Hopelessness on the Road to Emmaus


By John Rivenbark.

John Rivenbark was a priest candidate who served for many years as a pastor, teacher, and Christian Formation director. He passed into the arms of Jesus on the eve of Ascension in 2018 after a long battle with cancer. John’s teaching and preaching had a profound affect on me, and on many others. His teachings were faithful, relevant and thoughtful and always presented in a surprising and memorable manner.


“But we had hoped…”

Those four little words contain a great deal of humanity. We had hoped so many things would turn out differently.

We had hoped this relationship or that marriage would be miraculous and special, worthy of movies and song. Most of the time it does not seem to be. We had hoped that this would work out better, but so far it has not.

We had hoped our spouse would finally change, and love us the way we want to be loved. They have not, and they will not.

We had hoped that we could have children, but we could not. Or we did have children and we hoped they would turn out differently, not suffering the same way we did. But they have suffered, and are suffering.

We had hoped that we would have a job by now, but we still do not. We had hoped to retire by now, but we have not. We had hoped the market would turn around sooner or the house would sell faster, but it has not.

We had hoped the pathology report would be favorable. It was not. We hoped the cancer would not return, but it did.

We had hoped so many things

We hoped that when we came to our church it was the perfect church. But it is not. Our Rector hoped to find the perfect parish. He has not.

We find ourselves walking down our dusty road to Emmaus, and we hope our wanderings are finally over. We wanted to find our final home, but we are still on this journey.

The Ambiguity and Humanity of Hope

There is something about hope that is quintessentially human; and yet even the way we talk about hope is ambiguous. We speak in terms of hope and hopelessness.

But when we say that we are hopeful, we do not really mean to imply quantity. We are not a container brimming over with hope. No, we say we are hopeful even if a slight residue of hope sloshes around in the bottom of our cup. When we are hopeless, we don’t mean we are a little hopeful. We mean there is not even a slight residue of hope in the dusty dregs of our cup.

In Jeremiah 2, God tells the children of Israel that he has two complaints against them. They have forsaken him, the spring of living water, and dug for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. The qualitative difference between a well and a cistern is the spring that provides a source for the well. A cistern has to be refilled, but a well is always replenished.

The whole point of a cistern is to store water for a drought. It takes tremendous energy and effort to keep them going. We do this in the vain hope that when dry times come we can go to the cisterns and there find something to satisfy our thirsty souls.

But we find only empty, parched containers that are broken and leaking, mirror images of our souls.

We place our hope in things that cannot bear the weight of them and when those things, or those people, inevitably fail us we may think that hope itself got us into trouble. And yet it was the object of our hope that failed us.

The story we find ourselves in

We had hoped the story of our life would have a different ending. But we find ourselves walking down a dry, dusty road to Emmaus wondering where we are going and why. This is certainly not where we thought we would be by now, nor the direction we would have chosen. To quote the lyrics of an old son, “Our dreams have turned to ashes, and our castles have all crumbled.”

We wanted the tale of our life to be an epic adventure full of romance and drama and instead we seem stuck in what can only be described as dark comedic farce with tragic undertones. We had dreamt of romance, of making a difference, of living longer, or of changing the world.

But that’s because we get the story wrong!

First, we believe that we are the author of the story. We think the ending depends on us and our efforts. But we’ve got a terminal case of writer’s block.

Second, we are confused about the main character of the story. Shouldn’t we be the main character? We think the story begins and ends with us.

If only we knew how the story ends! Have you ever flipped to the last chapter of a story to find out the ending and then gone back to read the whole story?

Deeper magic

Our Anglican friend and brother, C. S. Lewis knew that we struggle with hope. And he knew something about living between hopeful expectations and realization of that hope.

In the climactic scene from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy and Susan witness the drama at the stone table and the apparent triumph of the White Witch.

They think the queen has won and the story has tragically ended. They spend a cold, dark, hopeless night in the shadow of that table. But with morning sun the stone table cracks in two and Aslan stands before them, alive. He says, “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a deeper magic still which she did not know.”

Morning dawns not because we hoped it would, but we hope because morning dawns. The Resurrection in not true because we hope it is, but we hope because the Resurrection is true.

We know how the story ends, and that it will have a new beginning. We know that one day Christ will come again and will gather us to himself. We will be like him for we will see him as he is.

In our human experience we will continue here, for a while, down the dusty Emmaus road. We won’t always be sure how we got here, or where we are going. We will get tired, slow of heart, less than hopeful, and sometimes even hopeless.

But the story is not over. This is not the end. We still have hope.

The risen Lord walks with us, even though we have trouble recognizing him. But when we see him, our hearts burn within us and we recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

So always remember and rehearse the story of our redemption, because it is the source of our hope. We walk this road together, encouraging each other in faith and good works, and to hope. We remind one another of our how story ends, and that we will begin again. We point each other to the resurrected Christ, and we proclaim the Gospel again and again.

In the mean time, we wait and we hope.

Published on

May 9, 2019


The Anglican Pastor

A classic resource from the founding team of Anglican Compass.

View more from The Anglican Pastor


Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments