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Oliver’s Bridge

I consider myself very blessed to be living in the wonderful, homely and entirely underrated city of Sheffield. Where else in the UK can a person walk out their front door and within half an hour be either in the centre of a decent-sized city OR strolling the wooded paths that lead to the Peak District?

Just outside my living room window, the Porter Brook river meanders along in its red-brick-lined culvert. It is headed toward its confluence with the River Sheaf deep underneath Sheffield city centre in an enormous subterranean catacomb gloriously (and in no way fictitiously) called The Megatron. It’s true! Google it!

The Porter Brook may finish in The Megatron, but it begins a bit more humbly as little more than a trickle in the hills of the Peak District. When the weather is a bit friendlier, I like to run up into the Peaks on a series of paths that hug the Porter Brook. I start in tame Endcliffe Park, running past the playground and the duck ponds, but my surroundings soon become increasingly wilder and the path steeper as I make my way toward the boundary line of the Peak District some 3 or 4 miles from my house. The Porter Brook is beside me the whole time, gurgling away and gaining speed as it slips down the long slope back toward Sheffield. Sometimes it’s on my right, and sometimes it’s on my left as I cross numerous bridges on the uphill journey. It’s spanned by wooden bridges and stone bridges—even a couple of sets of stepping stones for the more adventurous trail runners—but none of those crossings is quite as special to me as “Oliver’s Bridge”.

Oliver’s Bridge was originally part of a pack horse trail which fell into disrepair many years ago. In 2006, a local conservation group decided to rebuild it. They named it in memory of Oliver Gilbert, one of their number who had recently passed. According to a plaque on the bridge, Oliver was a “renowned ecologist and friend of the Porter Valley who inspired the restoration of this bridge.”

Oliver’s Bridge spans a tributary of the Porterbrook on a particularly steep part of the trail. It’s small. It’s very small. Truth be told, it’s little more than a stone arch over a rivulet of water. Most of us could cross it in one stride. For people who don’t take that part of the path, Oliver’s Bridge might even seem a bit pointless.

But for those of us who do run that way, especially as we’re bombing it back down the steep slope, Oliver’s Bridge means that we don’t have to leap over the stream to get home. We don’t twist our ankles or jam our knees. We don’t even break our stride. I personally need Oliver’s Bridge, even if it is only about three feet long. I’m grateful to Oliver, who inspired restoration of the bridge, and I’m thankful to the men and women who painstakingly rebuilt it, stone by stone, crouching in the water, ensuring that it was strong and stable and safe for me to run across.

The new year tends to make us a bit reflective, doesn’t it? Maybe like me you think you didn’t make much of a difference in the world last year. So much is happening, and there’s so much need.  Even if we forget about all the political craziness and climate change and poverty and HIV and the refugee crisis and focus solely on the deep spiritual needs of our world, the need is overwhelming—enough to bury us if we let it. Maybe you’re tempted to think that you’re not doing enough. That you haven’t made a difference. That your contribution is too small to matter.

But I know for a fact that what you do matters when it comes to God’s plan for his world. You may not live in a concrete block warehouse on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific just so you can have an opportunity to tell the people there how much Jesus loves them; You may not spend months at a time in the thick jungles of Papua Indonesia, eating and sleeping like the locals just for the chance to use your teaching skills to help improve their standard of living; You may not spend your days discipling new Mongolian believers so that they can reach their own people with God’s love.

But I know the people who do. And I know without question that when asked, each of them will say that your three minutes of prayer on a Tuesday morning, your £2.50 a month, your four-line email of encouragement, your friendship whether near or far, are the bridges they walk across every day. What you do matters.

Oliver and the people who built his bridge don’t know me and they don’t know how often I use their tiny, seemingly insignificant bridge or what it means to me. When they built that little bridge and left it there in the woods, they had no way of knowing what its legacy would be. But it makes a difference to me every time I run up and down that ridiculously steep slope on the edge of the Peak District, and I know it makes a difference to others too.

So do your part, whatever that is. Whether it feels big or small. You are not only building bridges for the men and women who have gone to the mission field, but think of all the people who God might be calling to the field even now. You’re building bridges for them too, and you don’t even know it. You may never know the legacy of the bridges you build, and you may not think your bridges are very important. But if Oliver’s Bridge is important to a few runners on an obscure trail outside Sheffield, just imagine how important your bridge, big or small, can become within God’s big plan.

Photo by Rory Hennessey.