Texas oilman Dick Bass was, by his own admission, larger-than-life.[i] A combination of Teddy Roosevelt and Yogi Bera, Bass adventured around the world while spinning both poetry and aphorisms. His dad, Harry Bass, developed portable oil drilling rigs and became one of the largest natural gas producers in the United States, providing Dick Bass the means to live his exaggerated life. With a wink, Dick said of his dad, “I chose my father very carefully. He gave me the perfect launching pad.”
When Dick Bass became bored with the flats of Texas, he almost single-handedly developed Vail, Colorado as a ski town, owning the Snowbird ski resort until a year before his death in 2015. It was that affection for the Rockies that led to the thing for which Dick Bass is best remembered: He was the first man to scale the Seven Summits: the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents, including Antarctica. In fact, it was Bass who gave the name to that accomplishment.
Dick Bass never stopped. He never even slowed down. And, the only thing that outpaced his movements was his mouth. By his own proud admission, Dick Bass loved to talk about Dick Bass. He was his own biggest fan and greatest advocate. And so it was, in a story Bass loved to tell, that one day on a cross-country flight he settled into his first-class seat and struck up a conversation with the person seated next to him. For hours, nonstop, Bass regaled his seatmate with his exploits, explaining the nuances of risk-taking and adventure, filling the hours and the airspace with his wisdom.
As the plane landed and passengers stood up, Dick Bass realized that he’d not learned anything at all about the man sitting next to him. About to lose his chance at an introduction, Bass offered, “Sorry friend, I didn’t catch your name.” “That’s o.k.,” his seatmate said with a slight smile, offering his hand, “I’m Neil Armstrong.”
Dick Bass and Neil Armstrong
Can you imagine? Moving and talking so incessantly about everything you’ve done and known that you miss the chance—right in front of you—to listen to the first person to set foot on the moon!
We are accomplished, interesting people. Our lives are often fast-paced and maybe even adventuresome, and we have a lot to share that is worthwhile. At other times, perhaps like the days in which we are presently living, we have, instead, much worry and anxiety to fill our time and keep us relentlessly pacing the floor. But in either circumstance, what do we miss when we do all the talking, when we fill all the space, when we fail to pause, recognize, and listen to the stranger who may give us a word that opens our eyes and changes our world?
In Luke’s Gospel today, it is Easter afternoon. Two followers of Jesus are leaving Jerusalem, where they have just been caught up in a frenetic, whiplash series of events. It began a week before when the itinerant preacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey. Crowds spontaneously gathered along the road, singing songs and laying palms at the preacher’s feet. It ended five days later, when that same preacher was killed on a cross just outside the city walls. Or so they at first thought. Then, this very morning, word has crept through the poorer sections of the city—the sections where the preacher’s followers live—that he isn’t dead after all. Numerous people have seen him, spoken to him, interacted with him. The dead coming back to life? Is that good or bad news? These two don’t know what to make of it, so they do what a lot of people would do: They check out. It’s too much to deal with, so they leave town quickly.
The two disciples are walking the road to Emmaus as fast as they can, and I suspect their chatter is as quick as their steps. Back and forth in a closed loop they fill the space to confirm one another’s experience and feed one’s another’s anxieties. A stranger approaches and falls in with them, but they ignore him, content in their preoccupation with themselves. We aren’t told what causes the pause, whether like Dick Bass these two disciples suddenly realize their rudeness, or else the stranger ultimately elbows his way into their talk, but eventually the stranger speaks. And it is his introduction into their conversation that breaks the cycle, reframes the pattern, makes room for a new understanding of themselves and what is happening in the world around them.
The story ends with the two disciples inviting the stranger into much more than their conversation. They invite him into their home, into the very heart of their lives, where they are most vulnerable and most themselves. And only then do they recognize him. Forget the first person who set foot on the moon; this whole time they’ve been walking and talking with the one who defeated death and opened for us the way to new life!
I’ve always wondered how close the two disciples came to passing Jesus by, to ignoring his greeting altogether. I wonder how often we do the same.
These days, we are unable to do many of the things we are accustomed to doing. We are unable to go many of the places we used to go. Our movements are restricted, and that means we can either race in an ever-tighter circle, both physically and emotionally, or we can pause and listen to one who wants to walk with us.
The former option is the closed loop in which the two disciples set out on their way to Emmaus, doing all the talking and filling all the space with themselves. If we make that choice—and it is a choice—we learn nothing. We gain no new insight. At best, we simply keep telling ourselves our same old stories, pretending that the world hasn’t shifted irrevocably beneath our feet. At worst, we increase our anxiety and raise our blood pressure, making the circle in which we move more and more frantic.
The latter option is what happens when the disciples pause to hear Jesus. Because they stop their own voices, because they recede to make room for Jesus, Jesus reinterprets the world for them and their role in it. He quells their anxiety; he transforms their despair into hope; he reveals to them that, through him, God has defeated death and the powers of death, so that they can have confidence in the face of anything. In wonder, the two disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us on the road?”
Even in the midst of the major challenges and minor inconveniences of the coronavirus, this time of physical distancing provide us with that particular grace, if we’ll take it. It grants us the chance to pause, to let go of our need to fill the space around us, to silence our own voices—including the voices in our heads—and allow the Jesus who may have been, even for us, mostly a stranger to draw near to us and speak. When that happens, we might find that the lens through which we frame this crisis, our world, and our place in it changes. Our priorities might alter. Our understanding of who is important and what is valuable might shift. We might discover that our hearts are set afire as Jesus speaks, that we awaken to his Good News of God’s overwhelming love, that we invite him into our vulnerability, and that our confidence and hope resurrect into new life.
Texas oilman Dick Bass traveled and talked to the top of the world, but he was stopped in his tracks when he encountered one who had reached the heavens. The disciples on the Emmaus road have seen highs and lows and are anxious and confused, but they are stopped in their tracks when they meet the Lord of heaven and earth. We are experiencing a topsy-turvy world in which up seems down and down seems up, but who knows who we might encounter; who knows what he might say; who knows how our hearts might be transformed, if we pause and listen.