Two brothers, John and George, once lived on adjoining farms. Over the years they worked together to produce food for the surrounding community and other parts of the world. One day while John and George were planning for the future, they had a disagreement. They had worked through disagreements in the past, but this one was significant. It began as a small misunderstanding, grew into a major difference of opinion, and finally exploded into an exchange of bitter words. The two brothers, who had worked together for over 40 years, no longer spoke to one another.
One morning, there was a knock on John’s door. When he opened the door, there was a man looking for work. The man said, “Good morning. I don’t intend to intrude; I’m looking for a few days’ work. I have done work as a carpenter. Do you have a few small jobs here and there that I could help with?”
John replied, “Well, yes I do have a job for you.” John led the carpenter to the backyard of the house. He pointed across a creek to a house on the other side of the field, and said, “Look across the creek at that farm. It belongs to my younger brother. Last week, there was a meadow between us. But look at what he has done. He took his bulldozer and widened the creek. It looks like a small river is now dividing us.” Pointing to a pile of lumber, John said, “I want you to take that lumber and build an 8-foot-high fence. I don’t want to see the river, I don’t want to see his place, I don’t want to see his face anymore.”
The carpenter said, “Show me the nails and the tools, and I’ll do a good job for you.”
John got the man started on his project. Then, John had to go to town to take care of some other business. He was gone for most of the day. When he returned, his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. John, expecting to see a fence, saw a bridge. The carpenter had built a bridge.
The bridge, with handrails, stretched from one side of the river to the other. John was angry with the man and was about to fire him when he saw his brother walking across the bridge. As George reached his brother, he stretched out his hand and said, “You are quite the guy. After all, I have said and done, you still are reaching out to me.”
The two brothers shook hands and turned to the carpenter, who was leaving. John said, “No, wait! Stay a few days. I have a lot of other projects for you.” The carpenter replied, “I’d love to, but I have more bridges to build.”
Courageous Bridge Builders
I know the story is simple, but it reveals the truth for today. We need courageous bridge builders. Whether it be in the life of our country, community, or church, it is time for Jesus followers to become bridge builders.
So, what does that mean? In my 48 years as a pastor and leader, I have learned that churches follow their leaders. Churches might shape the quality of leadership, but people follow the leaders they trust. In the midst of disagreements and divisions, the opportunity is now for leaders to navigate the divisions being created in our culture and in our churches.
It Matters Where You Start
Disagreements are unavoidable, but division is a choice.
This is a good example of “it matters where you start.” We live in a politically polarized environment. When you start from a political position, you are always working to get people to come over to your way of thinking. When you carry that out to an extreme, you begin to use hurtful and untruthful language.
I hear name-calling language like “racist Republicans” and “godless Democrats” in conversations among church members. I read words like “unscriptural progressives” and “closed-minded, inflexible conservatives” in letters to congregations. Why do you feel you must vilify someone to get people to follow your thinking? Why do we have to make someone your enemy to get what we want?
Instead of doing the courageous work of bridge building, we have reverted to the political ways of our culture that have moved our disagreements to division.
Bridge-building leaders do not need an enemy.
What if you started with the love of God seen and experienced in Jesus? Imagine what might happen if you start with “Do No Harm” from John Wesley? What if you quit pointing fingers and telling those with whom you disagree, “You’re wrong” and began to live like Jesus by turning the other cheek, listening, and engaging in holy conversation? Bridge building does not divide us into separate groups just because we don’t agree.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians wrote, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29 NRSV). Paul wrote those words to a church in the midst of conflict. They are recorded in the part of his letter where he is instructing followers of Jesus on how to live the life of Jesus in relationship with others. Just in case the New Revised Standard Version is too difficult to understand, read them from the Good News Translation, “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”
From my perspective, those are bridge-building words. It matters where you start.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Disagreements are unavoidable, but division is a choice. This is a good example of “the truth will set you free.” We live within a theological polarizing environment. When you think and act as if you are the holder of the truth, instead of speaking the truth from your perspective, you tend to point out where others are not living out the truth.
When you carry that out to an extreme, there is a tendency to demean those who disagree with you and over-characterize the differences. You create a fear of “the other side.” This fear begins to dehumanize the people with whom you disagree and creates a division to show that you hold the truth that the others don’t hold.
This form of truth and fear has been in action throughout history, especially where there is a desire to control the situation. It creates a division between “us and them” and becomes a tool to persuade others to accept the truth you hold.
Instead of doing the courageous work of bridge building, we have reverted to who is right and who is wrong, and we have moved our disagreements to divisions of theology and polity.
The Love of God
Bridge-building leaders do not need an enemy, but when they are characterized as unfaithful and Godless, they love those who call them names and persecute them with their words. What if you started with the love of God seen and experienced in Jesus?
John wrote in his gospel, “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:31-33)
Bridge-building leaders live out the truth found in Jesus – a truth of love and relationship. Sometimes leaders replace the ultimate truth of love and relationship with personal, political, and institutional truth. All three have their place, but the truth that will set you free is the truth of God’s love embodied in Jesus.
From my perspective, bridge-building leaders not only talk about knowing the truth, but they also live the truth. For bridge-building leaders, “the truth” always leads to the freedom to love and develop healthy relationships, even with those who disagree with them.
Who You Are Is How You Lead
The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
I am sure you and I would disagree on the characteristics of courageous bridge-building leaders. But, from my perspective, Paul gives us a good list with which to start.
Characteristics of Bridge Builders
Live up to their call
You are a beloved child of God, gifted for leading at this time in history. Be who God created you to be. As a follower of Jesus, love the people around you, even if you consider them to be your enemies. As a child of God, you love, even your enemies.
Live lives of humility
You might be right about most things, but you don’t have to put others in their place or demean them, or call them names, or characterize their differences. Love others and accept others as God in Christ has loved and accepted you. Does that mean you have to agree? No. Does it mean you reach out in care and compassion, listening with understanding? Yes.
You have given yourself to Jesus, are open to learning his ways, and are considerate of others who are learning as they live each day. Bridge builders are generous with the people around you, knowing that not all persons are in the same place regarding God’s love as you are. You create a space for them to learn and to grow in grace as you are learning and growing in grace
You develop an attitude of grace. It is seen in your loving, forgiving, and merciful attitude toward the people around you. It is the same attitude that God has toward you.
Bear one another in love
Your care for others is expressed in the concrete act of unselfishness. Your love for your neighbor, and especially for those with whom you disagree, is the first and most important activity as a Jesus follower who is a leader.
Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – The word peace has its roots in the concept of shalom. Shalom means “wholeness” and “completeness.” You work to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of wholeness and completeness. In other words, you are a shalom maker or a peacemaker. Peacemakers are children of God, which means you bear the image of God in your relationships and interactions with the people entrusted to your care. Your work is the work of God. You work for wholeness and completeness. It reveals who you are as a daughter or son of God.
Bridge Builders are Needed
We need bridge builders in our churches and in our communities today. Just as building walls of division is a choice, giving your life to building bridges is a choice. It is not easy being a leader these days. But even when you are being asked and tempted to build walls of differences, be a courageous leader and build a bridge.
Your decision to be a bridge builder will fulfill the truth of Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus was talking about his followers loving one another. People will follow your lead. In the midst of the disagreements and divisions, the opportunity is now for you to step up and navigate the divisions being created among your sisters and brothers in Christ.
May I put it another way? Through your bridge building, everyone will know that love is the priority of being a follower of Jesus. That love is lived out in your relationships with the people around you. It is time for you to be the leader God created you to be…a courageous bridge builder.
Remember, who you are is how you lead.