I've just got home from a short break in Wales. Not long after we gratefully emerged from our sweaty car after what seemed like several hours edging up the M6, we clambered across some sand dunes and down onto a golden sandy beach that seemed not miles long but also miles deep - the sea was a distant vague blueness - and enjoyed the breezy warmth of a beautiful evening. Within minutes, the children were rolling up trouser legs and discarding footwear, toes squelching into the wet sand.
I took a photo of their footprints in the sand, and, later in the week, as I looked at the photo and spent more evenings wandering along the beach, I started thinking idly about that famous piece of writing, Footprints in the Sand. Even if you're not religious, you've probably heard of it, or at least one of its earthier take-offs. It's a statement of God's presence through difficult times of life, and it's given great comfort and meaning to many.
But...to be honest, it's never quite done it for me. Leaving aside aesthethics, this piece of writing (it's not exactly a poem, is it?) has never satisfied me as an account of my own experience as a Christian. Or, to put it in other words, it hasn't ever rung true. That's not to say that I don't believe there to be any truth in it; it seems to take its inspiration from the poetic recollection at the start of Deuteronomy of how 'in Egypt before your very eyes, 31and in the wilderness...you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.' It is a beautiful image.
But....what struck me, as I enjoyed the North Wales coastline last week, is that if I were ever minded to depict my life through the medium of beach markings, there wouldn't be two sets of footprints, or, indeed, one. There would be loads. Some would be parallel to one another, some criss-crossing, some huge footprints of six-footers, and others the tiny steps of a baby just learning to walk. The whole beach would be one big mish-mash of all sorts of types of footprints, of all sorts of people who have, at various points, walked beside me, and, at other times, have picked me up and carried me and my faith. My own footprints would be mingled in there somewhere; those would be the times when, by the grace of God. I've been able to carry others. Some footprints would be light, the sand kicked up effortlessly; those would be the times I've run with freedom and joy. Others would be deeply dug into the sand; those would be the times I've been carrying heavy burdens, or been a burden for others to carry. Some may be veering off in tangential directions; some may be backwards.
And where is Jesus in this rather different picture of footprints in the sand? Well, my utter belief is that he is in every single footprint, of every single person with whom I have walked and by whom I have been carried. Some of them are obvious; family and good friends. Some are highly improbable. Others are people I've known for shorter, but still significant, times. Others are people whom I wouldn't recognise in a crowd but who have walked alongside me no less; songwriters, poets, writers, theologians, and thinkers whose ideas and articulations have shaped my faith. This faith tells me that God is, and was, in each of them, that their footprints are all the footprints of Christ. A piece of Christian writing which I find much more satisfying than 'Footprints' is that of St Theresa of Avila;
"Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.”
If this is true, and I believe it is, then my own 'footprints in the sand' are a divine gift to treasure, a moment of looking back to all the wonderful people I've been privileged to know, and realising that in their company, 'before your very eyes...the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.'