One of the people that made a difference in my life was a rabbi named Edwin Friedman, who applied Family Systems Theory to congregational life. Reading and studying his book was a profound influence on me.
And today I am going to tell you a Fable that Edwin Friedman wrote. It is not a literal story but a fable to help you think about relationships and yourself. It is called The Bridge. (Friedman's Fables . Copyright (C) 1990 by Guilford Publications)
There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life. At last, he began to see clearly where he wanted to go.
Diligently, he searched for the right opportunity. Sometimes he came close, only to be pushed away. Often he applied all his strength and imagination, only to find the path hopelessly blocked. And then at last it came. But the opportunity would not wait. It would be made available only for a short time. If it were seen that he was not committed, the opportunity would not come again.
Eager to arrive, he started on his journey. With each step, he wanted to move faster; with each thought about his goal, his heart beat quicker; with each vision of what lay ahead, he found renewed vigor.
Hurrying along, he came upon a bridge that crossed through the middle of a town. It had been built high above a river in order to protect it from the floods of spring. He started across. Then he noticed someone coming from the opposite direction. As they moved closer, it seemed as though the other were coming to greet him. He could see clearly, however, that he did not know this other, who was dressed similarly except for something tied around his waist.
When they were within hailing distance, he could see that what the other had about his waist was a rope. It was wrapped around him many times and probably, if extended, would reach a length of 30 feet.
The other began to uncurl the rope, and, just as they were coming close, the stranger said, “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end a moment?” Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he agreed without a thought, reached out, and took it.
“Thank you,” said the other, who then added, “two hands now, and remember, hold tight.” Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.
Quickly, the free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope’s length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull. Instinctively, he held tight and was almost dragged over the side. He managed to brace himself against the edge, however, and after having caught his breath, looked down at the other dangling, close to oblivion.
“What are you trying to do?” he yelled.
“Just hold tight,” said the other.
“This is ridiculous,” the man thought and began trying to haul the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.
“Why did you do this?” the man called out.
“Remember,” said the other, “if you let go, I will be lost.”
“But I cannot pull you up,” the man cried.
“I am your responsibility,” said the other.
“Well, I did not ask for it,” the man said.
“If you let go, I am lost,” repeated the other.
He began to look around for help. But there was no one. How long would he have to wait? Why did this happen to befall him now, just as he was on the verge of true success? He examined the side, searching for a place to tie the rope. Some protrusion, perhaps, or maybe a hole in the boards. But the railing was unusually uniform in shape; there were no spaces between the boards. There was no way to get rid of this newfound burden, even temporarily.
“What do you want?” he asked the other hanging below.
“Just your help,” the other answered.
“How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you.”
“I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope around your waist; it will be easier.” Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.
“Why did you do this?” he asked again. “Don’t you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have had in mind?”
“Just remember,” said the other, “my life is in your hands.”
What should he do? “If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing my momentum toward my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt me forever.”
As time went by, still no one came. The critical moment of decision was drawing near. To show his commitment to his own goals, he would have to continue on his journey now. It was already almost too late to arrive in time. But what a terrible choice to have to make.
A new thought occurred to him. While he could not pull this other up solely by his own efforts, if the other would shorten the rope from his end by curling it around his waist again and again, together they could do it. Actually, the other could do it by himself, so long as he, standing on the bridge, kept it still and steady.
“Now listen,” he shouted down. “I think I know how to save you.” And he explained his plan.
But the other wasn’t interested.
“You mean you won’t help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer either.”
“You must try,” the other shouted back in tears. “If you fail, I die.”
The point of decision arrived. What should he do? “My life or this other’s?” And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional way of thinking.
“I want you to listen carefully,” he said, “because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.”
“What do you mean?” the other asked, afraid.
“I mean, simply, it’s up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug a little from here.” He began unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew against the side.
“You cannot mean what you say,” the other shrieked. “You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.”
He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope. “I accept your choice,” he said, at last, and freed his hands.
I think I told this story from the pulpit almost 30 years ago in a church where there was a lot of conflict.
As I ended the parable, I asked the question: of what, or whom do you need to let go?
And someone was overheard saying “Harry.”
And it was meant to be cruel. That person didn’t like me and kind of wished I was dropped off a bridge, more literally than not.
But the crazy thing was this: that person was actually voicing a great truth. That person did need to emotionally let go of me. He along with a few others had fixated on me as the source of the problems of the church, to the point that he and others could not see their roles in the problems of the church. They needed to emotionally move on from me and deal with their own issues.
What keeps you from being the person God created you to be? What habits, sins, attachments, relationships, emotional binds, immaturities and false dreams hold you down from emotional maturity?
Who keeps you from being your own person? Who enslaves you with criticism, judgement, expectations, rules, and/or threats of withdrawing approval or love?
What relationships do you have that are fraught with immaturity, emotional bondage, hurtful conversations, and disrespect?
What keeps you from moving on in faith to a deeper understanding, a wider perspective, a more universal love, a greater grace, and a greater sense of the mystery and wonder of God?
What do you need to let go of?
What or who is on the end of the rope that is holding you back from being your true self, from being the person God made you to be?
And it might even be yourself.
Today our Old Testament is the story of Hannah and the birth of her son Samuel.
The story is roughly this. Hannah is one of two wives to her husband Elkanah. The other wife is Peninnah. Hannah is unable to have children, which is not only a source of sadness to her, but she is also tormented by the other wife, who makes fun of her and is mean to Hannah. Peninnah who has children, repeats the well accepted doctrine that if you don’t have children, then it means the Lord is punishing you.
We all know that is not true today. When a woman is unable to have a child, it is not because God is punishing her.
And to not have a child may be as much God’s calling for some women, as it is to have a child or children. We have come a long way.
And her husband, Elkanah, as much as he loves her makes it about himself. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
What planet is Elkanah from?
Can you even imagine any man saying to a woman who is grieving a child, a child she has lost, or a child she is not able to have: “Don’t worry, I am worth more than ten children.”
So, every year this went on. Hannah lives in a precarious world. A dysfunctional family situation. A patriarchal system which means that if her husband would die, without a male child to grow up to protect her, she could be penniless and homeless.
And Hannah takes it to God. Weeping and crying to God and praying. She is praying quietly, her lips moving, and the priest, old Eli thinks she is drunk.
But she is not drunk. She is moving in the Spirit. She is putting her faith in God and when she is done praying, she goes home and she is sad no longer. She doesn’t know if she will have a child, but she has a relationship with God and has poured out her heart to God, and she knows
God has heard her and has understood her, and is compassionate towards her, and that whatever happens now, she is safe and content that God’s will be done.
Wonderfully she is able to have a child and instead of the father naming the child, as is tradition, she names him Samuel which means that God heard her asking for him.
And when he is old enough, she takes him to the temple as a little boy, to dedicate him to the Lord. He will grow up to be a Priest and one of the most influential Prophets in Israel’s history.
There are a number of stories of women who are barren in scripture. Rachel and Elizabeth come to mind, and we have to be careful with barren stories of women in the bible, because they have often been used in hurtful ways to tell women that they are lesser if they don’t have children, or that if you just have enough faith and persistence, God will grant you a child.
That is not what the scripture is saying.
And while this is a testament to the faith of a woman who is forsaken, misunderstood and even persecuted by her family, her husband and her faith community...
And while this is a story of a woman, in a patriarchal culture and this has much to say about the place of women…
…there is also larger story here…
This is the story that transitions the whole nation of Israel from the time of the Judges into the time of the Kings and Prophets.
Samuel is the link.
Samuel is the last of the judges, a prophet, and the one who anoints the first and second Kings of Israel.
The time of the judges is a time of spiritual barrenness when everybody did what was right in their own eyes. It was a time of political instability and social and economic instability as well.
So, the story of Hannah is not just about Hannah it is a metaphor of the barrenness of Israel. Spiritually there was barrenness. Notice the High Priest, Eli, cannot even tell when the Spirit is operating and thinks Hannah is drunk.
Notice that the infighting of Peninnah is representative of the conflict and instability of the tribes who often fight with each other in various ways.
Notice the patriarchal husband who doesn’t understand, is symbolic of theologies of legalism and paternalism, instead of a theology of mercy and grace.
And what does Hannah do. She lets go. She lets go of the one who is dearest to her. She lets go her son Samuel and sets him free to serve God.
Don’t necessarily take it too literally. I am not recommending you drop off your little children here at First when they are only a few years old.
But the Grand Metaphor here is this:
It is about transformation. In order for Israel to be transformed it has to let go and surrender its very life to God.
It is the same metaphor that we saw in the story of Joseph, who though sold into slavery, can let go of everything, including revenge, and serve God no matter what, and forgive and heal and restore.
It is the same metaphor that Jesus uses when he talks about us being born again and us taking up a cross.
In order for us to be transformed we have to let go.
It is the same metaphor that Paul will use when he says that his ego is crucified with Christ.
What we are letting go of is our ego, our false self, the self the world has taught us to embrace. The self that grasps, and holds, and gains, and wins, and fights and loves drama, and tramples others, and indulges itself in what feels good.
It is the selfish self or the narcissistic self which has at times little concept of morality or sin. Even though the conscious self knows morality and sin, the false self says that it is okay to break the rules, because you are more important than the rules.
The false self, the ego, you see, does what it has to do to survive and win, because it sets itself up as God.
In John Bradshaw’s book, Creating Love, he writes (from a psychological perspective) that every child, in order to be a healthy mature adult, has to let go of the false self and be allowed to separate.
The person has to separate from their parents and other source figures and be their own person.
Separation allows a person to individuate and self-actualize.
Dysfunctional families and dysfunctional parents hinder separation by withholding love if the child separates;
or by emotionally saying that the child can separate only if the child becomes what the parent wants them to be;
or letting the child separate only if the child is responsible for taking care of the adult’s pain.
In other words, not really letting them let go.
Parents and other family members need to let go of children for the sake of the health of their children.
Children need to let go of parents for emotional maturity.
It doesn’t mean they don’t have a relationship. It means that eventually the relationship is between independent selves.
Jesus modeled that true self, the healthy self, the individuated self…the self that God created us to be….
And one of the best examples of that was when Jesus faced down Pontius Pilate who told Jesus that he had Jesus’ life in his hands.
Jesus responded that he had no power over him.
What Jesus meant is that as a fully actualized self, there was nothing Pilate could do to change him from being who he was; a person of love.
Pilate could manipulate, or threaten, or offer reward or whatever. He could kill Jesus, but Jesus would keep loving.
And in some ways that is what it means to born again. Born again is not some instant where you said “yes” to Jesus and it is over. You are a Christian. You are done. You are born again.
Born again is this process of dying to the false self and taking up your true self, and taking up that way of Jesus to love and only love.
That nobody can change you from being you and from being loving, and from following Jesus’ way of love.
And most of us will struggle with this process of letting go of ego, and letting go of false self, and being born again, all our lives.
So today maybe there are many things you can let go off to be your true self, to die to self and be born again to love.
But the person at the end of the rope, you most need to let go of, to find life, to be loving, is you.