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The Road Towards Healing


By Rev. Sandy Nenadal

Watching the news as March neared its end, I was struck by the amount of grief and loss people in our nation are experiencing. Over 550,000 people have died from COVID-19. The economic impact of the virus has disrupted many.

Stories of rising anti-Asian violence, mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, and more remind us that people suffer from many different kinds of loss. Personally, I felt the loss as the second anniversary of my husband’s death to cancer neared. Like many other people, I found myself searching for resources that would offer healing for this time of grief and sadness.

While visiting Joplin, I explored Mercy Park, the site of the former St. John’s Hospital that was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011. It is a beautiful park with walking trails, a pond, and many statuary pieces throughout the park. Walking through the park reminded me of the loss and disruption the tornado created. In 2011, I turned to ideas shared in a lecture by Dr. Serene Jones at Saint Paul School of Theology in September 2001 to help myself and others cope with the tragedy. She pointed us towards the Emmaus Road to better understand times of tragedy and loss. The lessons I learned on the Emmaus Road with Jesus sustained me after the Joplin tornado, so I turned to them again. The story is in Luke 24:13-35.

On Easter morning, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking towards Emmaus, talking about all that had happened to Jesus.

Living in these trying times, we can relate to their feelings. We all face challenges in life that cause trauma and loss, like the death of a child or spouse, an injury from an accident, divorce, or the impact of a global pandemic. How can we survive facing such tragedies?

First, Dr. Jones said we must define trauma and recognize the patterns it can send us into as we try to cope. Dr. Jones described trauma as “an event in which a person or persons perceive themselves or another as threatened with annihilation causing them to feel hopeless as if they cannot resist the threat which overwhelms their capacity to cope.” That is what Jesus’ disciples experienced as they saw Jesus betrayed, tried, and crucified. They believed Jesus was a prophet who would redeem Israel. After his death, they had no idea how to go on.

In the aftermath of a trauma, Dr. Jones said people could fall into certain patterns. They can struggle with a compulsive desire to repeat the violence. Some may decide to withdraw. Others may go on living in a state of hyperarousal, expecting another disaster to come. After the Joplin tornado, I found the last truth every time a storm siren sounded. Dr. Jones said that victims of trauma must find a way to reorder their disordered lives by putting a new frame around them. That was true for the residents of Joplin after the tornado. It was also true for Jesus’ disciples. Jesus knew they needed to talk through their experiences so they could make sense of his crucifixion. As we face the impact of the pandemic, events in the news, or our struggles, we need someone to help us process our experiences.

Second, the disciples did not have to walk alone. Neither do we. Jesus is coming to us. Jesus came to his followers. He appeared a stranger and asked what was troubling them. He listened as they shared how their hopes had been destroyed. No matter the trauma we are trying to heal from, it is good news to know that Jesus wants to hear our feelings and questions. He will listen and help us.

Third, Jesus offered them a new perspective. Dr. Jones said after a trauma, we need to reframe all we have experienced. Jesus did not allow the disciples to become stuck in their grief.

Instead, after listening, Jesus began to point his disciples in a new direction. Beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted the scriptures about his mission, reframing their story in the light of God’s promises. He inserted their images of the crucifixion into the story of God’s plan for salvation. With this, Jesus provided them a way to move forward. Walking with them, he was living proof that God can bring new life from something as terrifying as a crucifixion.

As their journey ended, Jesus and the disciples gathered for a meal. As Jesus blessed and broke the bread, they realized Jesus was in their midst. The ending of the story reminds us that we need each other. Living through a time of challenge or crisis, it is tempting to just withdraw from life. The disciples left Jerusalem feeling hopeless. Yet through Jesus’ actions, he invited them into a new world.

Just like those disciples, we need to walk, pray and work together. After the Joplin tornado, many work teams participated in the cleanup and rebuilding process. The work was immense, yet each team took time to be present with the families. They listened to families share stories of their experiences caused by the tornado. The volunteers made Jesus’ love tangible through their listening as well as their service.

We are living through challenging times. Who could have imagined we would have lost so many people from the COVID-19 virus? Could we have ever expected schools and businesses to close, family moments like weddings and funerals to have been canceled? Most of us have missed holiday time with families, church celebrations like Easter and Christmas, and more. The question is not what will help us heal, but who. This spring, I invite you to join the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There you too may discover Jesus is walking with you, offering the resources you need to heal during these trying times.