When I was in Grade 7, I stood at a bulletin board my teacher had near his desk and looked at it for something to read. My eyes came across a poem called, “Footprints in the Sand” (if you’re not familiar with it, you can read it here.)
I reached the third verse, where the author confronts God about the times in his life where he only sees one set of feet and says, “I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me”. In my head, I immediately crafted what I thought the ending was going to be. “Of course God left! He left you in your saddest, lowest moments because you needed to learn a lesson by yourself. You needed to be left alone. Or maybe you pushed Him away. But you were always going to be left alone at some point.”
The fourth verse imagines God’s response, and ends the poem with this, “He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you // Never, ever, during your trials and testings. // When you saw only one set of footprints, // It was then that I carried you.” At 12 years old, I hadn’t even considered that an option.
This weekend, that poem and moment popped into my head. I shook my head at how 12 year old Hannah jumped to the conclusion that she was always going to be abandoned when things got to their hardest point. And then I had to ask myself - does 24 year old Hannah really live her life in a different manner? Does 24 year old Hannah believe she’ll be carried in her trials and testings?
It’s the world’s worst kept secret that I don’t have a great relationship with my dad. I’ve been trying very hard lately to not let that terrible thing define me. Let my coffee drinking, semi-colon love, and deep love of Christ please define me, not the fact that my dad is deeply sick and doesn’t know how to love me & my sisters more than money.
But, despite no longer giving the power of defining to the terrible thing, it is a large part of my story. Ignoring it is fine and dandy until my back starts hurting or I get a deep crick in my neck when I actually have to deal with a problem related to my father issues. Ignoring it is great, until I’m treating people poorly because something in the back of my head tells me they’re just going to leave anyways.
I’ve got a full set list, packed with abandonment top hits - should we start with the evenings my dad just decided to not come home? The times he asked me to lie about where he bought something for me? Do we close out with how fun it is to catch him in lie, only for it to be explained away with further lies? Do we have a minute of silence for every month he went radio silent on us? Or do we just sing happy birthday, over and over again, once for every time he missed a birthday?
12 year old Hannah didn’t even know how much more abandonment, hurt, and heartache would come. She knew deeply of God and His love for her, but these truths were a little louder back in the day: when things get hard, people walk out. When hard times come, there would be living room interventions & one less parent at the dinner table. Life is meant to be lived alone & everyone has to learn lessons on their own.
I understand why she started to think she was going to be left to fend for herself when things got really hard.
I thought a lot about this moment this weekend, and tried to think of what would be the most helpful for 12 year old Hannah, and for 24 year old Hannah, and for everyone else who thought they were going to be left to fend and figure things out for themselves. I came up with four questions, questions I’ve recently started asking myself when I begin to assume why there’s only one set of footprints.
1. Am I controlling the ending?
I am the type of person who tries to guess surprises before they come, because if I know what’s coming, then I won’t be disappointed. It’s a sort of sophisticated form of control. This is what happened in Grade 7, when I first read “Footprints in the Sand” & it happened again in December, when I reminded my boyfriend we didn’t have to keep dating if the Dad drama was too much for him. To be honest, I am most comfortable when I am controlling the ending - but that was never supposed to be my job & still isn’t my job. The first question I have to ask myself is - am I controlling the ending? Am I limiting God’s hand in my life? Is this really mine to control, or do I need to relinquish trust & just let this happen? (Unless it’s an answer about whether to eat, it’s generally not mine to control.)
2. Am I believing an untrue narrative?
Like I said above, I have an abandonment repertoire. But I also have a repertoire of people who fiercely showed up for me - in greenhouses, at school plays, within church halls & residence dorm rooms, in our home in Orkney & on the farm in Jarvis, on school buses and in coffee shops. If I only believe in the abandonment repertoire, I’m believing an untrue narrative, because it’s not the only experience I’ve had. And if I believe God is a God of hope, healing, reconciliation, love, mercy, and justice, then what I believe to be ultimate truth about the story I’m living needs to line up with that. It doesn’t when I believe God abandons me to figure things out for myself.
3. Am I letting myself be carried?
This goes right back to controlling the ending - I also like to control how much others care about me! (It’s sophisticated & terrible & I’m sorry.) I’m not great at letting others take care of me. I’d rather do everything by myself. I can count on one hand the number of people I ask for help. When I’m saying I’m all by myself, I have to ask - am I letting myself be cared for? Am I showing up or am I running away? There’s power in letting others in, in letting them carry you. I heard this on a podcast recently & I can’t get it out of my head: “You can always come here broken, but we love you too much to let you stay that way - we are a people of resurrection and hope.” Are you letting yourself be carried by loving people who want to move you to resurrection and hope? Or are you fighting the very hands that are trying to care for you? (I’ve been there.)
4. Am I thanking the cheerleaders?
If we pan the camera out of the beach scene talked about in the Footprints poem and then squint beyond the sand dunes, I think we would see a great cloud of heavenly hosts - the footprints - and in some cases, knee prints - of all the loving people who cheered us along. It’s really easy to get sucked into a cycle of, “This is all about me, God, and my terrible thing.” But I think we’ve had crowds of people cheering, praying, hoping, and loving us through it. Are we saying thank you to them for showing up? It’s not just for them to hear it, but it is so important for us to recognize - maybe out loud, maybe in writing, maybe just to ourselves - that you had people who showed up & fiercely believed in you when you thought you had to walk alone. What a blessing.
For a long time, yes - I thought I was going to be left along to figure things out on my own. There are still some days where abandonment is easier to believe in than community. But I’m so thankful for God, who carried me & continues to write an exceptional story for my life; for the cheerleaders, who loved me too much to leave me in my dark places; and that many years later, I can shake my head at 12 year old Hannah & lovingly say, “That’s not how the story is going to end, dear one. Trust. Have faith. Hope. You are loved too deeply to be left somewhere to fend for yourself.”