Generally, when people speak of those who have burned their bridges behind them, it is not a good thing. It means they have angered, hurt or insulted someone to such a degree that there is no going back in the relationship. You cannot retreat to a time before the damage was done – the road is gone. There is a proverbial wisdom that emerges in the business world from either being a part of those experiences, or watching them in other people’s lives. “Don’t burn your bridges behind you” because the boss you hate and the enemy you create by not leaving well will almost assuredly be transferred to the same company you are leaving for. Why leave an enemy behind when we can leave a friend there instead. Don’t needlessly burn the bridges behind you! Leave an escape route. It is good business advice.
But, it is terrible advice for discipleship. Ask Jesus in today’s gospel. Or ask Elisha. He’s a farm boy, working in the fields. THE great prophet of his day, Elijah, walks by. That had to be slack-jaw amazing for him in and of itself. And then the prophet stops in front of HIM – puts his mantle on him – a symbolic action that Elisha would have been certain to know. “He means for me to replace him!” He’s torn. He feels the awesome opportunity being presented to him. But he knows what it will cost him – nothing will be the same for him or his family. “Let me go back and prepare my family for this change.” And in a wonderfully freeing moment, Elijah says – “Have I done anything to you?” As if to say: “You have the freedom to say no!”
At that moment – something changes in Elisha. He realizes that if he embarks on the journey as he wants to do, he will be SOO tempted to keep going back to ‘how it used to be” if times get rough. So he burns, not just the symbolic bridge behind him, but his very LIVELIHOOD. The yoke of his trade becomes the firewood for the stove. The oxen that pulled the yoke are slaughtered and given to his people to eat. NOW there is NO going back! In this regard, he gets it right. There are times when we HAVE to burn the bridge behind us.
When things get difficult, we want an escape route – a way to go back to how it used to be, to the imagined ‘good ole days’. However, that is not how love works. It’s “all in,” or it is nothing. And that is also how discipleship works. Elisha knew he’d have to find a way to stay in his commitment when it would be tempting to bail out – so he burns his bridges behind him.
That showed up in my own life around my ordination decision. After much wrestling (read a year and half of constant praying, asking, discerning) I finally made the choice. I told ONLY my spiritual director. I knew I had to let my family know. I knew they would be fine with it, but I couldn’t do it (for about 4 days). Because once I told them, there was no going back. Once the word was public in my family, I knew I WOULD not go back even though I could go back.
That is what Jesus describes in those kinds of moments of grace: “No one who puts their hand to the plow but looks back to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Like Elisha, Jesus knew the temptation within us to look back at the paths we could have taken, the roads we didn’t choose, and somehow wonder if we missed a turn. Or wonder wistfully how life might have turned out. In preparing his apostles, Jesus wants them (and us) to know the grace that comes when we burn bridges. I summarize it in this statement:
“If you keep looking back in doubt, you will never trust enough to look forward in hope.”
At our last Priest convocation, the priest who was leading us on a mini day of recollection shared his experience of that. “During tough times,” he said, “I discovered myself going back to my ‘dating days’ and would kind of escape to my memory of the intimacies I knew and the romanticism of the relationships I was a part of. Suddenly I realized I was living exactly what Jesus warned his disciples about. I had one hand on the plow of the priest, but the rest of me kept looking back. And I knew I had to bring those memories to the confessional, there to leave them behind forever.” It was time to burn THOSE bridges behind me.
Do you know the grace of burning bridges behind you? Not the callous mistreating of friends or the calculated hateful words directed toward those who we think mistreated us, but the freedom that comes when you set your hands definitively to the walk of discipleship? If so, then let your communion at this altar this morning simply deepen your love for your Lord. If not, then what do you need to ‘set fire to’, what memory gets in the way, what habit keeps you safe from the commitment of belief, what bridge does the Lord stand on the other side of, beckoning, inviting, waiting for you to cross and burn so that you will know his freedom and his love?