I must be getting old, I thought, as I slowed down my brisk pace to enjoy the shade of an enormous mango tree, I can’t remember being this tired the last time I did this trip.
It was the second day of slogging through sand, splashing across creeks, and plodding up and down rocky slopes on my way from the Canela village into the nearest town. I used to be able to walk sixty kilometres in two days without feeling this wiped out.
I heard a dog bark nearby and thought, Probably from a small bush farm. Hmm, I wonder . . . I followed a well-worn path that led from the mango tree to some palm thatch farm buildings. Two teenage boys were drinking cafe com leite and invited me to have a mug. I happily sat down to enjoy a drink and a chat. After conversion for a while I asked, “Do you have a horse or mule I could borrow or rent from you for one day? I’m on my way into Barra do Corda and the last 15 kilometres are always the longest.”
“Sorry, we don’t. But we are also going into Barra, and we’re catching a ride with our uncle the last ten kilometres. He’s loading up a truckload of sand just five kilometres down the road, and will be leaving for town in an hour or so. Wait a bit here while we eat and get our stuff, and we’ll walk together.”
“Thanks” I said, “but I’ll start walking now. You’re half my age, and I might slow you down if we walk together. I’ll see you down the road.”
As I tramped along, I thanked God for cutting a good two hours of walking off this 60 kilometre trip. My brief rest, and the coffee had done me good and I lengthened my stride. After a while I came to a 30 metre stretch of road with a long mud puddle along one side and damp ground along the other. Hmm, I thought, here’s a chance to impress those boys with my walking ability.
With that I switched into a leaping mode, lengthening my stride from 70 cm to well over a metre long. Reaching the dry area I turned around to look at my footprints. Oh yeah! Impressive! I said to myself, panting to get my breath back after my strenuous leaps, and walked on at a more sedate pace.
When I reached the truck, I rested in the shade as a half dozen teenage boys shoveled sand onto the dump truck. My two friends from up the road arrived just about the time it was full and we all climbed on. As the truck rumbled along they introduced me to the others. “I thought we’d catch up to him,” one of them said, “but even though we walked our fastest we couldn’t catch up. Then we came to a damp part in the road and saw why. You wouldn’t believe the huge strides he takes – twice as long as ours. No wonder he got here before us!”
Yes! I was looking good! As I smiled modestly at the admiring group, a small voice in my head said, Now would be a good time to tell them about your trick. I ignored it. I was enjoying their praise. Hey, it’s not often that I get praise for my physical prowess. I’ll take it any time, even when it’s not deserved. Besides, who cares? It’s just a little thing.
That night, however, my conscience replayed the incident, this time accompanied by Jesus’ words from Luke 16:10 “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities” (LB).
Oh boy! I had been seriously dishonest in a little thing. It was past. I couldn’t undo it. I would never be able to track down all those boys who had given me admiring looks and explain it was all a trick. I had made reputation more important than character. I should have focused on improving my character: who I really am, and let God deal with my reputation: what people think of me.
This lesson has stayed with me for life. Decades later, for instance, when I was a missions leader and public speaker, I remember being addressed or introduced frequently as Dr. Popjes. Oh, that sounds good in the ears of a high-school dropout! But Luke 16:10 is keeping me from being tempted to let that slide!
It would be great for my reputation, but bad for my character; make me look good at the time but feel bad later.
By the way, if you have Google Earth on your computer, you can see the Canela village and some of the path I walked on 40 years ago. Search for Barra do Corda, Maranhao, Brazil, and scroll south about 60 kilometres to the Canela village site. Or go to these coordinates: W 45 degrees, 08’ 51.36” and S 6 degrees, 04’ 49.44”. You need to be at an eye level of 8-10 kilometres to see the village clearly. (I used to encourage myself by the fact that the walk from the Canela village to Barra do Corda is about the same distance as what Jesus walked from Jericho to Galilee.)