Last night, I celebrated iftar at Al Hedayah in Fort Worth, and tonight my wife, Leah, and I broke fast at the Islamic Association of Collin County with Yaseen.
I have started wearing my TOMS shoes to the mosque, because they are very easy to slip on and off.
And I have begun to meditate on the discipline of being barefoot.
I asked a friend tonight why Muslims took their shoes off for prayers. He responded by referring me to a story from the Bible that I know well.
Moses was shepherding a flock at the foot of Mt. Horeb when he turned aside to look at a bush that was burning, but not being consumed. As he approached the strange conflagration, God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
“Holy ground” is the place where God comes to meet with humanity in a close and intimate way. In Christian tradition, we sometimes refer to this as a “thin place,” a space where the division between heaven and earth, the sacred and secular, is rather thin.
Our response to being on “holy ground” is to humble ourselves, to strip off those things which would keep us from putting our whole attention on God’s presence. Shoes are a simple, symbolic representation of the kind of humility that ought to accompany us into the “thin places.”
This tradition of going barefoot in worship is not something which has carried over into the Christian church, at least not in North America. I am used to wearing shoes at all my church functions, whether worship or administrative. Most of the time, I wear black or brown dress shoes, with dark dress socks. Sometimes I am able to get away with wearing sneakers, or my red and black Vans, to the office during the week, but even this can be considered “subversive”!
I wonder what the effect would be to begin the practice of going barefoot in all of my worship gatherings. I wonder if it would cause me to begin to rediscover the sacredness of our space. Too often, I’m not sure if I actually expect God to show up in our services. I know how to go through the order of worship, how to read Scripture and deliver a sermon, how to offer Communion to people.
Yet if I really treated the sanctuary on Sunday morning as a “thin place,” wouldn’t I want to take my shoes off, and revel in the mystery?
I’ve discovered that there are other benefits to going barefoot, as well.
For one, it relaxes me. Having my shoes off makes me feel as if I am at home, as if I’m in a place that is comfortable enough to dispense with formalities. In the South, the saying goes, “Stay a while – kick your shoes off!”
I’ve really enjoyed the meals the last two nights, partly because I was relaxed and not in a big hurry to get away.
Going barefoot is also a vulnerable act. When you don’t have shoes on, it’s possible for someone else to step on your toes and hurt you! Or you might step on something that makes you wince. It’s a sign, then, that one is willing to be vulnerable before God, willing to be open to whatever God chooses to reveal or bestow.
And there’s one more thing. Being barefoot in a room full of folks has an incredibly equalizing effect. Over the last couple of days, I have prayed next to doctors, lawyers, and professors, as well as construction workers, mechanics, and high school students. I have prayed next to Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, Nigerians, Somalians, Sudanese, Americans, and Pakistanis.
But when we are in the prayer room, wealth and class and ethnicity don’t matter anymore. We are all children of the one true God, showing our reverence and giving our praise.
We are simply barefoot and bowed.