Several different versions of Mary Stevenson's poem "Footprints in the Sand" have circulated in the 50 years since she wrote it, but the gist of them is the same. Someone dreams of walking along the beach with scenes from his life flashing by. During flashbacks of happy scenes, he sees two pairs of footprints in the sand. When he recalls difficult times, only one pair of footprints appears.
Troubled by this, the dreamer challenges God, asking why He deserted him at the toughest times. Here's God's reply, which concludes the poem: "The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand,/ is [sic] when I carried you."
It's comforting to think of God cradling us in His arms – and reassuring to know that there's biblical precedent for that feeling. For example, the book of Deuteronomy states, "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms" (33:27). Other verses refer to God's "mighty hand" and "stretched out arm" (see Deut. 5:15). For me, images of God's support – arms, hands, even footprints – represent His structure, the structure of divine Love.
Structures, or routines, help us carry on. Knowing we need to report to work or fix dinner for the kids can help us feel needed. It can also nudge us into thinking of others, which invariably lifts our spirits.
But there's a spiritual component to structure that transcends mere routine. Mary Baker Eddy offered this definition of Church: "The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 583). Since this is a purely spiritual description of "Church," the word structure refers not to a building but to an ideal.
Mrs. Eddy went on, however, to explain how this spiritual structure, or ideal, should operate in tangible ways on earth. She wrote, "The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick."
In a sense, Church can be evidence of God's footprints in the sand. It supports and sustains by rousing and elevating us. That has certainly been true in my life.
Once, after uprooting my family following a layoff, I felt miserable for a long time. I didn't like my new job, my new city, my new life. I knew the decision to relocate had been God-directed, yet I couldn't for the life of me feel settled and at home.
For well over a year, I dragged myself to church in this displaced and disgruntled state of mind. Despite my bad attitude, God spoke to me through the sermons and songs, and His love shone through the congregation's welcome. Improvement was far from steady, but over time I began not only to accept my situation but to appreciate it.
Attending church had a lot to do with that progress. The spiritual "structure of Truth and Love," which Mary Baker Eddy called Church, was palpable in the services I attended. And it functioned exactly as she said it would, "rousing [my] dormant understanding ... to the apprehension of spiritual ideas." Among those spiritual ideas were a sense of home that didn't depend on a specific location and a sense of purpose that didn't depend on a particular profession.
As a member now of the same Christian Science church that helped me feel at home, I hope to make the "structure of Truth and Love" tangible to others so that they, too, feel cradled in God's arms.
And I hope tomorrow's Thanksgiving service, in Christian Science churches in many parts of the world, functions like God's "footprints" in the congregations' lives, supporting and sustaining them.