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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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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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God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life

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When Paul—called Saul at the time—encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him to go into the city and await further instructions. Then he revealed to Ananias that he had chosen Saul to carry his name to the Gentiles. Because of his reputation, the Christians at Jerusalem refused to accept him, fearing that his conversion was a ruse to infiltrate their ranks, so Saul went home to Tarsus where he spent many years not preaching to the Gentiles.

Some will read what I have just written and think that I have flatly contradicted myself. God clearly had a plan for Saul’s life. Bear with me.

Jesus told several parables about a master who leaves and later returns and demands an accounting of the servants he left behind. The early disciples evidently retold these parables in the expectation that Jesus would soon return and call them to account for what they had done after he left. In each of these parables, the master leaves no detailed set of instructions—no plan—for them to follow. He leaves them with a mission. The planning is up to them. For example, in the Parable of the Talents, the master gives each of his servants bags of money, then sets out on a long journey. He doesn’t tell them how to invest it or give them detailed plans about how to put his money to work. He leaves that to their abilities. When he returns, he finds two of the servants have doubled the money he gave them, and he elevates them to positions of greater responsibility. The third servant, however, did nothing with the money entrusted to him. He buried it and returned it to the master after he returned. He tells the master that he was afraid.

What was he afraid of? Did he fear punishment should he fail? Did he fear disappointing the master? The master calls him wicked and lazy, indicating that he regards the servant’s fear as an excuse for him to do as he pleases and not accept responsibility for the work needed to make more money from the money he was given. Because the master sees through the servant’s excuses, he rewards him with the very things the servant had feared: disapprobation and punishment.

None of these servants was given a plan for how to use the master’s money. That was their own part. The master’s part was to provide the money. Theirs was to put it to work. The success or failure of their work would depend on their own ability to make wise investment decisions. Two embraced that responsibility, and their efforts prospered. The third shirked it, and made no effort.

So it is with the life of every believer. God has a mission for your life. That mission always involves taking his name to other people and showing them his love. He may, as he did with Paul, give you a more specific mission, but the planning and work involved in carrying out the mission is your part. Of course, God may also give very specific instructions when a strategic part of his overall plan is especially crucial. He did that when he gave such specific instructions to Ananias about where and when to meet Saul. But for the most part he entrusts us with the mission and leaves the planning to us.

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