Minister's Corner: But Prints in the Sand

Rev. Dr. Tiffany A. Nagel Monroe

A number of years ago I encountered a man named Sam at a Christian youth convention in Denver, Colorado. Sam was the keynote speaker who also happened to be an artist and comedian.

As Christians are called to do, Sam told his story. We heard the edited-for-youth version of the good, the bad, and the ugly that Sam lived through. It was so impactful that an entire arena of youth from around the region were silent and listening. Sam’s story was all of our stories.

Sam was human. So were we. Sam made big mistakes. Some of us already had and some had some big ones up ahead. Sam turned his back on God, himself, and hope. Many of us were still learning what that meant for him and what that might mean for us.

Sam was an unconventional man of faith who was an uncommon kind of adult, an honest one without pretense. Sam didn’t look, sound, or act like any faith leader I’d encountered before. In fact, I imagined some of the elders in my church back then would have been quick to dismiss him. As for those of us in attendance, something grabbed us to pay attention rather than turn away.

It was at this particular convention that I first heard my call to ministry at seventeen. It was a terrifying and riveting prospect that I was not yet prepared for. Looking back, Sam gave me the permission to believe for just a moment that God not only holds out hope for the ones like me, God calls the most unexpected people like me into ministry.

Within a few moments of feeling this warmth trickle up my cheeks, I began to panic. It was what I like to call the “Anxiety But Storm.” It’s when every reason you think you know you can’t do something begins to surface and you respond with a thousand buts. “But I’m not good enough. But I’ve made too many mistakes. But I’m too young. But someone else would be much better at that than I would be. But who would listen to me? But I’m going to fail. But I’m an introvert.” So many yes/buts.

During one of his messages, Sam spoke about a small book he wrote in the early 90s called Buttprints in the Sand. As you can imagine, an arena of teenagers got quite the kick out of that book title. After the laughter tapered off, Sam told us how in his life he had been sitting waiting for God to move him. He was filled with various emotions based on his personal life experiences. He vacillated between anger towards God and disbelief in God. So, as he described it, he plopped himself down in his life and refused to budge.

Buttprints in the Sand was a bit of a parody of the famous poem, Footprints in the Sand. In the Footprints poem, a person sees only one set of footprints. When confronting Jesus as to why there was only one set instead of two, Jesus replied by saying that it was in those moments that Jesus was carrying him. For Sam, he looked back at his life and it wasn’t footprints he was seeing, but buttprints.

Sam spent so much time just sitting in the sand. Stubborn, hurting, angry, dejected, grieving, hopeless. There he sat. If God wanted him to do something, God would have to move him. Sam wondered where God had been. He wondered why he felt so abandoned. Yet, Sam just sat there. Waiting for life to happen to him. His was a powerful story. I connected with it. I, of course, bought his book.

It wouldn’t be for another ten years before I responded to my calling. Yet, as I felt the nudging to do so, I would reach for the Buttprints book and remind myself that living and sitting stubborn or afraid were two very different things. It was around this time that I had the “Anxiety But Storm” epiphany. Sam talked about buttprints in terms of immobility in our lives or the refusal to move/change/transition. Yet, I realized that for me, it wasn’t about immobility or a fear of change as much as it was a lack of confidence and faith in myself.

When I look back over a few chapters of my life, I can see the presence of God along my beach. I can see the times when I sat and refused to be moved. I can see the moments when God was asking me to have faith the size of a mustard seed and I not only rejected it, I also turned from it. I can see the times where I fell in the fetal position in the sand just waiting for the storm to pass. I can see the times I ran into the waves with playful abandon and free spirit. I can see the times when God carried me and joy abounded. I can see the wandering aimlessly years. I can see the places where I danced. Yet, what littered my beach the most, were all those “but” prints.

Too often, we have excuses for why we have chosen not to respond to our callings in life. We design explanations to help us embrace why we never chased that dream, believed in ourselves, risked reputation to do something impactful, or were willing to lose it all in order to gain what our souls truly desire. We settle for mediocrity from ourselves, and we blame the world for our dissatisfaction.

In other ways, the but prints impact all of us. We know that it is said we are to love our neighbors and our enemies, BUT we just don’t want to. We know we are to be good humans, kind and generous in spirit, BUT it’s a lot easier to despise what we don’t understand. We know we are to offer grace to ourselves and others, yet we project our unresolved wounds on to those lucky enough to walk into our path. We know that it is said that we are to serve one another, BUT those people don’t deserve it. We know that it is said to be wise and compassionate, BUT somebody has to keep those people corrected and in line. We know that God doesn’t make junk, BUT we are pretty sure God messed up on that one. We know we are called to a higher way of living, loving, and being, BUT we just don’t have time for that. We know that our holistic health matters, BUT we often neglect our mental, physical, and spiritual health. We know that the greater good is a worthy cause BUT self-serving motives ensure we get ours first.

Live a life of the yes/and. Yes, life is complicated and beautiful. Yes, people are messy and still children of God. Yes, our hearts will be broken in this life and it’s not a waste of our time to love. Yes, we will all die and only some of us will really live. Yes, we are imperfect, and we can still do holy things. Yes, some of us are different and we are still called to ministry. Yes, we struggle to believe we are enough, and God still equips the called.

A yes/and life is a life that defies the rules of an “anxiety but storm.” When we have doubts in ourselves or others or even God, we can say yes to acknowledge those doubts and we can include the other part of the truth, which is that God can still do great things with us in spite of those doubts.

We can be the people who offer others an “and” rather than a “but.” Yes, the poor will be with us always AND we must still care for them. We will be required to get up off of that but.

When you look back over the course of your life, how many “but prints” are sitting in your sand? How many buts have held you back or held others down? How often do you respond to someone’s encouragement with a but? What would it look like to practice a holy yes/and mentality? What in your life needs to change in order for you to live a great story, free from buts and doubts and fear?

Offer the holy yes/and to yourself and all you meet. Turn the prism. Reframe the narrative. Change your story.

Rev. Dr. Tiffany A. Nagel Monroe