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"Swamps of Sadness"

Losing a good friend or relative due to their passing is cause for great sadness. The two men who were disciples of Christ walking on the road to Emmaus were “looking sad.” They had lost their best friend, Jesus. The hopes and dreams seemed to be crushed. They did three things that helped: They took action, they shared their grief and they invited Jesus to stay with them.

Abraham Lincoln looked out a White House window to see 11-year-old Willie Lincoln riding his pony. After a while, Willie dismounted, stroked the animal, then led it to the nearby stable. The president smiled. Willie was such a fine boy.

Often at night, the president would sit under a kerosene lamp talking and fantasizing with the boy. Willie liked to imagine a train running from New York to Chicago. He was the imaginary conductor calling off every main railroad station along the way. Lincoln apparently enjoyed the fantasy. The bond grew strong between father and son.

One cold, rainy February day in 1862, Willie went riding despite the weather. Soon afterward, he fell sick with a heavy cold and a rising fever.

There was a White House ball scheduled. But as the guests arrived, all Abraham Lincoln could focus on was his sick son upstairs. Often, he would slip away to visit the boy. He would lean over, stroke his hair, and whisper words of comfort and love.

In a few days, Willie was gone. As a maid later wrote about the boy: “The light faded from his eyes, and the death-dew gathered on his brow.”1

Lincoln and his wife were so devastated that they left the room of death and never went into it again. Grief overwhelmed them.

Shortly thereafter, one night the president heard shouts. He put on his robe and slippers to find out what was happening. The stable was on fire. Lincoln rushed out to try to save the horses. Men restrained him. It was too dangerous. The horses died, including Willie’s pony. Lincoln stood weeping.

Sorrow comes with many faces and with various intensities. We may feel sad when a wonderful friend or neighbor moves away. We can handle that. Sorrow may work on us when we lose a beloved animal or even a prized possession. We can overcome that. Sorrow can deal a harsh blow to those who find the love of their life and then find the relationship disintegrating. With God’s help, such a loss can be overcome.

Consider, however, the sorrow we feel when death takes a dear relative or a precious friend. Our spirits are wounded deeply. Our bodies are jarred. Our brains search for meaning. We may feel as though a cosmic sledgehammer has smashed us unmercifully. Numbness comes. Many feel hopeless and helpless. Great sorrow is one of the most intense challenges we will ever have.

In our Scripture reading today, Luke tells us about two friends of Jesus who were compelled to deal with just such great sorrow. We only know the name of one of the men. He was called Cleopas. Neither Cleopas nor the other man had been chosen by Jesus to be among the Twelve. Cleopas and his companion were disciples of Christ, not apostles. (The word disciple means “learner.”) They were part of the larger group who followed Jesus.

Luke reports that late in the day on that first Easter Sunday, Cleopas and his friend were on a seven-mile journey to the village of Emmaus. As they walked along, they were discussing the events that had taken place during the last week.

Seemingly, from out of nowhere, another man appeared and walked along with them. They did not seem overly surprised at first. But “they stood still, looking sad.” When the new companion asked what they were talking about, they acted as though it was unbelievable question. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” Cleopas asked.

The newcomer, who was Jesus in his “glorified” body, acted totally unaware of any of the events that had taken place. “What things?” he asked.

“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word ... and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” They meant they had hoped he would lead a movement to overthrow the rule of Rome over Israel. Obviously, it didn’t happen.

Now here they were getting out of town, trying to sort things out, disappointed and grieving that Jesus had been slain and all of their hopes were dashed.

Had they not heard about the Resurrection? Apparently, they had heard what some women followers of Christ had said. The women had visited the grave and reported that Jesus’ body was missing. The men also knew that the women had seen a vision of angels who announced that Jesus was alive. And they knew that when Peter went to the tomb, he also found it empty and went home amazed.2

As far as Cleopas and his friend were concerned, they did not know what to make of it all. They were still in great sorrow because their leader and friend had been slain and their dreams for him and themselves were dead.

Certainly, those two men would have understood some words a California woman, Phyllis Davies, wrote as she tried to deal with the death of her 13-year-old son killed in a plane crash. Mrs. Davies wrote: “Grief blinds me. It follows me, stalks me, haunts me, taunts me. I can no more run from grief than from sunlight, moonlight, starlight.”3

How did Cleopas and his friend try to deal with their great sorrow?

First, notice, they acted. They did something. They did not sit around wallowing in their sorrow, weeping and wailing. We do not find them, writhing on a bed in agony and anger that such a loss had come to them.

It was not uncommon for persons in grief at that time to hire mourners to make great noises of pain and agony over someone’s death. Some even tore their clothes and threw dust and ashes upon themselves.

Cleopas and his friend did not mourn in any such manner. After spending Friday night and Saturday talking over the horrible events that had happened, on Sunday they decided to take a walk.

They decided a change of venue was in order. Distance can sometimes give us a better perspective on a matter, a fresh viewpoint. The point is they got up and moved out from the place of sorrow.

One is reminded of king David who, when seeing his little boy hovering near death, fasted, prayed and laid on the ground all night repenting of his sins, asking God for mercy. The child died anyway. What did David do? He got up, washed, changed his clothes and went to the house of the Lord to worship. Then he asked for something to eat. When his servants wondered why he was doing such strange things instead of continuing to mourn, David replied that before the child died, he had fasted and wept and prayed. “But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”4 David made a move toward the future. David acted.

So, too, the Cleopas and friend took a walk, got their bodies moving, got their hearts beating faster, their muscles stretching, the oxygen flowing into their lungs. They began to work the poison of great sorrow out of their system.

Now, secondly, as they walked, they talked. We need not dwell long on the therapy of reaching into our minds and hearts to lay hold of our hurts and openly airing them to friendly ears.

A certain young man lost the young woman he wished to marry. He was stunned to the depths of his soul. He did not know what to do. He began to open up to his closest friends the searing pain he was feeling. He soon discovered that sharing the cause of his agony helped him greatly. It began to get the poison out.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were going over the facts of the past week again and again. They vented their puzzlement and hurt. And when Jesus approached them in an unrecognizable form, they started telling him of their painful feelings. It surely helped to share their hurts with him.

Now thirdly, the two men were enjoying talking with the risen Lord so much that even though they did not recognize him right then, they invited him to stay where they were staying. They gave an invitation to Jesus to remain with them.

We do not need to expound on that, do we? The wisest course of action we can take is to invite God in Christ to be our Companion. The greater the sorrow the more we need to know that “underneath are the everlasting arms.” Cleopas and friend invited Jesus to stay with them.

What was the result of the invitation? Well, as they began to share the evening meal together, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then they recognized him and understood that he had been present with them during the trip.

If you would know great comfort in times of great sorrow, keep the invitation open to Christ.

1 See Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 1, 457.

2 See Luke 24:12.

3 from Grief: Climb Toward Understanding, 92.

4 2 Samuel 12:14-23.


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