How big is your spiritual footprint?
‘Go lightly down your darkened way’ sings Bono in a Salman Rushdie penned lyric, and it would seem this is now fashionable as people contemplate how big their carbon footprint is. The idea of the light footprint may have originated at the United Nations where it is deemed vital in nation-building lest the organisation be labelled neo-colonial, but it has now been adopted as the unofficial motif of green living. In the process, the pernicious effects of individualism have been challenged. For too long, in celebrating the role of the individual in the modern world, we have either ignored the impact we make on other people, or fooled ourselves in thinking it doesn’t matter because if everyone looks after their own interests it will, in some magical, Ayn Rand inspired way, maximise the common good.
I am sure there are spiritual footprints too, and that we should be aware of the ones we make. Yet in contrast to the carbon footprint, these footprints should be firm and assured. The prophet Isaiah proclaims: ‘how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news’ (Is 52:7), while Paul writes to the Ephesians: ‘as shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace’ (Eph.6:15). Our spiritual footprints give clues to the good news we bear, and should help to point people down the right path when it is otherwise not apparent.
A campaign advert in the 1988 U.S. Republican leadership contest, eager to demonstrate how little impact George H.W. Bush had made as vice-president over the previous eight years, showed a man walking across a snowy landscape but leaving no footprints behind him. It was a subtle yet devastating image. The problem with footprints is that they lie behind our field of vision and we are not aware of what they look like unless we take the time to stop and look back (let’s face it, something everyone does when walking through freshly fallen snow!). The author William Boyd has remarked: ‘the last thing you know about yourself is your effect’, and in our witness to Christ, I suspect we often fail to appreciate the mark we are making. For some of us, the impact is much greater than we realise and so we are not as encouraged as we might be; for others, the impact may be closer to that image of the man walking across virgin snow but making little impact, the awareness of which should bring us up short. Sometimes our witness to the Gospel is about as life-enhancing as stepping on someone else’s toes, and churches which specialise in this shouldn’t be surprised when newcomers take their feet elsewhere.
Nevertheless, there are times when we are not strong enough for the task at hand, and our witness to the Gospel is to have the grace to allow ourselves to be carried. As the famous Footprints narrative suggests, sometimes it is the absence of footprints in the ground beneath us which testifies most to the wonderful grace of God.
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