About four months ago I was rocking and jolting along Amtrak rails from Chicago to New York. We were passing over the Alleghenies when I noticed an article in the Amtrak magazine about the conversion of the railroad on the other side of the river into the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. I was shocked to realize that the railroad that had been converted was the very railroad that my father had worked on while I was growing up—The Western Maryland. He was not the kind of railroad man that drove the train or drove spikes with a 6-pound to drive spikes. He didn’t even design the bridges and the tunnels. He took care of the bridges and tunnels that other people had had the privilege to design, the structures that now carried bicycles up and over the great mountains.
So last Saturday, I found myself in downtown Pittsburgh standing next to my city bicycle loaded with camping gear ready to ride through the abandoned steel mills, past all the coal mines, then up and over the Great Allegheny Passage trail 148 miles to Cumberland—about 42,624 pedal stokes. It seemed like more.
I thought I would find my father’s name somewhere along that railroad, but I did not. About 20,000 pedal strokes up the grade I realized that he was better than famous; he was a grown-up. Grown-ups take care of things that someone else designed, someone else built, that carry someone else’s name.
If you look up Western Maryland Railroad, you will almost certainly find a picture of the Salisbury Viaduct just east of Meyersvale in a very rugged part of Southern Pennsylvania. You pretty much have to come this way if you want to get from the Atlantic into the Ohio Valley. The way is obvious, but hard, unless you have a lot of dynamite. George Washington tried it as a green 21 years old officer and accidentally started the seven-year French and Indian War in the process. He was utterly humiliated by the wet rocky terrain that made movement almost impossible, especially dragging wagons and cannon and supplies for fighting the French and even worse, the Native Americans. His little army got turned into prisoners who escaped scalping only by the intervention of his French enemies. He learned by the humiliation and turned into the leader we now revere for selfless honor (and who would gag at the brazen bleating we’ll hear tomorrow in the city that wears his name).
A hundred years later the B&O railroad carved a steep and winding track over same Allegheny Indian paths, essentially following Washington down the Casselman and the Youghiogheny to Pittsburgh. Another four decades later, powered by robber baron money, the Western Maryland blasted a route on the other side of the river though a 3,000-foot tunnel through “Big Savage” mountain and even more amazing, a viaduct just as long and nearly two hundred feet above the same Casselman River that tortured Washington. They crafted an impossibly gentle grade over the mountains, never exceeding 1.5%, which let the freight run fast through baking heat and blizzards. My dad took care of those rails for a quarter century.
Dad was tall, thin, quiet and careful. Just who you’d want tending to a high bridge above a mountain river in the winter. Others in the family were more famous, especially my Uncle Lou who led part of the Normandy Invasion. Dad was stateside where the rails were deemed as critical to the war effort as rifles. You won’t see any civil engineers in the July 4th parade, but there wouldn’t be any victories to cheer, if they had not done their quiet work.
Dad taught me that if you want to see a bridge, you have to look under it. Notice how it fits the land, braces for the weight of the fast-moving heavy freight. How it anticipates all that weather and weird people can bring over time.
I hope my dad would see that my day job, like his, is all about building and sustaining structures over time. But I tend to social structures which are not made of steel, but the sinews of trust, meaning and compassion that also need to be tended diligently. We are in an era when even hospital finance people talk about “the social determinants,” as if they can be bought and bolted together.
Two days after I got off my bike I was in the pulpit of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church between Winston-Salem and Walkertown, not far from Walnut Cove, which is to say in between and nowhere at the same time. Pastor Graylin Carlton is one of our chaplains and friend. The church is like one of the hundreds of bridges along dad’s railroad that aren’t important enough to have fancy pictures. How do you sustain that kind of social body so that it does its intended work?
Look under the bridge, certainly not at the roof. Look at the people, not the steeple. It is the people who sustain relationships by giving themselves generously year after year after year, not so that they have their name up high and not because it softens their ride. The Spirit of the Loving God that needs those relationships so it can flow through to those who have never heard that someone loves them. It needs a social body that that someone can see will give graciously and freely without any expectation of return because God loved first. You can believe that “God so loves” only when you see that God sends somebody to be the tangible hands and feet of God’s love.
Two scriptures come to mind. I love John 5 scripture because of where we normally stop reading. The guy is waiting for the waters to roil. Jesus comes up and the paralytic whines a little bit; “there’s nobody to put me in the water!” Jesus rolls his eyes. “Do you want to be healed? Well, get up and walk. Quit whining. Dude, get up and walk.” The man walks away. Normally, we stop right there.
Healing disturbs the natural drift that accepts disease and trauma as gravity. A well-maintained bridge does that, too, allowing a freight train to fly over a valley in a way that gravity would call impossible. You might think that everyone would appreciate such reversals, but people who like the way things are find healing and bridging disturbing.
On a Sabbath, Jesus is standing where he wasn’t supposed to be standing, doing what he wasn’t supposed to do, for people who weren’t valuable to anyone but God. God loves people more than the formal worship, a point made for a couple thousand years by every single prophet. But this still disturbed the Pharisees. So they came after the healer, the bridge. “Who are you to be healing?” You could put a period right there. “Who are you to be healing on Sunday morning in Walkertown?” Jesus replies in his trademark “make-my-day” kind of way: “My father works on Sunday morning, so I’m going to work on Sunday morning.”
When someone needs healing, the first thing to go is the ritual, then the calendar, and then clock till daylight is gone. Jesus’ favorite people lay claim on the heart of a loving God who did not deny his son, and sure is not going to deny healing, either. God heals 24/7, seven days a week, if, if, if God can find somebody willing to come to the Pool and ask the question, “Do you want to be healed?” God can heal if, if, if, there are those willing to be God’s hands in that moment. This is not usually a personal act of heroism. Mostly God needs some social body, tended over time, to carry the weight of the Spirit so that God’s healing can flow into the community; a social bridge.
The Pharisees knew exactly who was mocked by Jesus’ healing. So they were all the more determined to kill him. Not only did he break the Sabbath, but he claimed that his heresy reflected the healing DNA of God—who didn’t care for their self-aggrandizing anal rituals. The rest of the Gospel of John is a tale of the struggle between religious people who resisted the healers and the Jesus movement that raised up two millennia (and counting) of healers giving themselves away for the people God so loves. They killed him twenty chapters later, which you knew would happen as soon as the dude walked off with his pallet. They could kill Jesus, but not his healing, which goes on because people tend to the social body through which healing moves.
Any bridge or church, that lasts, suffers through seasons of weather and strife, better and worse management. Which brings us to Second Timothy, one of the little letters in the back of the New Testament. Paul, by the time this letter is written, is in prison waiting to be killed by the Romans. He hopes that the movement of Jesus that to which he gave his life would be sustained. Paul is writing—like an engineer giving instructions to a young engineer—about how to take care of the bridge that Paul designed but would not be there to tend.
It’s actually better than that. The letter was not written by Paul and not to Timothy! The real author didn’t even care if his name showed up. And, in turn, he didn’t think the reader needed to have his name in lights either. That’s the point. The social structure of the faith was more important than anyone’s name. I’m disappointed that Paul wasn’t a Roman engineer or he would surely have used the bridge metaphor! And he would have said: don’t worry about your name, focus on what the bridge makes possible. Take care of the social body so that it can carry the weight of the healing work that God has yet to accomplish. Focus on the hope for the healing that has not yet had a chance to happen.
The end of Timothy tells us much about the loving kindness that has always sustained a movement. The scholars think that woven in to the very end of the letter are some scraps that feel exactly like they were written by an elderly Paul in prison in Rome, looking at his own death right smack in the face. I love the fact that you could put at the very end of this little letter some bits of Paul that everyone would recognize as the DNA of the Church. Like his thumbprint, “Yep. This is exactly like Paul we know.”
Paul writes to young Timothy in a plaintive tone: “Do your best to come to me as soon as you can.” My favorite verse: “bring with you the cloak that I left in Carpus, and the books, especially the manuscripts.”
Feel his vulnerable humanity, the tenderness, the little bit of an edge. These testify to the bruises of life in a real movement that is sustained by heart, not steel. This is the reality of what it means to be inside a social body, of what it means to be inside a church that is capable of hurting each other even as it’s trying to do the right thing. Dad would only add that you can’t even sustain a steel bridge without heart.
Hospitals have bricks and stainless steel, but they are actually more like social bodies.
There was a time when Baptists in North Carolina thought that it would be a healing idea to build a hospital, which ended up in Winston-Salem. It does medicine with lots of machines, but also a non-medical heart where you recognize the tenderness that you see in Timothy. And you can see the practical, do-whatever-it takes even-on-a-Sunday morning Spirit that is going to heal if there’s a chance to do it; kind of spirit of Jesus that you see in John.
That’s the essence of Faith Health as it lives in Baptist Hospital, now spreading across the state. I would be remiss not to point out that long before there was a hospital called Baptist, there was a hospital on the campus of Shaw University The first four-year medical school in North Carolina was not at Wake Forest, or UNC or Duke. It was the General Baptist State Convention—the Black Baptists—that laid the bricks of a medical school at Shaw. They expressed the healing hope of the healing movement in North Carolina that had been fired and hardened by everything that slavery could do, then all the bitterness of Civil War and then by all klan terrors after the Civil War.
There’s a ugly racial history to why Shaw does not have a medical school today. But it remains a place of healing, partly through the work of Dr. John Hatch, a sacred name in the history of the Body of Christ in North Carolina. He was the first African-American professor of public health at UNC, coming to North Carolina after starting the very first community health center in the United States, on the bitter mud of the Delta where TC grew up. Dr. Hatch knew that the healing of North Carolina rested on the churches of North Carolina, not on the hospitals of North Carolina.
His name—and the hundreds whose name we do not know as well—continues in a stunning array of work that was so tightly woven into the church, that the church named it “ministry.” And it was so academically grounded that even today there are doctoral theses being written about that work. Great medicine and great ministry.
Dr. Hatch learned from his mother and his grandmother born in slavery; stories of resilience, intelligence and strength that arises up out of any time you have two or three praying together. These stories tell us that we do not just hope in a disembodied God, but can see God in the sustained social body that knows how to care for each other in the same practical loving ways that Jesus did standing at the Pool of Bethesda saying, “It’s Sunday morning, but pick up your pallet and walk, dude.”
That same DNA was in the spirit of Paul instructing Timothy to build and care for the structure of the church long after the Romans killed him. You can sustain a bridge of faith across the centuries, if, if, if you don’t forget to bring the coat to somebody cold.
Two thousand years after Jesus, Paul and Timothy, there remains a social body capable of this caring, recognizable by the DNA of compassion. The Spirit of the Living God continues to flow, so that we do not have to, are not mean-spirited, not hard-hearted, do not echo the venal meanness of our time. The promise of God—that we see fulfilled—is that we may not overcome the world, but neither do we have to be conformed to the mean-spirited, racist, economically driven inhumanity. That is gravity, but the bridge allows us to move above it. Jesus promised that right into the very eyes of religious power. Paul promised the same thing writing in prison, knowing he was going to be killed. God overcomes because God gives us power to build social realities above the ugliness, that reflect the loving-kindness of the suffering servant named Jesus, who saves us from gravity day by day by day. Sometimes even on a Sunday morning.