I recently shared on a Sunday morning that one of the questions I get asked more than anything is why I don’t wear shoes on Sunday mornings. (For those of you who were there, don’t worry, I won’t spend a lot of time on it again!).
I shared with the community that the reason I take my shoes off on Sunday mornings is that when I take my shoes off and when I have an awareness of my shoelessness, like God said to Moses (Exodus 3:5) and Joshua (Joshua 5:15), and like the tradition of many Eastern Orthodox churches, it is an intentional reminder to myself that that I stand on holy ground—it is a physical reminder to me that God is here with us in our gathered worship, so that I don’t lose sight of his presence in our midst. Secondly, as in most cultures around the world, it is customary to take off your shoes when you enter someone’s home, as a sign of respect, but also as a symbol of entering community, relationship, welcome. So for me, taking my shoes off is a reminder to myself that when we gather, we are coming together as family and friends in a home, a place of welcome and worship and life together. And so standing before you barefoot is a physical reminder to myself of Holy community.
One of the reasons I shared this on a Sunday was because on two different occasions a couple of visitors noticed my shoelessness and took it as a sign of disrespect, as if I was somehow mocking God and making fools of the congregation.
Amongst other thoughts and responses that I had, I want to share two takeaways for me from these criticisms. One was a reminder that whenever I see someone doing something that I don’t understand (the way these people saw me), perhaps something that I think is offensive, disrespectful, or whatever, instead of assuming the worst of the person and their intentions, a more Christ-like response would be to be compassionate, curious, and humble—perhaps there is a good reason behind their action that I just don’t see; perhaps it’s something I’m ignorant of, not the other way around. And then engage in dialogue with open-mindedness and a teachable heart.
A second takeaway I wanted to share was simply an encouragement for us all to engage in simple physical embodiments of prayer as a part of our spirituality as we walk with God. The letter to the Colossians in the New Testament speaks of Jesus as the “image of the invisible God,” and throughout the letter the author, Paul, speaks of Jesus Christ in his physical body (fully God, fully human) being resurrected and working to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth. This physical embodiment of God in Jesus, often referred to as the incarnation (which means to take on flesh or be made physical) is all through the New Testament. Also throughout the bible is the call that our response as Jesus’ disciples is likewise to be incarnational—to live out our spirituality through our physicality.
Like taking off your shoes as a personal (and in some cases communal) act of grounding yourself in the reality of the presence of a holy God and/or an awareness of dwelling in the midst of loving and welcoming community, there are many “simple embodiments of prayer” that can help us put flesh on our spirituality. Even if you don’t connect with God through these specifically, perhaps some of the ideas below may at least be an encouragement to you in discovering ways that you can connect with God in your physicality.
One of the simplest ways to think about what a simple embodiment of prayer might be is, well, simply to picture what physical act expresses the desire of your prayer. For example, when I am setting aside intentional prayer time—talking and listening to God in quietness—if I want to express to God my own weakness or inability and my desperate need for Him, I get down on my knees (a pillow or ottoman/footstool helps if your knees are sore). By getting low I am physically expressing my need for God, that without Him I can do nothing, or expressing my need for his forgiveness and healing. Sitting as still as possible can be an embodiment of a desire to quiet my heart and hear, or a physical expression of receiving God’s peace or rest. Sitting with hands on my lap with palms facing up is an expression of receiving from God, while sitting with palms facing down is an embodiment of turning things over to God. The act of opening a closed fist as an expression of letting go and releasing to God whatever you are holding on to.
One thing I find very helpful about these embodiments of prayer is that sometimes (well, let’s be honest, many times) we might not feel in our hearts what we know or long for in our heads. When that’s the case these physical expressions of worship are ways to express to God our desire even when we may not have the accompanying emotion. For example, Sunday mornings when we gather and begin singing songs, sometimes my heart or my head is not in it, and I feel disconnected from God or from the community around me. Holding my hands open palm up, or raising my hand palm forwards, are physical expressions of invitation and praise that help centre me. Sometimes the physical act helps move me from disconnection to connection, but sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, I at least am still able to offer God my physical act of worship out of a desire in my mind and heart. And I think that God is pleased with the worship and devotion we offer to Him in our willfulness even in the absence of emotion.
Sometimes when I’m down or exhausted or facing what I know will be a hard day, even simply getting out of bed can be a challenge. On those days, praying “this is the day the Lord has made,” I place my feet on the floor as a way of saying, “God, I trust You for today”. Simply putting my feet on the ground and standing up is an act of faith that this is a day the Lord has made, as well as a physical prayer asking for God’s strength.
And on other days, placing my feet on the ground beside my bed is the same prayer! Though more of an offering to God than a prayer for strength (though I’m always in the need of that!).
Exercise is a wonderful way to incorporate physicality in our spirituality. I’ve been asked on multiple occasions about yoga and the potential dangers of its ambiguous spirituality, and my response to that is the same encouragement I would give to anyone wondering about how to meet with God in their exercise. I do think there is a danger to intentionally welcoming a presence or consciousness that isn’t God (through yoga or anything else), so instead of using the physicality of yoga to invite something other than God, use it as a physical tool to be open to and aware of the Holy Spirit, inviting God into yourself. Do exercises and stretches as a specifically Christian act of meditation, inviting Jesus through the Holy Spirit to speak his peace and bring God-honouring self-awareness, strength and perseverance as you steward the body God gave you.
There are an unlimited number of simple embodiments of prayer you can incorporate into your daily life. Lifting your face to the sun or to the rain as an expression of thanksgiving for life; lending a helping hand to someone in need as an act of worship to the God who is with the “least of these”; sitting with the texture and taste of communion bread and juice in your mouth as an awareness of the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection and His presence in our physicality; touching the bark of a tree or standing barefoot in the grass as a reminder of your connectedness to God’s creation.
These physical embodiments of inward prayer helps remind us, draws us, and root us deeper in our spirituality and our present awareness of God. May God bless you as you love with heart, soul, mind, and body.