lenten journal: snakes on a plain


    We had been with Julia and Larry for a couple of hours Friday evening before the conversation turned to snakes, mostly because both Ginger and Larry were going to preach about them following the lectionary passage from John 3 where Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness . . .”

    “Everybody has a snake story,” Larry said. And then we all began telling ours.

    My seminary pastorate was near the little town of Oglesby, Texas, which was “famous” Rattlesnake Roundup every February. (They held the event when it was cold so the snakes weren’t moving too much.) Those who wanted to hunt the snake combed the land around the town, bringing in every rattler they could find, their goal being to lessen the snake population in their area. The rest of us just showed up for the festival where we saw rattlesnakes, touched rattlesnakes, and even ate rattlesnakes. One demonstration that sticks in my mind was watching a guy named Snuffy or Spunky lay down on an open sleeping bag. Once he was still, they began placing live rattlesnakes around him – twenty snakes or so – and then they closed the sleeping bag and zipped it up. Over the next twenty minutes or so, Spanky moved slowly – inched – to work his way out of the bag without any of the snakes biting him. When he was far enough out of the bag that we could see his chest, we could also see one of the snakes had coiled up on his chest and gone to sleep. Once his feet cleared the bag, Slappy moved his hands on either side of the sleeping snake and threw it across the pen he was in and ran off.

    When the Israelites were besieged by snakes, Moses didn’t organize a snake hunt. Instead he fashioned a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. The people were told to look up at the snake if they were bitten and they would be saved. As Larry pointed out in our discussion, Moses didn’t chase the snakes away but gave the people a way to learn to live with the snakes instead.

    During Lent, some folks have been meeting before church at coffee houses around the city to discuss different subjects. Ginger and Carla chose alliterative titles:

    Ten or twelve of us gathered with our coffee and pastries and a page of quotes to spur our discussion. The opening words were from Henri Nouwen:

    Gratitude . . . goes beyond the “mine” and “thine” and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.

    Gratitude as discipline: the practice of giving thanks.

    Yesterday was a perfect spring afternoon. The air was cool, but I could still feel the sun on my skin. The sky was cloudless, save a white whisp or two, and felt expansive even from my backyard. Standing there with our pups prancing around at my feet, it was easy to connect with something beyond me, with all that is transcendent and hopeful and promising. How could I not be thankful? It came bubbling out of me. Though I am deeply grateful in those moments, I’m not sure that’s the same discipline Nouwen was describing. As the idea hung with me through the afternoon and my turn on the line for the dinner shift at the restaurant, I kept wondering how gratitude grows from response to intention, and I remembered a poem by W. S. Merwin that is one of my favorites:


    with the night falling we are saying thank you
    we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
    we are running out of the glass rooms
    with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
    and say thank you
    we are standing by the water looking out
    in different directions

    back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
    after funerals we are saying thank you
    after the news of the dead
    whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
    in a culture up to its chin in shame
    living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

    over telephones we are saying thank you
    in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
    remembering wars and the police at the back door
    and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

    in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
    with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
    unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

    with the animals dying around us
    our lost feelings we are saying thank you
    with the forests falling faster than the minutes
    of our lives we are saying thank you
    with the words going out like cells of a brain
    with the cities growing over us like the earth
    we are saying thank you faster and faster
    with nobody listening we are saying thank you
    we are saying thank you and waving
    dark though it is.

    We are called to say thank you not because everything is wonderful or there are no more snakes on the plain or we hit the lottery. We are called to practice gratitude because thanksgiving is healing, both for those we thank and for our wounded hearts. “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,” said Meister Eckhart. The way through the snakes and the dark and whatever else might foment fear or feed our anger is to give thanks, to practice gratitude, to train our hearts to sing a thankful song.

    Even the hissing of summer lawns can’t drown out such a melody.



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