Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Risky Business of Building Bridges, Part II: Biblical Bridge-Builders

In Part I of this post, I discussed the story of the building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; I ended by suggesting that it provides an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey. The preaching series this summer at my church (Good Shepherd UMC in Waldorf, MD) was on Biblical Bridge-Builders.  We looked at eight individuals from Scripture and considered how they "built bridges" in their own time and place.  While none of the individuals we considered built literal bridges like the one spanning the Chesapeake, several of them did have to cross a body of water to get where they needed to go.  (It’s interesting how the spiritual journey is often accompanied by a physical journey of some sort.)   

Each person on this list of Biblical characters faced their own unique challenge to “build a bridge” or “cross over” to a new “place”. All of them faced difficult tasks that required embarking on long and risky journeys to make God’s vision, or dream, a reality.   Just like the Bay Bridge construction described above, the “bridges” these men and women constructed over "troubled waters" weren’t built overnight, but rather took years to complete.  In fact, sometimes the initial bridge architect did not live to see the finished product—Hebrews 11:13.  If one reads the whole story of Moses, for example, one discovers that he was not allowed to “cross over” into the Promised Land.  He only glimpsed it from a distance.  

Nevertheless, the efforts of Moses, and the other heroes and heroines of faith we considered this summer, to “build bridges” clearly had lasting impact in the communities in which they dwelled.  The Table on the next page summarizes the Bridge-Builders we discussed in the preaching series at Good Shepherd, the Scriptures read each week, and a brief summary of their impact.  This is not meant to be a "complete list" of Biblical "bridge-builders" but it does give a sense that "bridge-building" is a theme throughout the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. 

Table.  Overview of this Summer’s Survey of Biblical Bridge-Builders at Good Shepherd UMC
Scripture Reference
Genesis 6:11-22
When sin and darkness had corrupted the world, God called Noah and his family to be a bridge from one era to the next for humanity.  The ark was a vessel of redemption, that would protect them from the storm, and eventually transport them to dry land after the floodwaters receded.
Genesis 32:11–33:15
God called Jacob to seek reconciliation with his estranged brother Esau. The night before he crossed the Jabbok to meet Esau, Jacob has an encounter with God during which he drops the guise of the Trickster, and “crosses over” to embrace his true identity as Israel, who wrestles with God.
Exodus 14:1-30
God called Moses to literally part of the waters of the Red Sea so that God’s people could “cross” on dry ground from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Moses went on to lead God’s People on a 40-year journey through the wilderness to the cusp of the Promised Land.
Ruth 1:1-18
God called Ruth to leave her country to accompany grieving mother-in-law on a journey to her homeland.  Ruth risked much in leaving Moab, but it also opened a unique opportunity for her, as she met and married Boaz, and became great-grandmother to Israel’s greatest king.
Acts 16:11-15, 40
Lydia was a Gentile “God-worshipper” who responded to Paul's preaching by worshipping Jesus. She (and her family) became the first European converts to Christianity, thereby building a bridge between continents and cultures. Her hospitality toward Paul's mission team in Philippi built a bridge that enabled growth of the church in that region.
Ruth 2:1-13
Ruth 4:13-22
2 Samuel 12:24
God calls Boaz, a Jew, to step across cultural divides and take Ruth, a Moabite woman, as his wife—her kinsman redeemer. In so doing he builds a bridge over “troubled waters” anchoring the promise of the future—King David and ultimately Jesus—to the Jewish heritage of the past.
Mary Magdalene
Luke 8:1-3
Mary Magdalene is not the woman many have assumed her to be. She was a key supporter of Jesus’ ministry—and among the very first to proclaim: “Christ is risen”!  Her remarkable story encourages us to know our own story as children of God.  
Acts 11:19-30
Acts 13:1-14a
God calls Barnabas to be a bridge between the Hebrews and Hellenists in Jerusalem, and between Gentiles and Jews in Antioch—where Christianity was “born”.  He is also a bridge to a new generation of leaders as he becomes “sponsor” and mentor to the Apostle Paul, and eventually allows Paul to “cross over” and take the lead.

I had the privilege to preach the message on Barnabas, and was thus particularly immersed  in his story in the weeks leading up to the sermon.  I wrote a Call to Worship to use the week that I preached.  Since it was the last week of the series, I made it to summarize the ground we covered over the eight weeks of the series.  In the age of social media, I suppose the individual lines could almost serve as a Tweetable summary of each message.  

Leader: We’ve crossed many bridges together this summer.
People:  We boarded the ark with Noah to become vessels of redemption.
Leader: We crossed the Jabbok with Jacob to seek reconciliation with our brother.
People: We crossed the Red Sea with Moses, in search of freedom from slavery.
Leader: We followed Ruth on a journey to a foreign land with Naomi, where the woman from Moab became a bridge in the lineage of Israel’s greatest King.
People:  We saw Boaz build a bridge to Ruth—becoming her kinsman redeemer.
Leader:  We saw Lydia bridge “continental divides” for the Gospel of Jesus through the simple act of hospitality.
People:  We crossed over to a new understanding of the story of Mary Magdalene.
Leader:  And today we cross bridges with Barnabas, who with Paul, was set apart to carry your Word to the Nations.
All:  God who crosses every bridge keeping us apart, let these stories from your Word inspire us to be bridge-builders in our world.

Many of these messages were based on well-known Biblical stories; I had to guard against the trap of overfamiliarity.  What I mean is,  growing up in church as I have, I've certainly heard most, if not all, of the stories we read this summer before.  (Even those who never set foot in church have probably heard the stories of icons like Noah and Moses.) There can be a temptation, when one perceives that they "already know this story", to approach the Scripture with a closed heart and assume, somewhat arrogantly, that I've pretty much learned all this passage has to teach me.  But I made an intentional effort not do that this summer.  Instead, I tried to encounter these stories with an open heart, and let the Bible "read me" just as much as I read it.  That is to say, the story may be the same as before, but I have changed since the last time I read it, and thus I receive them differently.  For example, I may be struck by a passage I never noticed in all my previous readings.  If I can learn to approach Scripture with that attitude consistently, then the Word of God truly becomes "living and active, and sharper than any double-edged sword"Hebrews 4:12—and "the "old, old stories" of our faith can indeed continue to teach me new things—no matter how many times I've read them before.   

I love to tell the story; 
'tis pleasant to repeat 
what seems, each time I tell it, 
more wonderfully sweet... 
Katherine Hankey, I Love to Tell the Story, verse 3

Like all good stories. these Biblical Stories are meant to help us reflect upon our own stories.  If we approach the Word with an open heart, we can find God— and"find ourselves"—in the pages of Scripture.  

The summer preaching series at Good Shepherd challenged us to consider where God calls us to be "bridge-builders" in today's world.  The questions we wrestled with are certainly not exclusive to our congregation.  They are questions all who follow Jesus need to consider.  Questions like:

       Where are we called to be vessels of redemption bringing hope and healing to our world?
       Where do we need to “cross the Jabbok” and seek to reconcile estranged relationships with our brothers and sisters?  
       Where do we need to work with God to “part the Sea” so that others can be set free from bondage to whatever may be holding them prisoner?  
       Where are we being challenged to leave a familiar place of comfort and venture on a risky journey of faith for the sake of someone we love, and along the way, encounter opportunities to experience God in a new way? 
       Where are we called to risk stepping out in faith to offer hospitality to others, and in so doing, become a "bridge" across cultural, generational, religious, racial, and/or gender “gaps” that currently create division in the Body of Christ? 

Of course, this is just a sampling of the questions that might emerge after hearing the stories of these and other heroes and heroines of our faith—see Hebrews 11 for a nice overview of some of the other stories beyond the eight mentioned in the Table.  The point is not to dictate specific questions we must answer, but rather to be open to whatever it is God has to say to us through them.

If you are looking for easy answers to the tough questions of life, the Bible is not the book you want to consult.  It simply isn't an "answer book" that you can look up chapter and verse to back up your position on a particular issue; it's more like a Library dedicated to chronicling the With-God-Life.  

Contained within the pages of the Bible are a collection of stories about men and women wrestling with what it means to faithfully follow God in their particular circumstances throughout history.  The "heroes" and "heroines" of these stories "wrestled" with the "tough questions" just as much as we do; in fact, Jacob had a literal wrestling match with God at one point to figure out his true identity.  As far as I can tell, these were all ordinary people whom God equipped to do extraordinary things.  They were human like you and me, and they struggled at times to be faithful and obedient just as we do.  And yet, with God’s help, they all accomplished much, and each left enduring impacts on the Jewish and Christian faith.   These examples encourage us to be like Jacob, and to continue to "wrestle" with God for as long as it takes to get answers to our questions.  (Notice, Jacob's "answer" didn't come from a book, it came in the context of an intimate relationship, where it was okay to "wrestle" with tough questions.)

One thing seems clear, our world needs Bridge-Builders now more than ever. There are some treacherous shoals that need “bridges” built over them in today’s world.  Sometimes the “gaps” between us and them seem nearly impossible to bridge.  But with God we believe all things are possible.  Followers of Christ have always been called to break down dividing walls, to build “bridges” over “troubled waters”.  Ultimately, the problems we face in this world require all of us to solve them.  We cannot afford to continue to be so deeply divided and polarized.   While we obviously can’t heal every divide that exists, and we won’t all agree on the answers—nor is that kind of homogeneity required to have unity in the Body of Christ—I pray that through these and other examples from Scripture, we can each discern individually (and together if you belong to a faith community) where God calls us to be Bridge-Builders in our world.   Yes, building a bridge is hard work; no, it’s not without risk who build the bridge; but if we engage in it faithfully, it has the potential to change our church, our community, and, yes, even our world, for the better.  So, what are we waiting for? It’s time to move beyond the “feasibility study”; it’s time pick up our shovel and “break ground”!

When Visiting "the Beach" Meant the Bay

I grew up in Owings, Maryland, which is located about five minutes inland (by car) from the town of Chesapeake Beach.  When I was a kid in the 1970s,  I remember the place as a sleepy, rundown waterfront community town.  (The construction of a new resort and waterpark in recent years have led to a "renaissance" for Chesapeake Beach—and its sister town of North Beach, which has built a short boardwalk.)  I have a vague memory of seeing an old rusty carousel sitting unused when I was very small (mid 1970s maybe), and I heard wispy tales of a former glory day, when it was active.  (Some time after the amusement park in Chesapeake Beach closed for good in 1972, the Chesapeake Carousel was moved to Watkins Park—located in Prince George's County, Maryland—and restored.)

But my parents—and especially my grandparents—actually remember(ed) when Chesapeake Beach was "the Beach".  My grandmother told me stories about what it was like in its heyday, and even when I see photos of what was [see examples below] I can scarcely believe them to be real.  The resort was built around the vision to create a new railroad line between Washington DC and "the Beach", with stops along the way to pick up passengers.  The terminal station was at Chesapeake Beach, where countless visitors exited to explore Chesapeake Beach, and escape the summer heat of Washington DC. (The Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum has been established to keep the memory alive).  There was a grand hotel called the Belvedere, that overlooked the Bay, to accommodate the wealthier visitors to the shore—until it burned down in 1923.  There was an amusement park to entertain the throngs that descended upon the Beach—complete with attractions extending out over the Bay, including a wooden roller coaster called the Great Derby [shown below],  a 400 foot boardwalk, casino, dance pavilion, theaters, dancing bears, steamboat landing [shown below], etc.

My grandmother told stories of "riding the steamboat" from Chesapeake Beach
 to Baltimore to attend business college as a young child. That would have been ~1920.
Passengers walked out a long, narrow dock that extended out from the boardwalk where the
amusements were located, to board the ship.
The Great Derby must have been a wild ride!
Imagine a rickety, wooden coaster extending out over the Chesapeake.
Safety regulations weren't nearly as strict as they are today...
The Chesapeake–Potomac hurricane of 1933 severely damaged the steamboat landing and
the other amusements that extended out over the water.
The resort reopened in the 1940s and lasted until 1972, but was never as grand as before the storm.
You can learn more about when "visiting 'the Beach' meant the Bay"  
(The photo above actually comes from the site referenced above.)

The Risky Business of Building Bridges, Part I: Spanning the Chesapeake

The two spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  Note the curved structure.
The bridge that spans the Chesapeake Bay  (known simply as the "Bay Bridge") is a Maryland icon, and fairly famous as bridges go around the world.  Marylanders living in 2017 take its existence for granted.  We drive over it routinely whenever we make our way from one shore of the Bay to the other, often when we are headed to and from to the Atlantic Beaches of Maryland (e.g., Ocean City) and/or Delaware.   Sometimes when I have occasion to drive across the 4.3 mile-long stretch of suspended steel spanning the Chesapeake, I think about the fact that at some point there was no road where we were now driving without giving a second thought.  I always find the stories of how bridges came to be fascinating, and such was the case with the story of the Bay Bridge...

Several sites were considered for
a Chesapeake Bay crossing.
The  first discussion of a building a bridge across the Bay began in the 1880s, gaining momentum by throughout the early 20th century. The original plan called for a bridge from Miller Island (east of Edgemere, MD (in Baltimore County) to Tolchester Beach (in Kent County), and was approved in 1927—but the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression quashed that idea.[1]  In 1938, the General Assembly approved construction of the bridge (at its current location) from Sandy Point (in Anne Arundel County) and Stevensville on Kent Island—although World War II delayed construction for over a decade.  In 1949, workers finally broke ground on the first (eastbound) span, and it opened in 1952; traffic quickly clogged the single span; the General Assembly approved construction of the second (westbound) span in 1968, and it opened in 1973. 

  This photo was taken in 1950 as the pylons
for the eastbound span were being built.
Bridge-building requires vision—and then it takes hard work (intention) to make the vision a reality. In the specific case of the  Bay Bridge.  To say it another way, it's one thing to have an idea to build a bridge, it’s quite another to actually construct one where none exists.  The water isn’t as smooth as it looks; laying pylons in the water is hard to do [see photo, left].  Construction is where vision impacts with reality—where the rubber literally hits the road, and the plans sometimes have to be altered.  For example, the now famous curved design of the Bay Bridge [see photo, top of article] came about as a compromise that would allow existing access roads to the bridge to be used while still leaving the prime shipping channels in the Bay open to ship traffic (the curve allows the main spans of the bridge to cross the channel at ~90ยบ angles). 

Bridge-building is also dangerous work.  In the documentary I referenced earlier, one of the men who worked on building the Bay Bridge told stories of maneuvering on steel girders hundreds of feet above the ground.  (Similar perilous tales can be told about the construction of other famous bridges—e.g., San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.) I cringed just watching some of the footage shown in the documentary, and thought, “Man I could never do that”.  The man interviewed said that soon enough, he and his fellow workers got used to the job, and did it almost without thinking.  (My guess is they learned not to look down.)  They were young men at the time who needed work, and they surely felt it was an adventure.  Nevertheless, there is no denying that the bridge-building work they did was quite risky—so far as I know, there was no safety net for the Bay Bridge (like there was for the Golden Gate Bridge).  Four men lost their lives during construction of the Bay Bridge, and there were many more “close calls”.
A bridge also has a huge impact on the area where it is built and the nearby communities.[2] The Bay Bridge, for example, certainly changed Maryland.  Before the bridge, the only way across the Chesapeake was by ferry; there were several ferry routes that crisscrossed the Bay prior to the construction of the Bay Bridge.   Even so, in many ways, Maryland’s eastern and western shores were isolated from each other and existed as “two different worlds”.  Resorts on the western shore of the Bay, such as the town of Chesapeake Beach (close to where I grew up) thrived prior to World War II—see When Visiting "the Beach" Meant the Bay.  The construction of the Bay Bridge (combined with the end of railroad service about a decade earlier and the continuing rise of the automobile) began to change all that.  Especially once the Bay Bridge opened, the ocean became more easily accessible and the resorts on the resorts on the western shore of the Bay declined in quality.

The construction of the Bay Bridge connected the two shores of Maryland, so that people could now live on the eastern shore and commute to work on the western shore—and vice versa.  Goods and services could also flow freely over the bridge.  Fresh produce grown the eastern shore could now more easily reach stores on the western shore.  Conversely, products manufactured in Baltimore and Western Maryland could reach the eastern shore.  The bridge itself was built out of steel manufactured at Bethlehem Steel (in Pennsylvania).  Roads and infrastructure had to be upgraded on both sides of the Bay to accommodate the dramatic increase in traffic crossing the Bay.  Many towns on the eastern shore were changed as the “new highway” (a.k.a., Route 50) bypassed the downtown area.

The story of the building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge provides an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey.  We "cross that bridge" in Part II of this post.

[1] Interestingly, in addition to these plans for a “Northern Bridge”, there were proposals to build a “Southern Bridge” from Lusby, MD (in Calvert County), to Taylors Island (in Dorchester County). Click here to learn more.  The "Southern Bridge" option actually resurfaced again in the last decade or so, but so far has not been pursued.
[2]While researching this article, I came across a Maryland Public Television documentary produced in 2014, called Spanning the Bay, that documents the history of the Bay Bridge and the impact it has had on the state of Maryland. This was a source for the information on the Bay Bridge in this article, which can be viewed here. 

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