When Shoes are the Way to My Heart

As my new friends and I stepped into the subway car, I felt almost dizzy from our afternoon of drinking in the fashion, style, and funky-ness of New York City. On this afternoon off–early in our summer of inner-city ministry as college students–we’d browsed through upscale retro clothing stores I’d only ever seen in the pages of Seventeen magazine.

I hadn’t bought anything on that excursion, but I remember thinking that I wanted to go back and pick up something. Some item that would impart to me the sense of funky flair that breathed NEW YORK CITY.

Then I saw the little girl sprawled across her mother’s lap on one of the subway seats. Both of them looked exhausted, but what I noticed more were the girl’s shoes:  white patent leather dressy shoes with little buckles and big black scuff marks. I wondered how much her little feet must hurt, how many blisters she must have, especially since she wasn’t wearing socks.

My temporary materialistic insanity wafted right out the open subway door. My daydreams of a cool old-but-new outfit from a cool Manhattan shop seemed inconsequential in the face of…well, real life. Real, hard-working, struggling people and their real, exhausted children with sore feet.

It was the shoes. They got to me.

They aren’t the only shoes that have gotten to me.

The boys and I study 6 artists each school year, and this year we studied works by Rembrandt (among others). One of his pieces we appreciated was The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. From the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University.

We also study 6 composers each year (although last year we studied hymns), and one of those has been Tchaikovsky. In May, we attended a performance of Swan Lake, a ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. At the church where we saw this ballet, we noticed a giant print of Rembrandt’s prodigal son rendition hanging on a wall.

This all probably makes us sound more cultured than we are. We occasionally reprimand our boys about fart jokes at the dinner table, and when they ask permission to wear flip-flops to church, I respond, “Sure! As long as your toenails are clean!”

So…the shoes. Shabby, broken-down, used up. I weep even now when I look at them. Broken-down shoes reflective of this broken-down soul. 

Because I feel broken, stumbling my way toward Jesus, limping along, leaning heavily on what John Piper would call “the cross-shaped crutch of Christ.” 

One of our pastors preached on the story of the prodigal son (from Luke 15) this past Sunday. The image of Rembrandt’s kneeling prodigal came to mind as I listened…the self-indulgent wild child who’d essentially declared he wished his father dead so he could obtain the inheritance early. The father, though, who put together the portion of this son’s inheritance and released him to go and squander his wealth…he was the one who then abandoned decorum and ran–ran–to greet the returning son.

He threw his arms around his son, and he kissed him. Before there was repentance or any apology, the father kissed the son. The son who shuffled and stumbled home in rags and shambles met the love of his father in the arms of his father. Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners. 

A few years ago, we studied the artist James Tissot. He also produced a rendering of the prodigal son’s return.

james tissot return of the prodigal son
The Return of the Prodigal Son, James Tissot. In the public domain.

Tissot depicts the father leaning and reaching and moving toward the wayward son. The villagers may scoff and tsk tsk, but there’s the father, welcoming him home. And the Father welcomes us.

Oh, how I cry in church these days. How can I not? Empty, needy, clinging to the solid rock of Christ for dear life, I show up to be with the Lord but have nothing to offer. No words, hardly any focus or attention. I kneel by the bed at home to pray then stand up and pace the room.

Yet He still welcomes, reaches, and gives the kiss. Right now, I can’t do much more than receive. And He has so much to give.









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