I’m quite sure my spouse will roll his eyes several times over if someone asks us to compare the numbers of pairs of shoes he has versus the numbers of shoes I have. It’s the cultural expectation, after all… gotta have blue dress shoes for a blue skirt or dress, black for black, and summer pairs. And that’s just the dress shoe department. In hospital ministry, one wants shoes that aren’t noisy but that are bearable for the amount of walking we do on hard surfaces. And there are dress codes that rule out sneakers and that demand all shoes have “closed toes.”
After the first year or so of working in a hospital, I noticed my shoes weren’t fitting anymore. It turns out that my feet had, over the course of miles of walking around the hospital for that first year…grown a whole size.
Guess what? I had to buy new shoes. More shoes!
On top of that, the kinds of shoes I’d had needed to be different from the work I’d done before. When I visited hospice patients, it wasn’t a priority for them to shovel the snow off their walkways and driveways, so I wore boots during the winter. Boots don’t work so well in a hospital setting.
The episode of ministry that got me thinking about shoes was when I stepped into someone’s hospital room a few weeks ago, and the first thing that the family said as I stepped around the curtain was, “we don’t recognize those shoes.”
They’d been painfully aware of the people stepping into their hospital room over the course of the past 24 hours. Painfully aware because they were enduring one of the most bitter times of a hospital stay: their babe was not going to live.
My strange shoes brought me into their room because the nurse had discerned that they needed pastoral care. These young parents were awaiting delivery of a baby under some of the most emotionally difficult circumstances: they were aware that she would not live very long, if at all.
So my feet carried me to their bedside, to ask what I might offer to fit their experience. I had brought two wooden cut-outs of sheep, in case this was the fitting metaphor for them.
So often in these situations, words are a luxury. The pain is so raw, and words seem frivolous.
I said I’d like them to think about themselves as shepherds to this little one; shepherds who would safely, lovingly enfold her for such a brief time. And that the Good Shepherd would enfold them in a larger sheep fold…both now and forever.
I stepped away, and invited them to call again.
I thought about what kind of bearings they had: did they have much of a footing in matters of faith? Would they sense that the shoes of the hospital staff would bring news of comfort and care, even when some of that news was bitterly sad?
When Anne Lamott met with some RCA women a number of years ago, we sat in a circle, and the conversation was, of all things, about SHOES. Anne commented that religious women tend to have more practical shoes than other women. I think she was picturing some women religious (aka, nuns)…shuffling about in inexpensive, well-worn black shoes. This group had Birkenstocks and other sandals that revealed they were made for walking, for bearing them up well. I thought of the bouncy life Anne’s had, and how her writings have been so deeply truthful of her walk in life. Because of her stories, many people see the real-ness of faith coming to bear in the ways God’s self has been revealed in her life.
There are shoes I would love to be able to wear (and enjoy wearing), but I know that my poor foot would not suffer them well. Or actually, I know my feet would suffer, and so I would suffer.
I wonder about the phrase, “how beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news.” Romans 10 seems to indicate that the beauty is because of the message of those who are sent to bring good news. The beauty is not in their feet (hmm), but in the message.
As you may well know, the message that the chaplain brings is not always good news. At least, that is the initial perception. I think we can bear to be in this kind of ministry because we have our bearings, our footings, deeply set in the good news. It is the kind of good news that says the bitterness of grief is not the last word. We bring news that God is with us, no matter what happens.
When we see where our feet have taken us, I remember God’s command to Moses to take off his shoes on that holy ground.