on icons and idols
It's kind of amazing how easy it is for something to become an idol without a whole lot of fanfare. Oh, sure, we don't make big productions out of melting down all our jewelry into golden calves - but that doesn't mean we don't have idols. An idol is anything we look to for something when we should be looking to God. Put that logically, sounds rather silly to be an idol worshiper, doesn't it? Yet we do it anyway... and not always intentionally...
An icon, on the other hand, is something that points us to God. Iconography is something that's become a bit lost, especially in many contemporary churches, but throughout history there have been hundreds of icons that have helped God's people to remember Him. Some are still hanging in our churches - crosses, banners, paintings, statues, signs, things carved into the woodwork or the masonry of our buildings... symbols that point us to Christ.
But, as Madeleine L'Engle once warned, "An icon can far too easily become an idol. Idols always bring disaster to the idolater. An icon is an open door to the Creator; when it becomes an idol, the door slams in your face."*
I have a ritual that has served as icon in my life for the greater part of my worship leading career. (I wrote about it here.) There are two things that almost inevitably happen every time I'm about to get onstage: 1) I totally want to throw up, and 2) I take my shoes off.
The whole nerves thing - I have always dealt with that. I am totally fine as soon as the lights come up - but talk to me five minutes before a service is about to start, and I'm liable to be fighting waves of nausea. I've gotten pretty good at hiding it. And I don't always even notice it myself - it's just part of how it goes.
But the shoes.... the 2 seconds it takes me to kick off my shoes are often the holiest part of my day. It's a ritual that marks a mental shift... an "okay, here we go!" as I take a deep breath and focus for the sprint ahead. And it's as habitual as saying hello to Orion, or going back to the coffeepot for a refill... it's just something I do - it's a part of who I am.
But right now I'm questioning whether it should be.
I have an opportunity the weekend after Easter to lead worship somewhere other than where I normally lead. At my church home, it is widely known and accepted that I lead sockfoot, and it's something that honestly, most of my congregation really loves, or at least respects. But I've been asked to put my shoes on for this particular service, and I've really been struggling with that. The conversation was incredibly gracious. They know where I'm coming from; they understand that it's a serious matter and they're not taking it lightly. But because the height of the platform (which is a whole different can of worms for another day) is at eye-level to the front row, the concern is that my sockfeet might be a distraction to someone in worship, and so, out of love, and an honest desire to help people engage in worship, the church's leadership has asked me to wear shoes.
I cried off and on for about 48 hours about it. Partly because I'd been hoping against hope that God would make a way in this. And partly because I am certain that there is something to be learned from this experience, but I don't know what...
So on Wednesday this week I went shoe shopping. I bought a relatively light weight pair of tennis shoes; they're comfy. They look cool. They're beige and brown so they'll go with about 1/2 my closet. I wanted something to be special still - a pair of shoes to change into, or to wear just on Sundays - something to hold onto... to remind me of everything I usually think about before I go on stage. I seriously thought about buying a pair in several brilliant shades of green, or a pair of ridiculous flip-flops with rhinestones all over them, or something equally hideous... but that would have been following the letter rather than the spirit of the "thou shalt wear shoes" law, so I didn't. I bought respectable shoes that I would wear anywhere.
And I slipped into a ridiculous funk.
We're talking melancholy artist funk of the worst sort. The sort of funk that if it wasn't Lent would probably have involved an entire 1/2 gallon of ice cream. Instead it involved me attempting to metaphorically smash a few bricks in that wall around me, only to fail visibly and miserably. So a friend showed up with a sledgehammer to help.
I think I'm grateful. Except once I started talking about it, my friend ever so kindly suggested that perhaps I've made an idol out of this particular form of worship. He's got a point. Taking off my shoes has always been an entrance into Presence for me - but it isn't some sort of magical formula. Shoeless-ness is not equivalent to Samson's hair in terms of being some sort of power source. The ground on which I stand is holy because God is present, not because I've taken off my shoes to stand on it.
"Why would it be disobedient to lead with your shoes on?" he asked. The only reason I can think of is that I feel like it's something God's asked of me - but I don't know that there was ever a "Hap, thou shalt do this no matter what" from God... I think it was simply a resolution on my part, a habit I chose to embrace as a spiritual discipline of sorts. And yes, it's a biblical form of worship (and in my book, therefore an acceptable practice) but it isn't sin to not take my shoes off either... I don't think. It feels like it, tho. In spite of the fact that it would be sin to defy the leadership by taking my shoes off - or walking out on my commitment.
I tried to "practice" wearing my shoes at rehearsal on Thursday. I only got about 1/2 way through rehearsal before I had to take them off. All I could think about was how hot my feet were. And tonight I led at our evening service, and I left my shoes on... and it was weird. I didn't like it. I had to fight the temptation to just kick them off all night long. I could've - no one would have cared tonight. But somehow I need to learn to do this... to be able to focus and lead well with shoes on. I don't know why. And I don't want to.
God can work thru me whether I have shoes on or not. I go around proclaiming that worship and music are not the same thing, that worship is a lifestyle. So either I should never wear shoes, or I should be okay with going shoeless as a form of worship that I do not need to engage in every time I lead, any more than I need to be flat on my face or raising my hands or clapping or shouting every time I lead...
But I'm not okay with it. And I'm not sure anymore if going sockfoot is an icon or an idol. I know God will honor the fact that I'm submitting to those in leadership over me. (Objectively, anyway.) But I am still desperately... un-Happy about it.
* Penguins and Golden Calves, by Madeleine L'Engle, p.39