In reading the brilliant Lyndall Bywater's new book Prayer In The Making I discovered a story of Francis of Assisi that I hadn't heard before. Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis had several moments in his life which led to his conversion. Right at the heart of his understanding of God was a commitment to generosity and serving the poorest in society. On one occasion, his father Pietro discovered that Francis had taken some cloth from his shop and sold it to fund this mission. He had had enough and confronted his son in front of the Bishop of Assisi. Thomas of Celano tells it better than I can:
"When brought before the bishop, Francis would brook no delay nor hesitation in anything: nay, without waiting to be spoken to and without speaking he immediately put off and cast aside all his garments and gave them back to his father. Moreover he did not even keep his drawers but stripped himself stark naked before all the bystanders." (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2019)
You read that right, he stripped naked in the street and gave his clothes back to his dad. The Bishop then covered him up with his cloak.
Not only was he performing a remarkable act of defiance towards his father, he was making a powerful statement about his understanding of what his following of Jesus needed to look like. It wasn't just an outfit, or a familial allowance (or inheritance) he was abandoning, it was something more than that. He was abandoning the idea that what he wore could define him. That how fine his clothing was could not be an indicator of who he was. By stripping naked, he was shedding any attachment to the outer in divine exchange for something deeper.
This week, the PreachersNSneakers instagram account has crept onto my radar. This account posts pictures of famous preachers and pastors from around the world in all their trendy get-up. For comparison, they are posted alongside pictures suggesting the brands the clothes might belong to and their respective price tags, with footwear getting particular attention.
Some highlights include Steven Furtick preaching while wearing what look very much like a pair of Saint Lauren boots that retail at $1,145. Judah Smith's shoes appear alongside a picture of a pair of Gucci loafers worth $730. A phot of Chad Veach hosting his Leadership Lean In podcast shows him wearing a pair of Nike Air Max Jordans, expensive sports shoes that are currently reselling at over $2,500.
Veach features more than once on the account. One post saw him wearing a pair of trousers that look like a pair retailing for $795 while sat next to a backpack very similar to one available to buy at a mere $1,980. I'll leave you to make up your mind as to whether PreachersnSneakers are correct in their analysis.
Whilst most of the featured preachers seem to be content to stay silent, Veach has taken a different approach by actually responding:
"Wanna know what's crazy? I legit did not pay for one thing i am wearing. Nor the back pack. Is that widl to you? That's wild to me...shoes hat pants shirt bracelets...none of it. Thanks for the shout out tho. You're a blessing."
Passive aggressive sign-off aside, Veach seems to think that the best response to the cost of his outfit is to point out that they were all gifts (I'm assuming they were gifts and this wasn't a confession of shoplifting).
That's plausible and unsurprising.
Veach, like many of the others, are often spotted hanging out with A-list celebrities. Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, Russell Wilson, all worth millions, could easily be buying these as gifts for their pastors in the same way I might treat mine to a coffee (and perhaps a muffin if I've just won the Super Bowl).
It would be easy to knock them, instinctive almost, but I'm not entirely sure pastors should have to explain why they're wearing expensive shoes.
Sitting at my desk, I wonder how I'd feel about my outfits being scrutinised as somehow an indication of my sincerity or integrity as a Christian.
In case you're wondering, I'm currently wearing some New Balance trainers my wife bought me in the sale last year, a Jack Wills sweatshirt my much younger (and much more stylish) brother bought me for Christmas and a pair of skinny jeans from New Look that I'm probably the wrong side of 35 to get away with.
I'm also not sure there isn't a difficult layer of cynicism in this Instagram account. If I'm honest, that might be what draws me to it. I find "celebrity pastor" an uncomfortable coming together of words, like "moist towelette" or "fun icebreaker". This account allows me to feel better about feeling uneasy, like somehow I'm right to be suspicious about them because they wear expensive shoes.
In fact, this whole article started out that way. My plan was that I'd point out St Francis of Assisi's public denouncement of the finer things in life, link to the Instagram account and then wrap it all up with some pithy line about whose shoes are they walking in and questioning whether they are walking the walk while they talk the talk.
It turns out, I've come to a different conclusion.
I wonder if the lesson of St Francis isn't that we are all meant to throw off our clothes in order to be faithful (thank goodness I have to get the train home) but that we have to throw off anything that would stop us being faithful.
I wonder what I might need to shed to really step into my part of the world, following in the footsteps of men like St Francis, or even Jesus himself?
I wonder what "things" want to define me or what "labels" I want to be seen as.
St Francis believed that to really serve the poorest, he couldn't be swanning around in the finest. But perhaps celebrity pastors - who are so often around other celebrities - believe that they need to be wearing the finest to serve the richest...I'll leave that particular rabbit hole for another day.
What I do know is that fuelling my cynicism to soothe my ego isn't going to serve anyone. The fact is, we all have things we need to shed in order to live more faithfully and these things may not be what we immediately think they are just looking at the surface level.
St Francis knew who he was and was willing to sacrifice everything he had and had been to step into the fulness of a life of faithful following. He once said: "It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."
So whether it's expensive sneakers or cheap cynicism, I wonder if we all have things we might need to shed along the way so that our walk can speak louder than our words and our own footwear doesn't get in the way of our following.
Matt White is a Northern Irish TV producer living in Essex and working in London. Follow him on Twitter @mattgwhite