"Emmaus is not only the name of a town in the Gospel of Luke; it is also a state of mind."1 In the Gospel story, two anguished disciples walk first by themselves and then with a Stranger who joins them, puzzling over the calamity of Calvary. On their journey they battle to unravel the meaning of what seems at the time to be the end of all they believe in. It seems to them that a perverse breath from the powers that be has snuffed out the bright burning candle of hope and meaning in their hearts. Disillusioned, they feel that God, or at least their faith, has failed them, exposed as inadequate in the face of this watershed event of their time. Their agony becomes a striking reflection of thoughtful people throughout history who have struggled to make sense of the bewildering and sometimes cataclysmic twists and turns that can so suddenly assault the underpinnings of what is simply true and gives essential meaning to our lives.
When the story seems to fail
Human beings can live without many things and at the same time remain relatively content, but they cannot really live without a substantial core of trustworthy meaning. Closely associated with meaning and the role it plays deep in the human heart is the significance of what has been called "story." At the center of the Emmaus road crisis are two disciples of Jesus who have come to contend with newly introduced questions about the "story" to which they have unreservedly committed their lives. How will they rearrange their thinking, believing, and living to accommodate the curve thrown them by the Crucifixion? Suddenly their story, and thus the essential meaning of their lives, is in question.
Many of us, especially the young adults who live in places like Western Europe, Australia, and North America, are living through the advent of massively significant developments. During the past two or three decades, events and ways of thinking have gathered to challenge our story and our soul. Many of our world cultures have assigned to reason and technology authoritative roles that nature and reality in fact deny them. We are and by all means should be rational beings who therefore understandably crave rational explanations for things. But in our culture we have come to fashion a world overly dominated by the authority of reason, science, and their offspring: mechanistic technology and all its progeny. All of this has invaded our ways of thinking and feeling and looking at reality.
There is little question but that we are becoming shallower. We are turning from the depth of Judeo-Christian meaning and story as we move to connect ourselves instead with the great horizontal networks that all but take the place of the divine mysteries inherent in the upward concentration. This is the new "wisdom," and it is powerful and pervasive. In a very real sense our Emmaus road is paved by this brand of wisdom. And of all of those who walk this road, the highly educated young adults who attend (or do not attend) many of our churches are often most affected.
What is happening to us is illustrated by the history of the people of my homeland (South Africa): "We Europeans in Africa, America, Australasia, and the South Pacific have been great stealers of the stories of first peoples. We have killed off whole races by taking their story of creation from them.... The Bushman knew [his heart] was filled to the brim with things without which his life would have no meaning and his soul wither and die. He knew intuitively that without a story one had no clan or family; without a story of one's own, no individual life; without a story of stories, no life-giving continuity with the beginning, and therefore no future."2
An invasion with similar characteristics and effects continues to encounter all of us in the form of these overdominating rationalistic, scientistic, technologistic, and materialistic values. Although each of these areas of life is clearly crucial, valuable, and helpful to us, it is their disproportionate application to us that continues to break across our consciousness, negatively affecting our ways of thinking and perceiving realities such as the biblical story. All of this casts suspicion on the soul of our Christian story and its meaning, making it look in itself obsolete or somehow inadequate. We must ever know deep down what life itself constantly impresses into our being: that there are vast continents of reality before which, valuable as they are, reason, science, technology, and matter stand disarmed and profoundly inadequate to fully explore.
A story for now
The two disciples on that dark road had to have a reorienting from the Master Himself. There is a pivotal sense in which, though the truth itself was and is changeless, the understandings of the disciples were clearly no longer adequate to face the unexpected twist that life and divine destiny handed out at the cross. The event of the death of Jesus demanded of the disciples that their story and its meaning be unfolded to a more substantial level. Their story had to develop so that it would possess the capability of transcending and making sense of any bewildering event that arrived, while it still provided meaning and even wonder to the disciples.
It is exactly here that the most significant challenge surfaces for today's pastor. In Christ we are keepers of the soul, and as such we are called to be keepers of the story and the meaning. In Christ we are called to come upon our anxious scene, at first perhaps unrecognized and initially judged to be on the ignorant side (Luke 24:18,19). We must walk along as companions to a rather bewildered generation, bringing meaning back to the biblical stories of the anguished hearts of people.
I think I sense the imposing dimen sions of such an assignment. After all, we ministers, like the two disciples, have our share of the prevailing bewilderment. Yet I believe that taking up this assignment lies at the center of "present truth" for today's Christian minister.
For such a thing to happen, it is crucial that we first feel and honestly acknowledge our own dilemma as we move along the road to Emmaus. Above everything, it is ultimately crucial that we ourselves encounter the Stranger and come to hear with burning hearts His explanation of the moment to which our world has come. Recognizing Him in the midst of it all, we will run back down the road not to join the politically correct clerics who created the disillusionment in the first place, but instead to make the road of perplexity the way of enlightenment. We can run toward Jerusalem telling the fullness of a fresh story, filled with a meaning that has come warm from the lips of the Master Himself.
1 Regis A. Duffy, An American
Emmaus (New York: Crossroad Pub. Co.,
1995), p. 1.
2 Laurens van der Post, The Heart of
the Hunter (San Diego: Harcourt Brace
and Co., 1980), p. 171.