The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole
An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream held no fears for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here.
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way.
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide--
Why build you a bridge at the eventide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim.
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."
We've just returned from an athletic awards program. There were a few great accomplishments noted, seniors honored, letters given. We're proud parents, as our 6th grader was recognized for her toughness and endurance, her drive to always finish and never give up. Our 8th grader was recognized for dramatic improvement over the year, moving from the middle school team to varsity mid-season, earning a varsity letter, and awarded the "Run Hard--Run Smart" plaque for her ability to demotivate opponents on the steeper hills.
But the award that most got my attention was called the Bridge Builder award. It went to a lovely senior on the women's varsity team. This particular girl's name has been mentioned in our household many times this fall. She too is one of a family of four girls. Our Emma has referred to the encouragement and support she received from her throughout the season. The coaches noticed it too, it seems. The award was given to reflect how much she left behind, as a legacy in the impact she had on the younger runners.
I've said here before that I particularly love bridges. I've also said, maybe not so happily, that I seem to be one. While there is undeniably something noble about helping someone else achieve a goal, arrive at a conclusion, make progress, and so on, I have to confess that altruism isn't anywhere on the list of personal characteristics I feel I could honestly put on a resume, or expect anyone else to put in my obituary. I've complained about being a bridge, in part because I want to experience and celebrate and enjoy with the other person the victory of gaining of the prize.
Tonight I watched this young woman take her plaque, shake hands, give hugs. She'll graduate come May and go on with her life, probably in a distant place. As the youngest in her family, she won't likely even get updates about this very young team of runners. Next fall, the season will start again. She won't know when. She won't see who achieves, who excels, who gets injured and needs encouragement to keep going, who extends that encouragement in her place. She won't know. She won't experience. She won't celebrate or enjoy--at least not firsthand, but probably not at all. I don't think that thought crossed her mind as she gazed out over the smiling faces of her clapping teammates. But it crossed mine. And it stung as it did.
It was never about her. Not really. It was about him who lives inside her. I know this truth too. I know it and I don't know it, but I do know it. It's like the pattern we all live by: creation, fall, redemption, glory. At creation, we all would have known the purity of altruism. At the fall, we all lost it. We no longer know what we know. With redemption, we see it, know it, enacted on our behalf and that experience imparts to us the remembrance of creation imprinted in our DNA. I can do it too. But the fullness isn't always there. Today, I may act in utter selflessness. See an opportunity to give someone else a hand up, a reference or recommendation, a pat on the back, an affirming smile, and go on my way. But tomorrow, I am almost as likely to seek my reward before the sun sets. Not until glory will my spiritual amnesia be cured, my memory established, white stones all around, with new names on them, and utter satisfaction known at the fulfillment of blessings all will share in the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
I know it is coming, that fullness, completion, satisfaction. I want more than anything for those coming alongside me and along after me in this life to know it too. Tonight was a time to look backward--at a season finished, accomplishments secured. But it was a time to look forward too--at the potential recognized, the goals yet to be achieved. Wherever you are, there is someone else behind you. As you look ahead, as I look ahead, to our own futures, our plans, our goals--what are we building? Are we building empires? Monuments to our own ideas or accomplishments? Treasures that moth and rust will eventually destroy? Or are we building bridges? Sometimes we achieve success in life, and others learn from it. That's a type of bridge, yes. But sometimes, our aspirations may seem, to us, to be utter failures. I think of the many attempts at settling this land--the Roanoke colonists, the Pilgrims (it is that time of year, after all)--and how much loss they experienced. Could they have known their experience, in their own perspective, as success? Or did they consider themselves a starting point, a way for others to come across, a bridge to the future? And what about that business we've struggled to keep afloat for years? It just never quite seemed to get off the ground, no matter how many gallons of sweat was poured into it, no matter how many times it was reworked and trimmed down and fueled with a little extra capital. Can that be a success? Or was something else, more important, going on there--maybe in the shaping of all those young people who can say they got their first job there, a resume item, a chance to build skills and see how the world works? Was it a waste of a dozen years, or an investment somewhere unseen? A bridge to the next place ahead for someone else?
Our Lord called himself "the Way." For what purpose did he come? For what purpose did he walk the dusty roads, endure mockery and criticism and slander as he chose to put around himself the most despised ones, as he waited--hungry, tired, in the overwhelming heat--to intentionally be caught publicly with a prostitute by a well for the purpose of freeing her of her shame and making her a beloved bride? He gave up comfort, prosperity, ambition, even reputation. He chose intentionally to be weary, underfed, with no place to lay his head. He welcomed the outward appearance of cultural impropriety in order to build a bridge from the deadly toxicity of external piety to the liberating balm of authentic purity. And he willingly took the consummate humiliation of being handed over into the possession of his very own rebellious creatures--those he had designed from nothing--who would strip him naked, expose him, curse and spit on him, and then gruesomely secure him to a cross to die a grueling death in public.
Is that my idea of success? Not without explanation, no. Not without supernatural explanation. But at that point, it wasn't about him. It was about the ones he had meditated on in prayer only a few hours before. The reason for it all, to take those who came from dust and to dust they were destined to return, and instead, "to give eternal life to all whom [the Father] had given him." I'm in that prayer. So are you, I trust. I hope. "I do not ask for these [his best friends, the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word..." Those who will believe. Those who were coming after, even 2000 years or more after. As long as there is a future, there will be other "youths" whose feet must pass this way. To dust, or to glory?
What a bridge he built. None other can ever compare. But it's his mark that's on me. What will I build? Like a toddler picks up a toy hammer and smacks away randomly in imitation of his craftsman father, I fear my own ridiculous, juvenile attempts to copy. I fear failure, wasted effort. But then I remember the crude but heartfelt gifts in my dresser drawer--that place where treasures brought by plump, awkward hands--in their youth lacking in dexterity, but more than making up for that deficiency in intention and authenticity--are tucked away. Each morning and each evening, they greet me, and there is that glimmer of joy in remembrance.
Have I any excuse?