The Road to Someplace Beautiful
Chapel Address by Eric Kouns
Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia
November 10, 2015
[Note: If you’d like to hear this address as it was delivered at EMS, click here.]
Whenever a man of mediocre intellect is invited to address an audience in an academic setting—a pseudo-scholar who wants to foster the pretense of erudition—he will often begin his talk by referencing an obscure quote by a nineteenth-century existentialist philosopher.
I think it was Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist, who once observed that…
We live our lives looking forward, but we understand our lives only by looking back.
I would call that either profoundly self-evident or self-evidently profound. But it’s true, in any event.
I have a good deal more of my life to look back upon than I did when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary thirty-five years ago. And I say to you, in all candor, that almost none of it has turned out as I expected it would when I sat where you students sit today.
In a 2005 documentary film about his life, called No Direction Home, Bob Dylan—this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature—was asked whether or not he had achieved his life’s ambitions. He answered: “I didn’t really have any ambition at all. I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home, you know?” At least I think that’s what he said. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with Dylan. 🙂
I hope that I have not yet reached the “sunset years” of my life, but it is certainly the late afternoon. And from where I stand today, I think Dylan’s assessment of his life works for me as well, after forty years of ministry. I’ve now concluded that I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home, you know?
I grew up in a household that was proudly conservative—theologically, socially, and politically. Conservatives don’t like change. It threatens their sense of security and equanimity. They often interpret even innocent and well-meaning questions about their beliefs as challenges to both their intelligence and their integrity and an assault on orthodoxy.
I know this is true because for many years I felt that way myself, and I made it clear that views inconsistent with my conservative assumptions were more than just misguided or in error. They were, at least potentially, evil.
I was still very much a conservative, evangelical Christian when I enrolled at EMS in the fall of 1981 as a transfer student from the grad school at Wheaton College—that citadel (bastion) of conservative, American evangelicalism. A few years earlier, while still an undergrad at Houghton College, I had begun a journey toward pacifism. By the time I arrived here, I was fully committed to biblical nonresistance as a mark of consistent Christian discipleship.
Still, I knew very little about Mennonites or Anabaptism beyond what I had read in church history courses. As a first-year seminary student, then, I could not imagine that I would eventually devote more than twenty-five years of my life to ministry among Mennonites.
I’m not very keen on the term evangelical anymore, although I still consider myself an orthodox Christian. But my views of orthodoxy have changed over the past ten to twelve years, and in retrospect I can identify three sets of circumstances that helped to bring about the major change in my way of thinking and perceiving reality.
The first of these was the opportunity I had to teach a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity in the spring of 2005. I taught the course as a stand-in for the regular teacher, who was on sabbatical that year. It was, as they say, a transformative experience—chiefly because I was confronted as never before with the no-nonsense ethic of the kingdom that Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, at age fifty-eight, I lost my job. For several years, Shirley and I had felt drawn to the liturgical tradition, specifically Anglicanism, for public worship. In 2006, we began attending an Episcopal church and, as a consequence of that decision, my teaching contract was not renewed after the 2008 school year.
Samuel Johnson once wrote, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” I know that unemployment is not in the same league with execution as a force for concentrating the mind, but I found that, free from the constraints of the institutional “statement of faith,” to which I had been obliged to declare annual subscription, I was able to think about theological and spiritual verities in a new way.
I also thought about the words of Upton Sinclair who wrote that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That became a non-issue for me.
Finally, in the same year that I lost my job, our daughter became a single mother, my mother died, and my wife developed breast cancer. I mention these things, not to elicit your sympathy. In those experiences, my lot was not substantively different or more severe than the exigencies of life that befall us all as human beings.
I mention them as a way of noting something I learned about my theological tradition through them. Simply put, a theological community and a spiritual identity based mainly on common assent to a set of shared beliefs about doctrine is pretty thin gruel when what you need—both metaphorically and materially—is a hug. When I needed the body of Christ to rally around me in the midst of my troubles—a church community I had served for more than thirty years—it wasn’t there.
As a consequence of that difficult year, my faith was profoundly shaken and I was forced to re-examine and re-evaluate everything I believed about the nature and providence of God.
That’s why I identify so strongly with the characters in the narrative from Luke 24:13-35. We are told almost nothing about them. They are identified only as “two of them,” and it seems likely that “them” refers to a larger group of people who had some kind of connection with Jesus prior to his crucifixion. Beyond that, we have to depend on inference to flesh out a back-story for these two travelers.
Only one of them is given a name by the narrator. Cleopas is a man’s name. Could it be the same as Clopas, mentioned in John 19 as the husband of Mary, one of the women standing near the cross as Jesus was crucified? If so, could the unnamed traveler accompanying Cleopas on the road to Emmaus actually be his wife? That’s what I like to think, and that’s what I’m going to assume for our purposes here today.
As the story unfolds, the two are walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, some seven miles to the west. It is the afternoon of the first day of the week following the Passover Sabbath. For the friends and followers of Jesus, it had been a really bad week.
I can imagine Cleopas and Mary, exactly one week earlier, as part of the cheering throng, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” as they welcomed Jesus, riding into Jerusalem astride a donkey’s colt. “Surely, it is true,” they must have thought, “that this man really is the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for who will ‘redeem Israel’ and restore our nation to a place of prominence among the world powers.”
And then Friday. Bloody Friday. What happened? How did a week that started out on such a glorious note come to such a disastrous end? Their “Messiah” nailed to a Roman cross like some common criminal? It was unthinkable! And yet it had happened. Mary stood there near the cross, close by Jesus’ mother, and saw the very life drain out of him, heard him surrender his spirit to God, watched him die.
Not knowing if the authorities might want to exact some kind of revenge on the followers of Jesus, Cleopas and Mary most likely kept out of sight until things quieted down. By Sunday, it seemed safe for them to venture out, and they had had enough of the city anyway. They just wanted to get home.
They are exhausted, disheartened, and even a little angry. Sorrow and despair weigh them down like bags of wet sand on their backs. Their confidence in Jesus had been absolute, their devotion to his cause unquestioned. They had left it all on the field.
And now, cynical and disillusioned, the last thing they want is company. And yet, a stranger joins himself to them and, to make matters infinitely worse, he wants to chat. He peppers them with questions like a curious school boy and then chides them for their inadequate responses like an impatient parent.
The more he talks, however, the more their mood improves. They exchange knowing glances that seem to say to each other, “This guy is using our own scriptures to tell us things about Jesus that we never thought about before.”
By the time they arrived at their home, their ideas about who Jesus really was had undergone a radical transformation. Their sad, slow hearts had been re-ignited by hope and a renewed sense of purpose and mission.
Maybe what the women reported to the apostles really was true. Maybe Jesus had been supernaturally raised from the dead. But in some ways, the precise nature of his resurrection didn’t really matter. They had experienced a revolution in their thinking more powerful than any creedal affirmation, even one that codified a supernatural occurrence as historical fact.
I had a similar experience. At a moment when my circumstances made me particularly vulnerable to cynicism and disillusionment, I started reading the gospels without the distortion of the ideological blinders and filters I had been looking through all of my life. Then, like Cleopas and Mary, (and with apologies to Marcus Borg) I met Jesus again, for the first time.
At that moment I began to reconsider what it means for the church, the body of Christ, to reflect the spirit of Jesus in its interface with the prevailing culture. I concluded that…
- If anything that is done or said—by any individual or group that claims to represent Jesus—condemns, belittles, embarrasses, humiliates, or otherwise undermines a sense of self-worth in another human being, it is not the spirit of Jesus;
- if it does not contribute to emotional health and wholeness, it is not the spirit of Jesus;
- if it feeds my prejudices or fosters contempt for an entire group or class of people, it is not the spirit of Jesus.
- Whenever one Christian or one group of Christians is not welcome or does not feel welcome among another group of Christians, it is not the spirit of Jesus.
- And when we hate or hurt or kill in the name of Jesus, it is not the spirit of Jesus at work in us.
I think Cleopas and Mary would have been transformed people—renewed in the spirit of their minds as Paul writes in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4—even if the stranger, whose words had given them new hope, had left them at their doorstep. But he didn’t. At their invitation he joins them for the evening meal, at which, it appears, he assumed the role of the host.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
Just a few days before, on the evening of what we now call Maundy Thursday, Jesus had eaten the Passover meal with his closest friends. I wonder if Cleopas and Mary were somewhere on the periphery of that group of twelve, watching from the shadows as Jesus, on that occasion as well, took bread, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his disciples. “This is my body,” he told them. “Whenever you eat (bread like this), remember me.”
Whether or not they had heard those words from the lips of Jesus the first time he spoke them, they couldn’t miss the impact of his bread-breaking as he shared their supper after the long walk from Jerusalem. And I think we should not miss the sacramental implications of that simple act of breaking and sharing bread.
In her book called An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that…
With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, [Jesus] did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself… “Do this,” he said. Not “Believe this,” but “DO this, in remembrance of me.”
And N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham in the Church of England has written…
When [Jesus] wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal.”
For far too many years I believed it was my bounden duty to carry the banner for evangelical orthodoxy and point out the doctrinal error—and thus the insidious danger—of those whose perception of truth differed from mine and from that of the narrow stream of “faithful believers” I represented. Eventually, however (and God be praised) I came to understand what Rachel Held Evans has written so eloquently in her book, Searching for Sunday.
(T)he gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us, and (let’s) talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
A friend once described my perception of Christian discipleship as eclectic, and he wasn’t paying me a compliment. He believed that I had drunk from too many different wells, had dabbled in too many different traditions, and the result was a sort of “Rube Goldberg” contraption that made Christian life far more complicated than it needed to be.
Well, maybe. But my sometimes-circuitous pilgrimage has left me with the deep-seated conviction that no individual tradition or communion or denomination holds all truth. When I first began to put that conviction into practice, more than thirty years ago, I never imagined the pain I would ultimately inflict upon myself and my family or the sense of homelessness that would too often be our lot, as a result.
This much I know, however: My soul is at peace.
I haven’t said those words very many times in my life, because for most of my life, they simply were not true. But they are today, and I’ve experienced a growing awareness of that deep, inner peace for the past two or three years.
When I say peace, I don’t mean I’ve lost all awareness of the tumult in the world around me. It doesn’t mean that I have ceased to care. Peace is not apathy. In many ways, I care more about the things that really matter than I ever have. But I’m not overwhelmed by them. And I am more hopeful than I have been for years.
It was not that long ago that I imagined myself under a burden of discouragement and gloom from which I thought I would never be free. Then, in the midst of my despair, I sensed I should write the story of my life and faith pilgrimage as an autobiographical novel, using Arthur Lough as my alter ego.
It took a year, from initial concept to publication. The book, originally titled The Long Road from Highland Springs, has now been slightly revised and will soon be released under a new title, The Road to Someplace Beautiful. Writing it changed my life. Funny that. Writing the story of my life changed my life.
From the day I held the first copy of the book in my hands, I have not been able to feel sorry for myself again. The book is a testimony to the faithfulness of God. There is no way I can encourage people to read my story and, at the same time, to wallow in self-pity.
My doubts are not all resolved, but that doesn’t scare me. I am absolutely certain of far less than I used to be, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve become aware of the irony, the inconsistency, of demanding certainty as a foundation for faith. And my faith—at one time so meticulously and systematically constructed on a framework of theological complexity—has been essentially reduced to a simple two-fold concept: Love God; love others.
“Come to me,” Jesus said. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I hear you, Lord, for what may be the first time in my life. And, while that is not the totality of the gospel of the Kingdom, it is really, really good news. News worth sharing. And that is what I have tried to do here today.
My pilgrimage has seen more than its share of twists and turns. And it’s not over yet. As Bob Dylan said, I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home, you know?”
But I’m not home yet, and neither, I suspect, are some of you, who find yourselves on a path much like mine. It is to you, especially, that I direct my closing comments—two short bits of Tolkien wisdom from The Lord of the Rings.
The first, sung by Bilbo Baggins as he sets off for Rivendell…
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
And finally, this important reminder… something I tell myself every day.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
May God give peace to your soul. Amen.