On Sunday, November 3rd, 2017, I spoke with the some of the children of our congregation. Of course, the adults were welcomed to listen in, too.
I told them a story — about getting lost on a hike and what it was that “grounded” me during that ordeal.
I also told them a “secret.” The secret was that I wasn’t wearing shoes. Even more, I wasn’t going to be wearing shoes in the sanctuary from then on whenever I am facilitating worship.
This is something I used to do. It began while I was serving our congregation in Yarmouth, Maine, and it had become such a “thing” with me that it came up during my candidating with the second congregation I served, First Parish in Brewster, Massachusetts. (When I arrived I discovered that some folks had left in my office a rather large collection of extremely … colorful … socks!)
At that time I explained this odd behavior to the children by asking what Moses, Mr. Rogers, and I had in common. Although there were some creative answers, no one was able to see the connection.
Moses, I said, is remembered in the Jewish Scriptures as having an experience in which he encountered God — the sacred, the holy, the mysterious — in the form of a “burning bush,” a bush that burned yet which was never burned up. The story continues that after turning aside to see this unusual sight, he heard a voice that told him to take off his shoes because he was “on holy ground.”
It’s too long a story to have gone into fully, but what I could tell those kids was that when I was on a silent retreat some years before I’d had a similar kind of revelation about the holiness of where I stood. I took off my shoes right then, and remained barefoot throughout the rest of the week.
Mr. Rogers comes into the picture because in addition to being a beloved childrens’ TV host, he was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. (Not everyone knows that.) In an interview I’d heard once he said that it was his belief that the space between the television set and the children watching his show was holy ground, and that he tried to always be mindful of that in everything he did.
I told the children that Sunday morning that I had come back from that retreat with a renewed consciousness that the sanctuary in which we worshiped together was its own kind of “holy ground,” and to remind myself of that I took off my shoes. This symbolic act helped me to be mindful of that fact, and to hold that truth (truth to me, at least) uppermost in my consciousness.
I have not taken off my shoes here. I’m not entire sure why that is — I joked that Sunday by saying that perhaps I’d been intimidated by everybody here! — but I’d recently realized that I was missing this and that I really needed to bring the practice back.
To our children I told this briefly, commented on how this shoeless-ness “grounded me,” and asked them what grounded them, what they held on to when times were tough. This led us into the lovely hymn “When I am Frightened” (by the incomperable Shelley Jackson Denham) and, ultimately, to my sermon, “Oh Star.”
Why am I writing all of this? Firstly, not everyone comes to participate in worship and/or our religious education programming each week, so I know that there are some folks who didn’t hear any of this and who might be a little confused when they next see me and I’m in my stocking feet.
More importantly, though, throughout the month of December our worship is using the metaphor of fire to explore the issues we’ve been considering all Fall, issues of identity — who am I? Who are we? To whom, to what, do we belong? And on that First Sunday of December I was lifting up both the image of Moses’ burning bush, and Robert Frost’s lofty star, to encourage our consideration of what it is that grounds us, what it is we can hold on to when there seems that everything is falling apart, what we can look to for hope when it feels as though hopelessness threatens to overwhelm us (or seems to have already done so).
So … in this “holiday season,” which leaves so many of us feeling hectic and harried, which can be so hard and sorrowful for so many whose grief and pain is not only not erased, but often exacerbated by Christmas Muzak, which can highlight the sickness of idol conspicuous consumption …
in this wider season when the realities of our patriarchal misogynist white supremacist culture are become every-more starkly apparent to ever more of us (folks who identify as white and for whom this has largely been invisible) …
in these days when so much seems to be falling apart …
What do you hold on to? What keeps alight in your heart when all around you seems so cold? What lights your way, points you in the right direction, sustains beyond all expectation?
These are my thoughts this December.