“Footprints in the Sand” is my favorite poem. This work, which is usually attributed to Mary Stevenson from sometime in the late 1930s, has always held a special place for me. It once hung beside the stairwell of my grandparents’ house, hung by a string nailed to the wall with one spindly stud, and the frame marking a clean square on the dusty floral wallpaper whenever I took it down to read. But even though the house has moved on and the poem in its dusty frame has been boxed away to who-knows- where, “Footprints” continues to gain meaning in my life as I get older and realize both the trials and the blessings that growing up and growing apart entails.
The deepest sleep one night I dreamed
That on the beach I walked
God was by my side each step
And quietly we talked.
Then on the sky my life was flashed,
The visions all serene,
Two sets of footprints in the sand
Were there in every scene.
And then I noticed in some scenes of suffering, pain, and strife
A single set of footprints at the worst times of my life.
“God, you said you’d stay by me,
In good times and in bad,
Why then did you leave me
Each time my life was sad?”
“My precious child,” God answered,
“When your life had pain, I knew.
The single set of footprints
Were the times I carried you.”
This poem is no Psalm, and nowhere in the Bible will you find the phrase “A single set of footprints” or any variation of it. But the themes of the work – doubt, frustration, and comfort in the realization of utter dependence on Another – are carried through in many passages. In frustration after decades spent waiting with no apparent heir to the promise, Abraham doubted God when he was finally told that Sarah would have a son (Gen. 17:17). Peter, in the face of “the wind boisterous,” doubted the safety of walking on the waves to Jesus and began to sink (Matt. 14:30). Thomas, the most famous doubter of Scripture, doubted the resurrection of His Lord and friend when the disciples came to him with their news (John 20:25). And yet, in all of these instances and more, God reassures – sometimes with a rebuke, sometimes fervently, and sometimes gently. In this poem, God answers the doubt of His servant with the word “precious” and the reassurance of His sustaining grace. We have all experienced – and continue to endure – “scenes of suffering, pain, and strife.” But in these moments, even while (with our earthly perspective) it would appear that we face life alone, we have only to wait on the Lord to receive those reassurances. The support expressed by a member in the church family. The coincidence of a devotional or a sermon topic lining up exactly with some trying situation in our lives. Even a poem, read as a child and reflected on years later, can provide that extra motivation we need to lift our chins and look up to the One who wrote the history of the world and knows the end and the significance of our own stories.