Pedestals and Perfect Strangers

“On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

-Luke 24:13-32 (CEB)

—————–

I had coffee with a total stranger yesterday.

Okay, okay, so it was tea, and this person wasn’t a total stranger.

A mutual friend knew we were going to be in the same city at the same time, and suggested we get together to talk about my future career in ministry. Apart from both of us knowing the same person and being in ministry of some kind, neither of us knew anything about one another.

To be honest, meeting with a (relative) stranger was kind of refreshing. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with no baggage weighing me down, no preconceived notions about what should or shouldn’t be said. This is perhaps the kind of freedom the two disciples on the road to Emmaus must have been feeling when a perfect stranger joined them on their journey. Incidentally, they spilled their guts to him, too.

We chatted about my seminary experience, about ideal ministry, about the future. I admitted my uncertainties, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were not only affirmed and echoed but also calmed and gently combatted. I didn’t know I needed someone in a position of relative authority in the church to allay some of my concerns until it was happening. For this unexpected comfort, I thank the Holy Spirit, and certainly our mutual friend.

Throughout the conversation, I ended up telling a few stories of my church experiences. When our giant tea mugs were nearly empty, the stranger told me, “It seems like you’ve had a lot of heroes fall from grace.”

I couldn’t help it; I laughed, much to both of our surprise.

“Yes, I have.”

This stranger didn’t know it, but that touched on one of my biggest struggles in ministry. I didn’t even realize how much of what I said contained hints about this struggle until it was pointed out to me by someone who had never met me before that moment.

It would have been easy to leave it there and move on. I could have laughed it off and jumped to another topic. I could have steered the conversation away since I didn’t really want to talk about it anyway.

I could have even said, “It’s okay… that kind of thing always happens to me,” and it wouldn’t have been entirely untrue, except that there are things that definitively do always happen to me…

For example, the most important moments in my life are usually scheduled all at the same time; I feel like I’m constantly choosing between two things that both seem essential. I also have terrible timing when it comes to relationships; I’m always moving, changing jobs, going to a new school, living across the country. I also can’t travel via airplane without some kind of delay, whether it is 5 minutes or, most recently, more than 24 hours. I can safely say these are larger trends in my life, and the childish part of me wants to say I must just have a streak of bad luck a mile wide.

But then I remembered the person sitting in front of me didn’t know me from Adam (or Eve), hadn’t heard me fumble through puzzle-piece explanations of my calling to ministry when I first began to answer it, wasn’t subjected to my first (awkward) sermon, had never heard me express heart break when these “heroes” of mine “fell from grace.”

It felt wrong to close off the topic with my laughter. It felt insincere and dishonest and cynical and all the things I try not to be. It felt like I was filing away this issue with the double-booking, the bad timing, and the flight delays, when really there was and is a much deeper problem at hand.

And so I filled the few moments of silence after my laughter with an explanation. “Yes, but only because I tend to put my ‘heroes’ on pedestals.”

I went on to admit that, as a result of that tendency, I brought some of this immense disappointment on myself. I really do tend to idolize people who mentor me, or even just people who I want to be like, to the extent that they take on a sort of other-worldly glow. Any of my mentors (professors, pastors, bosses, etc.) could probably tell you this is true. They become above reproach in my eyes, in a way that is unfair both to them and to me. This is my biggest struggle, my most repeated sin.

You see, I give my “heroes” a place in my heart that should only ever belong to the God of the Universe, and it never turns out well for me.

Even when these people do nothing in particular wrong, they are still human beings. They still have bad days and bad moments. They still have sin and pain and sickness just like I do.

Taking people off of these lofty thrones is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. If I’m being totally honest with myself, it is a lesson I am still learning, a road I am still walking down.

Thankfully, it is a road that Jesus walks down with me.

While I’m simultaneously building and tearing down pedestals, Jesus is kicking up dust on the road beside me, reminding me which way is up. While I’m gluing my heart back together after self-inflicted heart break, Jesus is bending down beside me, handing me the scattered pieces one by one. While I’m tearing through scripture looking for answers, Jesus is waiting for me to turn his direction, to recognize him so he can show me the Way, the Truth and the Life. While I’m searching for what will make me whole, Jesus is sitting next to me at the table, offering me the very Bread of Life.

My prayer for you and for me is that our eyes will be opened to the infinitely powerful God who does the most impossible things for the sake of incredibly finite human beings, who walks patiently alongside us on the road, who stays for dinner when we ask, and who makes our hearts burn within us as we gaze upon his very face and learn the Truth.

Happy traveling.

Grace and peace,

Amanda

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