Luke 24:13-35 – NRSV
Our eleventh step to a Compassionate Life is Recognition. “We recognize a personal connection with the suffering of others and find a way to focus and act upon our concern.” (Karen Armstrong, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life.) The road to Emmaus story had been chosen for this topic, but we could have easily chosen the story of the Prodigal, or the Good Samaritan, or any number of parables told by Jesus where recognizing the suffering of others was central. How often does Jesus tell stories that help us empathize with the suffering of others?
The road to Emmaus story is the story about the moment of recognition – of looking into the eyes and hearts of the other and recognizing the pain and suffering that is there – that we can recognize because of our own pain and suffering. We’ve all been there at one time or another – the who is recognized and the one who does the recognizing. Those are God-filled moments.
In true oral tradition I’m sharing a parable from a chapter entitled ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ by Anne Lamott in her book, Traveling Mercies. If you’ve not read her work, I am thrilled to introduce you to her via this story. The book was published in 1999 so there are a few dated references mentioned. It’s ok to google them. Sam is her son. Enjoy.
“So there I was on a plane returning home from St. Louis. Or rather, there I was in a plane on the runway at the airport in St. Louis with, I think, the not unreasonable expectation that we would be in the air soon, as our flight had already been delayed two hours. I was anxious to get home, as I had not seen Sam in several days, but all things considered, I thought I was coping quite well, especially because I am a skeptical and terrified flier. In between devouring Hershey’s chocolate and thirteen dollars’ worth of trashy magazines, I had spent the two hours of the delay trying to be helpful to the other stranded passengers: I distributed all my magazines and most of my chocolates; I got an old man some water; I flirted with the babies; I mingled, I schmoozed. I had recently seen what may have been a miracle at my church and had been feeling ever since that I was supposed to walk through life with a deeper faith, a deeper assurance that if I took care of God’s children for God, he or she would take care of me. So I took care of people, and hoped that once we were on board, everything would go smoothly.
My idea of everything going smoothly on an airplane is (a) that I not die in a slow-motion fiery crash or get stabbed to death by terrorists and (b) that none of the other passengers try to talk to me. All conversation should end at the moment the wheels leave the ground.
Finally we were allowed to board. I was in row thirty-eight, between a woman slightly older than I, with limited language skills, and a man my own age who was reading a book by a famous right-wing Christian novelist about the Apocalypse. A newspaper had asked me to review this book when it first came out, because its author and I are both Christians – although as I pointed out in my review, he’s one of those right-wing Christians who thinks that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday right after lunch, and I am one of those left-wing Christians who thinks that perhaps this author is just spiritualizing his own hysteria.
‘How is it?’ I asked, pointing jovially to the man’s book, partly to be friendly, partly to gauge where he stood politically.
‘This is one of the best books I’ve ever read,’ he replied. ‘You should read it.’ I nodded. I remember saying in the review that the book was hard-core right-wing paranoid anti-Semitic homophobic misogynistic propaganda – not to put too fine a point on it. The man smiled and went back to reading.
I couldn’t begin to guess what country the woman was from, although I think it’s possible that she had one Latvian parent and one Korean. She sounded a little like Latka Gravas, the Andy Kaufman character on Taxi, except after things began to fall apart, when she sounded just like the martians in Mars Attacks: ‘Ack ack ack!’ she’d cry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As we sat there on the runway, the man with the book about the Apocalypse commented on the small gold cross I wear. ‘Are you born again?’ he asked, as we taxied down the runway. He was rather prim and tense, maybe a little like David Eisenhower with a spastic color. I did not know how to answer for a moment. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I am.’
My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian. They think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine, where he said, ‘I’m not really a Jew – I’m Jew-ish.’ They think I am Christian-ish. But I’m not. I’m just a bad Christian. A bad born-again Christian. And certainly, like the apostle Peter, I am capable of denying it, or presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation-theology enthusiast and maybe sort of a vaguely Jesusly bon vivant. But it’s not true. And I believe that when you get on a plane, if you start lying you are totally doomed.
So I told the truth: that I am a believer, a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the pack of my car, although I first want to see if the application or stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement. And believe me, all this boggles even my mind. But it’s true. I could go to a gathering of foot-washing Baptists and, except for my dreadlocks, fit right in. I would wash their feet; I would let them wash mine.
But as the plane taxied out to the runway, the man on my right began telling me how he and his wife were homeschooling their children, and he described with enormous acrimony the radical, free-for-all, feminist, touchy-feely philosophy of his county’s school system, and I knew instantly that this description was an act of aggression against me – that he was telepathically on to me, could see that I was the enemy, that I will be on the same curling team in heaven as Tom Hayden and Vanessa Redgrave. And then suddenly the plane braked to a stop.
We all looked around for a moment, before the captain came on the P.A. system and announced calmly that two passengers wanted to get off the plane, right then and there. We were headed back to the gate. ‘What?’ we all cried. The good news was that this was only going to take a minute or so since in the past two hours we had only traveled about five hundred feet. The bad news was the FAA regulations required that security go over all of the stowed luggage to make sure these two people had not accidentally left behind their pipe bombs.
The Latvian woman stared at me quizzically. I explained very slowly and very loudly what was going on. She gaped at me for a long moment. ‘Ack,’ she whispered.
Eventually the three of us in row thirty-eight began to read. The other two seemed resigned, but I felt frantic, like I might develop a blinky facial tic at any moment. Time passed underwater. An hour later the plane finally took off.
We, the citizens of row thirty-eight, all ordered sodas. The Latvian woman put on a Walkman and began to listen with her eyes closed; the Christian man read his book about the Apocalypse; I read The New Yorker. Then the seat-belt sign came on, and the pilot’s voice came back over the P.A. system. ‘I’m afraid we are about to hit some heavy turbulence,’ he said. ‘Please return to your seats.’
The next minute the plane was bouncing around so hard that we had to hold on to our drinks. ‘Ack ack ack!’ said the Latvian, grabbing for her Sprite.
‘Everyone take your seat,’ the pilot barked over the P.A. system. ‘We are in for some rough going.’ My heart thumped around my chest like a tennis shoe in the dryer.
The plane rose and fell and shook, and the pilot came back on and said sternly, like and angry dad, ‘Flight attendants, sit down now!’ And the plane hit huge waves and currents on the choppy sea of the sky, and we bounced and moaned and gasped. ‘Whhhooooooaaaa!’ we said as one, as though we were on a roller-coaster ride. We’re going down, I thought. I know that a basic tenet of the Christian faith is that death is really just a major change of address, but I had to close my eyes to squinch back tears of terror and loss. Oh, my God, I thought, oh, my God: I’ll never see Sam again. This will kill me a second time. The plane bucked and shook without stopping and the Christian man read calmly, stoically, rather pleased with his composure, it seemed to my tiny, hysterical self. The Latvian closed her eyes and turned up her Walkman. I could hear it softly. And I, praying for a miracle, thought about the miracle I had seen in church.
One of our new members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes. He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does not believe in Jesus. Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his partner died of the disease. A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil. He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken. She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on. She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that his way of life – that he was an abomination. It is hard for her to break through this. I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease. But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over. He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke. Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.
So on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ which goes, ‘Every rung goes higher, higher,’ while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’ The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen – only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap – and we began to sing, ‘Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?’ And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up – lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.
I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.
Meanwhile, little by little, the plane grew steadier and the pilot announced that everything was OK. I was so excited that we were not going to crash and that I might actually get to see Sam again that I started feeling mingly, suddenly wanted the Christian man to be my new best friend. But just as I opened my mouth, the pilot came back once more to ask if there was a doctor on board.
The woman behind us, who turned out to be a nurse, got up and went back to investigate. The Christian man prayed; I tried to rubberneck, but I couldn’t see a thing. I went back to thinking about Ken and my church and how on that Sunday, Ranola and Ken, of whom she was so afraid, were trying to sing. He looked like a child who was singing simply because small children sing all the time – they haven’t made the separation between speech and music. Then both Ken and Ranola began to cry. Tears were pouring down their faces, and their noses were running like rivers, but as she held him up, she suddenly lay her black weeping face against his feverish white one, put her face right up against his and let all those spooky fluids mingle with hers.
When the nurse sitting behind us returned, she offered the news that a woman in the back was having a heart attack. A heart attack! But there were doctors on hand, and the nurse thought the woman was going to be OK.
‘Good Lord’ said the Christian man. We looked at each other and sighed, and shook our heads, and continued to look at each other.
‘God,’ I said. “I just hope the snakes don’t get out of the cargo hold next.’ The prim apocalyptic man smiled. Then he laughed out loud. The Latvian woman started laughing, although she still had her Walkman on, and while I hate to look like I’m enjoying my own jokes too much, I started laughing too. The three of us sat there in hysterics, and when we were done, the man reached over and patted the back of my hand, smiling gently. The Latvian woman leaned in close to me, into my Soviet air space, and beamed. I leaned forward so that our foreheads touched for just a second. I thought, I do not know if what happened at church was an honest-to-God little miracle, and I don’t know if there has been another one here, the smallest possible sort the size of a tiny bird, but I feel like I am sitting with my cousins on a place eight miles up, a plane that is going to make it home – and this made me so happy that I suddenly thought, This is plenty of miracle for me to rest in now. Amen and Amen.
Copyright DMC 2018