By Keri Wyatt Kent
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'”
During a prayerful reflection on the story of the Road to Emmaus last night at church, I pictured Jesus at the table. He took. He thanked. He broke. He gave.
Took. Thanked. Broke. Gave.
These words are a marker in the text, a flag that says “pay attention. You’re in the presence of the holy.” The air crackles with miraculous possibility.
We see it sprinkled through the gospel narrative, in passages like this one: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.” (Matthew 14:19)
Sitting in church as the rain drummed gentle on the roof, I closed my eyes, imagining Cleopas and his companion (some scholars think it may have been his wife), eating with Jesus. As the bread breaks (or perhaps, since Emmaus is in the Middle East, is torn like pita bread), it’s as if a veil drops and they see Jesus. Really see him. They recognize what they’d been blind to before.
As I pictured Jesus, bread in hand, I saw in my minds’ eye the meal I’d enjoyed only a few hours before, on the floor of an apartment in the city, with another group of Middle Eastern people. Pita bread, given to me by a smiling Syrian woman in a headscarf.
I’ve been visiting this family since January. They arrived as refugees one day before the first executive order that would have kept them out. I visit them weekly. I’ve written about it before, here and here.
Syrian custom is to sit on the floor for meals. Samiha, my new friend (she’s the same age as my daughter), carefully spread a sheet of plastic, about 3 by 3 feet, on the floor. She set plates of cut up tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, apricots marinated in honey, yogurt, an eggplant stuffed with chopped peppers, on the mat. She set a hot pad to protect the plastic, then a small frying pan with scrambled eggs and meat on the pad. Pulling out a bag of bread, she gave each of us—her husband, myself, two other volunteers—a large circle of flat thin pita, almost more like a tortilla. Together, we broke bread. Tearing pieces from our disc of bread, we used those to pinch a single bite from the communal serving platters and frying pan. No utensils, no individual plates. Each of us also had a cup of my favorite cinnamon infused tea.
I held her two-month old baby on my lap, to give Samiha a break. Her toddler sat between me and her Baba, who offers bits of food to her. She takes it solemnly, like a baby bird. Occasionally she will let me feed her as well, or grab a slice of cucumber for herself as she leans against me. But Baba, Daddy, is her obvious favorite.
This is not my first meal with this family. It’s always wonderful, and full of laughter as they try to teach me how to say “tomato” in Arabic, and we talk, relying heavily on the Google Translate app on our phones. We welcome one another. Sitting in a circle on the floor, the meal feels intimate, connective.
Back in church that evening, the reading continued. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” Indeed.
It’s odd, how spending time with Muslim refugees has drawn me closer to Jesus. This act of obedience (Love Your Neighbor) is also one of defiance and resistance against those who would hate or fear. It’s also been one of healing, for me. It has burned with presence, and challenged me, not just to love my neighbor, but to let them love me. When something is broken, be it bread or your heart, it sometimes helps you to see.
Early on, I tried to bring them food, right after the baby was born, and it was awkward and misunderstood. I learned, by mistake, that as much as they appreciated the baby clothes and kitchen supplies and curtain rods and assorted supplies I’d bring them, they wanted a chance to do something for me. On the floor of their apartment, dipping my bread into the common bowls, I learn to receive. I let them minister to me, and a sweet leveling occurs. I do see my visits as practicing hospitality, but when that hospitality is reciprocal, it becomes much richer.
Having my children move across the country, my dog die, and my job end began, quite abruptly, a season of loss. I didn’t write a lot about it but it was a tough go for a while.
I wondered, when my youngest left for college, what I would do. It felt like a loss, a thing to grieve. And for a while, I did grieve. Not very graciously sometimes.
But here is what I am learning about loss: it creates space. And if you let it, that space can become GodSpace. And in that space, there’s freedom.
I am free go to visit the refugees on the weekends because I am no longer going to kids’ sporting events or having the church youth group meet in my house. I know longer need to be available to my kids (or even my dog) on weekends. The brokenness, the loss has opened up space to do new things: go running, grow my business, write a book, spend time with friends, visit refugees each weekend.
What about you? Maybe you’re in a season of loss: a relationship, a job, your health. That loss is real, and it’s painful. Maybe you’ve lost some dreams you once had, and you are mourning them. I get that. Loss hurts. And yet, here’s what I’m learning: loss creates space.
This year, God nudged me to look for opportunities to spend time with refugees. I knew, as I listened to the national conversation around our election, that fear and hatred and misunderstanding were rising like a flood. I could not sit idly by. My heart burned.
The opportunity to visit this family every week opened up rather quickly and unexpectedly, and I jumped at it. And suddenly, the space that loss had created was full, of possibility, of joy, of challenge.
If you’re in a time of loss, grieve it. But then—and really, don’t wait too long—notice the space around you. Notice what you have room for, that perhaps you didn’t before. What does God want to put into the space created by your loss? What new freedom is available?
Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of GodSpace: Embracing the Inconvenient Adventure of Intimacy with God, which is available for preorder at amazon and other retailers.