It was 1996 and the dead of winter, which in Minneapolis is far more than a metaphor. We sat facing each other in my office at the church. I was 38, in my first year as a pastor. He was just a couple years older, with long hair and a well-deserved national reputation as an outstanding artist. His artwork had moved him into a lucrative income bracket and a mansion in an exclusive suburb. He didn't go to church, nor did he necessarily believe in God. And so the question kept rolling through my mind, "Why is he in my office?"
He was a relative of a longtime church member and struggling with life in general, a relationship in particular and the confusing voice of a cult which was trying hard to pull him in. He wanted someone to tell him he wasn't going crazy and that events which seemed strange really were. Sometimes that's what pastoral work is: just reaffirming what is true. And the events he related to me were strange.
His story rambled a bit, and I listened and asked some questions. I tried to probe below the surface, wondering if there was a way to get beneath just facts. Clearly, he was ill at ease in an office stacked floor to ceiling with Barth, Calvin and C.S. Lewis. Certainly he was uncomfortable talking with a pastor. And obviously he wasn't sure what to do with someone who was basically his own age. It felt like a slow-motion fencing match, with him circling around and around the issues, afraid to thrust to the core. I left openings wide enough for him to drive a truck through, but nothing seemed to connect.
Just as I began to wonder why on earth he had made this appointment and how long it could go on for, he stopped in mid-sentence and stared at my feet. His eyes met mine with an entirely new intensity and he sputtered, "You don't tie your shoes."
It was the way he said it that caught me. At first it sounded like an accusation, but at the last second a note of wonder crept into his voice. He said, "You don't tie your shoes," as though that discovery carried a great deal of profound meaning. He followed with a few sentences which elaborated on his observation, and which I interpreted as: "You don't think you have to conform. You can think for yourself. You may look like a typical church-person-religious-minister-type, but there's something else I see now. I can talk to you."
The reality of the situation was that I had walked to the office through several inches of new Minnesota snow in a pair of boots, arrived late and barely had time to slip my shoes on before he showed up. No time to tie the laces. And maybe I read far too much into his reaction. Maybe. All I know is that from that point on we had an entirely different conversation. I was now someone he could trust. His eyes met mine, and we talked comfortably for an hour about life, cults and Jesus.
I haven't tied my shoes since. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed that at least with this one person we could walk closer together when there weren't knotted laces barring the way.
Sometimes I've fancied that I began leaving my laces untied from that day on as a personal statement of nonconformity, albeit a weak one. After all, I have tended to be a person who has played by most of the rules, even as a pastor. Yet I believe that following Jesus is meant to be a radical alternative to any other way of life. So perhaps not tying my shoes reminds me that I've chosen to do something outside the norm. Or perhaps I secretly desire that God will once again use something so silly and small to open a door or tear down a wall. Either way, I think I'll leave them untied.[[In-content Ad]]