by Elise Seyfried
We can all be guardrails.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you fell out of bed? For a toddler just graduating from the confines of a crib, the answer might be, “Yesterday!” However, for us slightly older folks, sleeping without rolling off the side of the mattress is a non-issue, and likely has been for decades. What made the difference in those early years?
It was probably the guardrails our parents and caregivers set up alongside the mattress of our first big-kid bed. In the beginning, we bumped up against them as we tossed and turned, but gradually we stopped relying on them, counting instead on our ingrained physical response to help us stay (relatively) put through the night. And then, one day, we didn’t need them anymore.
How about riding a bike with training wheels? That, too, is a childhood milestone. After weeks or even months of extra support from that spare set of wheels, we were suddenly, one fine day, able to pedal off on our own. Our training wheels had served their purpose; now we could balance without them.
Nowadays, as adults cruising along on a bike trail, it doesn’t even occur to us to wobble. Our habit of riding our bikes has settled deep into our bones. There’s no need to go back to our training-wheel days.
If someone asked you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or the table grace you learned as a child, would you need to refer to a cheat sheet? No, those words have long been committed to memory. You can likely rattle them off without conscious thought, fully confident in their accuracy. In fact, going back to reading them would seem strange. You know these things by heart. They remind you to be a good citizen. To show gratitude for a meal. They have become a part of who you are.
Of course, in our later years, the extra protection of bedrails and walker wheels can once again be greatly helpful. But until then, we don’t have to obsess about them, or fear forgetting what we’ve learned. We can go about our business, secure in the abilities we gained as children.
MORE THAN MEMORY VERSES
When I teach Luther’s Small Catechism to confirmands, we take an in-depth look at the Ten Commandments. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t come as naturally to today’s young people as it did when I was learning those God-given instructions for living. Maybe it’s the antiquated phraseology, or just that modern kids aren’t as accustomed to memorizing information as children were in the past. I always emphasize that the exact wording doesn’t matter; it’s the intent that counts.
Still, they get hung up on coveting a neighbor’s livestock, and what it means to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” My students are quite certain that they don’t envy anyone their sheep. As for uttering the occasional (or even frequent) “Oh, my God!”—well, “What’s wrong with that?” they ask. They may be able to recite the Ten Commandments by Confirmation Day, and still miss the entire point.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses both Gentile and Jewish Christian believers. To help them with the Ten Commandments, he reminds them of Jesus’ teaching:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)
In this early church community, those who were Jewish were accustomed to wrestling with the 613 commandments of Judaism, dealing with everything from forbidden foods to haircuts. These detailed directives were designed—like guardrails on a child’s bed or training wheels on a bicycle—to keep people safe and well. It was a comfort to study them, know them all by heart and thus be reassured of God’s favor.
But keeping all 613—or even just the Big Ten—was easier said than done. Christ’s followers were often discouraged. The rules were a lot to keep track of, and it was very tempting to let some of them slide. Which ones were really necessary? How could they know for sure if they were on the right track? By dwelling too much on details, were they, also, missing the point?
Paul drills down to the very essence of the commandments, whatever their number. They are all, he writes, merely different manifestations of God’s love and care. Moreover, if the Romans (and all of us) focus just on Jesus’ Great Commandment—loving neighbors as themselves—they will naturally keep all the others.
It makes no sense to lie, cheat or be unfaithful to someone you truly love. If we love the whole world that same way, the rest comes easily. Our loving responses and impulses become as instinctive as breathing.
Church reformer Martin Luther echoes this in his explanations of the commandments. He also reminds us that, in addition to doing or refraining from doing various things, we need to take positive action, to find ways to actively show our love of God and others. As our emotional “muscle memory” improves and we internalize these concepts, we can stop worrying about recalling their precise wording or order. We can, instead, be free to joyfully live the commandments, showing love in all we say and do. God’s commandments become part of who we are.
A GIFT FOR OUR LIFETIME
Out of all the things we learn by heart as we make our way through life, there is nothing more grounding, more sensible, more liberating and more heartfelt than Jesus’ succinct summary of the commandments. When we all give love, love returns to us a thousandfold. We can then make our journeys in the world, on the wheels of love. We can rest, guarded and kept safe by that same love. We draw upon love to power our thoughts, words and actions. Love fulfills ten commandments, and 613, and a million. As Paul explains, if we understand the “why” in our hearts, we needn’t worry about remembering every single “what.” The “what” flows naturally from the “why.”
Theologian Frederick Buechner writes, “To lend each other a hand when we’re falling, perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.” Buechner’s words are just another way to think about the Greatest Commandment. We all need a hand sometimes to make it through our inevitable troubles, sorrow and pain. God’s love for us, which we extend to one another, is a steadying, reassuring hand that reaches out to everyone.
With God’s help, we can all be guardrails. We can all be training wheels. When our neighbor is falling, when we are falling, we can—and we are called to—keep each other safe.
Love God. Love others as ourselves. If we know this by heart, and absolutely nothing else, it will be enough for a lifetime.
Elise Seyfried serves as editor of four books of humorous spiritual essays. Her essays have appeared in Living Lutheran and many other publications. Elise is director of spiritual formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland, Pennsylvania.
This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.
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