As my eyes descended from that painting, I turned my face towards the door. And as I did so, my gaze came across a short poem that was housed in a frame right before my face. It was simple in its adornment, and without reading it I read it. I did not need to read it. I scanned the title of the poem, "Footprints," and immediately my mind called up the memory of its message.
It is a poem with which I am sure you are familiar. It recounts the tale of an individual who is caught up in a dream, and in this dream the person is able to see two sets of footprints walking a sandy shore - the footprints representing both God's and the individual's as together they walk the path of life. Yet, upon further reflection, the person realizes that during the hardest times there were not two sets of prints, but only one. This only seems to validate the experience of life: that there are seasons when it seems we must go it alone and that even our Maker stands apart and alone in silence. However, it to this sense of abandonment that the poem's final lines resound: "The Lord replied, 'The years you see only one set of footprints, my child, are those time when I carried you."
The first time I read "Footprints" was on another wall. I was a teenage boy at at a small Presbyterian summer camp called Campy Pyoca. There in the old cottage it hung, and since it was one of the few things of any visual interest in the rather spartan building I found myself drawn to it. It held a comforting and encouraging message for me as I thought myself - like most teenagers - beset by several problems.
Well, in the last twenty years, I have run across this poem a thousand times - many times as adornments hung in offices and in homes. And as happens with frequent exposure, my attention to the poem waned and the significance of the words and the meaning of its message began to be lost upon me. Indeed, so it was this last Sunday when I encountered it again in that woman's room. It held just a fraction of its former power and I paid it little mind.
But, now it comes back to me in a new way, a fresh and living way.
I know why, of course, this long-dormant poem has been at play in my mind tonight. I've been traveling down a path for a while that seems rather solitary, something I've been hesitant to admit to myself or to anyone else. I've been walking down a path that has been rather lonely and hard at times - not always and not overwhelmingly so, but difficult nonetheless. Lonely because anytime a person moves to a new place (even if that place is an old familiar place) there is strangeness and a learning how to be comfortable in ones own skin again; hard because that seems to be the times we live in - people out of work and uncertain about their future. I know - in fact - because of my interactions with others that my own experiences of loneliness and struggle are not solitary. I can see it written on the lives of the people I serve and love.
And for all those reasons "Footprints" - like a good leaven - has been working in my mind and heart tonight. It has begun to invite me to remember the type of Lord I have bound myself to; it has called me to take comfort in a God who has promised to be with me every step of the way and who will carry me when I can go no further.
This reemergence of "Footprints" in my heart and mind - by the way - is the other possibility with over exposure, the positive effect: that repetition will eventually wear something into our soul that we cannot lose or forget. It can be that way with most anything - a beloved verse, a painting we've come to admire, a picture of a loved one. We get so used to it that it runs the risk of becoming common and unnoticed. But, then one day - before we are prepared for it or aware of why or how - that verse comes back fresh into our mind and comes alive with meaning and significance, that painting has colors and shadows we never saw, that picture has details we missed.
So it is with "Footprints." That oft-seen, oft-neglected lesson has once again spoken to this man's heart. The poem I cherished as a teenager has been resurrected to give me fresh hope in mid life.
You are with me, Lord, and for that I am ever grateful.