The elderly woman waited her turn to speak with me after my talk. “It doesn’t really matter how you walk,” she said with conviction. “People walk all different ways.” And then she leaned in, finishing with extra emphasis. “Just don’t fall,” she advised.
I had lectured in my hiking boots, not my low heels or flats. I apologized to the participants both for the boots and my limp, explaining that I had been having trouble “getting my walk back” due to a herniated disc.
My anxiety about not being able to move as fluidly as usual was no doubt apparent. And this woman was determined to alleviate it. With just a few words, she reset both my perspective and my priorities. I had never really noticed that people do have all kinds of walks. And not falling is certainly a more critical goal than getting back into my speaking shoes!
In “A Leg to Stand On,” neurologist Oliver Sacks tells of getting his walk back following a climbing accident. While the surgical repair of his injury was straightforward, he initially found himself unable to move his leg. He had “forgotten” how. The key to his recovery, he explains, was the encouragement of those that surrounded him. Not only because they cheered him on in his efforts, but because they told him to do things that were for him new and inconceivable acts. First, they insisted, he must go about his life on crutches. Later, he had to move about with a cane. And finally, it was time to take a step on his actual leg.
None of us can do what we can’t conceive is possible, Sacks insists, until someone in the community “tips us into action.” Alone and with practice, we can “do the same things with ever-greater power and ease.” But we cannot do anything “different or new” unless someone tells us to “do it.”
I wonder what we think we can’t do that we really could do if someone from the community of faith told us to do it? When are we called to conceive what is possible on behalf of another, commanding them to do what for them is altogether new? Take a step with your boots on, take a step with a crutch, take a step on your leg — there’s always some way to step out, to step up, to step in to whatever impossibility God is making possible.
This gets me thinking about miracles. In John 5, Jesus commands a man who is lame to “pick up his mat and walk,” and he does. Experiencing the dynamics of physical therapy, hearing the testimonies of church folks and reading Sacks makes me suspect miracles like this happen all the time. One person tells another to do: Give birth to that child! Preach that sermon! Stand up for what you believe! And then people do the impossible, trusting not in their own conviction but in that of their coach.
We may not notice these things are happening. Sacks reports being surprised that his medical record describes his recovery as “uneventful.” How could his doctors have missed this most transforming event of his life?
Christ’s disciples are called not only to notice miracles, but to spur them into actuality. In worship, we partake of ordinary bread made extraordinary, and then we are charged to bring God’s extraordinary possibilities out into the ordinary world and make them so. And so we walk the walk, even when we’re limping, grateful for those around us who keep us moving because they know, even when we don’t, that we are essential participants in the miraculous works of God.
CYNTHIA RIGBY is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary.