During the times of centering prayer at the Desert House of Prayer, we are invited to remove our shoes, to sit shoeless and to walk around the room shoeless. This invitation hearkens back to Exodus 3, when Moses drew near to the burning bush and God said to him, “Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Years ago I often went about barefoot, but after a couple of painful bouts with plantar fasciitis, I now wear orthotics in my shoes that have been specially molded for my feet. So I nearly always wear shoes. I am particularly conscientious about wearing shoes (rather than sandals) in the Arizona desert where it is always possible to step in striking range of a rattlesnake or a scorpion. Being so used to wearing shoes, but sitting there shoeless and walking around the room shoeless, I got to thinking about the spiritual significance of setting aside my shoes.
The first thing I realized about God’s call to Moses to set aside His sandals and the invitation to us to be shoeless during the time of centering prayer is that setting aside one’s sandals or shoes is a conscious act of taking off one’s form of self-protection and making ourselves vulnerable to God. Isn’t that what prayer is meant to be? Setting aside our self-protection and making ourselves vulnerable to God? For prayer is meant to be the place where our souls are laid bare before God, with no pretense or defensiveness between us. And prayer is meant to be the place where we are exposed to God for God to convict us of sins that need to be repented of and of brokenness in our psyche that needs to be healed. And prayer is meant to be the place where we are vulnerable to God calling us to take some new step of faith or some new step of service, where God might call us out of our comfort zone into some daring adventure with Him.
The second thing that came to my mind had to do with a talk I heard Jack Hayford give many years ago. He talked about all the “stuff” that had accumulated on the bottom of Moses’ sandals—all the thorns he had stepped on and the sheep poop he had stepped in and so forth. It strikes me that this, too, is a good reason to take off our “shoes” when we come before God in prayer. So often I want to come to God holding on to the crap in my soul instead of giving it up. I want to come before God without letting go of sins in my life or grudges in my heart or prejudices against persons or my pridefulness about something. Prayer is an invitation to give those things up and not to keep holding onto them.
A third thought that came to my mind also came from a talk I heard somebody else give (but I don’t remember who it was). That person talked about Moses’ sandals being man-made, that God was calling him to set aside man-made ways when coming before God. That is good advice for me to heed. When I come before God, it is so easy for me to get stuck in man-made traditions or structures or assumptions, and it is so easy for me to be stuck in the expectations others have of me. Those things get in the way of me simply bringing to God just who I am. Prayer is an invitation to me to come to God just as I am and just who I am. If taking off my shoes helps me to remember this, then it is worth taking off my shoes. (But if I am taking off my shoes just because it is the tradition here and it is “what we are supposed to do” then I have really missed the point.)