Being a Bridge

Being a Bridge

Glynn Cardy

Thu 04 Oct

The Book of Ruth is very powerful.  It was probably included in the canon of Hebrew Scripture, like the Book of Jonah, as a critique of xenophobia.  Ruth, the central character, was a Moabite, a despised enemy.  And it was Ruth who would be the great granny of King David, the great military hero and wonder-boy of Israel.  Yes, all xenophobes listen, David had ‘tainted blood’!

Suspicion of the foreigner, the refugee, the migrant, the one with the different skin pigmentation and accent, is an ancient and ongoing affliction.  And the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Christian Scriptures, when read in their totality are very clear about the need – nay obligation – to welcome the foreigners, refugees and migrants, especially those who are poor and vulnerable. 

As the climate changes, as resources get scarce, as our fears grow, we do not want to hear this biblical injunction of unconditional hospitality.  It is too hard, too impractical, and too unfair on our own people to open our borders we say.  And yet the impractical god called unconditional hospitality continues to haunt us.

The Book of Ruth is also is a women’s tale in a men’s world.  As the Hebrew Scripture scholar Phyllis Trible says, “The aged Naomi and the youthful Ruth struggle for survival in a patriarchal environment.  Those women bear their own burdens….No God promises them blessing; no man rushes to their rescue.  They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts to work out their own salvation in the midst of the alien, the hostile and the unknown… One female has chosen another female in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”[i]

It is a woman’s tale in a patriarchal man’s world where inheritance, decisions about migration, economics and law are exclusively male.  Yet once shorn of men – the initial tragedy of Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah losing husbands and sons (or not giving birth to sons after a ten year marriage) – and shorn of her land (Naomi in exile and Ruth leaving her homeland and family), these three women are on their own to make their own lives by their own powerful decisions and relationships. 

As the Jewish scholar Noam Zion says, “How will they transform themselves from objects to subjects, from victims of men’s decisions and God’s decisions (God being the cause of famine and infertility) to [controllers] of their own destiny?  How will a mother-in-law, a role that is typically at odds with a daughter-in-law, create a loving, self-sacrificing relationship with that daughter-in-law?  Remarkably, in a romantic book with a sexually provocative night on the threshing floor and with a happy ending of heterosexual marriage, the only time the word love is used is when the women of the town retrospectively describe Ruth’s relationship to Naomi as one of love (Ruth 4:15).”[ii]

Lisa Wolfe translates the name Ruth as ‘my cup runneth over’.  But it is a bit more than that.  Ruth also means friendship.  Maybe the longer translation could be ‘the friendship experienced as overflowing abundance for both the giver and receiver’.  For this story is about friendship, and the depth of friendship.  It is a friendship that is loyal, solid, costly, and illogical.  By illogical, I mean that Ruth was nuts.  Any assessor of her position would have said: ‘Stay with your own people, in your own land and own gods.  Naomi is cursed.  Her god is weak.  She does not have the family or the means to support you.  No matter how much you like her, turn back.’  And Naomi pretty much told her that too. 

So this was deep friendship.  They differed in age, ethnicity, and religion.  Their solidarity was in their shared tragedy.  But there is something indefinably more.  Some whisper told Ruth to stay with Naomi.  Can deep friendship ever really be defined or explained?

Our second reading this morning includes the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 – the exhortation ascribed to Moses – to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.   ‘Heart, soul, and mind’ are parallel, poetic terms denoting the whole of human existence.  Loving God in Hebrew thought was a way of living in accordance with ‘God’s will’.

Jesus adds to the Shema Leviticus 19:18, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, in order to interpret what ‘love’ for God meant.  For Jesus there is no ‘love’ of God except in commitment to neighbour.  Worship rites, burnt offerings, etcetera, aren’t examples of ‘loving God’.  For Leviticus spells out practically in the preceding verses [19:9-17] examples of what ‘loving God’ meant, and all those examples were about prohibiting the oppression and exploitation of Israel’s weak and poor.[iii]  Serendipitously, Leviticus 19:9 talks about leaving part of your field for the sojourner to glean; which is how in chapter two Ruth meets her future husband Boaz.[iv]

Such ‘love’ of God and neighbour then is not an imaginary romantic love affair with an invisible being called God or Jesus that one engages in by private or corporate prayer; nor is it being nice to your neighbours now and then.  Rather the word ‘love’ is used quite differently.  ‘Loving God and neighbour’ is biblical code for a whole of life commitment to the justice vision that Rabbi Jesus proclaimed.

The religious philosopher John Caputo might describe it like this:  god is a whisper best called unconditional love.  Or breaking the word ‘love’ into Jesus categories, god is a whisper best called unconditional compassion, unconditional hospitality, and unconditional mercy.  That whisper disturbs and challenges us to bring into being acts of compassion, hospitality, and mercy.  We manifest/birth god by such actions.  And being our actions – no matter how great or altruistic they are – those actions are conditional.  So the whisper always continues whispering, disturbing any self-congratulatory impulse or complacency, always broadening the limits of what we think is possible or manageable.

To ‘love’ god then is firstly to listen for a god-whisper, and try to bring it into being.  Stories like of Naomi and Ruth give examples of how the god-whisper has been brought into being, namely as I said in welcoming the foreigner and migrant and enemy, and in the quality of deep friendship Ruth offers her devastated mother-in-law Naomi.

There is a song about such life-giving friendship, written by Paul Simon, and the first two verses go like this:

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

It was inspired by Claude Jeter’s line “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me.”  So, the central metaphor is that of a person being a bridge for another; a bridge to be walked on to take the troubled one from here to there.  It’s not a metaphor of carrying, of being strong by lifting the distressed one onto your shoulders – like the legend of St Christopher when he bears a child across a river.[v] 

Rather it’s a metaphor what could be thought of as weakness, of laying down one’s abilities and mana, and having the indignity of being walked on.  This human bridge, to expand the metaphor, has her/his hands touching the place of distress and her/his feet touching the place of would-be sanctuary.  The power of the metaphor is that the one who is the human bridge is doing it willingly, and giving a choice to the distressed one, empowering them.

Paul Simon later added a third verse.  ‘Silver girl’, by the way, refers to the greying hair of his then-wife Peggy.

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind.

In the first verse the distressed person is feeling small, weary.  She or he is in the midst of rough times.  Friends can’t be found.  The writer offers to be a bridge.

In the second verse the distressed person [maybe, or maybe not, the same person?] is living on the streets.  Pain is all around.  Evening falls so hard.  The helper offers comfort, even offering to ‘take her/his part’.  But I suspect the desire to change places is what the writer compassionately feels yet can’t realise.  Instead the writer offers to be a bridge.

The third verse is about a different state.  Silver girl, with the greying hairs, is coming to shine.  Her dreams are on the way.  If she needs a friend, the one who is prepared to be a human bridge is right behind her.  She/he has silver girl’s back.  The bridge will ease her mind.

My guess is that this song was and is very popular for three reasons.  Firstly, many of us can identify with feeling small, weary, alone, with pain all around.  Many of us feel a deep desire for a friend to ease our pain, to have that friend sailing right behind.  And some of us have been privileged to know such friendship.

Secondly, many of us feel that call – that whisper – to try to be that kind of friend for others.  It’s hard work; we often aren’t or can’t be there; we often don’t pick up the cues that signal need; we fail.  Yet sometimes we are there.  And being there, the present of our presence, is often enough.  In our best moments we are that bridge.  In our best moments we are sailing right behind.  In our best moments we are, like Ruth, that friend.

Lastly, this is a song about compassion.  It is about seeing and hearing need.  Seeing the weary and lonely and not hurrying on by.  It is about seeing and sitting with that person on the street, and in those simple actions saying they are a person and they do matter.  It is about encouraging, being alongside the one whose dreams are on the way.  It is an aspirational and inspirational song, calling us like the god-whisper, to embody compassion.

Songs of course are best sung.  I’ve chosen a rendition by Susan Boyle because of the images.  I like best the image of a rickety old bridge, because I think that’s truer to life – not many of us are big, strong, ever-dependables.  I like too the images of children, and those who might need a friend.  Ideally I would have added other images – like of streeties, or migrants turned back at a border, or those suffering from mental ill-health, tragedy, or loneliness.  Or of you and me.  For we all need friends.

[i] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric  of Sexuality, 1986, pp.166, 173


[iii] See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p.318.

[iv] Ruth 2:2,3.

[v] And that child turns out to be the Christ.