Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of Serpents and chittering animals

Several stories come to mind, one biblical, one a metaphor. The Bible story is of the children of Israel who, when in the wilderness, complained, they were without meat and water, and the wonderful food that the Lord was sending them was miserable. Yes, they did call manna miserable.

Yahweh sent fiery serpents to bite them, but he also provided a remedy, a bronze serpent on a pole. They were to look on the serpent and be healed. Later when Jesus was speaking to his disciples he referred back to that bronze serpent and put himself in its place.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whosoever believes will in him have eternal life” (John 3: 14-15).

The other story is by Walter Wangerin Jr. who tells of his adventure with cancer, and his dying, in Letters From the Land of Cancer but whose first book is the one I am thinking of now. That is The Book of the Dun Cow. In that fantasy a group of animals who are very personal, different and unique, like the Church, are keepers of God’s creation. And they are watchers against the evil lurking beneath their feet. Like the biblical Satan, Wyrm is angry with God and hates those who watch. Wangerin writes of the animals and their purpose:

“What purpose? Simply, the animals were the Keepers. The Watchers, the guards. They were the last protection against an almighty evil which, should it pass them, would burst bloody into the universe and smash into chaos and sorrow everything that had been both orderly and good. The stars would be no help against him; and even the angels, the messengers of God—even the Dun Cow herself—would only grieve before him and then die; for messengers can speak, but they cannot do as the animals could.”

And then Wangerin describes Wyrm, who is locked inside the earth, Wangerin describes his damnation and hatred:

“He was in the shape of a serpent, so damnably huge that he could pass once around the earth and then bite his own tail ahead of him. He lived in caverns underneath the earth’s crust; but he could when he wished, crawl through rock as if it had been loose dirt. He lived in darkness, in dampness, in the cold. He stank fearfully, because his outer skin was always rotting, a runny putrefaction which made him itch, and which he tore away from himself by scraping his back against the granite teeth of the deep. He was lonely. He was powerful. He was angry. And he hated, with an intense and abiding hatred, the God who locked him within the earth. And what put the edge upon the hatred, what made it an everlasting acid inside of him, was the knowledge that God had given the key to his prison in this bottomless pit to a pack of chittering animals!”

I thought of this as I read a poem by John Donne that I had never read before. And I thought of this again just now as I thought of the class I taught this morning in Church on the issues coming before our Presbyterian General Assembly. This morning it was on Marriage and Civil Unions. And somebody asked the question why does this keep coming back? Why is the struggle still going on? We are after all just a pack of chittering animals. The Church, His people, the keepers and the watchers. But there is something more.

Donne writes about his family crest being a sheaf of serpents but how he laid it aside for a new crest, a cross. And yet, he writes, God allowed back the first crest because on the cross, the serpent symbol, brought healing to his broken sinful soul

Yet may I, with this, my first Serpent hold,
God gives new blessings, and yet leaves the old;
The serpent, may, as wise, my pattern be;
My poison, as he feeds the dust, that’s me.
And as he rounds the Earth to murder sure,
My death he is, but on the Crosse, my cure.
(This was a poem sent to George Herbert and I only have it in the English written at the time.)

So faithfulness church, God takes the troubling times and uses them for his glory. He takes the weak things that the world despises and uses us for his glory.

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