On Building Bridges

bridges of Chicago
Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
Isaac Newton

About five years ago, I sat in church one cold and dreary Sunday morning while our pastor, Jennifer, talked about bridges. I came into church that morning a little lost, a little frustrated, and utterly exhausted. I didn’t really want to be there and I had been feeling so beaten down by life that I seriously doubted whether words of spiritual advice would make any difference whatsoever.

Nonetheless, I sat in that small church, distracted, and I listened to her talk about shoveling sidewalks and neighborhood parties and wide nets. She talked about the sacred act of building and strengthening bridges, about maintaining and honoring those bridges, and she then issued a challenge to us to become bridge-builders ourselves.

At the time, her words fell on a weary soul and an exhausted body. With a two year old at home and mountains of stress, I wasn’t looking to build bridges; I was just hoping to survive the day and maybe take a nap. Yet, somehow her words rang true and they stuck with me ever since.

On some intrinsic level, I think that we are all called to be bridge-builders. We are naturally driven, I suspect, in some deep primal way, to want to connect, to build bridges – in our families, social circles, communities, and workplaces; with the natural world and the spiritual world; with others and even within ourselves.

But, what does it mean to be bridge-builders?

While we are called – compelled even – to be bridge-builders, it is not always an easy task. In fact, I think that it just might be one of the hardest things that we, as imperfect and ego-driven humans, are asked to do. Bridge-building is awkward and daunting and painful; it is clumsy and uncertain and utterly exhausting. Bridge-building means uncomfortable conversations and bruised egos and being the first one to say “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or “I was wrong.” And bridge-building requires a healthy dose of faith, copious amounts of forgiveness, and an infinite amount of grace.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that my ego and heart haven’t ached just a little bit when, after introducing some friends, they prefer each other’s company to my own. I would be lying if I didn’t say that doesn’t take frequent reminders to check-in with extended family and friends during those times when life’s obligations leave little room for anything beyond carpools and homework, conference calls and emails, paying bills and folding laundry. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have to constantly fight the urge to wear my Facebook mask, to present a Pinterest-worthy picture of my life to the world, to pretend that I’m not constantly second-guessing myself. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that there have been times when the time and energy spent building bridges hasn’t left me feeling scared, inadequate, and completely drained.

There is a natural tendency, I suppose, to preserve, protect, defend, and maintain the status quo. We get busy and beaten down with the day-to-day stresses and the curveballs that life throws at us, and sometimes bridge-building just seems like too much work and a colossal waste of time.

But bridges aren’t built when we stand our ground and stay in our comfort zone; they aren’t built when we focus on relationship maintenance, rather than relationship sustenance. Bridges aren’t built in the masks or by pretending that we aren’t scared and confused. Bridges aren’t built when we snicker at the expense of another, when we think in terms  of “us-them” and “the other,” or when we focus all they ways we are different.

No, bridges are not built this way.

Bridges are built when we cast a wide net, when we make the effort, when we are radically inclusive. Bridges are built when we ask questions and take the time to listen to the answers. Bridges are built when we lay ourselves bare and stumble through the muck; when we make an intentional and difficult decision to forgive; when we focus on our shared and common human condition. Bridges are built when we step into the heart and mind of someone else; they are built with a single phone call or email, with a tender touch, with an open mind and a generous heart.

Bridge-building is hard, hard work. But bridge-building is good work, beautiful work, essential work. Bridge-building is holy human work.

There are bridge-builders all around us, and we can be bridge-builders ourselves, whether we know it or not. With her prophetic words about neighborhood parties and shoveling sidewalks and taking the first step, Pastor Jen built more bridges for me than she could possibly know. And for that I am eternally grateful and continually inspired. We have both since moved away from that church community in Chicago, me to the suburbs and she to California and then Virginia. But I have no doubt that she has been continuing to build bridges along the way. Because once a bridge-builder, always a bridge-builder.

Who are the bridge-builders in your life?

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