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Facebook and the Road to Emmaus

“The Disciples at Emmaus”

Pupil of Rembrandt van Rijn (c 1655)

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Luke 24:13-35 (see end of post for this text)

***

          I wonder.  If Cleopas and his friend had been on Facebook the day they took their long walk to Emmaus, would they have thought to post a picture of themselves walking along the road with this stranger?  Probably not.  They were sad.  Standing still sad, Luke tells us.  Numb.  Not long ago they had been celebrating as their leader had ridden into Jerusalem.  Had been so sure that God’s kingdom had come at last.  But then.  But then!  Just three days ago they had seen all their Messiah hopes hanging limp and lifeless on a cross. 

          So what now?  Then, too, what to make of the tale some of their women-folk were spreading?  An empty tomb and angels saying Jesus was alive again.  All too much.  A gray mist of doubts and questions shrouded their lives.  Nothing made any sense.  And then this intrusive stranger.  This intrusive stranger who seemed oblivious of all that was happening.  Not welcome.  Most certainly not a good time to post a FB picture.

          Most of our posts on FB are posts of fun, joy, beauty, and abundance in our lives.  Nothing wrong with this, but I worry sometimes that FB posting can be deceptive.  Deceptive, because it can project—not only to our friends, but to ourselves as well, the sense that our lives are, or at least are supposed to be, always carefree, beautiful, exciting.  Nothing amiss.  The sun forever shining on us.  Our cups always filled to the brim.  Evidence, we tend to think, though we’d never admit to this, that we are favored and blessed.

          Of course that’s not the way things are.  We all walk that dark road to Emmaus over and over and over again in our lives.  Hopes dashed.  Difficulties overwhelming.  Circumstances paralyzing.  Questions without answers.  Mists and doubts clouding our paths. 

          I’m most certainly not advocating we post these dark times on Facebook.  They are moments far too intimate to share on social media.  But I do want to urge myself and all of us to be fully present to these murky times.  To accept them, difficult as they may be.  To ponder them.  To pray through them.  Perhaps even to post these dark times on the facebook walls of our souls.  To re-visit them from time to time.  Let them help to keep us grounded in reality.  Let them remind us that life is forever filled with both abundance and emptiness.  “Abundance and destitution,” says Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss, “are two facets of the one face of God, and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.”    

          To be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is also to remember that in every dark time, as well as in every bright time, the Stranger of Emmaus who “came near and went with them” also comes near and walks with us.  We may not always recognize him.  We may at times, like those Emmaus disciples, wish he would just leave us alone.  But always he walks with us.  Always he listens to us.  Always he blesses us with his very real presence.    

***

Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.[b] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[c] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[d] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[e] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”


 

 

The Never-Ending Last Supper?

Café Terrace at Night (1888)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

          A simple, serene painting of a starry evening at a café in Arles?  Or, perhaps, a fresh re-visioning of the last supper of Jesus with his 12 disciples?

          Van Gogh was decidedly not overtly religious at the time of this painting.  In fact, his life was quite the opposite of “religious.”  He was drinking heavily, smoking heavily, frequently visiting brothels.  He looked upon the church with disdain, and in a letter from 1880, wrote that a priest in his surplice “looks like a dangerous rhinoceros.” 

          His life had not always been so.  Raised by a Dutch Reformed pastor and a strict, pious mother in the Netherlands, he had himself aspired to become a pastor.  But without much success.  He failed the entrance exam in theology at the University of Amsterdam and shortly after failed a 3-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Belgium.  Nevertheless, he was sent as a pastor to the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium, and there he worked hard to emulate his understanding of the life of Jesus.  After only a short time, however, church authorities determined that his rather unorthodox practice of living in a small hut and sleeping on straw—all to become closer to his beloved parishioners—undermined the dignity of a church pastor.   He was dismissed.

          He wandered uneasily through much of the rest of his life, trying this and trying that, and he finally settled on art with the help of his brother Theo.  But his life was never tranquil.  His physical health was poor, his mental health was poor, and throughout his years of painting, his art was dismissed, even as he had been dismissed by his church.

          It seems, however, that through all of these years of turmoil and often debauched living, van Gogh himself never fully dismissed his faith.  In later years, he wrote to his brother Theo of the Christ for whom he longed.  Christ is, he penned, “a greater artist than all other artists…working in living  flesh.  This matchless artist made living men immortals.”  He also wrote to Theo to tell him that he had a “tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion.” 

          Interestingly, this last statement was written with specific reference to his painting of “Café Terrace at Night.”  So it’s no surprise that some art aficionados now see this painting as more than a peaceful evening scene of an Arles café at night.  They suggest that van Gogh was actually creating his own version of Christ’s last supper with his twelve disciples, and they ask viewers to consider the following:

          –Eleven people (though it’s difficult to count precisely in an impressionistic painting!)  are seated at tables surrounding the server.

          –A twelfth person, a dark figure, is seen leaving the scene, even as Judas left the disciples gathered for their last meal with their master. 

          –The server is a man dressed in a long white robe. 

          –A lantern, glowing like a halo, hangs just over the server’s head.

          –Directly behind the server, a cross is visible in the window.

          –Several other crosses can also be seen along the street, one cross stretching high into the starry Arles night.  

          All of these facets of the painting suggest that very possibly something more than a mere evening café scene in Arles is what van Gogh has portrayed here.  But why would van Gogh choose an outdoor café setting for the Last Supper?  Why not paint an impressionistic image of that famous Upper Room?  The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that the Christ for whom van Gogh longed is a Christ not confined by church walls or church rituals.  He is rather a Christ who lives and can be found and experienced in the midst of life.  He is a Christ who frequents the rooms and the activities of our daily lives.  He is a Christ who comes close in our everydays in order to wait upon us and to serve us.

          So it would seem appropriate for van Gogh to have depicted the Last Supper at an Arles café.  Perhaps his very graphic way of saying that the Last Supper is an ongoing, never-ending event as Christ stands among us in every moment, in every ordinary place of all our days and all our nights.  Stands among us, not to lord it over us or to condemn us, but stands among us to serve us.  To make sure our needs are met, to attend to the smallest details of our lives.  To offer us, in the midst of our living, a croissant, a cup of wine, his very body, his very blood.

          Van Gogh left several empty tables at the front of the café.  An invitation, perhaps, for us to sit with the disciples, for us to know that we are always welcome at Christ’s table? 

          In the end, we cannot know with certainty, of course, just what van Gogh had in mind when he painted “Café Terrace at Night,” but I find it compelling to think of this scene as a re-telling of the Last Supper.  And as I look at the painting from this perspective, I find myself hoping that van Gogh himself somehow experienced this serving Christ in all the turmoil of his own troubled life.  Hoping that he somehow knew this Christ to be with him as he splashed irises, sunflowers, and starry nights across his canvases.  Knew this Christ to be with him as he roamed the countryside or the hallways of an asylum.   Knew him to be with him in his tiny room, often drunk or hung-over.  To be with him even as he felt himself fleeing from the faith that had once been so dear to him.  To be with him to feed and nourish him.  To be with him to paint his tattered life immortal.

 

Being Jairus’ Daughter: What Was It Like?

The Raising of Jairus’ Daughterpl

William Blake (1757-1827)

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A note:  I wrote this piece before the tragic shooting in Las Vegas several nights ago.  So while it’s not a response to that horrible event, the question I believe must have been in the mind of Jairus’ daughter as she lived through her life is a question we all share.  And it’s a question that becomes more urgent after a tragedy like that in Las Vegas.  The question is simply “what is the meaning of life?”  What is the meaning of life for those who were killed or wounded in Las Vegas?  What is the meaning of my life?  Of your life?  So I offer this piece in quiet memory of those who were killed and trust that it will offer hope to their loved ones and to all of us who grieve with them.  

***

Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying…While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.  But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened. (Luke 8:40-56, selected verses)

***

          I’ve often wondered.  Whatever happened to this unnamed girl whom Jesus raised from death when she was but 12 years old?  We never hear of her again in any of the gospels or in the story of the early church, so I suspect her life was probably quite ordinary.  But ordinary as it may have been, I suspect that it may not have been either a very easy or a very comfortable life. 

          I imagine that many of the people of her village were eager to name her as their village saint, and I suspect that with such elevation came many high expectations of how she should live her life and of what she might be able to do for them.  Some perhaps even now and then gingerly tried to touch the hem of her robe in hopes that something of the power that had brought her back to life would rub off on them. 

          And then I’m sure there were others who did not see her as a saint at all.  They saw her only as a reminder that the Miracle Worker hadn’t chosen to save their loved ones, and they were angry and jealous of her.  Was she so much better than their sons and daughters who had been left to die?  Why had she alone been brought back from the dead?  They wanted to have nothing to do with her.   

          Not easy!  But through all of this, I hope she had her moments of joy.  I suspect she did, but I’m also quite certain that, like all of us, she also experienced difficult times of personal illness and loss.  And I can’t help but wonder if during some of these times she may have wished that Jesus had just let her be.  What, after all, was the meaning of her life?  Why had she been brought back to life when others had not been?  What did it all mean? 

          “I simply don’t know,” I imagine her thinking often to herself.  “I don’t know why I was given a second chance at life when I was 12 years old.  I don’t know if God expects something extraordinary from me.   I know many fellow villagers expect something extraordinary from me.  Think I ought to be perfect, think I ought to be able to perform miracles for them, save their children, whatever.  And my father, God rest his soul, I know he certainly expected my life to be extraordinary.  I don’t know the specifics of his hopes, but I often saw the gleam in his eye when he would look so tenderly at me in my teens and early twenties and whisper those words the Master had spoken to me as I lay deathly cold and still, ‘Child, get up!’

          “Lots of expectations.  But do I expect an extraordinary life for myself?  Sometimes I have hoped I would accomplish something very special in my life, but I haven’t, and much of the time I simply go about my daily tasks.  What I do know is that those words, ‘Child, get up’ left a permanent scar on my soul.   A positive scar.  A profoundly deep sense that my life, tiny and ordinary as it is, is a life treasured and valued.  That my life matters to God and to the Master who spoke those words to my lifeless self.  I’ve heard that some are saying that Master was actually God wrapped in our human flesh.  I don’t understand about all of that, but I do know that God was with him.  That in that moment, God scarred my soul with a searing love.”

          Theologian Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of God writes of God regarding each of us “from all eternity, with the gaze of everlasting love.”  An eternal gaze, he says, that gives to each of us a sense of “eternal meaning,” a sense of “eternal dignity.” 

          Maybe something like that is what Jairus’ daughter felt.  That gaze of everlasting love focused on her.  That gaze of divine love infusing her days with a sense of extraordinary meaning and dignity, ordinary as they might have been.    

          I wish we knew more of her story.  But perhaps we know enough, just enough, to help us ponder our own lives, our own stories.  Just enough to help us realize anew that our tiny lives, too, are steeped in that loving gaze of the God who has looked upon us from all eternity.  Just enough to hear the voice of that God calling to us in every moment of our lives, “Child, get up.”

 

 

 

Lest We Forget-5; A Monthly Reminder

(A father cradles his dead child after a bombing raid in Aleppo in 2016)

his arms full of emptiness,

his mind blank,

his heart shredded

in a thousand pieces

mirroring the rubble

of his shattered life

          Let’s not let ourselves forget the horrors that so many refugees experience.  Aleppo.  With all the terrorist attacks around the world, Aleppo now seems so long ago and far away.  But the ruins of Aleppo remain, reminding us of the 4 years of horror and devastation endured by the citizens of this ancient city.  It is estimated that 31,000 people were killed during the years of fighting, until Aleppo finally fell to Syrian government forces, aided by the Russians, in December, 2016.  Thousands more citizens of Aleppo became refugees in search of a new home, a new life.

          Let’s remember to pray for these refugees.  Remember to encourage our government to be responsive to the needs of these desperate people.  Remember to share some of what you have with those in need.  Here again are some agencies through which you can offer help:

               Church World Service     cwsglobal.org/our-work/refugees-and-immigrants/

               International Rescue Committee     https://www.rescue.org/

Growing Season

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk so that by it you may

grow into salvation I Peter 2:2

          Summertime.  Growing season. 

          I’m remembering a summer day long ago now.  The memory is still so vivid.  I stood behind my desk at the Williston Park Reformed Church on Long Island, and I felt so small.  I had arrived the day before, fresh from a beautiful ordination service in Michigan, and I felt so blessed to be starting down this new road of pastoring.  But I remember calling a friend on the phone and saying, “I feel as though I’m wearing a dress that’s two sizes too big for me.”

          I thought of that time recently as I read St. Peter’s encouragement to the recipients of his first letter to “grow into” their salvation, to “grow into” their faith.  “Grow into.”  In that little phrase, Peter reminds us that faith is not a stagnant commodity.  Not something we either “have” or “don’t have.”  Faith is more like a dress or a suit that we put on—one that is two or three sizes too big.  Faith is something that requires our constant “growing into.” 

          I think I grew a bit into that two-sizes-too-big-for-me dress during the years I served as a pastor, but I know I never fully grew into it.  I think, too, that I’ve grown into my dress of faith over the years, but I know I never have and never will fully grow into it.  There’s always so much more of God to learn about.   So much more of God’s creation to learn about.  So much more of Scripture to learn about.  So much more of myself to learn about.   (And please forgive all those sentences ending with a preposition!) 

          It’s always been interesting to me to note how eager most people are to grow in so many different areas of their lives.  Eager to learn new skills.  To hone old skills.  To develop new interests.  To read more.  To listen more.  To travel and/or explore more.  But all too often I’ve also noticed that many people remain “stuck” in a faith they learned in their childhood but have not really explored and developed in their adulthood.  For so many, as J.B. Phillips reminds us, their God is simply “too small.”  And the problem is that a “too small” God often disappoints us.  Such a God “will often prove inadequate in the tests of real life.”* The problem also is that a “too small” God does not challenge us to be all that God intends for us to be.

           “Growing into salvation.”  Growing into faith.  Not just a summertime task, but really the task of a lifetime.  A task that requires honesty, diligence, commitment.  A task that calls for patience  and humility.  A difficult task.  At times a heavy task, because of all the questions and doubts we must confront.  But nevertheless, a most rewarding task.  For it’s a task that calls us into an ever deepening relationship with ourselves.  Into an ever deepening relationship with others.  And most especially, into an ever deepening relationship with the immensity of the God of our faith, a God who is always so near, yet always just beyond our grasp.

***

*Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace

 

 

 

Lest We Forget-Monthly Reminder #4

Alan Kurdi, September 2015

          This is a picture we are likely never to forget.  Alan Kurdi’s family was fleeing from the chaos and fighting in Syria.  They tried to reach one of the Greek islands in a small rubber inflatable boat designed to hold eight people.  But, tragically, there were sixteen people in that small boat, and it capsized shortly after leaving Turkey.  Alan’s three-year old body was later found washed up on the shore.  The bodies of his brother and his mother were also found washed up on the shore.

          There is understandably much debate and disagreement about how best to respond to the vastness of the needs of the refugees fleeing from so many ravaged places in our world today.  But perhaps we can all agree to remember these people as we go about our daily lives. 

          Remember them and offer daily prayers for them.

          Remember them and pray, too, that our government will be wise and compassionate in deciding how best to respond to this global crisis. 

          Remember them and contribute to an organization that is working to help refugees.  Here are a couple of suggestions if you would like to make a donation:

               Church World Service     cwsglobal.org/our-work/refugees-and-immigrants/

               International Rescue Committee     https://www.rescue.org/

***

Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”  Luke 9:48

But Why, God?

The Baptism of Jesus, by He Qi

(contemporary artist who blends Christian images with Chinese folk art)

(used with permission: www.heqiart.com)*

18The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” 21Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Luke 7:18-23

***

          “But why?” was little Andy’s perennial question to any member of our family.  Andy was a long-ago young neighbor whose mind was persistently bursting with questions.  And he wanted answers.  Why was his world the way it was?  Why did people do what they did?  We’d all try to come up with reasonable answers, but often Andy’s response to our answers would simply be another “but why?” 

          John had a similar question for Jesus, the one for whom he had prepared the way.  The one whom he had baptized.  The one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend.  The one whom he had identified to his followers as the Son of God and the Lamb of God.  In those early days, John had been so sure of Jesus’ identity.  So certain that here at last was the One.  Since then, it was true, he had heard some good things, many good things, in fact, about the ministry of Jesus.  He’d heard about the healings, the exorcisms, the powerful teachings.  But he had also heard some disturbing things.  That Jesus ate with sinners.  That Jesus’ disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath.  That often they didn’t observe the prescribed ritual laws of washing their hands before they ate.

          Jesus simply wasn’t acting the way John the Baptist had understood God’s Chosen One would act.  “But why, Jesus?  Why are you doing these things that are so contradictory to our Jewish laws?  Why aren’t you insisting that your disciples be as ritually clean as good Jewish people are supposed to be?  Why are you mingling with sinners and allowing yourself and your reputation to be tainted by them?  I was so sure you were the One we all awaited.  But now I’m not so sure.  Did I prepare the way for the wrong person?  Were my preaching, my baptizing, and my faith in you all miserable mistakes?”  John was in prison when he asked these questions of Jesus, and he was no doubt experiencing a dryness in his soul, a shriveling of his faith, a desert emptiness of his spirit.

          John was well accustomed to desert life.  He had lived and preached in the desert and knew its harsh terrain.  But this “inner” desert was different.  Much more uncomfortable than any actual physical desert could ever be.  John didn’t like the barrenness of not being sure.  Didn’t like this lack of clearly defined answers.  Didn’t like that Jesus wasn’t behaving in just the ways John thought he should be  behaving.  This desert called for a stretching of his faith far beyond his comfort zone.  But why, Jesus, but why?

          So it so often is with us, is it not?  We have a positive faith experience, and God’s love and presence seem so very real in our lives.  And then difficulties strike.  Questions arise.  God’s absence hovers all around, and we lose our footing in the shifting sands of uncertainty.  God is not acting, not “performing,” in the ways we had expected.  Questions haunt us and chase us through the deserts of our doubts.  And so, with Andy and with John, we cry out, “But why?  But why, God, are you not behaving in the way we had hoped, in the way we had expected?  Why does my friend have to live with cancer?  Another with Parkinsons?  Yet another with double depression, while I, meanwhile, can do so little to help, as I’m coping with this CFS/ME day after day after day?”

          Jesus does not give John the answer that John was hoping for.  John would no doubt have been more than satisfied if Jesus had simply said, clearly and emphatically, “Yes, John, I am the One for whom the world has waited.  I am the Messiah for whom you prepared the way.”  But that’s not what Jesus says.  Instead he asks John to simply notice what’s been going on around Jesus.  To look and listen to the stories of all that Jesus has been accomplishing.  To look and listen and then to determine for himself just who Jesus was.

          God so often responds to our “but why’s” in the same way.  Like John, we would prefer decisive answers to all our questions.  Explanations that are clear and definitive, answers that leave no room for questions or doubts.  Instead, “Look and listen,” God says.  “Look and listen to all the stories of my activity in the Scriptures.  Look and listen to all the stories of saints down through the centuries who have sung of my reality in their lives, in spite of their deserts of hardship and persecution.  Look and listen to the many different ways I have been active in your own life and in the lives of those around you.  Look and listen and let these stories nurture and enrich your faith.  Look and listen and let these stories renew your confidence that I am indeed with you and for you.”

          Poet Mary Oliver tells us that “there are so many stories more beautiful than answers.”  Her words so clearly echo the words of Jesus to the disciples of John, the words of God to us.  Much as we might want definitive answers, perhaps we can learn instead to find courage and see the beauty in the stories that are given to us.  A beauty that expands our horizons.  A beauty that deepens our awareness.  A beauty that helps us live with all the questions we carry with us throughout our lives.

***

*HeQI@2014 All rights Reserved

**Snake,” by Mary Oliver, House of Light,1990