Chapter 11: The pawpaw lady

This is the continuation from my journal of April 25, 2008, while walking from D.C. to Pittsburgh and learning the gospel of John by heart.  I am walking the canal trail along the Potomac river.

I pause walking, captivated for a moment by a band of white lacework bordering the opposite side of the Potomac.  It is the skeletal bark of sycamore branches gleaming in the morning sun, and so I reach for my camera.

While I am concentrating on framing the scene,  a woman with a large surly dog approaches and stands respectfully about twenty feet away.  I can sense my dog Chester’s nerves zinging as her own dog barks and whines to be allowed to rush and inspect us.  Without introduction or greeting she hold him tightly on a leash and simply states, “Those are pawpaw flowers on that tree.”

She must think I am focusing the camera, not at the sycamore trees across the river, but on the small twiggy plant directly in front of me that could only be called a puny tree or a leggy bush.  It looks like it has a few shriveled, dry leaves clinging from the winter on it.  The woman seems not to notice the frantic tugging of her dog, but continues calmly to explain, “Each flower has a tiny fruit in it  that grows into something  like a banana.  I’ve seen the ripe pawpaws in the fall when they can be eaten.”

I’m familiar with the name “pawpaw.”  It is a famous tunnel sixty miles ahead on the canal trail near the town of Paw Paw, West Virginia.  I also grew up knowing the child’s song about “pickin’ up pawpaws, put em in your pocket,” although I never knew what pawpaws were or why anyone would want to collect them.

“Aren’t these blossoms  beautiful?” she marvels.  “This is the first time I have actually seen them.”

I look closer at what I had thought were shriveled leaves and see that they are actually little flowers.  I would never have noticed them if she had not pointed them out. The pawpaw lady then begins to walk on by us while her dog strains to jump at Chester, who is dutifully mirroring the bristly behavior.

Excuse my dog,” she says.  “He’s just a pound puppy I found.”  Then the pawpaw lady and her over-eager “puppy” disappear down the trail.  But because of her witness to an unusual flower, a delight she just couldn’t help sharing, I am left to admire something new.  I pull a slender branch down to eye level.  How often am I so focused on looking at something in the distance, that I miss the importance of what is in front of my nose?   Here each deep maroon blossom, about the size of an acorn, has six petals curved protectingly around a tiny green bead, the future pawpaw.  She’s right; it is a marvel.  As I start walking again, I keep my eyes focused on branches closer to the path and, sure enough, I discover frequent pawpaw trees.  

The pawpaw lady reminds me of John the baptizer in John’s gospel.  He was not a witness to pawpaws on the trail, but he was witness to the light of the world,  Jesus.  His problem was that people looking for the messiah had their eyes fixed on distant Jerusalem; they expected the kind of messiah that would kick the occupying Romans out and serve as a victorious political king.  They were framing a different picture while John the baptizer looked closer at hand as he baptized people and counted on God to show him the messiah.  The baptizer looked a long time before he found him, and upon that discovery John told everyone who would listen.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world….And as he saw Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the lamb of God.”  His disciples heard him say this and followed Jesus. (John 1.6-9,36)

Am I a witness who can point out the nearness of Jesus to people as readily as the pawpaw lady pointed out the pawpaws to me?  Do I miss pointing out God’s grace to people who don’t even know how to ask?  She didn’t wait for me to ask anything; she just told me, in spite of the canine uproar.  I’m grateful, because I have gained not only a better knowledge of the forest around this river, but a deeper understanding of what it means to point out the messiah who is so very near that we often don’t notice.