Shed Your Shoes
A commencement address given to the graduates of Parkland’s 2018-19 Clinical Pastoral Education Residency Program
Exodus 3:1-5 NRSV
"Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 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. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 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.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
It feels right to conclude our time together with a reflection taken from the Hebrew scriptures about another person with considerable pastoral responsibility whose work led him through the wilderness to an experience of grace. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with clinical pastoral education or who have not heard about it first hand from your colleagues, friends, family, or loved ones, I have often referred to CPE as the best experience you never want to have again. As former ACPE Educator and pastoral theologian Wayne Oates once remarked, "I am not here to fill your notebooks or teach you something you have to remember, but I am here to cause something to happen to you that I dare you to forget." For those of you graduating today, you may look back on this time with a host of emotions, but I cannot imagine that any of you will be able to let go of some of the memories you've created within this beautiful and chaotic learning environment. My hope is that each of us have found and are beginning to trust that encounters with the sacred are almost always on the other side of the wilderness, that we must walk deliberately and with careful vision in order to see what's aflame yet unconsumed around us, and that we must be willing to remove our sandals in order to feel the holy ground that is ever beneath our feet.
Encounters with the sacred are almost always on the other side of the wilderness. I wish it weren't so, but there seems to be a consistent, confounding logic to the spiritual life that goes against worldly wisdom. Rarely do we encounter peace that passes all understanding in the aftermath of winning the lottery or when we have carefully curated our perfect day. It doesn't lie on the other side of having binged our favorite Netflix series or when we reach the bottom of our favorite pint of ice cream. We seem to find ourselves in the presence of the numinous in times of deep disorientation, when our strength is gone, and when we look around in every direction and can't quite place ourselves on the map. Jesus is literally thrust into the wilderness where he is met with temptation after temptation with no food, and afterwards the angels attend to him. Siddhartha sat still under the Bodhi tree for seven weeks without moving as he awaited enlightenment on his path toward becoming the Buddha, yet he was faced with the demon Mara who presented a series of temptations to distract Siddhartha from realizing his goal. Only after withstanding these trials was he able to achieve enlightenment and become the Buddha. And in our text for this morning, we see Moses encountering an angel of the LORD in a flame of fire out of a bush that was not consumed but not until he had led his flock beyond the wilderness. I can't pretend to know where each of you are as you are completing this journey, but I do know that learning that lasts is almost always on the other side of trial and that our encounters with God, with the inexplicable, with all that wakes us up from our slumbers requires a period of wandering and testing, of nurturing doubt and the dark night of the soul, and of letting go of certainty in order to be held by blessed assurance. The good news is that we don't have to seek out these godforsaken times. Impermanence and suffering are two of the givens of life, and they spring up whether we invite them into our lives or not. However, I want to encourage each of you to consent to their presence when they arrive, to welcome the messiness when it shows up unannounced on a Thursday night, or, as the Buddha would learn, to invite Mara to tea as a way to remove his power. As you begin to trust the paradox inherent in the wilderness, the wild becomes a part of you, and you will become more likely to be surprised by grace springing up in the most unlikely of places.
We must walk deliberately and with careful vision in order to see what's aflame yet unconsumed around us. Parkland is one of the busiest and most hectic working environments I've ever been associated with in my 12 years of chaplaincy. Almost without my consent I have found myself walking unusually quickly from point A to point B because a building as large as this one and a patient population as vulnerable and sick as ours requires profound efficiency. I have seen the way many of you walk these halls, head down, almost jogging to get to the next code, to complete the next advance directive, or to finish one more visit before heading home. I wonder if, in our haste to tend to the flock, we might not be missing burning bushes around every corner. The nurse clocking in near the break room, the physician emerging from the sleep room on her way to the M pod for yet another trauma, or your fellow chaplain returning misty eyed from an especially harrowing and traumatizing encounter on our burn unit. How often do we think to keep our eyes peeled for how serendipity or unexpected grace might show up while we're moving quickly to where the "real ministry" is located, to where we know our presence is needed, or to an experience that offers us some measure of control and familiarity? I picture Moses walking with a deliberate pace if for no other reason than having to make sure the sheep stayed together, and this slowness is what enabled him to become a noticer and to say to himself, "I cannot believe my eyes...I need to change direction slightly here because this vision seems remarkably unusual!" I walk these halls every day, and in my hurry to get to the next meeting I pass people whose uniqueness and story would very likely usher me into the holy of holies on a regular basis. I sometimes wonder what might happen if we would simply slow our gait and look around with an air of expectation about the way the sacred wants to show up in interruptive ways, in forms that are so breathtaking that we have to literally stop what we're doing to behold them. As you go about your days, wherever you may be, I hope you'll slow down, keep your head up, and look around at the holiness that surrounds you, ablaze but not consumed.
We must be willing to remove our sandals in order to feel the holy ground that is ever beneath our feet. One of my favorite writers, poet and philosopher David Whyte, tells the story of sharing a poem with the image of Moses and the burning bush at an event in Boston, and afterwards an Hassidic Jewish man approached him saying,
“You know what the original verb is in the Bible, when God says, ‘Take off your shoes’?” I said, “I have no idea.” He said, “It’s the word ‘to shed’ your shoes, and it’s the same verb that’s used for an animal shedding its skin.” And so God says, “Shed your shoes,” just as it would be a natural process to let it go. And of course when you’re shedding, you don’t look that great for a while, but you’ve just got to go through that lovely humiliation.”
I love this image and the idea that shedding is a necessary process that we have to experience so that we can actually feel the ground beneath our feet. Rabbis are fond of the interpretation of this passage that says it's not that there was something inherently special about this ground in front of the burning bush that necessitated the removing of the sandals; rather, holy ground is everywhere. It's our sandals or our dead skin that prevents us from recognizing the sacred ground that supports our weight. In CPE, we spend a good deal of time noticing all the dead skin we bring to our ministry, joining with peers and educators, medical staff and patients, all of whom help us to shed what keeps us from touching the intimacy and holiness of our own ground. This process is quite painful. There is no doubt that while we are in the middle of this process it is humiliating, but the Latin root of humiliation is humilis, which means ground or soil. Perhaps we need to learn to embrace--and maybe even seek out--experiences of humiliation in order to return to and actually touch the holiness of the ground on which we stand. A telling diagnostic of a life that has become too comfortable or too familiar is one in which all ground feels the same, where we have allowed ourselves to become lulled to sleep by a worldview that has figured everything out and that doesn't leave room for mystery, for playfulness, or for holy improvisation. My hope for each of you is that you will trust the wilderness process of whatever needs to be shed so that you might encounter in each deliberate step a novelty that will keep you awake and on the lookout for the next discontinuous display of extravagant holiness because the sacred wants nothing more than for you to burn yet not be consumed.