For the first time in my life, I have seen a snake handler in an Episcopal Church.
I am not afraid of snakes. I grew up with them, in fact. My dad, a high school biology teacher, had an assortment of animals that resided in our basement during the summer months when school was on break. And, in case you were wondering, they did reside in cages, mostly. One time our cat, named Kitty, got a little adventurous and decided to visit the newt cage while we were enjoying an afternoon picnic at the park. As the son of a biology teacher, I know that newts and cats do not get along. Once freed, newts will scurry their little tails to the nearest shadowed area hoping to find shelter, water and bugs. Kitty, perhaps well-intentioned by trying to release of the animals, found that her instincts took over after the jail break. Flapping yellow and black tails were just too much for her and she pounced and pounced and pounced. We came home to a field of newt body parts randomly strewn across the basement floor. There was one survivor, a frightened black newt with orange spots who was hiding behind a shoebox. He lived only long enough to tell us the story before dying during the night.
Personally, I think the cat was after the turtle - he'd been mocking her all summer. And sure enough, one warm August day after church, we found his overturned cage and the shelled animal cowering behind the couch. He mentioned something (my dad speaks turtle and newt) about the cat threatening to roll him down the stairs. Kitty, trying her best to look innocent, sat in a sunny patch on the carpet absent mindedly cleaning her paws. The mocking never occurred again.
Kitty avoided the snakes though she loved to sleep on the warm roof of their cages. My dad raised feeder mice for the snakes. A mischief of baby mice was a circus that Kitty never tired of watching; my friends were equally fascinated and always came over when it was time to feed the snakes. Handling snakes was second nature to me. I still remember the feel of their skin and how thick and heavy the boa constrictor was as it would wrap itself around my middle.
Dad taught me then what I later learned in seminary was at the core of Anglican theology - there are three books that reflect God - the book of Scripture, the book of Nature, and the book of Reason. We experience God in all three.
This past week, the students of Saint John's were treated to a hands-on program called Education Through Nature. The kids, in small groups, got to experience some of God's most amazing creatures - stick bugs the length of your forearm, butterflies the size of small birds, and snakes. In chapel on Wednesday, I asked them about their nature experience and how it related to God and God's kingdom. The response was diversity. God likes diversity in color, texture, and sometimes some "real gross-ness." From cover to cover, we see in the book of Scripture that God likes diversity. From creation through Revelation, there is all sorts of color, textures and, sometimes, real gross-ness. Sunsets, deep blue oceans, creepy crawly insects, majestic mountain tops, green valleys, are a part of God's creation. But for real-grossness, there are stories of people who eat pig food, bugs, and, in one case, honey out of a dead animal. Gross!
But how hard is it for us to see diversity in the book of Reason? As our minds age, we are less likely to make new synapses and connections. Yet, Scripture and nature show us new things if we are willing to pay attention. Jesus said one can only enter the Kingdom as a child. Perhaps that is because cognitive diversity comes easier for children than adults. Maybe God is calling us to diversify our cognitive experiences. For me, personally, seeing snakes in church certainly provided rich cognitive challenges. Perhaps, through Scripture and nature and reason, snakes can teach us more about God than we thought.
- Fr. Marshall