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Snake Handling

Snake Handling (Again!)

    The newsbrief in the morning paper read: "Virginia: Pentecostal Minister Dies of Snake Bite."  To those unfamiliar with arcane backwoods spiritual practices, the headline may be a bit mystifying.  Apparently 45 year old Dwayne Long, a farmer and contractor by day, a pastor and spiritual guide by weekend, was doing what Mark 16:18 hints is a sign of the sanctified, the handling of snakes.  Pastor Long, it is reported, died of rattlesnake bites for which he refused medical attention.

    The article concludes with: "the congregation had offered prayers for Mr. Long, the father of five." 

    What to make of this sad, sad incident?  That rural superstitions persist?  That the next time anyone in the name of God handles a snake he should make sure it's a garter snake? 

    I think there's a another message: that in the human heart there is a deep, deep longing to perceive the presence of God in the world and in us.  That holy impulse finds many expressions, some of them strange to my mind.

    During our trip to Quebec City years ago, we drove up the St. Lawrence River a few miles to the shrine I suspect many of you have visited, the Cathedral of St. Anne de Beaupre.  I was fascinated with the paraphernalia strapped to the church's columns, lots of crutches, prosthetic limbs, bandages, etc., the apparatus of the healed wounded, now no longer needed.  I didn't try to ascend the stairs to the hillside chapel on my knees.  Even then they were too far gone; but it didn't occur to me there that I might ask St. Anne to intercede on my behalf for new joints. 

    But it could have, as it has to many "enlightened" souls sore afflicted, wanting heaven's attention and cure.

    Growing up Methodist in Connecticut, limited by the religious choices of my hometown, I never heard of glossolalia until I got to Brooklyn as a young pastor.  Maybe you haven't heard of glossolalia until now.  But you have heard of the practice, speaking in tongues, the Pentecostal experience of ecstatic utterance, prayer, yes, but really something else, a wonderful bubbling (babbling?) of the heart in gratitude to God.  Periodic outbreaks of glossolalia have marked the history of the American church.  During the presidency of Timothy Dwight (author of the hymn, "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord") at Yale University at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, students were caught up in a religious revival that featured, among several holy gifts, speaking in tongues.  In the late 1950's and early 1960's an article in a newsmagazine about a sudden reemergence of spirituality at the New Haven Ivy League school, referred to "Blue Tongues," blue being Yale's colors and tongues being glossolalia, the manifestation of spirituality. 

    Even those on the fast track to fame and riches in this world by way of an Ivy League education long for intimations of heaven. 

    My purpose here is not to deride those who would handle snakes or speak in tongues.  My purpose is to encourage them to shift their focus... or, better, to read their Bibles with a different emphasis.  For instance, Mark 16:18, about handling snakes, should be read in tandem with Matthew 5:44, which, without stretching the meaning too far (if a bit metaphorically), tells us to love snakes and those who would bite us.  You can look it up.  The poison from such snakebites would need little medical treatment but would require a lot of grace.  And the consequence of this spiritual gift would principally enhance community, not just make one's own life glow brighter for its sanctity.  But, of course, loving your enemy, truly doing it, forgiving and forbearing, is a lot harder than grabbing a copperhead. 

    As for glossolalia, I would recommend apostolic advice: "I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue."  Paul, I Corinthians 14:19: you can look it up.  There is plenty of gobbledygook and glossolalia in the pulpit in all seasons.  Take it from someone who has perpetrated his own share of spiritual confusion.  What the world needs and the Gospel demands is plain speech, down-to-earth more than up-to-heaven, less babble and more Bible, language true to the God who left the throne of heaven to inhabit the haunts of men.  But, of course, speaking the truth in love, with arresting and compelling words born of the Spirit's deliberation, is a lot harder than repeating Hallelujah and Praise the Lord in Swahili. 

    Maybe another newsbrief in the paper will soon read: "Connecticut: Retired Pastor Loves Enemies."  TheHartford Courant wouldn't report it, of course, though, God knows (and I do too), it would be, were it true, a profound miracle for my too belligerent soul.

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