Recently, I read a book called “Bridging,” which is really a journal, by a woman named Penny Reid. It chronicles her experience learning another language in midlife by going to live in another culture for a month. Penny came to St. Stephen’s to read from her book yesterday.
Given the way our news is dominated by stories of political polarization and division among people both here and in other countries, as people confront the issues of the day by confronting one another, I began to think seriously, as Penny was reading, about the idea of a person as a bridge. And others did too; someone in the audience asked her to say more about that very idea: What is it like for a person to be a bridge?
Penny said that the title of the book came after the experience - is not what she intended when she went to Nicaragua - but she thought to help someone make a connection is what it means to be a bridge. It’s about being willing to really experience what others experience. And it only works if you know that you don’t know everything. You have to be curious and open.
You go into a new place, Penny continued, expecting to learn, or maybe expecting to teach. But to be a bridge, to be the person who stands between two things trying to experience both - two people, two cultures, two worlds - actually takes letting go of expectations. A person who is a bridge must have a very high tolerance for not knowing, too.
Penny described the feeling of being utterly in the dark as people around her were talking faster than she could understand. What are they saying? What am I supposed to be doing? She had to let go of her need to be in control and just let others be a bridge to her, to pull her out of her confusion into a place of at least basic understanding, so that she could be in the circle of the people with whom she was living and whom she had come to love.
Having them be bridges to her helped her become a bridge herself, so that, for instance, now, in her work at home with young children in Head Start, she can converse with Hispanic families in their own language about navigating the sometimes confusing details of their children’s education. She can understand their worries even as she can explain to them the system. She doesn't just know the words. She understands their experience. She can bring them together.
I continued to ponder this as the day went on. What we need, I thought, is more people to be bridges, willing to cross the divides between political parties, between races, between the powerful and the powerless. Bridges that allow for experiencing what others experience and bringing that experience back home, even if - or maybe especially if - that experience is suffering.
I thought about Jesus being the bridge between us and God, between earth and heaven, between this life and the life to come. The earliest Christian theologians said that Jesus brought the divine to earth when he was born and after he died he took our humanity back into heaven, that he became human so that we might become divine. He shared our human nature (or more to the point, he suffered as we suffer) and he also showed us what it is like to be holy. And in the end he gathered up our brokenness and carried it back to God so that we all might be made one with God again.
And so on the day we watch Jesus ride into Jerusalem to experience hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence in return, I wonder how and where it is that I am called to be a bridge, what divides I need to cross, where it is that I might see suffering and not be afraid to experience it, instead of standing on one side and wringing my hands.
So that I can come back to tell about it, in the name of understanding, in the name of love and peace, and in the hope of reconciliation.