Becoming a Bridge Builder

January 24, 2021

Genesis 33:1-10; Excerpt from Nelson Mandela, “Long Road to Freedom”


A World full of “Pacos”

Ernest Hemingway grasped some of the difficulty that characterizes relationships between fathers and sons in his short story. The Capital of the World. The story revolves around a father and his teenage son Paco, set in Spain. Paco was an extremely common name in Spain at that time.  With desires to become a matador and to escape his father’s control, Paco runs away to the capital of Spain, Madrid.  His father, desperate to reconcile with his son, follows him to Madrid and puts an ad in a local newspaper with a simple phrase: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the Madrid newspaper office tomorrow at noon. All is forgiven. I love you.”


Hemingway then writes, “the next day at noon in front of the newspaper office there were 800 “Pacos” all seeking forgiveness.”  The world is full of people in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps now more than ever, people of faith need to lead the way forward.  This is our domain―this is what has been done for us and what we are called to do. The Christian faith in a nutshell: Be Reconcilers. Build Bridges.  


Nelson Mandela – An Image of Reconciliation

So what does true forgiveness and reconciliation look like?  The world has been given many examples.  Such an image was given to us the day Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa. What was so significant was not just that a person of color was becoming the head of a state with years of segregation and mistreatment of its black citizens, but it was also Mandela’s gracious inclusion of his former adversaries that was so inspiring.


When Mandela arrived, he was accompanied by his eldest daughter, as well as the South African security forces. But that was not all. The police and the correctional services (the same people in charge of his 27 years in prison) walked alongside his car, saluted him and escorted him to his inauguration. It was a powerful moment for many reasons, but most of all it provided a reminder that just a few years ago, Mandela had been considered by the South African state as a public enemy, a terrorist to be arrested and exiled to a remote prison. 


Jacob and Esau – An Image of Reconciliation

There is another storyan imagein the old testament that took much longer but resulted in reconciliation nonetheless.  Esau looks back on the twenty years since his brother, Jacob, had left home—cheating him out of their father’s blessing, a blessing Esau felt was rightfully his. His thoughts had been of terrible revenge, but with the passing of time Esau’s anger and burning resentment had subsided. These feelings had been replaced by a deep awareness that God had not forgotten him and that he, in turn, could not forget the love he had held for his brother.


So Jacob returns to Canaan and Esau sets out to find him. Upon seeing Jacob, Esau “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and together they wept.” And then we have this powerful response from Jacobhe tells Esau that to see his face and be accepted by him was “as though [he] had seen the face of God.”  I love that line in this story. We see the face of God when we forgivewhen we reconcile ourselves to each other.


Vaclav Havel – An Image of Reconciliation

I know that there are people in our lives that reconciliation seems very unlikely, if not impossible.  I also know that for many, the political line between Republican and Democrat these days has become unmovable. In any polarized situation, the overriding human tendency is to draw a line with oneself and one’s allies on the good side and placing others on the bad side, with very little attempt made by either side to understand the other. As these positions harden it becomes almost impossible to achieve the insight necessary for a breakthrough.


In his book “Power of the Powerless” Vaclav Havel describes his powerful practice of remembering: “The Line that Runs Through.” Vaclav Havel was the former President of the Czech Republic. You may remember that Havel was one of those who resisted the Communists and was put in prison for his activities. When he came to power after the Velvet Revolution, Havel was conspicuously forgiving toward his former enemies and other collaborators. Some blamed him for this. But he maintained his position. In the Central European regimes of the seventies and eighties, Havel said, “The line {between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us’ but through each person.”


Our Image of Reconciliation

Yes, the lines we draw are not between us and them, but within each of us.  We are the ones that draw the lines.  We have the power to undraw them. You do. I do.  So what are the lines that you have drawn between yourself and others?  Who are the people or groups or persons that are on the other side of your line from you?  Images like Esau, Mandela, Havel and countless others have given us examples of courage to make reconciliation a reality not just a pipedream. And so the question for us is “what do we want our lasting image to be one of courage and doing what is rightor one who was stubborn because they thought they were right?  If you choose the former, here are a few lessons that may help you to build bridges with others.


  1. First, the language we use matters.  When I hear people say “How can 74 million Americans have voted for Trump?”, I cringebecause a statement like that only feeds into the divisiveness.  It assumes that Republicans are a monolithic group. But people have different reasons for voting.  We would never tolerate being categorized as “all white people are self-serving and don’t care about others.”  We need to listen more and stop making all encompassing statements that only serve to divide even more. 
  2. Second, we need more humility.  I really think that our current political divisions are largely the root of our ethnocentrism and trying to build ourselves up regardless of the cost to others. People so desperately want to be recognized and are willing to resort to one liners and see how many hits they get on youtube in order to feel good about themselves. As people of faith, we need to communicate a deeper love by taking the time to build authentic relationships.  We need to model humility in our culture.
  3. Third, we need to become more vulnerable.  To embrace someone like Jacob and Esau did, after 20 years of estrangement, exposes your heart. We need to expose our heart to others, not to manipulate them, but to invite them to share their hearts with us.  The most powerful lesson my father-in-law ever taught mea Presbyterian missionary in Islamic Pakistan for 35 yearsis that in order to build bridges with muslims we must become vulnerable enough to convert to their faith as much as we expect them to convert to our own. In the political arena, it may mean that we are open to becoming more conservative if we consider ourselves liberal or more liberal if we consider ourselves conservative. 
  4. Fourth, we must be intentional.  Reconciliation will not happen by itself.  Esau had courage and took the step to make things right with his brother.  Leaders like Mandela and Havel have demonstrated how to value and cooperate even with former enemies.  It takes grace.  It takes stepping out of our comfort zone. It takes commitment.
  5. And finally, we must remember that reconciliation is a long healing event, not a momentary one.  It takes time and lots of work to restore a relationship.  It’s not a one and done kind of venture. We must be committed to the long haulto the personmore than the ideal


This Is Our Moment

“For indeed, I have seen your face, [and it is] like seeing God’s face”, Jacob says.   Friends, there are Paco’s everywhere.  People who need to see God’s face of reconciliation and forgivenessin our families, in our communities, across the political divide, across the racial divide, across the religious divide.  Who is the Paco in your life? What lines have you drawn?  And what are you going to do to undraw them?  This is our moment to correct the course of division in our lives and in our world.  This is our moment to seeand BEthe face of God!


Vaclav Havel once wrote: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility. Hope is not a feeling of certainty that everything ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have a meaning.”