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Bend at the Knees

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Originally written in 2008, this piece by Belinda Burkitt still resonates in a time of pandemics and renewed protests over racial violence.

Chip Burkitt, editor.

“Bend at the knees!” Something I can remember calling out to my young children as we ventured across an icy patch on a winter walk in Minnesota. My husband and I wanted them to slow down and keep their already low center of gravity even lower to protect them from falling. They took our advice alright. But the funny thing was they would walk normally for a few steps then squat a couple of times, walk—stop—squat, repeat. Until they made it safely across the ice. This was hilarious to watch! Even now when we’re outside and encounter a patch of ice, the person in the lead calls to those behind to “Bend at the knees!” Then we all stop and squat.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to my college-student daughter over the phone. She caught me up on the latest in her life. Nearing the end of her junior year and facing an unknown internship, she was realizing that many unknowns lay ahead for her. She was stressed—knot in the stomach, deep ugly pimple in the middle of the forehead, fearing the future STRESSED. Her small, safe community would no longer be her point of reference. Her place on the map that says ‘YOU ARE HERE’ illustrated with an arrow and a dot would soon be somewhere else. The familiar sights, sounds, and smells of rural Iowa and the crazy antics of dorm life were about to fade into new, more grown-up sensations. Sigh.

I listened. I nodded. I identified. My own strange, resistant-to-change feelings welled up. Wishing I could stop the inevitable flow of imminent change. Wishful thinking. Her next phase was bigger than me. Somewhere in the midst of her worry about getting a passport and writing yet another chapter summary and obtaining a letter of recommendation, I blurted out, “Bend at the knees!” Silence. “Bend at the knees, honey. Do you remember our winter treks across the ice?” She remembered. Now she listened. “You’re about to do some things you’ve never done before. It’s supposed to feel weird. Worry about slipping and falling out of control won’t help. Slow down. Get low. Be ready for the unexpected. Bend at the knees. Trust. Trust God’s plan, and all will be well.” I could hear her take a deep breath. The knot in her stomach loosened and the pimple began to clear up. “Okay.” She said. That was it. A sweet moment when the advise coming out of my mouth was exactly what I needed to hear. We shared the same encouragement.

There comes a time, okay, several times for everyone when we are confronted with a patch of ice on our path. When staying put is not an option. When life, God, calls us to keep moving despite the warning signs of potential danger. When there’s too much to be done and sitting around waiting for spring or forty degrees simply won’t do. Life following God will never be completely safe or void of obstacles or slippery spots.

Lately, I’ve been hearing the “Heavenly C’mon!”—God calling me to resume the adventure, encouraging me to keep moving toward him. My knees want to tighten and lock. It’s uncomfortable, new. I resist like a hobbit who wants to stay snug in the Shire, content to live with the small and the usual. Once again I am reminded that it’s not about my comfort. It’s about the mission. The cause that is big and right and worth fighting for. So worth getting over my petty fears and self-centered craving for safety.

A new fear arises. What if I fall? What if I am an expendable crewman who gets sent to the unexplored planet without a coat? Armed with a much too small ray gun? Only to be liquidated by the galactic bad guy. What if my job is to set up the rest of the episode? What if I’m a casualty? What if?

I actually fell on the ice this past winter. Or was it spring? Twice. I wasn’t watching because I thought there shouldn’t be ice on the ground this time of year when, fwip, BONK. (Expletive.) I was flat on the cold icy ground with an owie and a broken coffee cup. I was furious. Full of blame and rage that no one had warned me in advance to “Bend at the knees” or had even bothered to salt the side walk. I resolved, briefly, to never go outside again.

STAYING PUT IS NOT AN OPTION!

Move along… Move along… MOVE IT!

Staying put is not an option, is it? Sometimes taking action means our own survival. I think of the rock climber who was climbing solo in Utah some years back. He dislodged a boulder, pinning his right wrist to the side of the canyon wall. He was literally stuck. After days of waiting to be rescued, his water and granola gone, he had no other choice but to finally free himself by applying a tourniquet and severing his own arm. He then, rappelled down the cliff, hiked five miles where he found help and passed out.

His extraordinary will to survive challenges my extraordinary desire to be safe. I comfort myself with the thought that even Bruce Willis doesn’t have that kind of grit. Staying attached (literally) to his arm would have been his death.

It reminds me of the disturbing words Jesus spoke,

“If your right hand offends you, cut it off.”

Yeah, but Jesus was talking about being tempted to sin, right? Like getting rid of your TV or throwing out your video games. I know, I know. But could it be that staying put, even when we are stuck under a gigantic boulder, is sin? Is it possible that doing nothing is an offense because we are not making every effort to fulfill God’s call on our lives? To live the life He has called us to live? When playing it safe is toxic, you do what needs to be done and get going!

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about me adult children fear sin spiritual life wonder

Cultivate Wonder

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One of the worst sins I am often guilty of—and my wife and children can attest to it—is scorn. You know what I mean. Scoffing, diminishing the excitement or wonder of others. Parents often do it to their kids. Why do we do it? I think there are two reasons, both based on fear.

The first is that we fear being thought naive or innocent. When I was little, I wanted to be one of the big kids. I wanted to be included, wanted to belong to the group that was more privileged by age, getting to stay up a little later, getting to watch TV shows for more mature audiences, getting to read books with adult language and themes. I tried to present myself as knowing, even when what I knew was nothing or very little. With a little luck, I could pass myself off as more experienced, less innocent.

The second is a deeper and worse fear. It is the fear of wonder itself. Wonder takes us out of ourselves. It makes us feel awe at the world around us. It involves acknowledging that we do not know everything, that what we can control is very limited, that uncertainty and vulnerability are part of life. In wonder we yield ourselves up to something greater than we can understand, and there’s always the terrible possibility that we will not matter. Wonder exposes the insecurity we feel at our own insignificance.

To defend ourselves we—or at least I—practice scorn. I adopt a knowing, superior air. Oh, yes. I know all about that. What? You didn’t know? I act as if nothing surprises me, when in fact the capacity to be surprised is essential to every new invention or discovery. Scorn acts as an armor protecting me from the derision of others who might mock my naivete. It makes me invulnerable—or so it seems.

Scorn builds a safe space for a fragile ego, but it does so at a cost. What I gain in invincibility, I lose in delight and wonder. I lose also in trust. Acting superior doesn’t make anyone trust me more; it makes them afraid to share their own wonder with me. It doesn’t prove me more knowing; it shuts me off from new experiences and those who want to share them with me.

When Jesus took a child and stood him among his disciples and told them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I believe one of the characteristics of childlikeness he was commending was the capacity for wonder. Children are full of wonder. I see it constantly in my granddaughter, how freely she oohs and ahs over things I have long since considered mundane. The whole world is new to her, and if I choose to enter into her experience of it, it becomes new to me again too.

This coming year, I resolve to cultivate wonder. I will let down my guard. I will enter into the delight and excitement of others. I will be on the lookout for opportunities to behold the world as God sees it—always new.

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adult boredom children death hell life memory novelty

All Things New

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Aging takes place at a pace that makes so many changes imperceptible. When you are a child, every experience is new. You don’t crave novelty because novelty is all you’ve ever known. Nameless feelings well up within prompted by intense sensations. Plain bread is exciting. Primary colors are a thrill. You hear upper harmonics in the music your parents listen to, and it either irritates you or enthralls you, and you can’t understand why your parents don’t respond the same way. The front lawn is a vast landscape of adventure and possibility. You love to hear the same stories over and over, so much more often than adults are willing to tell them. All your senses are sharper than they will ever be, yet you lack the vocabulary and experience to appreciate their sharpness.

As you age, your senses become duller. You learn to appreciate complexity. You are no longer satisfied with plain bread. You want a range of flavors and textures in what you eat. You learn to appreciate art. The upper harmonics fade, and you keep telling your kids to turn the bass down. You travel and find the world more strange and wonderful than you had ever imagined. You get bored with the same stories and begin to crave novelty for its own sake. Your experience and vocabulary have grown, but you sense that you have lost something ineffable, something fleeting and good like a distant flash of lightning at the periphery of your vision.

Memories begin to crowd into your mind, distant and dim memories covered with a patina of re-imagining and reinterpretation. You become less sure of the formative experiences you’ve told and retold to friends and family, especially when a brother or sister contradicts what you vividly remember. You begin to long for something new, but every purportedly new experience, every supposedly new development, begins to feel like a recycled version of something you already know. You come to realize that as much as your memories define you, they also limit you, pulling you back inexorably into your own past.

You don’t want something new.

You want all things new.

You want to be a child again, to experience the world with wonder and awe, to be free from your own experience while retaining the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

The promise of eternal life, an unending consciousness piling up more and more memories and experiences, has come to seem truly dreadful to me. To live and live and live and be unable to die sounds more like hell than heaven. Of course, no living thing welcomes death, except as an escape from intolerable pain, so it’s hard to imagine relinquishing life as long as the pain of living is tolerable, and if we know anything of heaven, it is that it is tolerable. But a tolerable existence cannot last long, surely cannot last forever. Eternity wears down everything. Joy, excitement, delight, pleasure—all partake to some degree of newness, and eternity must surely drain the newness out of everything.

So God promises, “See, I am making all things new!” It is this promise that restores hope in an eternal life. The universe is vast. If there is adventure among the insects and blades of grass in the front lawn, then surely there are untold wonders throughout the universe. Perhaps we will live to see them.

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