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Bootstrapping: Not in the Dictionary of Faith - By Pastor Thomas Engel


On Monday morning, I was in the school office and heard a commotion and bustling at the front door-a lot of plunk, plunk.

I looked and saw Mrs. Shau’s class coming in from recess.

As you know we have a new floor at the school, and with the snow, we are trying to keep the floor looking nice, so the children are taking off their boots on the large mat at the front door.

On the mat, I saw a bright sight of boots of different designs and colors.

With the beginning of the week, I was just getting into my sermon. I was thinking about the Old Testament reading, “they shall mount up with wings like eagles;” (Is. 40: 31) and the favorite song that the verse inspired, “On Eagle’s Wings.”

So, I had the image of the students’ boots with the thought of how that it’s God who does all the lifting in our lives. Later, that day, the idiom jumped into my mind, “Lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

To get more details about the phrase, I googled it. Here’s a Reader’s Digest version of its origins: there was a discussion in the 19th century about the possibilities of perpetual motion. In response to the idea that perpetual motion ever could happen, someone said, “It would be like pulling oneself up by his own bootstraps.”

Then, there is the story of a man in Britain who claimed he lifted himself out of a swamp by his pulling on his own hair.

The story got to America, but it changed from pulling up from one’s hair to pulling oneself up by his bootstraps. I guess the image of a pulling oneself up by his own hair looked awkward and painful.

Through the decades the idiom got turned upside down from its first meaning. It went from the logical-it’s impossible to pull oneself from his own bootstraps-to the illogical-a person can pull oneself up from his own bootstraps.

The idiom got into politics in the issue of welfare reform. Some say that a person needs to pull himself up on his own in hard situations and learn to be self-reliant.

Other will say that people in hard times need support and help from outside sources.

Not to get into politics here or to sound like I’m dithering between the sides, but I can see that the more a person learns to be self-reliant, the better it’s going to be for that person, but, also, every person needs support and help at times.

As I continued googling, a word popped up, “Bootstrapping.” This word is used in different areas like technology, statistics, business, and science.

If you are in one of these fields, please pardon as I use again a Reader’s Digest version to explain.

Usually, “bootstrapping” refers to a self-starting process that is supposed to continue without external input.

For our purposes today, as an example, we will look how it’s used in business.

Bootstrapping is building a company from the ground up with nothing but personal savings, and with luck, the cash coming in from the first sales.

I applaud the guts and determination of a person who can say that he or she is self-made. To start a business from scratch is a feat that not many people can do.

We admire the people who get out and try to do the seemingly impossible-like inventing a light bulb, the combustible engine, the electric motor, the printing press, the radio, the telephone, computers, and the internet.

It's widely known that today's smartphones have more computing power than all of NASA did when it started sending astronauts to the moon.

Human achievement can be remarkable. Each one of us goes out and does awesome things every day in our families, schools, places of work, churches, and communities.

The list of the things that we do is long: we shop, cook, clean, do the laundry, do homework, check off those daily duties at work, and help neighbors shovel out of the snow.

Wait a second! As humans, we are self-reliant and are capable of doing awe-inspiring things. But, this list of what we do everyday is so much of a bland routine-we are just often doing the same dull old stuff.

Most of our achievements come from a routine of building by one small step at a time. Going back to that business owner who built from the ground up, it took many hard tedious steps to get to a grand opening, which is exciting, but then, it will mean going back to a daily grind to keep the business running.

Roll up your sleeves and get to work-try, try, and try again-keep a stiff upper lip-put in the work.

Good for us who turn on switches and expect lights to go on so we don’t bump a little toe in the night that Thomas Edison kept up the work after hundreds of failed experiments when inventing the light bulb.

There’s so much we can say about the human spirit.

With all of this said about human achievement, we still have to agree that pulling oneself up by your own bootstraps is unreasonable.

If there are any doubters, we could all try to do it now by lifting up on our bootstraps or shoestrings, but we won’t be responsible for any strained backs.

I tried it, and my back hurts, but I’m not sure if it was from that experiment or from shoveling snow.

Gravity gets us every time. One more time using the Reader’s Digest version to explain things-Isaac Newton basically says in his laws of motion, “What goes up must come down.”

Some things in life are impossible. It’s best that we accept how as humans that we have our limits-perpeutal motion-not going to happen.

For a moment, let’s look at God’s work through humans:

With the Pharaoh and his army on the heels of Moses and the Israelites and with the Red Sea blocking their escape, Moses said, “The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to remain silent,” and he raised his arms wide and was able to part the sea to escape.

David was looking up at a man two or three times his size who was ready to kill him with one swipe of his heavy sword, but David shouted that he would defeat this enemy by the power of God. With one smooth stone from his slingshot that shot to the middle of the giant’s forehead, and knocked him over-dead.

The disciples were ordinary men-a few of them were fisherman by trade-but after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, they continued Jesus’ work of doing miracles as they spread the Gospel, even when they were persecuted. From their work, the early Christian church was started in many places throughout the world.

Moses was not a good speaker, which doesn’t make for a good leader. David was small, which doesn’t make for a good soldier. The disciples, well, were plain, but they changed the world.

All this was done because God does the heavy lifting. Looking at David, he did have the skills to use a slingshot. To David’s credit, he probably practiced a lot in the fields as he watched his sheep.

Although David was a marksmen with his slingshot, God gave him the courage to face the giant. David didn’t at all have a timidity of spirit.

We know what it means to face giants. When I was talking earlier about our days that are mostly routines, I’m not saying that we don’t have our problems that appear to be like giants in front of us.

But, we are talking about God doing the heavy lifting or any kind of lifting-from a problem that is weighing a ton to those little things that are as light a feather, but we know how enough feathers can add up to be frustrating burdens.

We face all kinds of trials all day long. Gravity is always here. Just when we think we are going up, we come down to another problem.

It just might be that a problem or some kind of loss is trying to bring us so far down to a deep dark despair.

Someone might say, “Hey, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Get your act together. Dust yourself off and get back in the game.”

Here we go again with the idioms, and they all sound good. They have a point, but people of faith look at life differently.

We believe by the grace of God, and only by His grace, that God will lift us out of the dark places to His light.

Bootstrapping is not in the dictionary of faith. We admit that we can’t lift ourselves up out of our problems, especially the problem of sin.

Only God can do the lifting, and in Christ, He wants to lift us up as much as we need to be lifted up from the depths that life can take us.

Unrepentant sin can take us literally to the depths of hell itself.

God the Father had His Son, Jesus, do the heavy lifting when he carried all the sins of the world to the cross. On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our sins, and Jesus died, so we would never have to suffer that hellish kind of death.

Then, Jesus raised himself from the dead, so we can have his victory over all that wants to harm us.

This victory means so much to us in all of our days. By faith, we can know that God is lifting us, forgiving our sins, and empowering us as if we are mounted on the wings of an eagle.

We can imagine everyday that we are on the wings of eagles because God comes to us in His Word and tells us how He is lifting us up in Christ.

God will always have us remember our baptism when He came into us and brought us into his family, and when we come to the Lord’s table, Christ comes into us as we eat and drink his body and blood.

On these majestic wings of eagles, I’m not sure that we will be able to part any seas, for they are fine as they are. I’m not sure that we can literally take on a giant-I won’t be coming a wrestler in the WWE soon.

But, in what we do, we can have courage like David, even though he was small, the confidence of Moses, even though he didn’t have many leadership skills, the perseverance of the first disciples and St. Paul, as they faced hardships all day long, and most importantly, we can have the love of Christ-a very deep love as he gave up his life for the world out of his compassion for all people.

This love of Christ is what we put in all of our work-the same old stuff kind of work that we do everyday that builds good families, places of work, schools, and communities.

Let’s just say that humans can do some remarkable things when we “pull up our bootstraps,” but that kind of pulling up will only take us so far.

Our lives look a lot like other people’s lives as we go about our days taking care of what we need to take care of, but we are so much different as far as our motivation.

Looking at some of the verbs in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we see, “gives power,” “increases strength,” “renews” and “mount up with wings like eagles.”

God has a lot of actions for us, and when God acts for His people, “they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

We can get through all things because now all is possible with God.

For us, in these present hard days, we can have a sure hope that every day God is lifting us all the way to pure joy and peace that will be ours in heaven for eternity, which is God’s final lift for us.


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