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Food for Thought - Musings

The Barefoot Guy

I hope this musing will serve as a cautionary tale that underscores the importance of and need for ongoing discernment and makes clear the subtle ways that a good God-honoring beginning can get derailed along the way and end up taking us far from God.
Over a decade ago I stopped wearing shoes. I started wearing sandals, and when possible, I would slip them off and go barefoot. My thought was that going barefoot would serve to remind me that every place I step, every room I enter is holy ground (Exodus 3), a place to meet God and be met by God. As time passed, I began to enjoy the tactile realities that opened to me, the feel of grass, thick carpet, cool tile to name a few. I also found going barefooted helped me not to take myself too seriously, for how can someone who doesn't wear shoes take themselves seriously? However something happened over time - I began to be the barefoot guy - the guy known because he did not wear shoes. My original decision not to wear shoes became a part of my persona akin to Michael Jackson's one glove. People knew me, for I was the one teaching, preaching a sermon, leading a retreat, conducting a wedding, giving spiritual direction barefooted - "You must be Larry because you are not wearing shoes." At first I found this rather amusing, eventually I found it a bit gratifying, and then I became aware of something quite different, even sinister going on in my heart. Being barefooted had become a part of how I saw myself. This not wearing shoes, once an aid in being open to God, a hedge against the birthing of pride, had now taken on a life of its own - a life that was corrupting the very purposes that birthed the practice in the first place. I realized that my being barefoot was producing a quite unexpected end - one not God-honoring but self-prompting in a subtle yet diabolical way.
Sadly, I cannot say I was fully aware of all this until recently when I noticed this barefoot thing was beginning to impinge on my freedom to be me. I actually felt an internal pressure to go barefoot. It seemed that there were times I was choosing not to wear shoes because by doing so I felt special, known, different from others. This discovery was more than a bit disconcerting.
As I reflected on all this and how something that started out as God-honoring had ended up being so self-focused, it brought to mind a couple rules of discernment for Week 2 from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola I would like to share with you:
Fifth Rule. We ought to note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Spirit; but if in the course of the thoughts which end in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, tranquility and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and abundant life.
This is exactly what happened to me. I started out with a course of action chosen to help me to remember that every place is holy, a place to meet God and be met by God. Yet this practice, over time, became a tool for self-aggrandizement. The God honoring beginnings had become twisted along the way. The devil, the world, or more precisely, my "false self" turned this to its own self glorifying and self-validating ends. Once I became aware of the "serpent's tail" - the telltale sign that something had gone horribly wrong - I put into practice the next rule of discernment.
Sixth Rule. When the enemy of human nature has been perceived and known by his serpent's tail and the bad end to which he leads on, it helps the person who was tempted by him, to look immediately at the course of the good thoughts which he brought him at their beginning, and how little by little he aimed at making him descend from the spiritual sweetness and joy in which he was, so far as to bring him to his depraved intention; in order that with this experience, known and noted, the person may be able to guard for the future against his usual deceits.
I began to explore the evolution of my decision. When I started out with this sandal/barefoot lifestyle it was to help me to be grounded in both God and myself. Yet over time something slowly began to change. This simple spiritual discipline was actually diverting me from God and causing me to focus on myself and the unspoken and became, at least in part, a means of getting attention - there was even a bit of pride associated in being the barefoot guy. My God honoring beginning was derailed, and now I was self-focused and self-absorbed.
But when did this all change? I think this began to change as people commented on me being barefoot. There was a kind of wonderment, a marveling that I had chosen not to wear shoes. I liked this attention and my original focus generated by this practice began to erode, to  be corrupted. I remember one conversation in particular when someone was telling me that a friend of his was telling him about a class they had taken and as the friend shared the person listening, who was one of my students, thought what had been taught sounded a lot like what I normally teach, so my student asked his friend what the name of the instructor was, and the friend was unable to remember, so then my student asked if the instructor was wearing shoes. When the friend answered no, my student replied, "Oh that's Larry." I can still remember feeling self-satisfied, known and seen because of not wearing shoes. I believe in that moment I adopted for myself the moniker of the barefoot guy - it now became, at least in part, who I was, a means to receive attention, even a notoriety of sorts. Going barefoot in part had ceased to be what I had intended it to be. The original end had been compromised - a good had been turned into bad. Once I identified the "serpents tail" and explored the internal evolution of my practice, it became clear how it all went sideways, and then I could readjust my intention back to the original focus - which I know will be an on going battle to maintain and will need to be an area for ongoing discernment. Now with that discovery I was once again free to wear shoes or not wear shoes, my identity was found in Christ and I was freed from the prison of self-glorification at least for now, and more equipped to spot this departure from the good sooner as I continue to partner with God in my ongoing transformation into Christlikeness.
The above is a real life example of a good God-honoring beginning gradually being turned into a self-aggrandizing end as well as a reminder of the ongoing need for spiritual discernment. Now what about you? Are there decisions you have made at some point in your life that were God-honoring but now are self-focused, self-promoting, self-glorifying...? I would encourage you to take a look at key decisions in your life with the above two rules for discernment in mind. These two rules encourage you to be self-aware and self-reflective, always discerning, not only when you make an initial decision, but as you continue forward with a decision that has been made, even a good, God-honoring decision. As your walk with Christ deepens, your need for discernment grows exponentially. You will be tempted less and less by overt evil and instead will be taken off course from the good ever so gradually. Be aware, be alert, be discerning, for your adversary is tip-toeing around like an angel of light using a new subtle and very patient strategy to bring you to ruin.

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