Doing a Slow Burn


When I was a boy, my mother would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “I don’t know, Mom,” I’d say. “I’m only eight years old.”

“Someday,” she would reply, “you’ll have a burning desire to do something; and then you’ll know.”

I grew up, went through elementary school, junior high, high school and college, became a young man waiting for that burning desire to hit me. But it never came.

I started thinking that my Mom didn’t know what she was talking about.

Then, as a young man, I started remembering what my Grandmother Bumpi used to say, “Tommy, you’d make a good minister.” And, in fact, for a long time I couldn’t shake that thought. Although it wasn’t exactly a burning desire; it was more like nagging heartburn.

Meanwhile, I had become a deacon of the church; went through the Stephen Ministry (a lay counseling) training program; participated in the music program – but still no burning desire emerged within my heart. Only simmering ambiguity.

Finally, after some of my fellow deacons and Stephen Ministers individually approached to asked me if I had ever thought about going into ministry, I decided that this was all starting to get kind of weird and perhaps it was time to talk to my own pastor, Dr. Bob Moser, about it.

So I went to his office one day and simply asked him, “Dr. Moser, how can you know if you’re really called into ministry?” And Bob, a good ole boy from Oklahoma, replied, “Tom, I’ll tell you what my pastor told me when I asked him the same question, “Bob,” he said, “Just start heading down that road and if no doors are slammed in your face, keep on going.”

“But . . . What about the burning desire?!” I remember thinking.

Now, why am I telling you all of this? (My wife always gets a bit nervous when I talk this much about myself from the pulpit). But here is why:

The great theologian Karl Barth said that witness is the whole vocation of a Christian. To be a witness means to have one’s words subsumed by “pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another.” What makes a person a witness, says Barth, “is solely and exclusively that other, the thing attested.”

Karl Barth submitted that, if a person walking down the road were to stop suddenly, look upward and start pointing, he or she would soon draw a crowd of onlookers, attempting to see what captured the gaze of this pedestrian.

The witness is interesting because he or she points to some great truth that’s truly more interesting that the witness.

And, now that I have – for quite some time – been on that road, which dear Bob Moser alluded to, here is what I’ve discovered: that the burning desire began to kindle within my heart as I continued to follow Jesus Christ down the road; and subsequently lost myself in that journey. And that is my witness.

Dr. Bob Moser’s words turned out the some of the wisest advice I could have gotten.

Frederick Buechner writes, “To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive.”

“To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do – to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.”

“The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality,” says Buechner, “is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed.” (The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days)

On the third day after his crucifixion, two disciples are journeying from Jerusalem to a village named Emmaus; Cleopas and some unknown disciple (perhaps his wife). They are grief-stricken, despairing – in survival mode. They are trying to leave behind the horror and the tragedy of the brutal death of their master; trying to escape the remaining danger of persecution of his followers; trying to outpace their own broken dreams and fallen aspirations. They are traveling west from Jerusalem toward Emmaus and into the setting sun.

And as they journey in that dejected state the Risen Lord suddenly appears – seemingly out of nowhere – to travel with them along that road.

But, wrapped up in themselves, their own pain and sorrow and fear, as they were, they were not able to recognize the identity of the mysterious stranger who now walked with them.

It ever seems to be the case, in scripture, that it is the Stranger – with all his or her ambiguity – who often represents the future; represents the possibility of a new life as it emerges on our horizon: the three mysterious strangers who met Abraham and Sarah by the terebinth trees of Mamre (about which an Apostle of Christ would later say, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares.”); or the stranger who visited the Virgin Mary; or the stranger who met Mary Magdalene outside the tomb.

In the Bible, the manner in which one welcomes the stranger reveals one’s basic stance toward the future, life, and ultimately God. (Victoria G. Curtiss, Their Eyes Were Opened)

“To approach the stranger,” T. S. Eliot observed, “is to invite the unexpected, release anew force . . . It is to start a train of events beyond your control” (The Cocktail Party).

Even though these two soul-weary disciples were immersed in the painful loss of their most precious hope, they yet opened their hearts – and their home – in an act of gracious hospitality and trust toward this stranger on the road.

And soon the Guest becomes the Host offering the bread of new life to the two disciples. And their eyes were opened. “Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us on the road,” they said.

Shannon Pater poetically suggests, “The masquerade is over, the sacred memory of the heart is rekindled, the wellspring of hope bubbles and gurgles again, and the incognito is revealed. The witness of the women at the empty tomb is now their testimony, too . . . Their burning hearts illumine their blind eyes and quicken their weary souls . . . and their pilgrimage of faith has just begun” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 2, p. 422).

When we lived in Cleveland, Diane was a Hospice Chaplain. She would travel to various parts of the city to visit people in their homes.

There was one elderly black woman who was dying from diabetes and cancer. She lived in one of the most economically depressed, embattle and dangerous areas of the inner city. Her home was dilapidated, ramshackle, dingy and dirty. The neighborhood was host to gangbangers, prostitutes and junkies.

Diane surmised that she was the only white person to be found for miles. Put simply: this was a part of the city where one would not go voluntarily. Ever! Diane was, to say the least, extremely uncomfortable entering what felt like a hostile, foreign environment.  Needless to say, that first visit was fairly short, and Diane got out of there, fortunately, without incident.

When I heard about her experience, I entreated her not to go back to that place. “Tell them to send someone else!” I told her.  Nevertheless, out of compassion – and I would suggest a courageous sense of call – Diane went back to visit this woman the next week. This time, when Diane got out of her car to go into the house, two very large black men who had apparently been lingering nearby, walked toward her. Diane stood frozen as they approached.

“We know who you are and why you’re here,” they told her. “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”

As Diane went into to visit her charge, these two extremely intimidating looking men stood guard by her car, until she was ready to leave. When she came out, they opened her car door for her, thanked her for her kindness, and waved goodbye as she drove safely on her way.

Christ often comes to us along the way in forms we might not always readily recognize. It’s almost always easier to recognize that presence in retrospect.

Preaching great Fred Craddock proclaimed, “remembering is often the activating of the power of recognition” (Interpretation: Luke, p. 99).

And that is true whether we are remembering the wisdom of a beloved mentor, or the faithful affirmation of a saintly grandmother, or the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.

“The sacred moments, the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears reveal only . . . a gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with our whole being and imagination . . . what we may see is Jesus himself” (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, pp. 87 – 88).

The story ends – as it began – in witness, testimony. The disciples, now with open eyes, rush back to Jerusalem to tell what they have seen. The Lord has risen. He has appeared “as he broke the bread.”

As William Willimon puts it, “Despondant, disheartened disciples become energetic, enthusiastic witnesses.”

And we, who gather in church on this Sunday morning, are those who take to heart this story of Emmaus. For we have come together in hope against hope to try to `be with Jesus,’ only to discover that it is nature of the Risen Lord to want to be with us. He appears to us, teaches us and – somewhere along the way – reveals himself to us. And so our doubts, our ambiguities, our fears, our grief begin to heal. Our eyes our opened. (ibid)

And we leave this place with new vision – as those whose experience of the Risen Lord empowers us to be bold witnesses of the dawn of a new day in a twilight world. In Jesus Christ.