Tag Archives: witness

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.

The Parable of the Assistant Manager in the Grocery Store


grocerystoreparable.jpgThere was once a woman wearing a hijab who was doing her weekly grocery shopping at her usual grocery store near her home. As she headed down the detergent aisle, a couple of middle-age white men made angry comments about her religion and ended with an obscenity to describe the woman and others of her religion. The woman went to the customer service counter and said, “I’m not done shopping,” she told him, “but I don’t feel safe here.”  The assistant manager told her he would protect her. For the next half-hour, he walked alongside her pretending to check inventory as she did the rest of her shopping. When asked about his actions, he said, “I was just doing my job.”  (Read the whole story by New York Times religion writer, Samuel G. Freedman.)

A few reflections:

1. In these times, we are told to be vigilant for things that are out of the ordinary. If you see someone suspicious, call the authorities. When we’re cautioned so often to look for the suspicious, does every stranger begin to look suspicious?

2. Maybe we should be more vigilant for someone who needs a helping hand or a gesture of kindness. Maybe we should be more vigilant for instances of hatred and discrimination and when we see them, call them out. We could use more expressions of our common humanity.

3.  I don’t know what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and be harassed. Worse, I never even have to think about it. I don’t have to worry about the management following me around on the assumption that I’m a criminal. I don’t have to worry about hate speech directed towards me because of my religion. I don’t have to wonder what kind of ogling I might be subject to. I never give a thought to my safety when grocery shopping. The very structures of our society are programmed to make me feel safe. Mostly I don’t even see it. That’s privilege.

4. I love the assistant manager’s words when asked why he did it. “I was just doing my job.” He didn’t ask permission or look for adulation. He was just being neighborly. Showing basic kindness and compassion. And he didn’t, apparently, think about it. Jesus once asked his disciples why they were looking for reward for following him. They were, he said, just doing what they were supposed to.  “I was just doing my job.”

In my Christian belief system, God has called me into the circle of God’s love and transformed me. God has made me part of a community that is to be good news for the world. Being good news for the world is not so much about having the right answers, but about being God’s loving presence. To be God’s loving presence is not that complicated. It may be hard, it may take patience, it requires persistence, it is undoubtedly counter cultural. But at it’s heart, it’s not that complicated. Exercise kindness; be neighborly; assume a shared common humanity in the midst of the differences.

That assistant manager? His name is Mark Egan. If God is at work bringing the peaceable kingdom — and I believe God is — Mr. Egan has given us a glimpse of what that might look like.