Tony threw a rock and hit me in the face at the corner of my eye. The jagged little piece of granite missed the eyeball itself by a scant millimeter.
We had been walking down a country road with a group of boys. Tony had been several steps behind me. I had been turning around to say something to him. The rock struck me just as Tony was coming into view.
Dazed by the pain and stunned by the sudden impact, I stooped with hands on knees for a few minutes. Tony was frantic. Apologizing. Saying again and again that it was an accident.
He and I had been good friends for years. I was eleven. Tony was just a bit younger. He was a gentle boy, given to kindness and quick to cry when his feelings were injured. He was crying now because he had hurt me.
As if someone had flipped a switch in my head, my initial shock gave way to a blinding fury. I let go a barrage of accusatory, mean-spirited words, insisting that Tony had purposely hit me with that rock. I stormed home and wouldn’t speak to Tony for weeks.
I built an emotional wall around me that utterly excluded Tony. Time might have dismantled that wall given the chance. Grace might have nudged my heart toward forgiveness and understanding. But my mother and I moved away from that town later that summer.
The wall that I built in fear and anger and pain—from my own need to seek comfort by placing blame on someone else—left me with the enduring memory of a friendship fractured by my own failure to forgive.
That’s quite a contrast to what we witnessed in Charleston last summer. As we all remember, a young racist had entered an AME church and murdered nine people with whom he had just finished a Bible study. He had hoped to start a race war.
Instead, in a Charleston courtroom the families of victims forgave the shooter and encouraged him to repent. They walked across a bridge of compassion toward him, urging him to join them.
The families could trust that bridge to support them, because it was a bridge not of their own making. Jesus erected that bridge. In Jesus, God heals our own injured souls and mends the shattered relationships between us.
Jesus dismantles walls and builds bridges. That’s part of what we mean when we say that Jesus is our savior. He dismantles the walls we erect and builds bridges to span the fissures and gaps between the divine heart and the human heart, between human heart and human heart.
We don’t have to do anything to persuade Jesus to be about this work. It’s how he rolls. That’s just who he is. But to experience the relationships that Jesus seeks to restore, we have to stop adding new bricks to the walls Jesus tears down. And we have to step out onto the bridge that Jesus is building. In other words, we have to believe.
The story of Abraham teaches us precisely this lesson.
Abram—before God changed his name to Abraham—was already old as dirt. So was his wife Sarai (soon to be renamed Sarah). God had long ago promised Abram offspring, with the emphasis on “long ago.” God is taking an uncomfortably long time to make good on that promise, and Abram is beginning to waver in his confidence.
God renews the promise and Abram takes God’s word for it. Genesis puts it this way, “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
If all you hear in this is that God promised Abram a son and that God would give Abram what he wanted so long as he believed in the promise, you will miss the point. Abram is agreeing to keep making his own life all about God’s redeeming mission on earth.
God initially called Abram out of his hometown of Ur in order to make him and Sarai the founders of a people. God sought to work through this people to redeem the fallen creation. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Abram wanted a baby. But he also understood that his life—and the life of his eventual descendants—were part of God’s greater story of redemption. Abram gave himself to that divine project. God had built a bridge to a new future. Abram kept walking across, even if a bit hesitantly at times.
God completes this redeeming work in Jesus. Believing is much more than assenting to a list of theological concepts. We clarify our beliefs with Creeds and doctrines and prayers, but our belief is real when we act. When we act as Jesus has taught us to act.
We believe in Jesus when we forgive those who hurt us.
We believe in Jesus when we shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and visit the sick.
We believe in Jesus when we liberate captives and defend the oppressed.
We believe in Jesus when we welcome strangers.
Jesus is tearing down walls and building bridges. To be perfectly honest, crossing some of those bridges takes courage. Some of them remind me of the old O. K. Allen Bridge that once spanned the Red River on the north side of Alexandria.
Peeling paint and patches of rust gave the steel trusses a leprous appearance. The road surface was littered with bumps and cracks that threatened an impending collapse. My palms got sweaty every time I drove over that span, and I had to fight the image of plunging to my death in the red-brown waters below.
Loving our enemy is crazy. And yet Jesus tells us to do precisely that.
We protect our property with fences and alarms and even guns. And yet Jesus says that when somebody steals your coat, give him your shirt, too.
Forgiving somebody for injuring us just once can seem like impossibly heavy lifting. But Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven times. In other words, the forgiveness well is bottomless.
As it turns out, Jesus builds each and every bridge by the same design. Every Jesus-constructed bridge is the way of the cross. Along the way, we die to ourselves. On the other side lies an empty tomb. Eternal life
No wonder these bridges look so perilous. But the only route to rising to new life passes through dying to self. Through the cross.