This weekend, our daughter, Sarah, had a couple of extra days off so we spent some time in Milwaukee. Although it was colder than I hoped — the sun was shining — so we took a long walk along beautiful Lake Michigan.
As we made our way along the edge of the wet sand looking for interesting rocks and other treasures, we left a trail of footprints that were quickly reclaimed by the waves. Looking behind us, I was reminded of the popular poem “Footprints in the Sand.”1 In a dream, the author walks along the beach with Jesus, with scenes from her life appearing across the sky. During difficult times, she notices just one set of footprints in the sand instead of two and worries that she has been abandoned at her lowest. Jesus reassures her that he had carried her safely through those times.
It is a beautiful poem — and so popular it can be found emblazoned on pillows and wall hangings and coffee mugs and bookmarks. However, as I walked along the sand of the uncrowded beach, I thought about my own faith over time, including periods of great difficulty. For me, the footprints poem paints an incomplete picture.
For example, where is the deep groove along the beach where I was reluctantly dragged – being led in a direction I did not want to go? Perhaps I felt called to be more generous than I intended, or to end an unhealthy relationship that I treasured, or to take a stand that made me uncomfortable or unpopular. Sometimes I have followed Jesus grudgingly instead of joyfully.
What about the times my footprints could be found heading in the opposite direction from those of Christ? When I had no concern for my neighbor, when I behaved selfishly, when I hurt others.
And how could there possibly be just two sets of footprints along the beach? A truer picture of a walk of faith would be a beach trampled with footprints — the countless imprints of those who came before us, those with whom we have walked, those whom we loved and loved us, those with whom we disagreed, stepping upon their feet as we walked. Teachers who challenged, family members who supported, childhood mentors who inspired, doctors who chided, church members who modeled faithfulness and playfulness, friends and strangers, children and elders. So many footprints.
We walk in the sandy footsteps of the heroines from the Bible we encounter during our mid-week Lenten services—Eve, Lydia with her purple cloth, Rahab, Mary and so many more. Our relationship with Christ, rather than being a serene stroll along a lonely beach, connects us to a vast cloud of witnesses.
As I walked along with my own dear family, the waves gathered up the footprints surrounding us and carried them away, leaving a clean slate before us and behind us. Our life of faith includes this too! We are called during this season of preparation for Easter to wade in the promises of baptism — claimed as God’s own beloved children, washed clean and freed from sin and death.
I thank God for you, for the gift of his Son, and for our overlapping footprints.
1The authorship of the well-loved poem is disputed. Mary Stevenson, Carolyn Joyce Carty and Margaret Fishback Powers have all copyrighted slightly different versions.