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By February 10, 2016 5 Comments

I’ve never been a fan of the poem, “Footprints.”

In fact, that’s an understatement.

Any of my students reading this today will no doubt laugh at the blandness of this opening comment since I often use this “poem” as my shorthand (let’s be honest—read: whipping boy) for the trite verse that too often passes for “Christian art.” My dismissal is typically followed up with invocations of my patron saint Flannery O’Connor and her rejection of sentimentality along with liberal quotations from her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” (Which, even if you stop reading this blog right now, you should take time to read sometime soon.) I realize that “Footprints” is an easy target: the internet is full of parodies and funny cartoons (including a Star Wars-themed one) ridiculing it.

And yet.

I got to thinking about the poem a couple of weeks ago. I was visiting an out-of-town friend when Winter Storm Jonas hit and made driving in her small town impossible for a couple of days. So when it was time to give the dog his exercise and we couldn’t go to one of their usual spots, we walked to a nearby field—where he romped jubilantly about, even though it was deeply blanketed. My friend, too, moved effortlessly through the snow, striding easily along with her dog.

I, on the other hand, was not quite such a picture of gracefulness. Though I was wearing boots, I found it a hard slog through the knee-high snow. My stubby legs just could not seem to keep up. And the Big Bad Wolf himself would have envied my huffing and puffing as I strove to maintain the pace set by my fantastically fit friend.

Until I realized that I didn’t have to keep up on my own. And it didn’t have to be a slog. All I had to do was put my feet in the tracks already made by my friend. Rather wonderfully, we wear the same shoe size: 7 ½. But I’m quite clear that that’s where the similarity ends: I could wear the best footwear in the world and I am still sadly out of shape. But once I let my better-disciplined, in-shape friend take the lead and didn’t struggle to match a pace I was incapable of, she made it possible for me to go farther and faster than I could have on my own. Just as importantly, by being able to follow her, she kept me out and going longer than I probably would have done by myself. Indeed, walking with her always inspires me to want to get into better shape so that I can walk more, especially if that means walking more with her.

I’m not denying, as the poem envisions, that there aren’t times that God carries us. But out in that snowy field, having my path made by my friend, I remembered again that discipleship is literally about following behind someone we acknowledge as greater than ourselves, someone from whom we know we need to learn, someone we need to emulate. And realizing the peace that can come from acknowledging our flabby spiritual condition—and from knowing the God who has made the way for us already.

On the hallway that runs by my office are portraits of people who have served in the English department through the years—most retired, some sadly died before retirement came. Often, a picture catches my eye as I walk to class, and I think “Big shoes to fill.” But I’ve come to realize it’s not about metaphorically wearing their shoes, not about trying to be as good as those that came before.  Rather it’s that we can rejoice in how they have contributed to the path before us, in how they have given us places to put our own feet, even if for a time, before we continue the path for those coming behind us.

On Ash Wednesday when we are tangibly reminded of our mortality—“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—may we also anticipate the hope of Easter: that we have a Savior whose path leads beyond the grave. And that he is there to go before us. Always.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


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