Snake Wranglers Wanted

snake 2013

Across the Potomac River just a half-hour’s drive from where I live in the Western Piedmont of Maryland, lies West Virginia, where it’s still legal to handle poisonous snakes—one of the few places left in the country where you can do that. Earlier this year, Pastor Mack Wolford followed his father’s faith—and death—by handling a rattlesnake; he died following that Sunday service last May just as his father had died. Appalachia is home to the Holiness Pentecostal movement in which some congregations practice snake handling as their faith response to Mark 16:18:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

While the text seems pretty straightforward, there are layers of parable-like meaning (just like the entire rest of Scripture, no?) that give us a better understanding of what exactly is being conveyed. Someone with only an intellectual understanding (which really means it’s what someone taught them; they don’t REALLY understand it as their own experience) only “gets it” to their level of ability to understand. Some, like the flamboyant Pastor Wolford, experienced this meaning as a testing of his faith. Perhaps obedience has yet other dimensions.

One “problem” that I have with this particular verse, and it’s not really a problem as such, is that the Greek verb arousin (root word of our English “arouse,” and containing the Greek root “airo”) translated as “take up” here in Mark is the same one used on other occasions in the New Testament and translated “lift up.” More like raising up than simply picking up and grasping. But even as I type that, I know that it’s that way for a reason—so that the undiscerning, those who don’t examine their faith, will trip. “Take up” offers the sense of pick up and handle, whereas “lift up” obviously pertains more to a demonstration—sort of similar to raising up a flag to carry in battle maybe or perhaps as in the foreshadowing example in the Old Testament book of Numbers. (And, yes, I know that Numbers is a bit dry, but stay with me here.)

Essentially, in Numbers 21, Moses had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and sooner rather than later they’re complaining about the sameness of their food and how they were just going to die wandering around the wilderness. Early in the chapter, some of them are taken prisoner after a half-hearted attempt to foil Canaanite King Arad, which incites the Israelites to make a vow with the Lord to conquer Canaan and they are, in fact, successful. But then Moses leads them off instead of letting them set up camp right then. And so now they’re groaning and whining about their poor circumstances or perhaps, more to the point, poor leadership. “Fiery serpents” descend on them now, killing many, so they again cry to Moses, this time to ask God to fix it (whereas they hadn’t asked God for better food or more water…hmm.) The image “fiery” lends a feeling that the snakes spread through the community much like a wildfire in a strong gale and that their bite was particularly consuming, stingy and burn-y. The people realize they have sinned and clamored against God’s chosen leader, so they now want Moses to ask God to take the serpents away. “Okay, we get it, we get it. We screwed up. Just get God to take away the snakes that are biting and killing us.” Sounds rather like a 4-year old who has learned socially she must say (an oft-mumbled) “Sorry” when she’s hit the kid who took her doll—and seems just about as sincere.

The mostly-patient Moses indeed goes to God who tells him this to do:

“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” (Numbers 21:9)

No capturing of snakes, no building of snake pens, no appointing of notorious snake killers—indeed the snakes are not said to have been vanquished by any means at all. (Maybe they just later dwindle away in another cosmic instance of the teacher arriving when the student is ready and then vanishing when no longer needed.) Instead of watching snakes slither away, propelled by arm of the Mighty God in obedience to cries of the Israelites, there is now this object of their own obedience to be reckoned with. The snake-bitten must decide to look at this pole where this bronze snake reminds them of Who saves them. This surrendering act of humble obedience, this gaze on what God has provided—the loving symbol of God as Supreme and Salvation—and they recover.

After Moses tells them what to do, I imagine there were those who then again complained, like, “Hey, we asked you to get God to send the snakes away. You really expect us to just look at your metalcraft artwork up on that pole? We NEED the snakes removed and you hand us this?” And those faithless ones would be the very ones who would die in the very presence of salvation, rather than humbly submit to the power of obedience to save them.

Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 about being lifted up to save His people similarly in their sin. Much in the same way that bronze snake was made and raised up on a pole so as to be readily available to all who would look, Jesus himself was raised up on display as the loving symbol of the Supreme God of Salvation. His love is there for the taking, and obediently looking—considering that grace—will save you. When you have fiery snakes all around, when you’re charred and seared by unemployment, unhealthy relationships, or whatever your snakes look like, you might not think such a simple thing will help at all.  Our minds don’t think of obedience as much at all; it’s more a feeling of the heart.

Just look upon Him, and you will live.




My Shopping Experience

When I go to a grocery store—well, most stores really but in my reduced circumstances I rarely “shop”—it sort of looks like this to me—


—well, except that I wouldn’t actually get a lot of that stuff in that cart, but you maybe get the idea. The store’s efforts to the contrary, it’s personally actually NOT a great shopping “experience.”

Despite my non-consumerist outlook on life, I actually do quite a lot of work “in” marketing (read that—transcribing focus groups) and hear about this a lot. There are professionals in customer experience now—who knew? And apparently from this and this it’s quite the intense field on beyond suggestive selling or those engineered ads. And, yes, I read Subliminal Seduction when it came out AND Hidden Persuaders, buddy.

I’m sure my local chain grocery store has spent a lot of money and interest toward enhancing their customer experience. I would have to guess most places have to in order to stay competitive. But no matter what they do, they are unable to have me leave their store without feeling overwhelmed, tired beyond belief and sometimes all but shattered.

I actually no longer register the other maybe 250 kinds of cereal on the shelves; I head straight for the bottom shelf about one-third the way down the aisle where they keep “old fashioned” oatmeal in the red box (the blue one is that quick-cooking mess). Each generic thing on my list has a definite location where I can go straight away and fetch it. When they move stuff around—which they do with alarming frequency—I’m aghast and have to look (which is why they do it) for “my” stuff. I aim to get in and gone as quickly as possible.

The store itself is long walk, not including the trek in from the parking spot. And when you count the number of times you’re hefting each thing—one to get it off the shelf, down into the cart, back out of the cart at the check-out, back in the cart because the cashier stuffed the bags and lined them up at the end of the check-out, into the car, out of the car and again to give them their appropriate homes in pantry or fridge. It makes me exhausted just thinking about all that lifting.

And then there’s the check-out lane. I flatly refuse to use the self-check-outs no matter how few items I have. I will go to express with my 15 items or FEWER (not “less” grammatically) or to a regular check out complete with the cashier. I’ll stand there and wait it out because they may only one actual person assigned there to ring me up; I prefer for people to have jobs instead of machines. I also somehow am old enough that I happen to like the human element, though I must confess to some impatience when that human hands me my change in a little wad with the receipt instead of properly counting it back, but I know that that gentility of counting the money back “in reverse” is a lost art.

No, I like the little Mennonite family-run store I found in a nearby more rural town a few months ago. They sell stuff that looks like this:

farm market shop

The store is quite plain with no fancy banners with the next “exciting offer” nor nauseating music or blah-blah-blah on the public address. It’s actually quiet except for sometimes they might have their radio on.  Aside from the (forgivable) “placement” of candies near the entrance, things are pretty much grouped into things like flours, spices, jars of things and a cold case with milk and eggs and a few other things in. (There’s a meat section, too, that doesn’t smell weird and is easily ignored by this vegetarian.) Carts and baskets are available but they also don’t mind if you lay stuff on the counter and go shop some more because you came in for two things and are leaving with more. They smile and ring you up. They count back your change (I try always to take cash so they don’t take the hit from a credit card).

It’s a tiny store with certainly no 250 types of cereal. There is “white flour,” “wheat flour,” and even “spelt flour.” I can get my dried soybeans and spelt berries there, too, which that chain doesn’t carry. There is one milk to choose from, unless you count chocolate milk (not “chocolate flavored drink”) and the only variety in eggs is whether you want large or extra-large. It’s not a gauntlet or science project.

More to the point, I leave feeling content. I believe I’ve traded fairly. I’m smiling when I put the stuff into my car. It’s the difference described by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones in which she tells about how she and her friends in college opened a lunch shop. She says that when she cared about the muffins she made, the customers liked them. We’ve all (I hope—though it’s increasingly rare) had the “experience” of shopping whatever store and just feeling better about it. It’s the mark of that indefinable element that no “customer experience transformer” is going to suggest to her company—that the employees MATTER (afterall—they are ‘human resources’) and what matters most about them is their caring they can bring to what they’re doing. You can put in all the trappings you want but an employee who cares is the best investmen in customer experience.



Embracing for Change

This is the only “jewelry” I wear.


 It has a funny history actually. A friend of mine and I got together one day. We were all about “embracing” it. We made these little bracelets to remind ourselves to do that.

Fast forward to late last year. While walking around the lake at Baker Park (I’m sure it has an actual name other than that lake at Baker Park but fobbed if I know it—Lake Culler, maybe?) with another friend in deep discussion of our joblessness and other troubles, we bandied our thoughts about more than accepting, but embracing our situations. She was quite taken with the idea and so I presented her this bracelet. I pretty much forgot about the bracelet for the entire next year.

Little did I know that there would be much in the intervening year’s time would throw me into loss, loss, and more loss. While struggling to keep a few dollars in the door by contract employment and doing the child care so my single parent daughter can get a career launched rather than have it founder, I almost didn’t have time to mourn the very dear friends who drifted out of my life (including one who laughed and crafted and wore the other “embrace-lit”–now if that’s not irony….) and my beloved Jeep (my Toy) that I had to sell as a hedge for continued solvency. Those were the big things; other collateral damages have occurred.

When we mourn, it’s so easy for our judgments of “should” and “ought” to slip into the vocabulary and, if Eckhart Tolle is correct, prove that we are verifiably insane. He should have understood; she shouldn’t have left. I ought to have…and on and on it goes and with each judgment of what would happen if I were Queen of the Known Universe, is another hash mark to my mental instability. Of course he shouldn’t understand, because he didn’t. I know she should have left because she did. I oughtn’t have my Jeep to toy around in because I don’t.

When we make these pronouncements, we argue with what is. The only sane choice is to accept the situations, which is not the same thing as being resigned to them. And truth be told, acceptance is actually quite the mild breeze compared to embracing that which is.

It is at this point that the bracelet enters, Stage Right. My friend handed it off to my husband when he was lately over there to fix some computer glitch or other. It came back into my possession and back on my left wrist a couple of months ago now. Am I finally to a point of being able to embrace these certain things? I think I was glib last year when speaking of embracing. I think I was talking about acceptance in embracement’s clothing. To accept is a much more passive thing—the dictionary likens it to allowing or receiving. Embracing is to actively draw something or someone to oneself with affection.

So I’m not only to hold at arm’s length, but also to warmly and gladly and even eagerly clasp my losses. I’m to adopt, join with, and take in. The word derives from a word that speaks of two arms. Somehow I get that I’m to be all in, as opposed to simply offering a polite cup of tea. Another word that is related means to set on fire. And so my “embrace-lit” silently reminds that teeth-gritting tolerance and even acceptance are not quite there. We forge on together no longer trying to make sense of my losses, but gathering them close around and loving them.