Long Walks, Trauma, and Jesus

First preached for an online worship service at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, April 26th. You can worship with us Sundays at 10:10 am central time at St. Luke’s Facebook page.

Relevant lectionary readings here


Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

It’s been another week of feeling like we are on the strangest timeline. The days blur together. Shopping for groceries feels eerie and intense. People are protesting for what they believe to be their right to go get a haircut. I don’t recognize my neighbors in the street because we are all wearing masks. Oil prices are so low that producers are paying people to take their oil. A friend left me a message this week that said, “When I imagined the apocalypse I didn’t think it would be like this.” 

It’s disorienting. I’ve been struggling to establish new routines or figure out what my new normal is going to be, wondering how long this will last, what will be left of the world that I knew when it’s over. 

And so one thing I have been doing is going on walks.  I used to go to the gym a lot to manage stress but now that the gyms are closed, I have been taking long walks, sometimes for a couple hours at a time. There is something soothing about going on these long walks.  I walk a little quicker so my heart starts beating a little bit, but it’s not pounding in my chest. It’s just making me more aware of its presence. And my breath is a little quicker but I am still able to call someone to talk or if my daughters or my spouse come with me, I can easily chat with them.  I feel the sunshine on my skin.  My world, which feels like it has gotten so small lately, is opened back up as I remember what things outside my apartment looks like.

Trauma specialists know that there are particular activities that help us to process difficult memories. Activities which connect the mind and body, especially activities with bilateral movement like walking, are particularly healing. They engage our brain and our bodies in such a way that we are able to visit these difficult feelings and engage with them without being overcome by them. It’s this neuro-science principle that is the foundation of a trauma therapy known as EMDR, where a client revisits traumatic memories under the care of a certified therapist while rapidly moving their eyes from side to side, or alternating tapping on each leg, or some other bilateral movement method.

There’s a long history of using walks to process trauma and pain. In many ways, that’s what marches are. When something is not right, when something awful happens, people are compelled to get out of their homes and to move.  These marches are sometimes to nowhere in particular, or sometimes to a place with particular meaning or significance. But it is the journeying, the moving that is most important.

In Ferguson, when Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for 4 hours, this trauma, compounded by years of trauma at the hands of the police there, caused thousands of first time activists to pour out their front doors and gather in the streets. And to walk. And to wheel, for those who joined us in wheelchairs. And to walk. These marches felt to us like they had multiple purposes. We were marching for change. We were marching to send a message. We were marching to be together during something so terrible. And. We were marching because we couldn’t just sit still when something so wrong was happening. We needed to move our bodies, we wanted to symbolically walk towards a new society, one we would build together on freedom. We often referenced a quote by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, partner with MLK in the Civil Rights Movement who said that the historic walk from Selma to Montgomery made him feel like his “legs were praying.”

There are a lot of long walks throughout the Gospel of Luke.  There is the journey to Bethlehem which brings about Jesus’ birth. Roads and travel feature prominently in Jesus’ Lukan parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and walks towards the cross. These roads, these long walks, seem to make physical an unseen internal journey. These roads, these walks are the places we are when we have left a place, but we have not arrived at the new place quite yet.

Jesus meets two of his followers on their long walk to Emmaus. This walk is longer than my 10,000 step count. It was about 6 or 7 miles from Jerusalem. We read this story a couple weeks into Easter, but the author of Luke tells us that this story of the journey to Emmaus actually happened on the very same day that the women saw an empty tomb and visions of dazzling messengers asking, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?!” and the women ran to tell the others, who didn’t believe them. So this story of walking to Emmaus, happened on Resurrection Sunday. Our reading begins “now on that same day, two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.”

We don’t know why, explicitly, they were traveling to Emmaus. But we might be able to guess. I imagine that if I had just seen a close friend or family member brutally executed for leading a movement that I was a part of, I would be afraid that I might be next, and I would want to get out of there. Especially if some mouthy women kept making a whole scene with their idle tales of an empty tomb, making it hard for me to lay low and fly under the radar. I wonder if these followers of Jesus in this story weren’t so much going TO Emmaus as they were getting OUT of Jerusalem, fleeing from the home base of the religious aristocracy who had just conspired with the state and murdered their friend.

These two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and another unnamed follower, spend that long walk talking about everything that they had seen over the past few days. The trials. The crucifixion. The burial. They’ve left Jerusalem, and they’ve left their hope behind too.  They are grieving the heartbreaking loss of what they had believed would happen, “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” They have left that place, left the world they thought they knew, but they are not at their next place yet. They are in between. They are on the way.

We are in a similar place, now.  We have left the world as it was before COVID, the world as we understood it. With each passing day it becomes more and more clear that we will not be going back to that world, at least not totally. We are different. Things will be different. But we do not quite know what the next thing will be, we don’t know what this new world will look like. Even if we are glad to leave some of the old things behind, there is plenty to grieve.  And fear of the unknown is destabilizing, and scary, and leaves us all with a lot to process.  Even things we thought we knew, things we thought would always be there, are somehow now in flux, with things changing every day.

I was reading a post from one of my pastor friends who said that she has been driving so little lately that when she got in her car today she panicked because she thought she forgot how to drive. Someone else marveled at the way that a recent car ride at 35 mph just felt so oddly FAST compared to before. And as I referenced earlier, there are people who have been my classmates and neighbors for years, that I don’t recognize in the streets, in part because we are all wearing masks, but also because it just feels so JARRING to see anyone I know who doesn’t live with me.

Trauma makes the familiar feel strange.

And that is what we are all experiencing; a global, communal, trauma.

Jesus’ followers experienced this, too. Scripture tells us that even though Jesus met Cleopas and the other disciple on their long walk to Emmaus, that their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Jesus, this person that they walked and talked with and ate with, the person who taught them and healed them. This person who had been at the center of their lives for years. They couldn’t recognize him. The trauma of his execution, the death of their hopes along with the death of their beloved teacher and friend, caused everything to feel so upside down that even as they talked about him, they couldn’t see him walking right there beside them.

But Jesus was there with them. Jesus walked that long walk to Emmaus with them, helped them connect the dots of what was going on, ignited a fire within their hearts. Even when we don’t see Jesus, even when we don’t recognize him, even if we can’t feel him because we are numb or bewildered by the state of the world and our minds are muddled with confusion, Jesus is there. As we journey away from what we thought we knew into the next thing that we don’t know yet, Jesus is with us.

And this story tells us a little bit about the best way to get our eyes opened and to recognize Jesus there with us again.  When these followers live into Jesus’ own teaching – when they invite him to come stay the night somewhere safe, when they take a risk and show him kindness and hospitality, when they serve and care for this stranger and feed him and provide for his needs – they recognize that the person they were caring for was Jesus all along.

We are in an unsure, uncertain time. Many of the things we put our hope in may no longer be a reality. But Jesus is with us, our hope beyond hope. Jesus is with us in our questions and our lament. And Jesus is with us, most clearly, in the face of our neighbors in need. When we stay inside and keep our distance to protect the vulnerable among us, Jesus is there. When we donate to mutual aid funds to feed people who have lost their jobs or to community bond funds to free someone unjustly incarcerated pretrial, Jesus is there. When we speak truth to power and ask questions that hold our government and corporations accountable for the systems that helped create this suffering, Jesus is there. When we reach out to check in on someone undergoing hardship, when we spread cheerfulness or send tokens of solidarity to each other, Jesus is there too.

Jesus’ presence? It transforms us. It gives us courage. That same hour that Jesus appears to the disciples in Emmaus, these same disciples who were fleeing the city earlier run full-speed back to Jerusalem.

As we look forward to the new world that is coming, it is this deep hope, born in our experiences of the Risen Christ, that gives us the courage to charge into the unknown and to build the kingdom of God together from the rubble. 

One reply on “Long Walks, Trauma, and Jesus”

[…] One of my preacher friends reminded me this week that “there’s a long history of using walks to process trauma and pain. In many ways,” she writes, “that’s what [protest] marches are. When something is not right, when something awful happens, people are compelled to get out of their homes and to move. These marches are sometimes to nowhere in particular, or sometimes to a place with particular meaning or significance. But it is the journeying, the moving that is most important.”[1] […]


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