Do you remember that beautiful poem entitled “Footprints”? It goes like this:
One night a man dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints. He noticed that at the very saddest times of his life there was only one set of footprints and because this really bothered him he questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I’ve noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied; “My son. My precious child, I love you so much that I would never leave you. During your times of trials and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Now, perhaps you’d try to hold that lovely story in your mind as I tell you another. It’s about a very bad flood which cut off all of the inhabitants of a small community, from their nearest centre of support. The waters rose too quickly for anybody to escape and many people were drowned. Some folk were pulled from bedrooms to safety, but there was one elderly gentleman, who refused to get into a boat. “I’m a Christian”, he said, “The Lord will look after me.” He was insistent and so the rescuers had no alternative but to leave him. Time passed and the waters rose. The elderly gent was forced to climb onto the roof of his house, where he sat patiently. Another rescue boat approached, and then a helicopter but both were told to go away. Well, the old man drowned and was received into paradise, where he came face to face with God. “Lord”, he said, “You know I’ve been a Christian for years; why didn’t you save me from drowning; why did you allow the waters to rise and overcome me? Apart from losing my life, the witness which I tried to make to your mercy will have been futile, because people will know that you left me to die. “My son” the Lord replied gently; “What more could I do? I sent two rescue boats and a helicopter”!
I think it’s helpful to let those two stories play off against each other.
The picture-language in the first story is very beautiful and although we know it’s not to be taken literally, it gives us a very strong understanding that in times of trouble the Lord’s mercy is always there and that he will never forsake us. But it doesn’t go on to explain exactly what God will do in any particular situation, and of course, this was the difficulty which engulfed our hero in the second story. Perhaps he was expecting some kind of spectacular intervention by God, and this just didn’t happen.
Holy Scripture is full of this kind of description and sometimes a literal interpretation of God’s presence can cause us a great deal of distress. If our minds are closed to any other possible revelation of God’s mercy, then we may well miss the Lord when He comes. And what’s worse is the possibility of concluding, because this kind of thing never happens to us, that we just aren’t good enough for the Lord to show us his mercy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Lord’s mercy and love surround us totally, all of the time; but we need to have our eyes and our ears open to the many ways in which he will be present to us.
Some years ago I worked as a chaplain in Wonford hospital, and in the main this ministry is fleeting and very focussed. But there is one exception, and that is ministry to stroke victims. People who’ve suffered a stroke are often hospitalised for a long time and are usually very receptive to visits for all kinds of reasons and so it was that one particular day I began to visit a lady who was recovering from a stroke and who was going to spend many weeks in hospital. She was a committed Christian and we became good friends. I remember one visit when, in her sadness, she beckoned me close. “It must have been so easy for the first followers of Jesus to have faith”, she said, “because they could see him, hear him and touch him; why can’t it be like that for me?” “Have you ever thought” I replied “that when someone approaches you in love, that Jesus is walking in with them; wearing their skin, and talking in their voice?” The penny dropped for her and I think this was all she needed to hear in order to release her from a mind- set which tries to channel the grace and mercy of God into a particular form. A form which is only manifested through signs and wonders and spectacular miracles, a form which most of us will never experience.
I presently do some part time as a prison chaplain and sometimes it’s difficult to say Mass “inside”. Occasionally it’s necessary for a man to be taken out of chapel and back to the main prison and you can imagine the awful affect that this has on the whole atmosphere, as well as the doubts about your own ministry which it can produce. And yet God’s mercy works through all of this. I remember going into the prison chapel one Saturday morning and I really didn’t want to be there. As I stood quietly dreading the possibility of a disturbance, a young prisoner came to speak to me. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know how his words gave me the encouragement that I needed right at that time. I met Christ through that young man, and through him God’s mercy and grace were ministered to me.
You know, very often it isn’t until we become, shall we say, a little more chronologically challenged, that we begin to look back over our lives and realise the truth expressed in the very first story with which I began these jottings; the story about footprints.
May God bless you all.