Snake in the Grass

Fair warning for my mother, and others with intense reptile aversions–there be snakes in this post. Talk of snakes, the idea of snakes, links to articles containing pictures of snakes, possible scriptural allusions to snakes. If you want to skip this and come back tomorrow, there will be an entirely serpent free post.

So this guy… in Kentucky… I’m guessing you know where I’m headed with this… He died from a snake bite. In a worship service.

Where he was the pastor.

I’m not one to judge other people’s religious practices, but if you die in the practice of said religion, I call fair game. The world gets to criticize you and your totally bananas interpretation of scripture.

We are not talking here about a martyr–someone who dies for their belief under violent oppression. We’re not talking sacrifice–someone who feels called to a dangerous, dark corner of the world and dies there in the service of others. This case of snake handling service gone bad… well, it amounts to testing the Holy. “I triple dog dare you, God!”

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Kentucky. I went to school with kids who went to the kinds of churches where these things sometimes went down. (In fact, the last recorded church-related snake bite death happened in 2006, in my home town). Places where people spoke in tongues, where women did not cut their hair or wear pants, and where, yes, sometimes the worship guests did not all have legs. [wait, i just read that again. They do not wear pants, but do wear SKIRTS. Just needed to clarify...and not leave those good church ladies sitting there naked for the rest of my story]

Thing is, those churches are about much more than the backward sorts of practices that occasionally make the news (in–why is it always?–Kentucky). Those congregations are about the Holy Spirit. They are about losing onesself in a worship experience. They are about true community. And man, can they SING. I’m not saying that I agree with their rigid rules of appearance that only apply to women–or with a hundred other things about their theology or ideology. But, there is certainly more going on there than the zoo-like moments that get media attention.

Last week, the Kansas house tried to legalize discrimination against LGBT folks, (speaking of zoo-like moments) under the guise of religious freedom. Now Idaho is trying the same thing (even though the movement in Kansas appears to be dying a quick and painless death, thank the Lord). All calling for an extensive discussion of what ‘freedom of religion’ does and does not encompass. Thankfully, most Americans agree that ‘freedom’ does not entitle the believer to abuse another person.

But–does it extend to the abuse or endangerment of one’s self? Enter snake handling pastors…

And I guess the bigger question is this: even if you are technically, legally free to practice faith in this way… is this sort of practice really faith? Or is it superstition?

Many people who don’t believe in God say there’s no difference: that all religion, and practice thereof, amounts to childlike fantasy, and cannot be justified any more than throwing spilled salt over one’s shoulder. Meanwhile, most people of faith, though they know there’s a difference, would have trouble articulating the variance. The line may be fine–a snake in the tall charismatic grass–but I promise you, it is there.

While I cannot judge the depth of another person’s belief, (or the ‘contents of his heart,’ as my Pentecostal friends might say) we can guess what motivates someone towards certain types of behavior and expression. It’s simple, really: are they acting out of hope? Or are they acting out of fear?

And that’s where you draw the very fine, serpentine line between faith and delusion: one inspires acts of hope and the other…well, the other leads a person to test God, at the expense of their own life. And maybe even someone else’s.

What was this pastor afraid of? Who knows. Maybe of being thought a phoney. I think we all fear that, at least a little bit. Maybe he feared the judgment of a vengeful God, and felt the need to prove his righteousness.

Or maybe he was afraid of what God was REALLY calling him to do. I don’t know what… But the call of God on our lives can be a dang scary thing sometimes. Maybe this guy caught a glimpse of what was really being asked of him, and a wriggling reptile seemed a pale threat in comparison.

The command to love our neighbor as ourselves; to work for peace in a wrecked up world; to give all that we own to the poor; to die to ourselvesso that others may live;aren’t these all terrifying prospects? Aren’t we all a little bit afraid that God might actually call our bluff, and expect us to DO THESE THINGS?

Maybe I’ll go out catching snakes after all.

Real faith inspires acts of hope. Kindness. Mercy. World-shaping love. Faith calls us up higher, and to reach beyond our baser impulses to control, possess, or be elevated in the eyes of others.

In fact, faith looks a lot like freedom. I mean, ACTUAL freedom. Not the controlled illusion thereof. Faith does not demand that God ‘prove’ oneself by showing up in fang-proof body armor. Nor does faith demand that others mirror our own belief and behavior.  Because faith–stop me if you’ve heard it–faith is the substance of things HOPED FOR. The assurance of things unseen.

Faith may ask us to put ourselves in harms way, in the interest of protecting another person. But for a show or a sign? For the appearance of power, or a godlike knowledge of good and evil? That doesn’t sound like faith to me. That sounds like temptation itself.

Like a dern snake in the grass.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Erin Wathen

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, KS (www.sacchome.org). She's a Kentucky native, a long-time desert dweller, and she writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything. For more info, click the 'about' tab above...


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