Barefoot in the Sanctuary: Why I Bare My Feet in Worship

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Over the past few years, I’ve developed a personal habit during my spiritual disciplines:

I go barefoot.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound cataclysmic at all. It’s pretty simple, really. And that’s part of the core of the practice: simplicity. When I was at seminary last week, I had quite a few people ask me “Why?” after leading a morning prayer service without shoes.

Afterwards I was asked to put my shoes back on for our school’s Opening Night of Worship. It was a more formal setting with more people attending the service. I was the cross bearer (in the front of the processional), and it my feet would have right there in front with me. Could my bare feet have shocked some people? Perhaps. Was it a reason to cover up? I don’t believe so.

So instead of trying to answer the many individual questions as to why I deliberately go barefoot in communal worship spaces, I’m offering a response here for you to read at your leisure. You may agree, disagree, or fall anywhere in-between. That’s okay. Blogs are conversation starters rather than finishers.

  1. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

    Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:2-5). I believe all ground is sacred ground; all space is created space; all ground and all spaces are inhabited by God. Thus all ground and space for all time is holy. God is present with me continually. Like Moses, I am called to display reverence, awe, wonder, and sometimes dread by removing my shoes while participating in worship. Here the worship of God is largely individual (just God and Moses), but I believe there are aspects to God’s character (holiness, awe-fullness, transcendence) that apply to all of us whether together or apart. I remove my shoes to express my smallness and insignificance before such divine power.

  2. Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,[a] took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

    Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (Luke 13:3-5). Here we find Jesus, the supposed Savior and Redeemer of the world, interrupting a formal worship service (the Passover) in order to perform the act normally relegated to slaves. Unlike the scene with Moses where removing shoes is a sign of our very human place before the Almighty God, we see here the removal of shoes and the washing of feet by God as a symbol of God raising us up to who we were meant to be in Christ. As I said, formal ceremony is deliberately interrupted in order for Jesus to intentionally share this new and unheard of thing. He comes close to his friends, he becomes intimate, he expresses love in a degrading and humbling way and invites us to do likewise. Removing my shoes during formal communal worship is my sign of Who’s path I have chosen to walk, the example I have chosen to follow. Jesus’ act was meant to disrupt and disturb just as much as it was to express love and closeness. If people feel uncomfortable at first with my bare feet, they aren’t alone. The disciples were pretty shocked too.

  3. There are numerous mystical traditions and sects from all sorts of religions that hold simplicity as a core virtue. Choosing to try and live a similar lifestyle of simplicity is a way for me to connect with these clouds of witnesses, to ground my entire being in creation, and connect on a physical level with God.
  4. Historically, slaves, prisoners, people in poverty, and other oppressed groups had their footwear removed by force. These groups also were not welcome in churches. They were untouchables, subhuman, and certainly not creatures God could love. Baring my feet declares that Jesus wanted/wants nothing to do with such false teachings or behaviour. Walking barefoot to the altar shows the Christ of the Scars, Christ of the Wounds, Christ of all People wants all people in all times and places to enter into worship together. By choosing to remove footwear, I am identifying the places where I have not been received into worship and breaking down those barriers by coming with Christ to Christ; I am also affirming the countless times and places where others have been refused communal worship, and declaring that rich or poor, gay or straight or trans, of whatever ability, of whatever skin colour: COME. Bare feet, in this instance, is a sign of beckoning welcome that breaks down dividing walls of hostility. This simple act together declares that oppression must flee before Love. We are all desired in worship, we are all called to come, we are all welcome. Yet so many have been refused welcome, sometimes literally for having no shoes.
  5. There are millions of people in this world who do not choose to go barefoot but must do so anyway. I remove my footwear as a sign that I do not need even a fraction of what I own. This would be an empty gesture if I simply donned my shoes afterward and headed straight for the first Doc Martens store. But as an extension of worship, I am learning to purchase only what I need when I need it.

But what if someone who’s faith is weaker is offended?

Good question.

The people who attended our service that evening, by and large, were long-time church-goers and supporters of the school. I highly doubt I would have shaken anyone’s faith. I might have offended some sensibilities or formalities, but this is where I cease to care very much. When the Apostle Paul speaks of being careful of those with weaker faiths, he was speaking to mature Christians in regards to infantile Christians with deep questions about new life.

If someone approached me and said that they could not worship at all because my bare feet were causing them to question their relationship of God, I would welcome a beautiful discussion about how I could support that person’s faith walk.

If someone approached me and said that I was being impolite or improper or shocking during what’s meant to be a sacred worship service, I would probably say: “Good! And here’s why…” I’m a servant, but I don’t believe coddling outdated social conventions is the same as addressing a shaken faith. Not in the least.

I am not deliberately trying to antagonize authorities nor am I trying to jump on a bandwagon to create some kind of pastoral image. I have given 5 very good reasons, I believe, as to why I practice communal worship as I do. I have addressed the primary concern people have about bare feet in a communal setting; and it’s my understanding that it is largely long time church-goers that have the biggest issues. Let me be clear: they’re faith is NOT at stake in this circumstance. It is their sense of propriety and what it socially decent. And as I have already mentioned, our social codes around shoes are largely embedded in privilege and segregation – declaring who was fit to enter church and who was not.

What about hospitals or places of safety?

I do recognize sensitive areas, such as hospital wards, where safety and hygiene are heightened issues. I will wear footwear in places where bare feet might put patients at risk for infection or transmission.

Any other questions out there? I welcome one and all. Hopefully l will be able to answer them to your satisfaction. As I said, this is a conversation starter rather than an ender’s game.

Thanks, all, for hearing me out. Peace.

 

4 comments

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  1. calanon

    You know, God’s been lightly introducing this very thing to my conscience for a while now, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Then I popped in here to find this post. This solidifies my conviction that even if not others, I need to do this myself. Thank you for posting this! I’ll be reblogging this over at my page.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. KateZed

    I wish you had been in Cameroon with us, especially when we were invited to not take our shoes off in a place where normally one would be expected to leave one’s shoes at the door. The significance of that event did not become clear to me until afterwards.

    Like

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