On the Road to Emmaus: The Spiritual Practice of Keeping the Feast

May 13, 2021

Great Sand Dunes
Photo by John Wehmiller

It is early Easter morning of my growing up years.  It is a habit of my temperament, which needs feeding with considerable solitude, to lie awake in the purple and amber light of the early morning, letting the healing of my dreams come as far past the dawn as my stillness will allow.

But now the clanging of pans from the kitchen begins to penetrate my morning reverie, signaling that my father is up and making Sunday pancakes.  There is no known recipe for these fantastic concoctions, and I hear cupboard doors being opened and shut as my father gets ideas about what he wants to throw in to this Sunday’s batch.  He cooks the way someone else would conduct an orchestra –  waving in the flour with his left hand, crashing open the eggs on the side of the bowl with his right, bringing in the oil as he pours with the spout first close to the bowl then high above it. Something for leavening gets tossed in in undetermined amounts.  Then time to cue in the spice shelf.  Now it’s anybody’s guess.  The conductor might be in the mood for nutmeg ground freshly from the whole bean.  Maybe a little sugar for browner cakes.  Now for the surprises – always surprises: slices of banana, pecans, and peaches in season.  He whips the mix to an allegro tempo, and when it is orchestrated to his satisfaction, he raps the wooden spoon on the side of the bowl as the conductor would rap the baton on the stand.  This signals readiness.  I know the next rap will be on my door.  It will be an invitation to rise and eat, to partake of the delicious day.  “Christ Is Risen!” he booms out in his trumpeter’s voice, already fully jubilant so early in the morning.  “He is risen indeed,” I manage from beneath the coziness of my covers.  It is Easter morning – time to Keep the Feast.

The invitation to eat, my place at the family table – down at the end next to my father, my back to the window, Grandfather and Grandmother across, my brother and sister on the same side and my mother at the far end – was where I began picturing my place in the world.    It was a feast on any day, with its regular rhythms of setting the table, gathering around in our same places, holding hands as we sang in full harmony a hymn of thanks, and then breaking the bread.  The legend in the community was that the Lawrences were always at table and that there was always “plenty-good room ” to sit down and break bread with us.

At the table, we waged our complaints about life.  We wore grooves in the family arguments, laughed at the family jokes, and told and retold the family story.   My grandparents lived with us, and the stories they sometimes told of life in the deeply segregated south were so tough and so filled with rage, that my parents sometimes changed the subject or took us young ones temporarily out of hearing’s way.  Though these stories filled me with confusion and pain, it was in these moments that I first taught myself to pray.

When helpings had gone around many times (“Who’s counting?” my mother always said.) when the talking and eating had slowed to a full pace, my father, leaning back in his chair to admire the signs of appreciation for his irresistible cooking inventions, said, “Let’s see now, what would you like to eat for supper.”  It was a sign that this meal was over but never ending, only to be continued with an invitation to the next feast!

The gathering, the singing, the story telling, even the raising up of painful memories, but especially the breaking of bread began at our family table and continued in the many gatherings, in all of their variety, around the Lord’s Table of the churches of our lives.  The invitation to the family table and the invitation to The Table on Sundays at church are inseparable for me.  They are one invitation to Keep the Feast.  And so I was raised to believe it would always be so.  The life and strength and love would always be there in the breaking of the bread.

 “Can God set a table in the wilderness?  God rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven. So they ate the bread of angels.”[1]

It was at the family table that our parents first began to discuss plans for us to travel south as a family, to visit family and friends where Mom and Dad had grown up. My sister and brother and I, in the back of our brand new 1954 Ford Country Sedan station wagon, have the ridges on the floor carefully divided by three.  When fermenting road boredom occasionally erupts over sibling toes trespassing fiercely guarded territories, our father pulls the car to the side of the road and cuts the engine off, and we sit in silence until it is understood that the trip is not going to go on until we stop fussing.  This is one of our traveling rituals.

Another of our rituals is stopping to eat our meals in restaurants.  We sit down in the restaurant in the same pattern as we sit at home and when the meal commences, we teach a new table the family stories.  But we haven’t gotten very far south when something different happens.  Here, our Dad, as always, pulls up to a restaurant, but this time he goes in alone.  He comes out with a look on his face that frightens me. He gets back in the car, starts the motor, and we quietly drive on. Our parents explain to us that this is a part of our country where brown-skinned people are not welcome to sit at table.

Now the picture I have of the table would forever include one in which all the people of one color, one economic status, one class, one religion, one section of town are seated for an elegant meal; and all the people of different colors and languages and backgrounds are standing invisibly aside silently waiting table.  After they are done serving others, these people will eat dinner in the kitchen or just wait till they get back home.

I felt then a kind of hunger that comes to me still when I am in a place where it doesn’t feel safe to be myself where I have to un-remember who I am in order to survive. And though it is a painful feeling, it is the seed of a food for fueling what would become my life’s vocation – a vocation of breaking the Jim Crow rules about who gets to come to the table.   It is a song that I will rehearse every day of my working life as a priest, a song whose lyrics are written in the words of poet and priest, Pauli Murray:

When I consider how this frozen fieldwill hold within its harrowed breast

A seed which shall in time

Yield bread for hungering mouths,

I am at peace –

Earth has her need of rain,

And I of tears.”

Now, as we are driving further on down the road, my brother and sister and I are huddled more closely – no real or imaginary borders between us.  Just then through the din of the newly started up motor and the sound of the tires on the road, I hear my father’s voice calling me out of my wariness and fear, out of my loss of direction and loss of hope.  He is speaking quietly but firmly the refrain from the family stories at the table: “We know who we are and whose we are, and we are blessed.”  Or is it Jesus saying, “Come and eat?”

Now I would forever and always hear the call to the Feast and know that God’s summons is both invitation and command… an invitation that commands us to acknowledge both our hunger for God and God’s everlasting readiness to feed us.  It is an invitation that calls us out of our brokenness into wholeness, out of whatever may be our segregated journeys into oneness in the Body of Christ.

“Afterwards, Jesus revealed himself to his students by the Delaware River, and this is how he revealed himself:”[2]

It is April 3, 1986, the first day of my new job as principal of a school in Wilmington, Delaware.  A few days earlier, in what would turn out to be our last telephone conversation, my dad, who has always been up on the details of my work life, counsels me about moving to Delaware, a state steeped in the ravages of segregation.  He reminds me of the sorrow that erupted as violence in Wilmington the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and how Delaware’s governor kept the National Guard there for nine and a half months – longer than any American city has been occupied by the military since the Civil War. But Dad is always the teacher, and so he gives me lots of room to learn this lesson my own way. My husband and I are aware of the racist, parochial, classist history here in this part of the country.  John has commuted over two hours a day for fifteen years to his work in Delaware in order for us to raise our children in Pennsylvania where our community celebrates their biracial being and where we, as adults, feel more connected personally and professionally to the changing world.

But Dad knows something about the resistant strain of the soil that we are yet to learn. Knowing how trusting his younger daughter has always been, knowing how persistent and tenacious (“stubborn,” he calls me and says proudly that I was born that way), Dad tells me to be careful.

It is April 3rd late at night.  We are asleep in bed when the telephone rings.  John answers then hands the phone to me.  It is my mother calling to tell us that, having given his huge spirit to living, Dad’s body has given way to death.

“We will go fishing,”[3] the disciples tell one another looking for a way to proceed in life without their teacher.  “I will go fishing,” I say, trying like Peter and the others to find my way back through the aftermath of grief and loss to the feelings of former times.  I am trusting, just as my Dad knew I was.  I trust that the soundest of religious and philosophical underpinnings of the school will support the charge I have been given as the first Black administrator in the 243-year history of the school to “make the school more diverse.”  I trust that, in that same context, I will be protected from the deep-seated racism practiced in the community beyond the school’s pretty, green, manicured campus.  It would be two years before I would learn that the suburban development in which the school resides had had, until recently, a strict all-white, all-Christian code in its civic association by-laws.

And so I spend the next three years ignoring the sometimes subtle but always persistent signs of racism that refuse to honor the boundaries of the school’s doors.  Daily I stand on the sidewalk outside of the school, opening car doors, welcoming each of nearly 400 children and teachers by name, only to have some of the mothers, several weeks into the year, tell me without the slightest embarrassment that they are surprised that I am the principal and not the “help.”  “Teach, Paula, you are called to teach,” and in so doing I prevail.

“I will go fishing,” I say each time a new offence flies in my face. But now and again my body feels the ache of bending over, picking out of the empty nets traces of malice and wickedness – the occasional racist joke, the assumption made about a member of the community because of the color of their skin, the way they speak, what neighborhood they come from – fragments of misunderstanding, splinters of being misunderstood – pieces of ignorance leftover from the story one person tells about another in the absence of knowing their real story.

But the very stubbornness that is my gift keeps me fueled as I do what I can to make the school a place where children and their families are welcomed at the table, where they do not have to un-remember who they are inside.  And so season by season, moment by sometimes treacherous moment we tell our stories, bringing them forward into the present tense where we live them together on the bus rides, in our talks together, as we settle arguments on the school yard, as we celebrate our lives together and break bread together at the school table.

But all the while, those subtle but persistent fragments of racism picked from our nets and carelessly tossed back into the sea of daily life are infesting the very waters that would give us life.  One day that stuff is bound to surface, and no one will ever know where that much hurt came from.

Then in my third Spring, there is a traumatic racist incident at the school.  On Mother’s Day Monday morning, the phone rings in my office.  It is the high school principal reporting that the kick board on the high school playing field has been painted with words and image of hatred.  “Save the land, join the klan,” “Down with the Jews,” and, worst of all, a bloody image of a Black student, recognizable by his car, with the inscription, “Kill the tar baby.”  It would soon be known that this was the work of four senior boys who had been students at the school since they were four years old.

In the horrendous days and weeks that follow, I notice for the first time, signs that, as the only person of color in the administration, I am not getting the support I need nor the acknowledgment of my pain that is a minimum requirement for stemming the tide of indignities flooding in from the community.  And so the huge, blinding pain acknowledges itself.

At home, my husband and I watch our two high school age sons come and go mostly silenced by their own woundedness.  John and I hold each other in our late night exile wondering how we can possibly remain.  I can no longer hear my father’s voice nor the family story’s encouraging refrain, “You know who you are, and you are blessed.”

“Children, have you caught something to eat?  Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find something.”  So they did, and they couldn’t even drag the net anymore, what with the great mass of fish.”[4]

Having nowhere else to go with my grief, I find myself at church saying plainly to the priest, “This Jesus who they say walks with me, does he stay out of this town because he knows better?”   I am thinking about the tall, skinny, severe Sunday school teacher at St. Martin’s in Harlem who flew around the table smacking us kids up-side the head if we forgot to bow on “Jesus loves me this I know.”   This is your Jesus? This is the kingdom of the Jesus that’s supposed to be with us in all this hurt?

The priest and I sit still in the seething, grieving silence.  After a while, he simply tells me the story of the Road to Emmaus.  “Now on that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still looking sad. Then one of them answered, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  When they told him all that had happened, he said to them, “Oh how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near Emmaus, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”[5]

I am not sure why the priest is telling me this story, but remembering what I had learned to do as a little girl in times of confusion and pain, I begin to pray.

In the moments before daybreak a few days later I have a dream: Our younger son, Abram, is driving the car, and I am in the front seat.  His track bike is fastened to the roof rack.  We are driving north into Pennsylvania on Route 100 early in the morning.  There is a velodrome up there (a bowl-shaped bike track like the one they use in the Olympics) and Abe rides on it a couple of times a week.  We are headed up there for an 8:00 a.m. training session.  We are driving by a cornfield when I see my father standing by the side of the road.  He looks healthy and slender and young as he did when I was a little girl.  This is not an extraordinary sight.  He is not out of place or time.  I say, “Abe, there’s Grandpa.  Pull over, let’s see what’s up.”  So Abe pulls the car over, and I turn down the window.  Grandpa leans in and says, “I just want to know what you want to eat for supper tonight.” 

I wake up and lie in bed long enough for the dream to dawn upon me.  And when it does, I turn to my husband, John who is sound asleep. “Where is Emmaus, Pennsylvania?” I ask him. He answers me simply as he always does whether asleep or awake, “It’s up on Route 100 north of the velodrome.”

The blinding loss of sadness and death is over.  “Come and eat,” says the risen Lord.



[1] Psalm 78:19,24,25

[2] paraphrase of John 21:1

[3] paraphrase of John 21:3

[4] John 21:5

[5] Luke 24:13-27

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