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


Mike said...

I used to play in a country band back in the mid and late 80's to early 90's. One of my trademarks was that I always wore a pair of red boots when I was on stage. Nobody or nothing could ever get me to change that, it was like putting a hex on my ability to play. I understand where you're coming from.

The red boot thing was the first thing I thought of when you said that they told you, "thou shalt wear shoes". I was like, get a pair that's completely bizzare and see what's more of a distraction.

On that subject, I think that if they're paying attention to anything on stage, especially your socks, maybe the distraction problem isn't yours?

Ruth said...

Boy Mike you really are "a rebel until the bitter end". :)

Happy - I have been praying about your post since I read it last night. It's awesome that you are willing to share this personal struggle.

It seems to me that what started out as an icon and something that consecrated you to the Lord has become more like a superstition or a good luck charm that you are puting your trust in.(ie, an idol) And the fact that you are having such and emotional reaction to the prospect of having to wear shoes makes me say hmmmmm. Do you sense the HS is grieved or that you are grieved?

I think that the leadership might be overreacting.(my own church has some ancient rule about "no foot movement on Sunday") I read how you were able to get acceptance at your own church through conversation which I think is right on. But this case just feels like one of those times that you need to give to Cesar what is due to Cesar and trust God to come through for you rather than the feet.

Blessings to you dear sister....

Happy said...

Mike... well, yes. :) I'm not quite sure why anyone could/would be fussed about what I wear (or don't wear) on my feet. Oughtn't they to be worshiping God, or at the very least looking at the screens for the lyrics? I'm no rock star - not much to see when I'm leading. Except for days like yesterday when I broke a couple of strings... (that was exciting...)

Country, huh? Good for you. :) I have a 1/4" cable that's kind of my "good luck charm" - I haven't been using it lately because I misplaced it when I was stashing stuff in boxes for an open house - and it's been okay. Hoping learning to play with shoes on goes as well... tho not holding my breath. :P

So, I have to ask... did you wear spurs, too? :)

Ruth - THANK YOU for praying, and for your insight. That's a very good question... about whether it's me or the HS who is grieved. I don't know, but I'm going to pray about it. And I'll let you know if I gain any further insight into this. If it HAS become an idol, it needs to get smashed into bits... I didn't think it had; I'm still questioning if it really is one, or if where I landed a year ago over this issue was right... It was unintentional if it's true... and I know there's grace - on both sides. Which is so good to know. Anyway, I'm starting to ramble, so I'll cease and desist for the moment. :) Thanks again!

Mike said...

Ruth ~ Yes, I truly can be!!

Happy ~ I never wore spurs on stage. :) I am praying for your situation Happy.

Verification "etokpn". Sounds kinda Klingon huh?

Happy said...

ha - it totally does! :) so you're a trekkie, too, eh? how fun...

one question, tho - Kirk or Piccard? and choose your answer wisely... :)

Thanks for praying, Mike. Had a good talk about this with a friend last night and walked away still churning. He was on "my side" but every argument he tried to give me for why I ought to be allowed to go sockfoot, I was able to turn back around and use to defend their position. (it was sort of annoying). :P And he actually landed in their camp by the end of the discussion!

I suppose he's right - at the end of the day, it's "just shoes" - but MAN, am I conflicted over this! I got onstage again last night with my shoes on (20somethings ministry) and I just couldn't... so off they came. (turns out the whole rest of the team went sockfoot last night too!) :)

oy... so many silly inconsequentials... and yet i'm making it such a big deal. WHY? why can't i just drop this?!?!

okay, i need to shush now, before this comment becomes post-length. :P

all of that really was just to say - thanks.

Happy said...

side-note - skimming tho what i wrote, i read the word "camp" - yeah... i've started thinking of it in terms of camps/positions ... battle.

*sigh* here we go again.

"i will not throw spears...
i will not throw spears...
i will not throw spears..."

Sara said...

did you go back and read your post from a year ago when you linked to it? I just did and it struck me how . . . similar the things you said then in are to the things you're saying now. Don't know what I think of that. When you were trying to sort this out the first time, God just worked it out for you. Maybe he will again. Maybe not. Maybe it's an Isaac on the altar sort of thing.

I think your friend's words to you were very wise. We all have our idolatourous (sp? help?) tendencies to watch for--and the reminder that God's presence is not by our effort or ritual is always a good one.

Maybe in part, it's God trying to teach the leaders that worship is people coming into God's presence, and not something to be orchestrated, manipulated and micro-managed. (Maybe that's a little too much to hope for. :))

Maybe this isn't "about" anything at all and is just one of those human confluences, and God allowing the pastor to be a micro-manager.

Or maybe (I hesitate to write this) it's something of a reminder that your leading worship is not about *you* and how you feel about being up there . . . but rather it's a gift that you give, not only to God, but also to the people who you're leading . . . I know at one point you were debating about whether to lead at all, if you couldn't go sockfoot, but I don't think it would be a good thing to say, to this other congregation, essentially, "I won't give you this present, if I can't give it my way."

Then again, maybe this whole thing is just one convoluted plot by God to get me to give bad advice and hypotheses again, so that I can go SPLAT and he can try once again to teach me to keep my mouth shut. :P (The "It's all about ME hypothesis!)

love ya, sis. If I didn't care, my back brain could let this go. :P But I read your post this morning, and the old one that you back linked to, and I can't shake the feeling that there's *something* in all this that ALL of us are missing . . . That there's a reason, or a piece or a purpose that God has that none of us are catching, or have seen yet. I've been puttering my way through this all morning, trying to track down what that piece might be, and failing. anywho.

Anonymous said...

And maybe it's all of the above.

Sometimes knowing helps. Sometimes it hinders. He may be letting Sara know there's more to this story without saying what to help you trust that He does have a plan, and that you don't have to understand it to obey it.

Speaking of battle, there's an old Marine saying that may go further back to some other group: "Ours is not to question why, our is but to do and die." Thankfully, God sometimes lets us know why, even, occasionally, before asking us to do the seemingly impossible. But not always.

You can condemn the leadership for being stuck in their ways in not allowing you to worship in your socks. You can condemn the congregation for being able to be distracted by something so mundane. You can condemn the worship directors for having you play at the other venue. There are lots of people you could be blaming right now for this plight.

Or you could blame God, and know that this road is one that's not just to teach you, but to teach everyone involved something. Our God is a wise God, and in my experience He doesn't allow difficult circumstances transpire just to get a message across to one person, though sometimes that's only as far as our fallen eyes can see.

Trust. He'll get you through this. After all, He went to the cross... You have to lead worship with your shoes on in memorial to that event, and the greater one -- He came back, is risen, and is in you giving you the strength to follow Him and do this!

Anonymous said...

"Ours is not to question why, our is but to do and die."

Tennyson, "Charge of the Light Brigade" (modified)

Sara said...

"Charge of the Light Brigade." A maudlin, sentimental tribute to a battle that was one of the least deserving of tribute in military history.

From "The Reason Why," Cecil Woodham-Smith's history of the battle:

"It is a story of astonishing courage and honour, of stupidity, blood, death, agony--and waste. Nothing in British campaign history has ever equalled the tragic farce that was the charge of the Light Brigade . . ."

Such an attitude is straight out of Victorian sentimentalism--not a biblical worldview. God welcomes our questioning and wrestling. He may tell us eventually (a la Job) "sorry, you wouldn't understand the answer."

But too much of the church preaches that we're to obey like some sort of little automatons, and have the gall to call that faith.

Anonymous--whoever you are, not having the guts to actually put your name to whatever you want to say--you want to argue scriptural interpretation, fine. But keep it to scripture adn leave Tennyson out of it.

Tara said...

I think you should skip the shoes AND the socks and get a flaming flamingo pink pedicure....

Rob said...

No, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" isn't maudlin and sentimental; nor is it accurately quoted here; nor is it anything like "an old Marine saying," if the hundreds of Marines I've known over the years are any guide (though it's the sort of thing one might hear the sour, cynical type of NCO of any service say, if they know the poem).

Nor, more importantly, is it at all theologically acceptable here, since it implicitly compares God to the Earls of Cardigan and Lucan, the military incompetents and moral idiots whose ineptitude and mutual enmity created the pointless, unmitigated disaster that was the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. I can think of something more theologically problematic . . . maybe . . . but not by much.

Happy said...

Tara - lol! Thanks. :) Trust me, I've thought about any number of similar scenarios. My inner rebel is having a field day with this. ;)

and btw - i LOVE your subtitle on your blog. :)


Light Brigade commenters - play nice, now. :)

Since Tennyson's not here to defend himself or his poetry, we'll let that one alone.

anonymous person(s) - see the next post, i think... more to say than i care to fit in a comment box at this point, i think, so i shall write you an open letter. i hope you get it.

Mike said...

Definitely Picard! He is so much more of a diplomat. He's wise, cunning and empathetic. He is the definitive Starship Captain.

Plus ~ to incorporate the Kirk style, he recruits command officers like Will Riker to keep that flair alive.

Happy said...

Lol.... Mike, you crack me up. :) I never really thought of it that way... but you've a very good point! :) Hee hee...

Ah, well - at least Riker was cute...

(you may refrain from commenting on that)

Rob - what if *I'm* an incompetent and moral idiot whose ineptitude and enmity has created a pointless, unmitigated disaster by simply being honest?


Rob said...

what if *I'm* an incompetent and moral idiot whose ineptitude and enmity has created a pointless, unmitigated disaster by simply being honest?

As my mother would say, what if the moon were made of green cheese?

Happy said...

Wallace and Grommit would still eat it... :)

Mike said...

Me? Refrain from comment!!!

Ok...maybe just this once.