catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 14 :: 2010.07.09 — 2010.07.22


Concerning why I preach barefoot

I took a course on preaching a couple years back. The obvious final requirement was to prepare and deliver a sermon to our fellow classmates. I nervously stood up in front of the class, notes in hand and socks exposed. My professor, unsure exactly why I had chosen to come as such, asked about it. I mumbled something about it being more comfortable to speak without them, and he paused, then hesitantly said, “Okay…maybe that could become your thing: the pastor who preaches barefoot.” I chuckled awkwardly, and we carried on with the class.

I have been told that members of the Carmelite order, founded by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, walked around barefoot as part of their vows of poverty and removal from the world. While the allure and mystique of the monastic order remains to my Protestant self only an observed reality, and the arguably ascetic intentions of the Carmelites unappealing, I cannot help but romanticize a little, because for a few years now, every time I step up in front of a congregation, I remove my shoes. 

For me, this practice is a reminder that I am on holy ground. That’s not to say the ground I stand on when I face the congregation is any more sacred than the old carpet beneath their feet, or even the dirt and pavement of the subdivision outside. It is to say that there is a special urgency and sense of unique importance in the exchanges that take place in the context of corporate worship. It is to say that I am in the presence of the Holy One, lest I ever forget it and make the God of burning bush out to be merely the subject of Sunday routine. 

And while my lack of footwear is to me a physical reminder of the gravity of my call and the reality of the God we worship, it is also a reminder not to take myself too seriously. Despite the fact that I am elevated three feet above the rest of those gathered, despite the fact that I am receiving monetary exchange for my work, and despite the call from Scripture to take the task of spiritual leadership seriously and soberly, I am just a fool who, if he hadn’t intentionally left part of his attire behind, would probably have done the same by accident on another occasion. Lest my attire fool you into thinking I have got this all together, or am somehow of my own strengths qualified for this work, I choose to expose to the body of Christ my knobby toes. As a reminder to myself and to those gathered that God is in the business of making use of the broken, the weak and the foolish, I bravely step forward, toes laden with dirt and lint, featuring infrequently-cut nails.

To be honest, more than all the meaning I would like to attach to the ritual, for someone for whom public speaking has always been daunting, standing in front of a group of people without shoes is a lot more comfortable than with them. Maybe it is psychological, or maybe I just feel more at home, but my nerves are calmed a little the moment I leave my shoes at the pew. It is still more than that, though; like kneeling or lifting a hand to offer a blessing, it is a physical movement of sorts, tied to the mystery of embodied spirituality. 

I hope I do not become known as the “barefoot pastor,” but unless it becomes a distraction, or I am asked to cover my feet, I do not plan on wearing shoes while I speak any time soon.

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