by Whit Gibbons

July 4, 2010

I received two environmental messages within the last month from unexpected sources--churches. One was troubling; the other was uplifting. Both were about pastors who felt uneasy about snakes.

According to a friend in South Carolina, "The pastor kicked off his Sunday sermon on 'fear' by talking about how scared he is of snakes. Among other things, he said, 'People have told me that snakes are good because they eat rats and mice, but I still take the shovel to them when I see them.'" My friend expressed his disappointment with the comments that condoned snake-killing behavior.

Ecologists do not typically trust in divine intervention to address environmental issues. But the coincidence of my receiving another message at the same time was uncanny. Particularly since it provided a more appropriate response from a minister who is also afraid of snakes. The following are excerpts from an article written by David Meginniss of Christ Episcopal Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala., and reprinted with his permission.

"I've never approved of snake handling. First, it's dubious theology. Just because God says we can do it [handling snakes] does not mean we should do it. But the real objection I have to snake handling is that I don't like them. I know they're beneficial to the environment, but I still don't like them and don't want to handle them. So I was not real pleased when my wife found a snake in one of her blueberry bushes and wanted me to get rid of it. I told her it would probably slither off on its own. 'No,' she said, 'I think it's stuck.'

"I went out to the blueberry bush and, sure enough, the snake was stuck in some plastic netting she had put over the bush to keep the birds from stealing the berries. The snake was hopelessly entangled. I donned a pair of gloves, got some garden snips and a shovel, and cautiously approached the snake. As I got near, it wriggled and thrashed around. I tried to hold him still while I snipped away at the plastic netting. I got him loose from the bush, but he still had this big wad of plastic net surrounding his head like a black cloud. I knew he couldn't survive that way. So, I tried to cut it away from him.

"He wasn't having it. He even tried to wriggle back into the bush that caused the problem to begin with. Although I was a bit scared of the snake, he was terrified of me. My next door neighbor, who works as a nurse at the hospital, said that what I thought was a rat snake was actually a kingsnake, which, she also said, is a real valuable snake to have around. I kept my own opinion to myself, which is the presence of even a kingsnake is not as valuable as the absence of snakes all together! Then she said that the plastic netting was embedded in his skin, and would have to be removed for him to live.

"Not believing my own ears, I heard myself suggest, 'If I hold him, will you cut him loose?' I grabbed the snake behind the head with one hand and his three and half foot body with the other. He was not a happy snake (assuming snakes are ever happy.) He wiggled and writhed, and even shook the end of his tail like a rattler, but I held on. She started snipping away and finally got all the netting out of the snake's skin. She told me to put him under a bush in the corner of the yard so he could recover. As soon as the snake realized he was free, he shot off across the yard with amazing speed, and disappeared. In his mind, the ordeal with the terrifying giants was over, and he was not going to hang around."

The article had additional information relating to spiritual matters, using the snake story as analogy. Seems clear to me that the pastor from South Carolina might profit from a dose of spiritual attitude from his colleague in Alabama.

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