Be courageous, ok?
It was a lovely Saturday, and I was walking north along the East River towards the UN, past the Water Club and Bellevue and NYU hospitals and the helicopters landing beside the FDR Drive.
Up ahead was the 59th Street Bridge, or if you prefer, the Queensboro Bridge, or if you prefer, the Ed Koch Bridge. And there was something about the afternoon November light hitting that bridge. It was beautiful, the light shading its impossibly ornate ironwork, its extravagant quadruple crowns that top off the necklace of roadway that stretches across the East River and Roosevelt’s Island. I was drawn to get a closer look, and found myself at the park where it starred in the iconic photo of Woody Allen’s movie, Manhattan.
I read that it took 6 years to build that bridge, a timetable that seems unacceptable in terms of our present-day world of instant everything and immediate gratification. I also read that in those 6 years almost 50 people died in the construction process, an outrageous cost that would probably have canceled the whole enterprise if it was being built today.
I sat down on the Woody Allen bench and tried to imagine those workers who risked their lives to build such a magnificent structure designed to bring the city together across the swirling waters that divide us. Surely it was the desire to support their families that possessed them to work at such a hazardous task. And what of their wives and children, and how did their tragic martyrdom forever affect their lives, and the lives of the grandchildren and great grandchildren to follow?
In the midst of these thoughts, a conversation behind me broke through. I turned to look, and saw a youngish-looking man crouched down beside a little girl. She had a helmet on her head, and was holding onto a small bicycle. It was clear that he was instructing her on the technique of bicycle riding, and it was also clear that this was to be her first attempt. When I was little and had my first such experience with my father, there were training wheels on the bicycle to prevent the scrapes and bruises from the inevitable mishaps and falls of those first rides. This little girl had no such protection, and she didn’t seem to be concerned.
“You just have to find the right balance,” I overheard her presumable father say. “And you can’t be afraid to fall. I’m pretty sure you are going to fall, but you’ll be OK. Be courageous, ok?”
I had to turn on the bench to see the scene, and I didn’t want to look like I was obviously watching, so I got up and walked over towards a railing so I could spy the drama without making the little girl self-conscious.
She was determined to ride that bike. You could see it in the way she confidently grabbed the handlebars. You could see it in the fearless expression in her face.
She adjusted her helmet and got on that bicycle, and smiled at her dad. He reached over to steady the bicycle, and I assumed he would run beside it and her to keep it upright and steady on the take-off. But she waved him off. “I can do it myself,” she said.
And she pushed off with one foot and was off, a bit wobbly, but yeah, on her own. Until the wobble won, and she crashed.
Her father came running over, but she was already getting herself and her bike up. “I’m good,” she said, sounding like one of my college students after a fall on the ski slopes. It took only a few more tries and a few more falls, but she never lost her cool, and in 10 minutes she was riding wobble-less and obviously very very proud of her accomplishment.
“Awesome!”, her father shouted to her. “You are awesommmmme!”, and I suddenly realized that I was smiling at both of them, at my good fortune of getting to watch this epic moment in her life, hell, in the lives of all of us in the world.
OK, so it was a just little girl learning to ride a bike, and at that very minute there were probably thousands of little girls and boys doing exactly the same thing around the planet, but it was still so cool to be there.
And I wondered if the lesson would have a much greater impact than she could understand at that tender moment of her life. Perhaps it would unconsciously remind her of the importance of risk in her future endeavors, in all her future opportunities, in her relationships, in her work, and even in her play: to face the challenges with arms outstretched, without training wheels to prevent the scrapes and scabs or the permanent scars to her body, mind and heart.
I thought about all the women of these past weeks who finally found a way to speak about the disgraceful abuse they had to endure from men who exercised their physical and psychological power over them. Perhaps this moment beside the 59th Street Bridge would whisper ‘courage’ to her when confronted with such abuse, remind her that risking the truth is always in the end what it means to be human.
Risking is the theme of the Gospel parable that Jesus tells, the story about the three servants who were given some money by their master to hold onto and look after before he went away on a trip. He never told them to do this, but two of the servants acted a little crazy and took a risk and invested it. They could have lost the whole thing, all the money, but in fact they doubled it, and when the master came back home they gave all of it back to him doubled and he rewarded them by giving them big jobs. But the third servant, he didn’t have a lot of courage, he was very careful and cautious. So he took the money and dug a big hole and put it in the ground, and when the master returned, he dug it up and gave it back, all proud of his conservative caution.
Now you'd think that the master would be happy that the guy didn't lose it, and you'd think that he would be mad at the other guys for taking such a chance with his money. But just the opposite happened: he got mad at the guy who played it safe and rewarded the ones who took such a risk with his money. Jesus tells this parable, and you have to wonder what it says about his own life.
In his day there were no bicycles, with or without training wheels. There were donkeys. I wonder if it was as hard to take that first ride on a donkey as it is to mount yourself on two wire wheels and a frame. What about Jesus? Did his father stand anxiously beside him with words of instruction as the child climbed aboard the cranky animal?
I like to think of Jesus during those early undocumented years as an adventurous boy, taking on challenges of tree-climbing and ditch-jumping and swimming long lengths underwater. Maybe he volunteered to be the first one to venture into a scary cave, or pick up a snake to get it away from his frightened and screaming mother. I suspect that he risked hanging out with the boy that everyone made fun of, that he risked being seen a weak when he chose not to engage in a fight, that he risked being called a mama’s boy when he refused to kill a defenseless animal for fun. I think of him risking rejection when he approached a girl to whom he was attracted.
I’m pretty sure he understood the risks and suffered some of the consequences. How many times did he have to endure the scabbed knee or the bloody nose or the sprained ankle or the broken finger? How many scars did he collect on his heart by the mean words and actions of peers and adults in his world, and maybe even the self-obessesed young woman who had no compassion for his vulnerable innocence?
When he walked out of the River Jordan, confused by the inner words that identified him in a somewhat frightening way—“You are my beloved son”---and after he endured the temptation to run away from it all, it is clear that Jesus finally understood that he was invited to the ultimate risk.
That is what the ultimate risk looks like----arms open wide, arms open in love, and the risk is, of course, that they can be nailed to a cross while they're outstretched for a hug.
But it is a risk that has a guaranteed reward, and that is the very heart of being a Christian. You know, ours is not a faith or a religion for the cautious and the conservative. There are no training wheels for real Christians who build bridges of love across the swirling waters of our broken and divided world. But there is a promise point and guaranteed reward for the servant who takes the gifts we've all been given in abundance, and spends it in love on others.
A gift is not truly a gift until it's given away again, and love----which you and I have been blessed with and showered with---needs to be given away for it to truly be ours in the first place. Risking our love on someone who may turn out to be a dead end—a brother or sister, a parent, a child, a nasty neighbor or a grumpy co-worker, a pretty girl who doesn’t even know you exist—that kind of risk is the greatest gamble we could ever make, and the rewards, if not immediate, are assured for us every time.
The moral is--it's O.K. to take big risks. In fact, it's the very nature of being a Christian, as long as you’re crazily leaping for love and with love, a leap that is guaranteed to reward.
“I’m good”, said a little girl on a sidewalk in Manhattan. Yes, you are good, dear child. And may your courage be joined to the courage of Jesus, so that as you grow into the person you were meant to be, you will build bridges of love that will enable us all to be brothers and sisters to one another in every way.
May we all be “awesommmmme” in our courage and our risk of love.