Chapter 6: A Few Lies and the Truth

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 am a half hour into the first day’s walk and have 9.5 miles to go.

One thing that I should say up front is that I got a head start on memorizing John before the sabbatical began.  Since people long to hear chunks of John 14 around times of dying or trouble, learning those familiar words came easily.  The amazing resurrection story is in John 20, and I told that for memory at the community Easter sunrise service the previous year.  Parts of John 1 are like beautiful poetry.  The John 3 conversation of Nicodemus and Jesus under cover of night holds powerful statements that are life changing.  John 2 is short and explosive. Throughout the last year I have learned and reviewed these chapters.

But then there is chapter 8: very long, very complicated, very repetitious, all dialogue, and not much action.  Not much fun either.  For some reason I chose to start learning this chapter a few weeks ago, more to get it out of the way, sort of an eat-your-vegetables-before-any-more-dessert attitude. I am finding out now that it is a bear of a chapter to work on. Today, the first day of the walk, I am still trying to conquer it.  The tension in its sentences reflects my own frustration with the day. (See previous posts.)  At the moment, the religious leaders are arguing with Jesus, and he, Jesus, says the devil is a liar and the father of all lies.

The afternoon grows later, and my brain tires of concentrating. Even though I should be done with chapter 8 by now,  I am still losing verses that I thought I had learned.  They keep vanishing down some memory drain, some mental black hole.   I begin to wonder if I should quit this chapter.  Maybe it is impossible.   Maybe you should resign yourself to the fact that you are not going to get the memorizing goal done, a disheartening inner thought suggests.  Perhaps you can’t do this after all.  You may very well let your congregation down and fail in this whole attempt.

My dismal thoughts start turning toward the planned check-in with Rick at canal lock six. You got a late start, another thought reminds me, as if I didn’t know.  Why don’t you just quit today’s walk early? At first I dismiss the suggestion; it would  throw the walking schedule off for the days ahead.  It is too much like giving up, and it is only the first day.  But the thought grows more persistent as my feet keep cramping and the back aching.

When I finally drag my word-frozen brain and my muscle-weary body into lock six, my husband is there waiting for me like he promises when he dropped me off at the start.  I collapse onto the grass with five miles left to go in order to complete today’s goal.  I hope for a little sympathy from my spouse.  I don’t want to be the one to say: let’s quit for the day; I have too much pride for that.  What I really wish is that my husband will say it for me.  So I tentatively mention to him how tired and sore I am getting, hoping that he will suggest going back to the campground, or, at the very least, suggest meeting me at the lock seven parking lot, only two miles further.  He doesn’t take the bait.  He seems to think a tired body is no big deal and part of goes with the adventure.

So then I try a different tack.  Knowing how much we enjoy meals in our household, I manipulatively mention that I suppose we will have to have a really late supper if I go on to complete today’s scheduled walk.  But he has a stock of nuts, sunflower seeds, and iced tea in the truck, so my whining about delayed eating goes right by him.  He seems much more sure I can easily make the next five miles than I am.  If I am going to quit, I will just have to come out and say so myself.   I can’t say it.  Silence.  See you at Carderock, he says, and the die is cast.  The truck pulls away….

And that is a good thing. The inner negative voices speaking about my getting too tired, that this is too hard, and that I won’t ever get the memorizing done watch their persuasive power disappear along with the truck.  I head back to the towpath again.  You can be miserable for the next five miles, I tell myself,  or you can accept this as another of many challenges to come and turn back to chapter 8.

To the uncooperative religious leaders, Jesus says: You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  (John 8.44)

Don’t we all struggle with the many lying voices that discourage us from what is good?  That tell us there’s no way we can do what God has called us to do?  That say following God’s way is too hard?  That give us rationalizations for giving up?  Or worse, that suggest that God has given up on us?  I’m not sure I would blame all of it on the devil, but as I walk and listen to Jesus’ words again, I begin to recognize the inner lies that have been hounding me for the last few miles.  How hard it is sometimes to discern Christ’s words to us from the daily lies that bombard and confuse us.  How easy it is to let negative thinking supercede active trust in God.  If I have thought it would be easier to follow God’s way and hear Christ’s voice out here on the trail, I have been sadly mistaken.

There are two little verses tucked right into the middle of this chapter, buried like treasure in a jumble of confusing dialogue.  I read them again.  Actually, by now I know them by heart: Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8.31-32)

The lowering sun allows the spring air to cool and the shadows to lengthen. I pass lock seven, only pausing long enough for a drink of water and to eat a few almonds.  So what is the truth?   A picture of my friend comes into my mind, and I think of all the pain she has had with infections and three knee surgeries in six  months.  I remember her courageous steps as she agonizingly has fought back to walk.  If she can do all that, surely I can make it today to Carderock.  Then I recall the verses from Daniel, chapter six, that I had read during holy week only a few weeks ago.  They had seemed so significant to me in light of the coming pilgrimage that I had copied them into my journal last week: Do not fear, greatly beloved…Be strong and courageous.

So what is truth?  That my friend who is praying for me would give anything to be out walking with me…that is truth.  That God through scripture has personally challenged me to be strong and courageous…that is truth.  That my husband has confidence that I can complete the task today and is waiting for me at the end of mile ten…that is truth.

Hearing these three truths sets me free for the last few miles.  I put away the gospel of John book and exchange it for my trail hymn book.  Into this soft album with plastic pages I have tucked the words of hymns that carry themes found in John’s gospel.  I open to the first page and read, “Come, my way, my truth, my life,” a famous text by George Herbert.  Well, while I am walking down this way, I certainly need more truthful voices in my life, so I start singing the hymn.  The words come alive, lifting some of the tiredness and erasing the last vestiges of the earlier lies.  How much easier it is to learn a text when it has rhyme wedded to music.  In a few minutes I know the hymn by heart and turn the page to sing another.

The last miles go by quickly.  Just before I reach Carderock, I turn around to see where I’ve been.  In the slanting sunlight, the sandy towpath is a glowing amber crescent, bordering the curve of the canal.   The water lies very still, perfectly mirroring the rising arch of trees whose warmed branches stretch high, hints of pale leaves emerging on their tips. On the other side of the canal towpath, a slope slides down to the frothy river which is intent upon its own conversation as it rushes over stones and around boulders.  And above us all, a silken, exquisitely blue blanket of sky deepens and descends  in anticipation of the evening.  I breath the river-scented air.  The truth, oh yes, the freeing truth is that at this moment there is no other place I would rather be.

    George Herbert (1593-1632) prays:
        Come, my way, my truth, my life:
        such a way as gives us breath,
        such a truth as ends all strife,
        such a life as conquers death.

This pilgrim prays:  The truth of your stunning creation, brimming with life and color, evokes a humble awe.  Yet  we humans fall susceptible to lies that creep into us: lies of fear, of anxiety, of being less than who you are calling us to be, of doubting you will give us strength when our own fails. Please let your truth on this walk speak more loudly than the lies that swarm around like stray gnats.  Let me hear your voice more distinctly than the whispers of defeat, distrust and fear.  Set me free, not just to walk the miles ahead, but more than anything else, to know you.

To be continued…while three years later I still need to hear God’ s voice more clearly than the whispering defeat, distrust and fear.  It is good to remember.

Copyright by Elaine M. Dent