By Gary Furr
I’ve been thinking a lot about bridge building and wedges in recent years.
The Britbox television network has a new series called, Annika, about a maritime homicide unit in the UK. Apparently enough homicides in the old country are occurring seaside to require a whole new unit.
In the fourth episode, a body is found under a bridge and Annika, the investigating detective, thinks to herself:
“I remember once being in a cab going over the Forth Bridge and the driver was telling me that the bridge existed in a never-ending struggle between tension and compression. Like two sides constantly pulling away from each other. And if the engineers didn’t manage the demands of these two opposing sides, the bridge would buckle. Or collapse completely.
I mean I was trying to kiss someone in the back seat at the time so I – I may have missed some of the physics. But I remember thinking that in keeping a stable structure together, some tension is clearly important. Just not too much.”
I’ve built bridges. It was the first real job I ever got on my own. I hired on with the McKinnon Bridge company where they were building bridges on Interstate 40 near Jefferson City, Tennessee, where my wife and I lived after marrying at Christmas of our sophomore year at Carson Newman College (now University).
This was the summer of 1974, and I worked there full- and part-time whenever I could get hours until 1976, because the pay was so good ($4.75 an hour—unheard of—as an apprentice carpenter). I needed a job. A baby was on the way.
I had many adventures with the bridge company, stories that I can tell about the people and things that happened. But suffice it to say that was my first job as a married man. I turned 20 years old three months after hiring on. They felt well enough about my work to let me work there and go to school.
It was an education. Streaking was the rage my first year there and, being a college student, my coworkers wanted to know all about streaking (thousands ran naked every night at the University of Tennessee, but as far as I know Carson-Newman only had one). I assured them that Baptist colleges did not encourage public nudity or even saying the word.
It was a diverse crowd. I worked with a crane operator, Elmer, who did time for murder; a moonshiner who rolled his own cigarettes and never wore teeth at work; and a Ph.D. in history who couldn’t find a teaching job and went to work as a rod buster for his brother.
I started out as common laborer. The first thing they did was tell me to take a hammer and pull about 20,000 nails out of boards from wrecked forms that had been pulled off a bridge that had already been poured.
I learned everything about it on the job, watching and working with others. It was a great experience and, as it turned out, was great preparation for the ministry. Being in that rough and tumble world was an experience in empathy training and bewilderment.
One fellow carpenter was nicknamed Love. That came from the tattoos on his knuckles. On one hand was L-O-V-E and on the other, H-A-T-E. One day, two of us college boys were trying to decide whether to ask for a promotion or not. He said, “Boys, I’m going to give you some advice. You got to start at the top and work ye way down.” We got the promotion. Good advice. Kind of a reverse Peter Principle.
Now, to build a bridge, we erected huge logs and set steel beams from one row of logs to another. Before setting the steel beams down, we laid down wooden boards, maybe two feet long, on top of each log. Then we put a row of wooden wedges, as many as eight, on each block, facing one way. Then we put an equal number of wedges facing the other direction and laid another board on top of that. Then you set one edge of the steel beam on top of the boards, a kind of wedge sandwich. Then we would build plywood forms and put steel reinforcement bars inside and pour concrete.
Then, when the concrete was dry on the new bridge, we climbed up with sledgehammers and put a hydraulic jack up to the beam and tightened it. Then we started knocking the wedges out. The weight of those 40-foot steel beams settled on the jack instead of the wedges, which fell to the ground. Then we lowered the beam until it could be pulled out and down to the ground.
It was dangerous work at every stage. Think of this—hundreds and hundreds of those wedges, facing toward one another, held thousands of pounds of steel and wood and concrete and a crew of men until the bridge was done. The wedges had one purpose—to point toward one another and hold in place and then, its work done, to be knocked aside. The purpose of the bridge was not the wedges. It was to enable people to travel and get across the river or a valley or a low place.
Now that I’m retired, I am grateful that I grew up in such a simpler time. I graduated high school in 1972. Those were more tranquil times; I hear some of my generation say. We didn’t have so many of the problems that plague us today.
Well, except of course, we had witnessed the assassination of a president, his brother, and Martin Luther King, Jr. There were protests over the war in Vietnam. We were still reeling over the issue of race, with memories of Bull Connor and voter suppression. White people were angry about desegregating society, especially schools. Some folks were convinced that the Supreme Court had kicked God out of the schools. This was news, of course, to the Almighty.
We argued about communism and fascists. And radical groups were setting off bombs weekly. We were fighting over women’s place, sexuality, and the environment. The Supreme Court voted to support legal abortion in Roe vs. Wade. Inflation was a problem, terrible. Gas prices were through the roof. Drug abuse was out of control. Political corruption took out another president.
Global hunger worried us. Time was short, and preachers said it was the end of the world then, too. We sang, “Wish we’d all been ready.” Hal Lindsay wrote a book and set us onto the Rapture in the 1980s.
Now that I think about it, maybe it’s like I heard the great preacher Dr. Samuel Proctor say in a lecture one time, “I was there in the good old days. They were old alright, but they weren’t always that good.”
The question for those of us called to follow Jesus is never, “What kind of times should they be?” but “What, then, shall we do? How shall we live? Where is our calling?”
So back to bridge construction and wedges. Think about the lowly wedge. It is a demeaning task, having people kick you over and over just so you can hold the door for them. They prop open doors for elderly people on their walkers and canes or while funeral directors wheel the body of someone out to the hearse for the procession to the cemetery.
Chisels can be metal wedges. An axe head or a hatchet is essentially a metal wedge with a handle to multiply the force while you drive it into a limb or a log. The purpose is simple—to sever and split. Occasionally humans even kill each other with them.
So, wedges are powerful little things. As such, they have to be wielded with care. But also, they lift something up, little by little. A wedge can divide, split, destroy. It can lift a steel beam or prevent a car from rolling downhill.
Wedges are like human words. And words have the capacity to lift up and build, or to destroy and divide. Now we live in a time that is unlike any other. Our information age has brought with it disinformation and rumors, anarchists, and conspiracy theorists. Social media and the internet, our own news media across the spectrum from left to right, have been driving the wedges, harder and harder. Our differences are deep and out there to see. And we have pounded them into our common life, harder and harder, and anger drives them deeper than we normally would.
It would be worthwhile to note what wedges cannot do. They cannot tie things together or bond that which is separated. Wedges don’t heal the sick or feed the hungry. They are not useful for wiping tears, and I cannot think of a single joke about wedges that would lift my spirits. They are lowly, mostly limited things. I mean, how many logs do you have to split? And how much of your day should be spent propping doors open?
Wedges work by pushing apart. The Apostle Paul declared, “God was in Christ reconciling the world closer to God.”
All of this brings us to this truth — human words, at best, are a sack of wedges. By them we enter into human life from the first “Dada” or “Mama” until our last breath. Our words have all kinds of uses, but they are not necessarily what is the deepest intention of life.
I do not know what is up ahead. It is a time unlike any other. Maybe it’s time to face the wedges toward one another and lift something up together for the common good. Raise up good families and children. Lift spirits. Raise up the fallen. Build up others. Lift someone else’s burden. Build hospitals and universities and good causes. Our world needs some bridge-builders.
Jesus said our words tell who we are. For good or bad. And on the day of judgment, how we deployed our bag of wedges and hatchets, and axes will be brought into the light. It’s a terrifying image.
Recently I went to Samford University to hear historian Jon Meacham during a “Love Your Neighbor” emphasis week. He called for greater civility in our country and said that this is a difficult thing to accomplish, mainly because of our “sinful natures.” He gave us four key principles to keep in mind:
The first principle is “curiosity.” “We have to be curious, not just about ourselves, but about the forces that are shaping the world in which we live,” Meacham said.
The next principle is “compassion.” We have to attain maturity enough to at least comprehend what life is like for those who are different from us.
The third principle is “candor.” “We do ourselves no favors by mistaking civility for false acquiescence. Conflict aversion is not civility,” Meacham said.
The last principle is“empathy.” “The most civil thing you can do is imagine what it’s like for the other person and treat them as you would wish to be treated,” Meacham said.[i]
All of his suggestions were aimed at our living together in a society without killing and hating one another. After months of a catastrophic war in Ukraine for no rational reason and the endless series of stupid boys shooting and killing people even that seems out of reach sometimes.
But we must start somewhere. And I would start with the people who claim the name of Jesus to start acting like it. And that means the hard, dirty work of bridge-building, nail-pulling, risk-taking and turning our wedge words in the right directions.
In John 13, Jesus gave us an example and told us to imitate him. He rose from supper and “laid aside” his garments and began to wash the disciple’s feet.
In verse 4 it says he “took off” or “laid aside” his outer garment. This is the same word Jesus spoke in 10:15: “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus willingly lays aside every claim to greatness in the worldly sense to be obedient to the cross.
The washing of the dusty feet of guests in Palestine was a lowly act, to be performed by a slave, or by the wife of the host if no servant were available. Since neither was present, it would have fallen to the last guy around the table — Peter. The disciples expected to wash the Master’s feet, but how could they comprehend this?
To love one another we have to “lay aside” some things. Let them go. We lay aside our claims of superiority or importance. We lay aside our need to always be right, to always make the decisions, to always control the plans or the money or the outcome. Jesus had every right to reject his own disciples after the resurrection: One had betrayed him, another had denied him, and the rest forsook him on the cross and ran away. Jesus released his claim and instead forgave them so that he might show them another way.
It is this “letting go” that makes real community at least possible. Sometimes this letting go can be quite painful, for it means seeing the truth about ourselves. We must let go.
And so here we find a clue both about how to forgive one another and how to tend to these dangerous wedges of ours. The act of self-denial, of laying our egos to the side for the sake of others, is a starting place. It explains Jesus’ later words from our text just after that act: “By this the world will know you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” Not “by your great facilities,” or “by your impressive youth programs,” or “by your importance in the local economy,” but only this: “if you love one another.”
Here are three ways I could aim my wedges if I were launching out now. First, I’d understand that I have a personal responsibility not only for what I do, but for my attitudes, words, and reactions to others.
Second, I’d build a bridge wherever I could. Our call is to see the larger blueprint that makes a way where there is no way, as Martin Luther King once put it. Bridges last. Build across suspicion, find solutions, contribute to institutions and the larger good. Of course, this will take you right into the middle of other people’s anger and blame, and you’ll get your share. Keep building.
Finally, remember my friend Love’s advice: “Start at the top and work your way down, boys.” It wasn’t what he meant, but I think of the teaching of Jesus, and that brilliant exposition in the letter to the Philippians 2: “Have this mind in you that was in him: he laid aside all privilege and honor and position and took on the form of a suffering servant, even unto death.” This is the way — the servant leader, who finds contentment not in fame, or power, or dancing on TikTok, or making Forbes Magazine’s richest list, but in what that servant-leader plants deep into the soil of hope and goodness and relationships. This is the heart of all that matters in life.
Pay attention to what you do with your wedges. This will bring you life amid the busyness. Someone has said, “Attention is the most basic form of love; through it we bless and are blessed.”
I don’t know, seems sentimental and weak compared to “we’re not going to take it anymore” and “if you’re not strong, you’re going to lose your country.” But I ask myself: What really requires more strength? To restrain your inner infant rage for the sake of a civilized life, or to just let the rest of us have it?
Building bridges is a lot harder than just letting the separations stay there. At the end of the episode of Annika, she thinks to herself,
“A bridge is just this beautiful idea, isn’t it? And they’re often beautiful in themselves. But they’re so hard to build. You need loads of experts and getting the keystone in the middle right is a delicate and difficult moment…But the main problem with them is that quite a lot of the time when you say you’re building a bridge, you’re actually burning it to the ground.”
Reconciliation appears in four passages in Paul as the heart of what the church and people who love and follow Jesus do. It costs a lot, and it’s hard to do right. You need loads of experts and getting the keystone in the middle is delicate and difficult. But the greatest danger is to think you’re building a bridge in the name of Jesus when you’ve hoisted up a toll booth to keep the wrong people off your bridge. Or worse, burning it to the ground in the name of standing up for it.
I’ve built bridges. I know how hard it is, costly, and time-consuming. I feel a little pride every time I drive over one I worked on (now nearly 50 years ago). Millions of us drive over hundreds of these structures every day. We never think in that split second how long it took or how much it cost or even the risks taken in building it. One man died in a fall the week before I started work. We had to crawl under the crane while explosive technicians blew big rocks standing in the way. I think, “Man, what a miracle, just to get from here to there.”
If you try to figure out where the right side of the fight is, you’ve stopped short. The real question is, “How do we get from here to there?” And therein is the call for what is ahead.
[i] Rebekah Crozier, “Jon Meacham Speaks During Love Thy Neighbor Week,” The Samford Crimson, March 29, 2022.