Chapter 5 continued: Word Made Flesh

It is April 2008, and after months of planning I am on my first day of my sabbatical pilgrimage to walk from Washington D.C.  to Pittsburgh while learning the gospel of John by heart.  It will be about a seven week walk altogether and twenty-one chapters of John.  I have just taken the first steps.

We are on our way, and for the first time on this pilgrimage, I pray the walking prayer that I had carefully composed.  Today the prayer springs to life, and I mean every word of it.  Let your surrounding Spirit protect me. Yes, please send me your protection; I have no clue what I am getting into up ahead.  Will I even be able to walk all the way?  Plant your word deep in my heart so that I may know your voice and not wander.  Will I really be able to absorb the whole book of John?  My aging brain is so jaded with unimportant matters. Is there any room to learn it by heart?  Give me strength and courage for the challenges of this day.  God, I already need courage for today’s challenges, the first being, after a late start, to get in a long ten miles before dark.

Actually, I’m wrong.  The first challenge comes within the first five minutes of walking.  Chester chooses to relieve his bowels—better known as “poop” in my dog-owner vocabulary—right on the brick sidewalk near some well groomed plants by an expensive back entrance.  I am filled with self-satisfaction, however, because I am prepared for this kind of minor difficulty.  In an easy-to-reach side pocket of the pack, I pull out a plastic newspaper bag, stick my hand in it, reach down and grab the offending pile, pull the bag inside out and neatly tie it up.  We continue walking, and I keep an eye out for a garbage can to dump the package.  Judging by all the cars and pedestrians crossing on overhead bridges, the streets above probably have numerous trash cans, but there are few amenities down here where we are brushing the sides of the city’s cellars.

The sidewalk soon narrows to a ledge about four feet wide.  On one side the flat, back walls of buildings stretch several stories above us; the other side drops off with no railing into the canal.  An occasional water bottle rocks lazily on the canal water’s murky surface.  Meanwhile, I keep Chester near me on a short leash.

That’s when the second and true challenge strikes.  Chester suddenly stops. The leash jerks taut, and I recognize his stance with the arched back, lowered rear.  His nerves, overwhelmed by the unfamiliar urban surroundings and scents, have kneaded and contracted his lower intestines until they expel a soupy mess.  I have uncharitable thoughts: I wish I could calm this dog down with Valium.  Then, as I look both ways to see if anyone is coming, I consider walking quickly away and pretending that it wasn’t  my dog that left such an unsightly puddle of excrement.

Alas, I have done too much reading, including stories about pilgrims who litter along the way and have a callous disregard for the communities through which they travel.  I don’t want to be like that!  So, while a part of me fusses for being so conscientious, I reach for a second bag and bend over to do this more difficult clean-up routine quickly and get it over with.  Must be a pilgrim’s penance. 

Things suddenly get worse.  I am startled when my hand  touches something warm and moist.  I howl with displeasure before I can crank up the courage to inspect more closely.  When I dare to look, I see that this newspaper bag is defective and has no sealed bottom to it.  My bare hand has gone right through it to grab Chester’s runny poop unprotected.  Uuuuuugh!

Why does cleaning up always take so much longer than messing up?  It does not matter whether it is cleaning up the space where we live, or the earth which we have damaged, or our souls.  Cleaning up lengthens time, and I now enter the realm of slow motion.  The first deliberate step of this challenge is not using the Lord’s name in vain, and it certainly would be in vain since the smelly damage has already been done. Step two of the challenge is to wash up my dirty hand while standing on this ledge of a sidewalk.  That means making my one clean hand all by itself accomplish the following sub-steps: 1) first and foremost, not letting go of Chester’s leash and, at the same time, 2) unbuckling and taking my pack off, 3) unscrewing the water bottle to help wash the offensive hand, 4) unzipping a back pocket in the pack, 5) and finally, locating the  antibacterial spray and the fresh wipes (here teeth can assist to open the package).

Fortunately, I have everything I need to clean up, but unfortunately I have no idea how I will do these gymnastic maneuvers one-handed!  Step by step, slowly and cautiously, in order not to spread the mess on my clothing or the pack, I proceed,but I have no recollection upon writing this how the feat was accomplished.  Chalk it up to the grace I prayed for a few steps earlier in the walking prayer.  At long last the garbage is packaged up in yet another, more substantial trash bag, and we are once more on our way. 

By grace, yes, by truly amazing grace I see a trash can at the next bridge.  An angel could not be more welcome to me—a flustered pilgrim with many miles left to go before dark.
The beloved disciple says: In the beginning was the Word ….and the Word was made flesh and lived among us.  (John 1.1,14)

This pilgrim prays:  Lord Jesus, you were made flesh, which is a nice way of saying that you were born like the rest of us.  But birth is messy.  I remember that, even in a clean hospital,  it hurt like crazy, that I snapped at my husband when he tried to hold my hand, and that my swollen body contracted vulnerably in a room full of strange people coming in and out.  The beloved disciple forgets to say how messy it is to be made flesh, to be born.

So…this walk has begun with my hand grasping the mess of one of your creatures.  Was it your idea to start me off this way, for this to be the beginning?  You, on your journey in this world, embraced the sordid struggle of all our earthiness and mire. You encased yourself in vulnerable human flesh that dared to touch our infections, to wash our manure-spattered, dusty feet, and then to die a cruelly devised death.  It was messy to be the word made flesh, wasn’t it?

So maybe you are saying this: there will be no room for your word to become enfleshed in me on this journey, no way for your gospel words to make a home in my pilgrim mind, unless I too stoop to embrace your world, not only when it is radiantly beautiful with your creative energy, but most especially when it is messy and throbbing with dirt, hurt and sin.  Only thus can your words be made flesh in me. Only thus can I make room for the gospel of John in my heart.  And only thus will I be able to live out your words with my brothers and sisters.

Yes, the word became flesh into the mess…and I have 334 and 1/2 more miles to go.

Copyright by Elaine M. Dent.  To be continued…