This is probably going to sound a little strange, but I love bridges.
I’m almost 52 years old, but I still turn into a little kid whenever we travel and we drive over a big bridge. Thankfully, my wife, Kerry, does too. When our children were younger and they would travel with us we would say things like, “Hey, look up from your screens. We’re about to go over a bridge.” or, “Wake up, you’re going to miss the bridge.” (Our kids would look around confused as to why we were making such a big deal about a bridge.)
To this day, for all the many wonderful things I enjoy about New YorkCity—the spectacular museums and Central Park—my absolute favorite thing about visiting New York still is walking across the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.
I love bridges! It’s not just that they are beautiful structures. I mean they are, but I also really like how bridges connect two sides of things which were previously separated from each other. I think bridges are powerful symbols of our human longings for connection. I also think bridges are in my blood. My ancestors literally were builders of bridges here in these mountains. One of them built an early toll road down the mountain going into Greenville and constructed bridges along the way. Another one built the first wooden bridge across Green River in 1820 on the road down to Spartanburg which led to Charleston. My family operated that bridge as a toll bridge for travelers and livestock.
So one day I was in another town, in another community nearby to where one of those bridge building ancestors is buried. I was having a business lunch for the Rescue Mission where I work. On this particular day we carpooled with our Executive Director, Anthony McMinn. We rode in his vehicle to our meeting. While we were there, I started telling him about my family of bridge builders and I offered to show the old gravesite where my ancestor is buried close by. On our way back, we took the long way home so I could show him some of my family’s local, regional history.
We both enjoy local history because we both grew up here. In fact, we both were born right here at Pardee Hospital. Over the course of our lives we’ve both seen the same places, the same buildings and traveled the same highways, but in many ways we have known very different versions of life in this area. That’s because Anthony is an African American man. For 20 years I’ve heard him talk about things that indicated the differences in our life experiences, but I am embarrassed to say I reallyI didn’t pay that much attention. I didn’t ignore him, but the truth is I’ve had the luxury of living my life and pretty much tuning out things that made me uncomfortable or things which I did not want to deeply hear.
So on that day we drove up this long, curving, dead end road to an old church surrounded by graves. I said, “We’re going to have to climb to the top of the cemetery and go through those woods.” Then he said something really strange to me. He said, “Hold on. We’re going to need to wait for the police officer.”
I looked at him like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “There’s a police car that’s been following us, turn for turn, ever since we left the diner. He watched me get into the truck.”
At first I thought he was joking, but he was very matter of fact about it. He said, “It happens all the time in places where they don’t me.” Now, I’ve been in that community, hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in my life. To my knowledge, I’ve never been followed. I’ve never been pulled over. I don’t think I’ve ever even spoken to a law enforcement officer in that community. I thought surely Anthony had somehow just misinterpreted something he saw back there.
So we just awkwardly sat there for a minute or two and then, sure enough, in my side mirror I saw a police car slowly turn the corner and drive up the hill behind us. I was shocked. I was also terribly embarrassed that I had not believed him. I immediately got out of the vehicle and walked back to the police car and had a conversation with the officer (which I am not going to go into here) and the officer left.
When I got back to Anthony’s vehicle I discovered he wasn’t happy with me at all. He couldn't believe that I had just jumped out of the vehicle like that. He said, “I teach my kids to never get out and approach a police car like that. You're supposed to stay inside your vehicle and remain calm. Someone could get hurt.”
I thought, “Get hurt? What is he talking about? We’re parked at a country church in broad daylight.” He said, “Have you not been listening to what I have been telling you all these years?”
At that moment I realized, No. I had not. I had HEARD him over and over, but I never actually LISTENED until I experienced what he experiences all the time when he travels.
So ironically, there we were, going to see the grave of my bridge-building ancestor, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt a greater distance between myself and someone else as I did that day sitting there in the front seat of that vehicle with my colleague and friend. There is a wide distance between our two life experiences: I’ve driven my old truck through that small community and others like it so many times over the years and never once drawn suspicion. In fact, I don’t even get noticed at all. Anthony, on the other hand, gets noticed everywhere he goes. He’s used to being followed in stores. He’s used to walking down streets and hearing the sounds of car doors locking. He’s even had the law called on him just for walking down a street in a neighborhood where he was staying on vacation because he looked like he did not somehow “belong” there.
That afternoon in the parking lot of that graveyard I realized I needed to stop assuming that my life experience was the same reality as everyone else’s. I really needed to start listening.
Today is Trinity Sunday. All of our Scripture readings today point to this idea that somehow at the very heart of who God is there is this community of persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that we name as the Trinity.
Over the years, followers of Jesus have taken two different approaches to what the Church teaches about the Trinity. Either we try to somehow explain it (which, let’s be honest, never ends well) or we leave it up there in the ether somewhere as an abstract mystery that has no practical bearing on our everyday lives.
My sister and brothers, today I want to encourage us to take a different path. Instead of trying to explain it or ignore it, I believe we’re called to live into it.
It shouldn't be some doctrine that we only dust off once a year on Trinity Sunday and say, “Oh, isn’t that a nice and shiny mystery. I think I will put it back on the shelf until Trinity Sunday next May.”
The Trinity isn’t just a mystery of the Church. It’s a model for the life of the Church.
For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing all these readings from Scripture about this sort of circular dance of communication where the Father hears the Son. The Son listens to the Father and takes what is at the heart of the Father and makes it known. The Spirit takes what is the Son’s and the Father’s and declares it. That’s been repeated over and over again in our readings, especially from the Gospel of John.
The picture that emerges is that at the center of the life of God is a community of mutuality, equality and sharing that we call the Trinity. Between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is communication and there is listening.
When we allow our faith community to be shaped in the image of God that’s also what we can become: a community of equality, mutuality and sharing that bears witness to who we say God is. That’s who we are called to be as a church and here’s why it’s important: It’s the only way forward in the midst of the complex and changing world in which we find ourselves today.
In practical terms, here’s what a community modeled on the Trinitarian life of God looks like: ● It means instead of talking at each other or over each other, we learn to listen to each other. ● It means welcoming the perspectives of people whose experiences are different from our own. ● It means instead of always being in the business of trying to teach everyone else the answers ( or what we think the answers are) we open ourselves up to receive from others and learn something new.
My sisters and brothers being trinitarian goes beyond doctrine. It doesn’t matter how often a church recites the Nicene Creed, the truth is, an insulated community is not a Trinitarian Community in practice. The great danger is that we can become so isolated that we end up only talking to ourselves and only listening to ourselves.
A few weeks ago I read an article where the author surveyed the top selling, recently written books by popular evangelical authors on the subject of human sexuality. Now, as you might imagine most of them are packed full of Bible verses and lots of theology, but they’re all missing one very obvious thing: the voices and perspectives of the very people whose experiences they are writing about. In fact, when this particular writer contacted those authors, they all ended up admitting that they don’t know or have any friends whose orientation is the very subject they wrote about in their books. In other words, they read the Bible through the lens of their own experiences and then used those interpretations of the Bible to prescribe the experiences of people they’ve never sat down with face to face and listened to as one human to another.
That’s almost as tragic as me thinking I really knew a thing or two about racism without ever having really listened to the experiences of my friend whom I have worked with for decades. Up to that point in that graveyard that day, I had read books and articles about racism. I had watched documentaries and taken all kinds of classes about dismantling the barriers of racism and there was nothing wrong with any of those things. I commend all of those things. They helped put my feet on the bridge, but they did not take me across it. The only way across is to make the effort to truly listen to the reality of sisters and brothers whose daily life experiences are so very different from my own for no other reason than the color of our skin.
My sisters and brothers, any community that dares to be modeled on the pattern of the Trinity will be a place where we can all meet as God’s children and be present to each other face to face, image of God to image of God.
It’s a space where there is mutual giving and receiving. It’s the bridge where the lives of others can begin to be as real to us as our own.
So as we enter this Trinity Sunday instead of trying to explain the unexplainable, I will leave that to the theologians. Instead, I simply want to leave us with the same words I used to offer my family while we were traveling. “Wake up! Look around. Pay attention! Don’t miss the bridges.”