“And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free…” John 8:32
I have to say that, like many, I have a rather checkered relationship with ‘the truth.’ And while I’m going back close to fifty years to make my point, it would, no doubt, be less than truthful for me to say this is no longer the case.
I was six years old and entering the first grade with all the eagerness one would wish upon a little one first venturing out into the world. I could not have imagined or anticipated the ‘trauma’ that awaited me then. Yes, that is a strong word, but that was exactly how I experienced it.
It was in my first days sitting at that child-sized desk that I came to know that the world was far different from what I had come to take for granted. For you see, while our teacher was a tiny woman, she surely didn’t seem to be so. She ruled that classroom with an iron fist. Or at least a ruler. Her desk drawer was overflowing with marbles and balls and other toys she had confiscated from wayward children over the years. There was seldom a corner without a child in it. Indeed, the sixth grade teachers would threaten those who crossed the line in their classrooms that if they did not behave, they would send them down to Miss Lamb. (Yes, that was her name.) Sometimes they followed through and on those days there would also be big, hulking twelve-year-olds crouched under a wooden table in front of us — this being their punishment for misbehavior.
These many decades later I can call up some measure of pity for this poor woman who was so clearly unhappy. But then? I was just afraid. I can remember cowering in my seat when she would come flying by with a wooden ruler. I can remember wincing to hear it land on another child’s hand or forearm. But even with all that ‘fair warning,’ if you will, still the six year old in me was not entirely immediately quashed. For as it happened, one day early in the year I inexplicably failed to remember that from 9-3 on school days my universe was ruled more harshly than I had ever known before. I forgot and turned and spoke to a friend across the aisle. As you might expect, I was caught and ordered to stand in the corner almost before I realized my lapse. And these 47 years later I still remember the institutional green paint on that wall. And the feeling of the gap between the cinder blocks where I traced my finger then, willing myself not to cry. Indeed, my memory of the entire incident and what would follow is an experience I keep pressing against and through which I continue to seek meaning and understanding.
This is where this memory intersects with ‘truth.’ Or not. For you see, I vowed I would never tell. For reasons I cannot understand, my ‘guilt’ almost immediately seeped over into a sense of shame. I was convinced that there was something ‘wrong with me’ that this had happened to me. (Yes, yes, I know my threshold for hard things was amazingly low. I can only describe my world as profoundly sheltered before this.) And while it may have been fine to keep this to myself, my sense of shame was so profound that I did not want to go back to school. And so the next day and the day after that and for several weeks more I faked being sick. I was not, of course. My mother and dad knew this. It became a battle of wills — one that I know must have been breaking their hearts. They finally took me to our family doctor. They did x-rays and discovered the beginnings of a stomach ulcer. Before long, I was sent to a therapist in a place and time when this was almost unheard of. Week after week she would ask if I had gone to school. And time after time I would tell her I had. Even when I hadn’t. (I did not seem to be capable of reasoning that the ‘truth’ was sitting out in the waiting room in my mother.) Funny, but that is all I really remember about those sessions.
So there you have it. Even at the age of six, I had become a slave to sin. I did not believe I could safely speak of what had happened and then, in my fear, felt I had to cover it up for I was deeply afraid of the ‘truth’ I thought it spoke about me. One lie led to another and to another and people were hurt. In this case most especially me.
Now eventually I did go back to school, of course. I learned to read and write, to add and subtract and eventually was passed on to the second grade which was a much more gentle experience. And I did not speak of my first grade trauma for a decade or more — until time and space helped me to see that my offense was really quite minor and that my teacher’s reaction to that and to so many things was not rational in the least. More than that, though (— and this I am still learning —) I was beginning to understand that our value as human beings is not measured by what we do or do not do. Whether we succeed or fail. Whether we sin or don’t sin. Oh, I’ll never forget the laughter at the supper table that night as this old story was pieced together and we shook our heads at that by-then-far-away six year old who thought she had it all figured out. And who hadn’t yet realized that only love and acceptance was waiting for her. If only she could acknowledge that she needed it.
Jesus speaks to us today of truth. And of slavery to sin. And of his being our freedom as he both models and grants this unfathomable acceptance. And we know in our gut, don’t you think, as well as in our experience that truth sets us free? But first it has to be spoken, received, and embraced. Or so it seems to me. First we have to acknowledge our utter slavery to that which binds us up. And our need to be set free. And that we have nowhere to turn but to the only one who can bring this marvelous gift of freedom to us.
This is the wonder of Jesus’ words for us today and every day. It’s not up to me or you. You and I are to simply stand still in the unparalleled gift that as broken and hurting and yes, hurtful, too, as we are — Jesus came to set us free. We can’t do it. All we can do — all we have to do — is know our need and be grateful in the gift. All we have to do is cast aside the biggest lie of all: that we can do it all ourselves and that our value rests in that. It does not. And sometimes coming to that larger truth begins in simply speaking what truths we know here and now as best we can. Even or especially about ourselves. I wonder how my first grade year would have been different if only I had done this. I wonder what tomorrow will look like if I only do this then.
- I offer a long ago but not forgotten example of being enslaved to sin — of being bound up in my own inability to speak the truth. Surely we all have a thousand examples of this. What comes to mind for you?
- Jesus says today that our freedom can only come from outside ourselves: that we have to be ‘set free’ by him. How do you see this coming to be? How have you experienced this?
- Truth can be hard to come by. In life it often seems ‘relative.’ Still, I think our freedom comes home to us when we simply do our best to speak it and to acknowledge our need to be set free, in response to the giver of freedom, Jesus, who simply yearns to unbind us and set us free. What do you think?