Shoes Off

Feb 8, 2024

by Ken Rummer

Climbing a hill by starlight, stepping deliberately toward the big cross at the summit, leaving tracks in frosty grass, shoes off and shivering – what was I doing?

The hill and the cross lived on a church camp nestled in the wooded hills above the Missouri River north of Kansas City.

The place held special memories for me: eating in the dining hall during a week of church camp in sixth grade, blowing the lifeguard whistle at the pool as a member of the summer staff, stirring up recipes in the kitchen from a meals-for-fifty cookbook (usually doubled), driving tractor to mow a ridgetop meadow, leading a horseback group along a trail through fallen leaves, the vivid orange of bittersweet brightening a fence row.

This was land with spiritual resonance for me. I found it easier to see the stars there, easier to settle into the stillness, easier to talk to God.

Through the fall of 1973, between college and seminary, I was working at the camp as an assistant to the director. The job came with a room in one of the lodges, just down the hill from the high cross, the focal point for the whole camp.

One evening I felt an invitation, a summoning even, to walk to that cross.

I first noticed a leading like that in college. Walking across the campus at night, I sensed a directive, “Turn left.” It didn’t come as a voice in my ear, more like an idea forming in my mind, but an idea I didn’t recognize as my own.

Objections immediately arose. Why left? What’s left that I need to head that way? Is this God, or am I just making this up?

I discovered that if I followed one direction, another would follow. And I got better over the next weeks and years at distinguishing what I took to be God’s voice from my own.

Sure, there were nights I ended up in a mental tangle, second-guessing and overthinking, too much the engineer and not enough the mystic. But by the time I was working that fall at the camp, I recognized the nudge to walk up the hill as a prompting from God.

Was going shoeless part of the message? My recollection is fuzzy on that point. It did feel like I was stepping onto holy ground like Moses at the burning bush. In the end, whether it was God’s urging or my own response to the moment, I took off my shoes.

Which was surprising. The Presbyterian church of my youth and childhood did not promote uncomfortable acts of religious devotion. No climbing the cathedral steps on one’s knees. No hiking the Camino on blistered feet. No standing neck-deep in the sea for morning prayers. Yet, there I was, walking in the dark through winter grass without my shoes.

What happened when my steps reached the cross? What transpired on that hilltop? I don’t remember it in words prayed or answered, but, looking back, I see big decisions were looming.

A few months before, I had asked the person I called “The Special One” to marry me. The proposal had been pretty spontaneous, and I hadn’t checked with God first. It still seemed right, but was it part of God’s plan?

Another big question mark involved seminary. I had been accepted to two schools for the coming semester, but which to choose? And was going to preacher school really God’s path for me?

What about after? Scattered lights across the valley caught my eye. Were those the kind of places God had in mind for me to serve? Not the big cities, but the small towns and villages? Was the view from that hill a glimpse of my calling?

Feet getting cold, I headed back.

My strange pilgrimage turned out to be the first of several walks up that hill, the first of several meetings by the high cross, the first of several wrestlings in the Presence.

I came away, not with the big answers – they unfolded in time – but with a more settled feeling. A greater confidence that God was with me and I was with God.  A firmer trust that God was still leading and I could still follow.

Even by starlight, shoes off, up a frosty hill.


Photo Credit: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash