Building Bridges

Many years ago I made a trip west and found myself walking along the Columbia River in Oregon. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been—so lush and majestic—it was almost too much to take in. You may remember the Columbia River as the place where Lewis and Clark realized they were close to completing the first attempt ever to cross the American west. The expedition had been commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. On April 9, 1806, Lewis scribbled in his journal his first description of the area: “…we passed several beautifull cascades which fell from a great hight over the stupendious rocks…the hills have now become mountains…high on each side are rocky steeps…covered generally with fir and white cedar.”

About 190 years after he wrote that, I felt compelled to take off my socks and shoes and step into an accessibly shallow part of the Columbia River. I wanted to make contact somehow with this place Lewis and Clark had been. Seeing it and hearing it didn’t seem like enough. I thought I needed to feel it, too. So I waded into the freezing water, trying not to notice the smiles and curious looks of fellow tourists nearby.

Next, I followed the winding paved trail up the mountain to Benson Bridge, which crosses in front of breathtaking Multnomah Falls, one of the most photographed waterfalls in the country. From the bridge, you can easily look up to the top of the waterfall (it’s 611 feet from top to bottom) or look dizzyingly down into second waterfall pool and get a long view of the blues and greens of the gorgeous Columbia River. It feels otherworldly, somehow. There is water above you and below you; and you are inhaling the spray of cool mist with every breath you take. It made me think of the hymn, Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Standing there, experiencing that—hearing, seeing, and feeling that—it is easy to believe God is inside, outside, and all around.

Sometimes bridges do that: They give us a chance to see things in a new way. When we’re willing to step out of a well-worn path; to deepen our understanding; to have an adventure; to see the world, ourselves, and each other a little differently, our willingness is rewarded. God makes good use of that. And the glimpse we get might be grander—and more life-changing–than we anticipated.

I had this kind of a feeling—like God was inviting me to try a new perspective–last week when we were studying Chapter 11 of the book of Matthew. In the opening passage Sherry read for us, John the Baptist, who is in prison, had sent word with his followers to Jesus, asking him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This question in itself baffled me, because John already knew who Jesus was. They were cousins, after all, and had probably grown up if not playing together then at least hearing stories of one another their whole lives. And John, who was already a prophet in the wilderness when Jesus began his ministry, was the one who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan river, saw the dove land on him, and heard God’s voice, saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased!” (Matthew 3:17) There could be no question. John knew who Jesus was. Perhaps John’s deeper question—the one he didn’t dare ask from his prison cell—was “Is it happening? Is God’s love changing lives?”

Jesus’ answer to John is equally curious. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

What a remarkable response! Jesus didn’t answer John’s question directly with a simple Yes or No. He also didn’t use the opportunity to tell John about himself and how well he was doing, describing the crowds that came to hear him or whether he felt people were understanding his message. He doesn’t justify his role at all. Instead he answers the question John didn’t ask. Jesus goes for the greater view, listing the ways people were being healed, freed, and changed. Yes, his answer tells John, God’s love is on the move.

Jesus wanted to give all those listening—including us today–a broader view: As one of my commentaries puts it, “the empire of Heaven is breaking through.”

This week I was sharing grandkid stories with a friend at hospice. I told her about the great fun Ruby and Henry and I had this week having a sleepover and spending most of a rainy Wednesday at the Children’s Museum. We had a great time. My friend then shared the news that her youngest grandson may be autistic. At two, he speaks very little, shows almost no emotion, and doesn’t look anybody in the eye. She said he seems to understand them well enough and he is a smart little fellow, but he doesn’t quite connect with the outer world. She told me about a technique a therapist had taught his mom, saying that when he gets hurt—skins a knee, bumps his head, gets an owwie—mom should model an emotional reaction for him, saying something like, “Oh, ouch! Poor guy, that hurts, doesn’t it? Owee!” The instructions were to first show him what a person experiencing a pain looks, and sounds, and acts like, and then comfort him. My friend said that just a few days ago, her grandson took a tumble and then turned to them, whimpered a little, and patted the place that hurt. They responded excitedly and jumped up and praised and comforted him lavishly.

I was amazed by this because it showed that her grandson was feeling the feelings and experiencing the hurt, but he didn’t have a bridge of language to let it out and let others in. And because he couldn’t show it, his feelings were locked away inside, invisible to everyone else. As a result, he was isolated, cut off from the comfort and understanding of those around him. By modeling for him what a person in pain looks like, his mom built a bridge for his experience, and now others who love him will be able to cross that bridge easily, providing comfort and warmth and love for the whole rest of his life. What a miracle that is.

You may have heard of Temple Grandin, an author and professor and one of the first people to speak and write extensively about what it is like to grow up and live with autism. In the forward to her autobiographical book, Thinking in Pictures, the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote,

“[she] provides a bridge between our world and hers, and allows us to glimpse into a quite other sort of mind….We can also share, even if we cannot wholly understand, the extraordinary passion and understanding for cattle which consume Temple, and which have made her, by degrees, a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology and behavior, an inventor of devices and facilities for handling them, and a passionate advocate of their humane treatment. And we get a glimpse—this perhaps the least imaginable of all—of her total bewilderment about other people’s minds, her inability to decipher their expressions and intentions, along with her determination to study them, study us, our alien behaviors, scientifically and systematically, as if (in her own words) she were “an anthropologist on Mars.”

Because Temple has a unique way of being in the world—and she uses great, fresh, honest language to describe it—she adds color, texture, and possibility to our experience of life, too. Because we can look out through her eyes, we gain a different perspective. Our compassion grows. We understand in a new way the pain and isolation of feeling different and awkward and out of sync with the world. Her stories may, as we Quakers say, speak to our condition as well.

And if we are feeling at a loss and out of sync today, we are not alone. There’s much going on in our world we don’t understand, and it can feel like a big risk to open up and trust others with our worries or our hopes. As a result, many people just put on a happy face to get through the day when they’re really hurting inside. We tend to hide that from each other. People walk around every day feeling lonely and disconnected, overwhelmed and overlooked. The gaps between us have grown wider at the same time the circles of people we trust have grown smaller.

But all God needs—right this very instant–to bring more love and light into the world is our willingness to be a bridge. When we can hold to the idea that there is that of God in everyone and let ourselves truly care about our fellow beings—human, animal, and planet—the bridge is already being built by love. As we feel so led, we can share our hearts, our lives, our faith, our hopes with others; but perhaps most importantly, we can simply care about the person right in front of us—whether that’s a grandchild, a stranger, or our spouse. We can be a bridge of love and listen deeply, feeling compassion for their struggles, hoping for their well-being, praying that God’s love will show up in their experience in a new and blessing way. And maybe we do that with just a look or a smile or an open door. Even the smallest kindnesses are felt and noticed, and can be life-changing.

As the Old Testament reading reminded us, God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega. We have Paul’s word on it that nothing can separate us from the love of God. If that is true—and I am convinced it is—then there is nothing to risk, nothing to be afraid of as we bridge the gaps in the world around us. We are free to love, free to care about the lives of others, free to close the chasms of misunderstanding that isolate us and cause us to despair. And the best thing—they’ll know they’re not alone, locked away in their troubles. We’ve crossed the bridge. God’s love is on the move.

When John asked Jesus, ““Is it happening? Is God’s love changing lives?” Jesus answered with a big Yes. Our answer to that question is also important—that may be the big What Canst Thou Say of our time. How is God’s love showing up in our lives right now and in the lives of those around us? How does God’s love flow to the stranger on the street, the person cutting us off in traffic, the friend posting outrageous statements on Facebook?

God designed us to care deeply about each other, inviting us to move beyond the surface of our lives and speak truth to one another in love. Thankfully, it we’re willing, we’ll get all the help we need as we let the light move us toward creating a more connected, whole, and loving world.

We’ll probably get our feet wet, see new vistas, and feel the misty company of spirit along the way. And if we’re paying attention, we’ll also witness the warm, colorful, life-giving beauty of Heaven breaking through.



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