By Pastor Barb
Recently I attended the 5-year anniversary celebration of a bilingual, Spanish-English multicultural church. Many of the people have only one language, Spanish or English, and the church has worked hard to open communication among those folks and bring them into relationship, by helping them learn one another’s languages.
The guest preacher said that, in doing so, they don’t just build bridges; they cross them. In other words, they go to people, and meet them where they are. It’s not enough to just build a bridge and wait for the other person to cross, or even to meet us halfway. Maybe they can’t, or won’t, or don’t know they should. We cross the bridge to them, because we can. We meet them where they are.
This is such an important part of what we need to do as church that I thought it would be worth sharing here. I began to think of other situations where walking across that bridge to meet the other person has been especially important to me. Here are just a couple of very different stories that came to mind. I’m sure you have your own as well.
--Crossing bridges is what we do in worship every week. We can’t be church with a diverse community if every element of our worship is drawn from the great Lutheran traditions developed by our European ancestors. That would be them. So, alongside the traditions of Lutheranism, we don’t claim that Jesus was Nordic. We incorporate and learn traditional gospel music through the amazing gifts of Minister Beverly. And sometimes we sing and pray and dance in ways that are more familiar in the traditions of our neighbors. We are trying to meet our neighbors where they are, so that we can worship together as one family of Christ.
--I have a friend who lost her 22-year-old son suddenly a couple of years ago, and grief is a part of her, always present right under the surface. It changes from day to day, even moment to moment. I never know where she will be with her grief on any given day. So, I don’t ask her how she’s doing generally. There’s no answer for that. I’ve learned to ask simply, “How’s today?” And she will tell me, and I will meet her there. Not where I would prefer to be, in a more comfortable place, but wherever she is with her grief. That’s the only way we can be in relationship: first, I cross over to acknowledge the grief that she will not bring to me. Under her circumstances, it’s not her job to cross over to my side of the bridge. It’s mine.
--Then there was a moment one day recently at our food distribution. Sometimes folks who come in for food behave in ways that annoy some of the other people who are there. I thought especially of “Sam”, who often comes in altered by alcohol, which makes him loud and obnoxious and rebellious toward the rules. Occasionally he will slide an extra package of food under his jacket, beyond the allotted number.
I remembered how different he was that particular day—at church before anyone else, stone-cold sober, with a seriousness of purpose that was unfamiliar. He had in his hand a certificate that said he had completed a series of classes that would allow him to seek part-time work. He was bursting with pride, and couldn’t wait to get here and show his certificate to Pastor Jeff. And, I saw his reaction later when, with the paper tucked into his jacket and just a corner sticking out, one of the volunteers asked him, “What’re you hiding this time, Sam?” The look on Sam’s face, as he reached for the paper to show it to the man, still haunts me. It was the face of a human being whose spirit is being crushed.
I recognized the face, because I’ve made it myself. Maybe you have too. It’s the face we make when someone says to us, “I will always define you by your worst day. I will not meet you where you are today. I won’t even bother to find out where that is.” Low expectations are a heavy burden. And we tend to live up to expectations.
I wonder if Sam went home that day and had a few drinks, trying to kill the pain of that encounter. I wonder if, next time he comes to us for food, he’ll brace himself with alcohol first so he can face people who will continue to define him as his worst self. He might think, “What’s the use; I might as well just be that person.”
I’ve re-written that scene in my head a few times. What if, that day, instead of greeting Sam with suspicion, the man had said, “How’s today, Sam?” When a broken spirit raises its head and shows signs of life, as Sam’s did that day, we should rejoice. The recovering spirit is delicate and fragile, so we need to treat it with tender care and nurture it, whether in a child or a 70-year-old, like Sam. It’s been said that what we can know about a person in our usual encounters is like the tip of an iceberg. The huge part that’s hidden below the water line is what’s going on in their life. So, we should be gentle, and as kind to one another as we can be.
Jesus died and rose for our redemption. All of our past sins were forgiven. We were made righteous in God’s eyes because of what Jesus did. He met us where we were, as sinners, and does so again every day. With each new day our old selves die and are resurrected. Each new day is another chance at a new life.
If we build bridges and cross them to meet our neighbors where they are today, we will remain open for something new. New relationships; new life together. Maybe even a new world.