Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sometimes heartburn is a good thing...

Earlier today, one of my favorite pastors gave a sermon on one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Following the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, He joined two of his disciples as they make their way from Jerusalem, the city where all the events surrounding His death took place, back to their homes in Emmaus. In Luke chapter 24, we read that as they walked, He joined them and asked what they were talking about as they journeyed. They were astonished that He didn't know all that had happened in Jerusalem, so they proceeded to tell him the story of His own death. In response, He explained to them all that the Scripture had predicted would take place, shared dinner with them, and when He broke the bread and began to give it to them, their eyes were opened. They finally recognized Him. Then He disappeared from their sight. I love the question they asked each other once He was gone: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"

I love "aha" moments. Those moments when all of a sudden it makes sense. Whatever "it" is. I remember waking up in Spain one morning during the fall of 1986 and realized I had dreamt in Spanish the night before. "Yes," I thought, "now I get it. Now I see. Spanish makes sense to me now." I had years of learning ahead of me, years of figuring out how to conjugate and use verbs properly, but at least and at last, my eyes were finally opened. I remember early on in my self-guided course through European art how excited I was when I would enter a room in a museum and correctly identify a painting by its artist and theme. Finally, all the books I'd read, all the videos I'd watched, all the conversations I'd eavesdropped on in galleries had paid off, and my eyes were opened. Just a few weeks ago, I had an "aha" moment when I realized that Maya could so easily be trained to "come, sit, stay" - all I needed was a sizeable handful of treats.

It is hopelessly naive and presumptuous of me to compare my epiphany moments to the discovery those two disciples made that fateful night at their supper table in the dusty town of Emmaus over 2000 years ago. The Risen Lord, the one they spoke of wistfully in Luke 24:21 ["We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel"], had walked with them, talked with them, and given them a personal lesson into all that He'd done in their midst.

I've had those moments of wishing, hoping "he was the one." Romantically, of course, that happened a couple of times before I met Steve. I have met men and women whose intellectual sensibilities have mirrored mine in remarkable ways. There are those who share my love of art, books, and travel. There are others with whom I can have endless conversations about politics and world events. Still others are perfect for analyzing marriage issues and parenting situations. I have made soul connections that seemed unbreakable, inviolable, only to watch the relationship "fade to black." I have had friends who have called, written, visited, or emailed with regularity suddenly disappear from my life without explanation or farewell. And each time, the pain is real and acute. Because I had hoped he or she was "the one." Like those disciples, I too am destined to have times when just as I "get it," the teacher, the message bearer disappears. I pray to be wise enough to learn when to let the messenger go but never relinquish the message.

Fortunately, there are many friends and co-travelers on this road of life who have stuck with me for years. I especially value a handful of dear ones who have come alongside me more recently and asked questions similar to the one Christ asked the two men in this story. "Gail, what are you thinking about, what are you journaling about, what are you talking about these days as you walk along your way?" Last Wednesday, the same pastor I mentioned at the beginning of this blog approached me at the end of the service and asked me if something was wrong. She could tell from the pulpit, she said, that something was bothering me. Thanks, Katie, for noticing my distress, for asking about its cause, and for starting me down the road to recovery from some deeply rooted painful stuff I've needed to deal with for a very long time.

Here's the bad news: friends are always going to let me down. I will attach myself to a new person, latch onto a new friend, and he or she will disappoint me. I will make telephone calls that go unreturned. I will send notes that go unanswered. I will issue invitations that are unanswered. I will transplant my hopes and dreams onto my children and watch them pursue something entirely different from what I have in mind. Pastors whose teaching I benefit from will leave and work at other churches. Friends whose presence in my life motivates to be a better person will move to faraway cities and even more distant nations. Family members and other loved ones will get sick and die. My heart burns not only every time one of those relationships begins, but also every time one ends.

Fortunately, there is also good news: for every dashed hope, for unmet expectation, and for all the unrequited love I have experienced, I also have countless moments of "heartburn" that I hope will last indefinitely. Making a new friend in the library, running into an acquaintance at a restaurant, listening to someone explain a painting I admired or formulate a question about homeschooling at a lecture I attended - in each of those encounters, there was a moment when I felt my heart burn within me, when I felt an unusual connection with another person. I am so glad that I didn't ignore the symptoms on any of those occasions and came away richer and more joyful because of my willingness to act upon that feeling. At those moments, heartburn was a good thing.

Henri Nouwen wrote a truly remarkable book called With Burning Hearts on this same Scripture passage. In essence Nouwen's point was this: when we allow ourselves to fall into step with Christ on the road of our lives, we are able to enter into what he calls "the Eucharistic life." We get to dine on the rich Bread of Life and drink the Water that gives us new life. We receive from His hand and His Word the food we need to feed our hungry and thirsty souls. We are all hungry; the question is, "What are we dining on?" But Nouwen goes further. He posits that we must take that spirit of sharing the table into the world. I can share what I am learning, my "aha" moments with others. I can ask them what they are feeding on and how it's working for them. I can sit down with strangers and friends alike and share food, share fellowship, share life.

An extraordinary and momentous thing happens every time I allow myself to be open, to be vulnerable, to be honest about my hunger and thirst, about my loneliness and my needs, about my fears and desires: I am transformed. My soul's pain is soothed, and its hunger is sated. My eyes and my heart are opened not only to God and what He wants to speak into my life, but also to those around me, those with whom I share this peculiar form of heartburn. The richness, grace, and beauty that comes to me through friends and loved ones is immeasurable.

Near the end of the book, Nouwen wrote the following: "Having entered into communion with Jesus and created community with those who know that he is alive, we now can go and join the many lonely travelers and help them discover that they too have the gift of love to share. We are no longer afraid of their sadness and pain, but can ask them simply: 'What are you talking about as you walk along the road?' And we will hear stories of immense loneliness, fear, rejection, abandonment, and sadness." Some of my best conversations are with other travelers who are willing to share a little of the loneliness, the fear, and the sadness, and together we live out the truth of the adage: "A sorrow shared is but half a sorrow. A joy shared is a joy made double."

I am disturbed by the ads on television for heartburn medications that are meant to ease the pain that comes from eating foods that upset our digestive systems. There is one that shows a man at an airport eating spicy sausage that his family thinks will be his demise. There is another one about the man at the restaurant buffet, loading up a second plate, but pounding on his chest hoping to beat the pain back. Here's what I always want to ask the pasty-faced, pudgy men who are eating their way into an early grave: "Why not just avoid the food that causes the heartburn, acid reflux, and chest pain? Just back away from the table, big guy. Better yet, avoid all buffets at all restaurants."

The kind of heartburn the disciples diagnosed at the end of the book of Luke, the kind that comes from being cared for by observant friends like Katie, and the kind that I'm developing after meeting three people at church who are quickly becoming good friends - this is the kind of heartburn that should never be avoided. This is the kind of chest pressure that makes me want to keep going back to the table, keep loading up my plate, and never back away. Sometimes heartburn is a good thing.

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