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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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What If God Ruled the World?

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As a child in elementary school I already had a reputation among my peers as a Christian. Other kids called me a goody two shoes. Boys would try to get me to swear. One day a boy asked me if I believed God could do absolutely anything.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Can he make a stone so big he can’t lift it?” he responded.

I was speechless. I saw in a flash that if I said he could then I would be admitting there was a stone God couldn’t lift, and if I said no, then I was admitting that he couldn’t make such a stone. Either way, I had to admit God was not omnipotent. I thought long and hard about this conundrum.

I finally decided that what I was being asked to admit was that God could not do what was logically impossible. There can’t exist both an unliftable stone and an omnipotent being who can lift any stone.

Christians tend to take God’s omnipotence for granted. Yet it raises a lot of questions. How can God stand by and allow horrors like the Holocaust or the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan genocide to occur unchecked? And if God allows such things because they fall under the free will of human actors, then how can he stand by and allow natural disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Maria, or the tsunami that claimed so many lives in southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti? Some Christians propose that such catastrophes are punishment for sin. Yet what kind of punishment sweeps away the innocent with the guilty and visits the worst disasters on the poor while sparing the rich?

There are only two possible conclusions. Either there is no God, or God is not omnipotent. Many of my friends on Facebook have opted for the former explanation. Some of them were raised in Christian homes, and their disappointment with God has fueled their disbelief. I have come to conclude that God is not omnipotent, at least not in the way we commonly think of omnipotence. In fact, I think that belief in God’s omnipotence is one of the most successful lies of the devil. There are things God cannot do, not because he lacks the power or will to do them, but because he lacks the authority. To act without the authority to act would call into question his goodness.

The New Testament is very clear about who the ruler of this present world is, and it is not God. It is the devil, Satan, the serpent who beguiled our original parents into giving up their authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field. It is the devil, along with those deceived by him, who are responsible for the evil in the world.

Jesus revealed God as a loving Father who cares for his children and wants them to love as he loves—without condition or favoritism. Jesus demonstrated that love by healing the sick, curing those who suffered from inner demons, and by eating and drinking with the outcasts of his society. He touched the untouchable, forgave the unforgivable, and esteemed the worthless. What he did is what God does, and it is in this context of putting forth extraordinary effort to find ways to be kind that we must understand that with God all things are possible. You can be kind to those who hate you. You can love those who say awful things about you. You can contribute your hard-earned income to help those unfortunate enough to have been born in poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. You can use your own influence, however small, to bring God’s rule into the world ruled by the devil. This means war. It is inevitable when kingdoms are in conflict.

There will be casualties. Don’t give up.

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Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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