A pair of small Korean slippers sits before me. They are meant to be worn with a traditional silken outfit called a hanbok, donned on occasions of celebration. I received the shoes when my son was between one and two years old, and his Korean grandparents wanted to take professional photos to mark his transition from infancy into toddler-hood. At the time, my husband and I were only just learning about his autism diagnosis. We did not anticipate the fact that our extremely sensitive child might not tolerate the strange fabric against his skin, as well the sensory overload of being placed before flashing lights. As I recall, we managed to get the costume on him, but never the shoes. And rather than smiling winningly into the lens, he cried and cried until we finally removed the hanbok and left the photography studio.
In the food court of the mall where the studio was located, my husband’s mother shed a few tears too, as we opened up about her grandson’s diagnosis. It was a tough day all around, but still relatively easy when compared to the challenges that would emerge as our son got older and his deficits more pronounced.
When I came across the slippers while digging around for something else in my closet, I immediately noted how tiny they were compared to my now nine-year-old’s shoes. And I thought, “With some things, there really is no going back, is there?” Embedded in linear time, we humans move ever forward, doing the best that we can with whatever we have acquired along the way, be it physical resources or lived experiences. The present moment will always find us, whether we are fully prepared or not. For parents of special needs kids, I suspect that the latter category defines how we feel most days.
As I think about it further, I realize that we all leave various “shoes” behind us in one way or another. For instance, I no longer believe that my son will catch up to his peers socially or academically the way I had hoped at first. My boy will always live life at his own pace, prioritizing what interests him over what typically engages others. He may be watching Baby Einstein videos well into adulthood. He may always require assistive devices to communicate. He will certainly need help with the activities of daily living (eating, washing, dressing) for quite some time. He probably won’t play a team sport and may not be invited to birthday parties or have playdates with friends. (That last one hurts quite a bit to consider. Even Jesus needed friends.)
As for myself, I can no longer slip into the idea that healing from really deep wounds happens completely or overnight. I’m not ruling out miracles, but after working on my own issues for literal decades, I am beginning to appreciate that this fallen earth is not heaven, and there will always be something sharp or mean or just plain evil that pokes at our hurts. I am starting to appreciate that my emotional scars allow me to relate to those who travel the same path I do. I can point to an old welt and say, “Let me tell you my story,” knowing that my narrative may give them hope and me a sense of meaning while I wait for my suffering to be redeemed.
So this “no going back” is not all bad.
I can’t look at these slippers without being reminded of Moses, who was told to take off his shoes at a pivotal point in his life and who probably never put them back on the same way again. Take a look at the story of the burning bush, a supernatural phenomenon that God used to grab Moses’s attention:
4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God…
10 “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
Exodus 3:4–6;10–12 (ESV)
Notably, this is the first time in the Bible that God uses this particular manifestation to speak to humanity. Abraham saw stars (Gen. 15:5) and entertained travelers (Gen. 18:2). Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven (Gen. 28:12) and later wrestled a mysterious “man” (Gen. 32:24). Joseph also dealt with divine dreams, both having (Gen. 37:5, 9) and interpreting them (Gen. 40:12–13;18–19, 41:25–32).
But Moses? The great emancipator-in-the-making gets fire—specifically, a fire that refuses to stop burning yet does not consume the bush feeding it. Besides providing a dramatic flourish, this manifestation embodies what Moses’s ministry will look like. He will need something (or Someone) living inside of him, powering him forward without using him up.
As it turns out, that Someone is ready to reveal His identity, but must prepare Moses to receive that revelation first. Only when the future leader is standing barefoot and at a distance from the fire can he hear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob intends to send him to Egypt to carry out a rescue of mind-boggling proportions. Privileged though he is to this unique audience with God, Moses refuses Him repeatedly, on the grounds that he has neither the creditability (Ex. 3:11; 4:1) nor the talent (Ex. 4:10) to accomplish the task.
The one reason that we don’t hear in Moses’s long-winded refusal is rooted in a crime he committed years earlier in Egypt. Although integrated into the royal household of Pharaoh, Moses still identified enough as a Hebrew to kill an Egyptian who was mistreating one of his countrymen (Ex. 2:12). Fearing retribution, he fled to Midian, and became a shepherd—an occupation despised by Egyptians (Gen. 46:34).
Although the storyteller says nothing about it, I cannot help but think that when God commands Moses to return to Egypt—to parley with the new Pharaoh no less—his past misdeed must have migrated to the front of his mind. Perhaps for him it was not just a matter of being unable to fill the shoes God presented, but unwilling. In Midian he could be the son in law of Jethro, an obscure shepherd. In Egypt he would become God’s representative, with a spotlight constantly trained upon him. Any mistakes he made from that point forward would be not be buried in the sand (Ex. 2:12).
So in addition to showing reverence, Moses’s removal of his shoes may have signaled his eventual surrender to God’s plan, which involved him going straight back to where he came from, the place where he had been his worst self. And the only way he was going to be able to do that is if the God of his forefathers traveled with him in a substantial way, as indeed He pledged to do (“But I will be with you…” [Ex. 3:12 above]).
What had Moses left behind when he fled Egypt all those years ago? His innocence, surely. His naiveté regarding what leadership looked like. Maybe even his dreams of having a lifelong vocation that others could respect, or at least not disdain. And let’s not forget his honor: however he had lived in Egypt in his youth, he must have accomplished important things with all the education and cultural grooming that had been invested in him.
Are any of these sounding familiar to you?
Maybe there are some things in your life from which you are glad to have gained some distance. Maybe you look at certain scars and say, “Thank God that doesn’t hurt like it used to. I can now tell an encouraging story.”
But perhaps there are also bygone items on your list that have left a gaping hole in their absence. Do you miss having work that makes you feel important, or at least visible? Do you worry about the increasing cynicism in your heart that displaces the idealism of your youth? Have you been wounded in a way that has left you feeling defiled and defenseless, or always on your guard?
Do you wish you could recover a childlike trust in God?
Or at least some shred of belief in yourself? Your potential, your future, your worth?
If you find yourself in one of two places: (1) living life by default, as though you have to settle for being a shepherd, or (2) turning towards a more meaningful path that reconnects with a scary past—I’ve got news for you.
You are not alone. There’s a reason Moses’s story in Exodus comes right after humanity’s debut in Genesis. These struggles are integral to who we are, and we will always confront them in one form or another as long as we walk the planet.
So what do we shoe-less souls do? We can’t go back to where we were. We’ve changed too much (for better or for worse).
We also cannot go forward, as ill-prepared and exhausted as we may be from our current circumstances.
Here are some suggestions, taken from Moses’s speech at the burning bush.
1. Speak honestly about who (and where) you are. Following Moses’s example, speak openly and plainly about why you’re having trouble. Moses held back none of his doubt and disillusionment. Neither should you. Find your burning bush—a person of consistent light in your life—and make your confession. Any growth we experience as human beings always begins with truth (see John 8:32).
2. Seek support. Moses focused so much upon his weaknesses that God appointed his brother, Aaron, to be his mouthpiece (Ex. 3:14–16). Aaron’s role correlated directly with Moses’s area of difficulty (“I am slow of speech and tongue.” [Ex. 4:10]). So you may pray with confidence for God to give you help in your specific areas of struggle (parenting, money management, health, etc.). He knows them more intimately than you do.
3. Request rest. Okay, so this one doesn’t come from Exodus 3–4, but still applies. Much later in the book, after Moses has undergone many trials as leader of the Israelites (including the golden calf debacle), God threatens to send them into the Promised Land alone. Once more, Moses pleads his people’s case, and God relents, speaking an intimate promise that must have worked like good medicine to the weary man’s soul:
“And [God] said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’” (Ex. 33:14 ESV)
The phrase translated as “My presence” is more literally rendered “My face.” This is the same “face” that Moses engages in the tent of meeting; “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Ex. 33:11)
Years ago an intercessor friend shared a surprise she experienced while praying through a particularly trying time in her life. As she sat before the Lord, completely spent, she felt she could hear Him saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Her heart melted at this gentle chiding, for it spoke of God’s profound investment in her wellbeing, as well as His readiness to help.
What applied to my friend applies to any who “faint and are weary.” (Isaiah 40:30). The Bible specifically promises restoration to those who “wait for the Lord,” (Isa. 40:31). I can only believe that waiting primarily takes the form of an ongoing dialogue with God. Certainly Jesus’s long and solitary vigils speak to the richness of his dialogue with the Father.
Friends, there are no easy answers to the conundrum of slippers that no longer fit. That’s because we’ve been designed to adapt and change while we inhabit the earth. It’s a matter of survival.
So every morning, as you get up and place your bare feet on the floor, remember that holy ground awaits you. God wants to lead you to places where you will hear His voice and know His plans a bit better.
For me, that’s worth the effort of baring myself to my Creator and the ones He has placed in my life to accompany me.
Yes, there’s no going back. But perhaps onward is the more blessed path to take together, until we get to heaven.
P.S. The very day I finished writing this post, my son got his first real invitation to a birthday party from a child in the neighborhood. You never know when God will break through your disappointments, in a small but significant way.