My most memorable journey on the road to Emmaus was taken behind the wheel of a 1981 Oldsmobile, Cutlass, Brougham. I loved that car. It was a thing of beauty. It was a gift from my home congregation so that I could travel back and forth across the country to and from seminary. Despite its propensity to guzzle gas it was the perfect combination of power and elegance. It had the most amazingly plush interior with every imaginable power amenity of its day. It handled like a dream and even though I loved driving that car, neither it nor I faired well on our journey on the road to Emmaus. Five weeks into my Clinical training at the Grand River Hospital and I’d just completed one of the toughest weeks of my life when I set off for Emmaus. Clinical Pastoral Education is what the Church calls it but seminary students have other names for it, like boot camp, torture or hell. Twelve weeks of on the job training in a busy hospital combined with daily psychotherapy, group sessions, and sleep deprivation. It’s all designed to help seminarians put two years of academic study into practice before sending them off on a yearlong internship. Ask most pastors about their Clinical Pastoral Education and they’re likely to sit you down and tell you story after story about how intense an experience it was. Many of my colleagues will tell you that it almost broke them into little pieces, or that it almost destroyed their faith, or that they didn’t think they’d survive, or how they never thought that it was possible to be that scared or insecure for that many hours every day. Boot camp, torture, or hell, it all depended on whether or not you were able to get any sleep or if the demons you faced on the wards managed to destroy whatever self-confidence you might be able to muster.
The week before I set off on the road to Emmaus, wasn’t as bad as all that. I felt like I was just beginning to get the hang of things. I thought that the worst might be over. I’d managed to conquer my fear of being called Chaplain and being expected to help people who were sick, in pain, in distress, or dying. Why that week I’d even managed to help one or two of my patients. Those nagging doubts that haunted me during the first month of Clinical training were beginning to fade. It was becoming easier to believe that God was there in the midst of all the turmoil. I thought that maybe just maybe I could do the job and the terror wasn’t quite so intense when my pager went off. I remember saying to a colleague that maybe we’d be able to get through our Clinical training without coming up against the inevitable crisis of the faith that so many of our fellow students had warned us about. I wasn’t even nervous about having pulled the short straw for the long-weekend shift. 72 hours as the on-call emergency chaplain for the entire hospital. I felt like I was ready; that with God’s help, I could face anything that came my way.
I wasn’t particularly nervous when my pager went off and I calmly dialed the operator who announced that there’d been an MVA and six patients were on route; two of them were vital signs absent. MVA – Multiple vehicle accident. Vital signs absent = that usually means dead, but only a doctor can actually pronounce death so patients without vital signs are transported to the hospital before being pronounced dead.
In the elevator down to emergency I prayed. It was the same prayer I’d been praying for weeks; “God don’t let me screw this up. God don’t let me screw this up. God don’t let me screw this up.” Not very eloquent, I know, but after awhile it turned into a sort of mantra and I could pray it almost anywhere.
When I arrived in the emergency ward everyone, doctors, nurses, orderlies, even the receptionist was poised ready for the ambulances to arrive. The head nurse put her hand on my shoulder and said they were bringing children in. An orderly made the sign of the cross and headed out to the ambulance bay, just as the screaming sirens approached. I remember thinking that the sirens sounded as though they were saying; Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie…………….
As the medical experts rushed around tending to the injured, I did my level best to stay out of the way. I sat with a young police officer and as he cried I put my hand on his shoulder. He told me that the parents of two of the victims were on their way and he asked me if I would go with him to meet them. By the time the parents arrived I knew that their six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter were dead. But the law requires that only a doctor can make such a diagnosis, so I ushered the frantic parents into the room set aside for grieving relatives known as the “quiet room.” I spent about an hour with those distraught parents as they told me about how excited the kids were to be spending the day with their grandparents and how happy they all were when they set off that morning.
Finally a doctor came in to the Quiet room and after introducing himself he said that, “he was sorry, they’d done all they could, but there was nothing more they could do.”
The parents couldn’t understand what he was saying so in desperation they turned to me. I told them that their children were dead. I don’t remember how I told them. I don’t remember the actual words I used. I only remember that the words destroyed them. We sat together waiting, waiting for news about the grandparents. When the news came it seemed almost cruel to have to tell them that the grandparents were going to be all right.
I went to make arrangements for the parents to see their children. The nurses were just finishing up when my pager went off: Cardiac arrest on the surgical ward, patient’s wife requesting a chaplain. I stayed with the parents as they wept over their children. I remember thinking God was a bastard as I headed up to the surgical ward. I found a wife quietly sitting with her husband of 30 years.
She told me she didn’t know what she was going to do without him and asked me to pray with her. I prayed the words into the emptiness, but I was convinced no one was listening.
My pager went off again and again and again over the course of my weekend shift; several motor vehicle accidents and three heart attacks, six deaths in all, I couldn’t wait for my shift to end. I remember walking to the upper level of the parking lot and getting into my car but I don’t remember how long I sat there cursing God. I thought God was supposed to be good. I thought God was supposed to be there when you needed God. I thought God was supposed to love us. I couldn’t believe that God was good. It didn’t feel much like God was there when those children needed God, or when those parents needed God, or when I needed God. I couldn’t believe that God loves us. I could barely believe in God.
I put the key in the ignition, started the car, put it into gear, looked directly at a concrete pillar and floored it. I wrapped my beautiful 81 Oldsmobile, Cutlass, Brougham around that pillar; smashed the passenger side up against the concrete and kept on driving. I got out on the open road, all the widows open, wind blowing driving as fast as that baby could travel screaming at the top of my lungs, demanding answers from God.
The road to Emmaus is a familiar one, it is a road of deep disappointment, disillusionment, sadness, remorse, pain, anger, grief, loneliness, fear and despair. Now whenever I read the story of the travelers on the road to Emmaus, I imagine Cleopas and his wife Mary trudging along in the hot desert sand with heavy hearts. Going over and over every horrendous detail of their beloved Jesus’ death; the agony of the past three days piercing their hearts and tormenting their minds, the memory of the terror of Jesus arrest, the anxiety of the trails and the unbearable news about the torture, the fear that they might be next, the panic as they fled into hiding, the unbelievable accounts of the execution. The desperation of knowing that the Messiah, the one they had placed all their hopes and dreams for the future on, the one they believed would lead them to victory, their beloved Jesus was dead. Then to have the agony of the past three days overshadowed by the rumors that Jesus’ body is missing, the mystery of the empty tomb only adding insult to injury. Then suddenly a man comes near and joins them on their way. This stranger only has to ask Cleopas once and the story of the past three days comes flooding out. How their beloved Jesus was handed over to be condemned to death and crucified. How they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And how on top of everything else, some women of their group had astounded them, with stories of an empty tomb, a missing body, and visions of angels who declared that Jesus was alive and finally how the others raced to the tomb and found it empty, but alas they did not see Jesus. But the mystery that torments Cleopas, only seems to irk the stranger as he begins to scold Cleopas: “Oh, how foolish you are,” Insists the stranger, “how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”
And then as if he were revealing the answer to Cleopas’ mystery, the stranger declares, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory?” I can hear Jesus saying, “You idiots!” If you had only read your Bibles, none of this would come as a surprise to you. It is right there in black and white: the Christ is not the one who wins the power struggle; Christ is the one who loses it. The Christ is not the undefeated champion; Christ is the suffering servant, the broken one, who comes into glory with wounds still visible. And then not content with solving one mystery the stranger goes on and beginning with Moses and all the prophets, the stranger interprets for them the things about the Messiah in all the scriptures. As the mysteries of the scriptures are revealed, their hearts burn within them, because the stranger is opening the scriptures to them. Through all this an even greater mystery prevails.
It is not until the stranger sits at the table with them that the mystery of the stranger’s identity is revealed. The stranger takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them, and suddenly their eyes are opened and they recognize Christ. In their pain and confusions, Christ is revealed in the breaking of the bread.
In the car on the road to Emmaus, I resolved to quit my clinical training, and give up trying to learn how to be a pastor. I stopped by the home of one of my professors who had become a friend to tell her that I was finished. She’d done her own clinical training in the very same hospital fifteen years earlier, so she must have recognized the look on my face when I walked through her door. She never said a word; she just opened her arms and let me cry. Then she sat me down while she began to cook me breakfast. When the meal was ready she laid it out before me, sat down and then she only had to ask and the story of the past three days came flooding out of me. Every painful detail of the past agonizing three days came flooding out in a torrent.
When I was through she shook her head and asked my what on earth I’d expected. Did I think it would be easy? Did I think that Jesus was some sort of sunbeam, shining brightly into the darkness to protect me from life? Did I think I could go into the world and come out unscathed? Did I think I could get out of here alive? Then she poured me a cup of coffee and told me to eat.
I didn’t recognize her at first, her words seemed so harsh, it was when she offered the coffee and the eggs that I recognized her. The mystery of Christ’s presence is revealed in the meal. In the midst of our lives, when we gather around the table, somehow Christ is revealed to us. She sent me into her guest room to sleep and she promised to wake me up in time for my next shift. She told me to sleep we’d talk later.
When she woke me up, she said she’d seen my car in the parking lot and she wondered how the other guy was doing. I assured her that the concrete pillar was just fine. She offered to drive me back to the hospital. I told her that I was quitting. She told me to take a shower and get dressed. As we were leaving, I told her that I was quitting. She said she’d drive me to the hospital and that I should at least give them some notice and work out my shift.
I couldn’t find my supervisor so I went and signed in. One of the nurses from the emergency room asked me how I was doing and we began to talk about the families that were grieving the loss of so very much. Other staff members gathered round and we talked until the pagers started to go off. I headed up to the chaplain’s office and found two grieving parents waiting for me. I listened to them for a long time; then I helped them make some of the arrangements for the funeral. Before they left they asked me if I would do the funeral for them…at first I didn’t know what they meant, I thought maybe they wanted me to make the rest of the arrangements for them. Then I realized they wanted me to preside at the funeral. I told them I was just a student; I’d never done this before. “That’s okay, neither have we.” So together we learned how.
On the road to Emmaus the disciples did not recognize the Messiah. The blindness of the two disciples did not keep Christ from coming to them. Christ does not limit Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to those with full confidence in Christ. Christ comes to the disappointed, to the doubtful, and to the inconsolable. Christ comes to those who do not know their Bibles, who do not recognize Christ even when they are walking right beside Christ.
Christ comes to us in the breaking of the bread. The story of what happened on the road to Emmaus is not just a once and for all story that happened long ago. What happened on the road to Emmaus happens to each of us. Sometimes we are the grief stricken disciples wondering why our saviour has left us only to meet Christ and fail to recognize Christ at first glance. Sometimes we are called to join those on the road who are in need of Christ and in, with, through, and beyond us Christ lives!