feel the force of the storm. I do not have a tornado “story” to tell. I simply reclined with my dogs, bemoaning my uncomfortable position and the fidgety fear that can be so annoying in 60-pound and 80-pound dogs who don’t know that they aren’t human.
Half a mile.
That’s about how far my house is from the shopping center, the hospital, the housing complex, the businesses that were hit.
Half a mile.
As I lay reclining – complaining – people were dying.
It’s hard to believe that the helicopters flying overhead aren’t on their way to somewhere else. We’re not accustomed to “fame” here in little Harrisburg, Illinois. It’s almost exciting to see the name of my hometown at the top of the websites of major news networks, to see our mayor interviewed.
Except that it’s not.
I was the very first person to arrive this morning at the building where volunteers are being coordinated. Well, I was the second; a sheriff’s deputy was already on-site. My name is the first on the sign-up sheet to help, to do something, to do ANYTHING.
They don’t need me.
I called the local Presbyterian pastor (which is the denomination in which I am also a pastor) and offered help.
They don’t need me either.
So I sit – useless – at my computer, staring at the worship service that I was organizing for this coming Sunday while I listen to the police scanner. The worship liturgy doesn’t make sense to me anymore; the words no longer describe the world in which I now reside. I should begin to put together a different kind of service.
But not right now. Not yet.
I stare for a long time at the capsule in my hand, one of the vitamin supplements that I normally take each day. How strange to be planning for a healthy tomorrow, while surrounded by devastation. Another alternative doesn’t present itself, so I go ahead and swallow it.
The windows of my house are open to the sunshine and spring breezes, and the weather seems to mock the ache in my soul. I feel disoriented, so I look up the news sites and check the death toll, hoping that the numbers will have decreased.
I recognize the voices on the scanner … friends who serve as first responders and who are working in some useful employ today. I want to be there. I want to get in my car and drive to the site and walk around. I want to wrap arms with other people who feel my confusion and pain. I want to touch the rubble with my hands and weep over the remains.
But I don’t go there. I don’t even drive by. I know I would be in the way of the work that needs doing.
I hear people use the word “sightseers” for such behavior … but maybe we are mourners, who yearn to gather to pay our last respects and to remember and to try to come to grips with the loss. Or perhaps to find the only kind of reassurance available: that we’re still here.
by JOYCE RUPP
The cosmos dreams in me
while I wait in stillness,
ready to lean a little further
into the heart of the Holy.
I, a little blip of life,
a wisp of unassuming love,
a quickly passing breeze,
come once more into Lent.
No need to sign me
with the black bleeding ash of palms,
fried and baked.
I know my humus place.
This Lent I will sail
on the graced wings of desire,
yearning to go deeper
to the place where
I am one in the One.
Oh, may I go there soon,
in the same breath
that takes me to the stars
when the cosmos dreams in me.
To Keep a True Lent
by ROBERT HERRICK
Is this a Fast, to keep
The Larder lean?
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d go,
A down-cast look and sour?
No: ’tis a Fast to dole Thy sheaf of wheat And meat
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife And old debate,
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
And that’s to keep thy Lent.
The Comfort of Ashes
There’s something clean about ashes;
Rubbish reduced to uniform powder.
No heaps of trash to hurt the eye,
No rotting corpse to hurt the heart.
A gust of wind, a wash of water
And it’s gone for good:
It does not disturb me that I am such dust;
What the fire cannot touch
Never can be touched
By hand or flame or even eyes.
Let then the residual ash be blown
On the wind and be gone,
Returned to the kind earth
Whose bones gave me form
And let my soul go home unhindered.
Surely in the brow’s sweat we seek the good,
a jewel desired but in harm’s setting placed.
Gained at a risk, our lives on danger based,
a chasm ‘twixt what’s done and what we should;
Hurt and help are in the single circumstance
and evil taints the hope, the goal contaminates.
So Providence submits to bitter fate –
the cross; its partner in redemption’s dance.
Good comes by increments; so slow its speed!
Humanity rebuffs the pure, God’s Self!
Gives up! The good is placed back on the shelf
Two steps ahead, two back, progress indeed !
Try again! Smudge the tiny ash of grace;
God helps you make the world a better place!