Saturday, July 23, 2016

Snake handling? Afraid not.

For most of my life I have lived in the woods.  I do not mean like Tarzan or Mowgli.  Like a lot of folks around North Alabama I have lived many years in houses tucked at the base of one of those rolling hills, the tail of the Appalachian range, the place where the pastures end and the woods begin. It is hard to plow the side of a limestone filled hillside, so the woods are allowed to live in peace, except for occasional human interruptions of timber or firewood cutting, or hunting, or moonshining, or just escaping, either from the law or from the world.

It was a good place to be a kid. I wandered into the woods a lot.  I named my favorite limestone outcroppings, my hide-outs, my forts, my castles, my watch-towers.  I was fearless.  Except for one thing.

I was terrified of snakes.

My parents had done an outstanding job of warning me of the horrors of the rattlesnakes and copperheads which slithered, hidden on the forest floor, just waiting to strike me as I passed by. Their warnings were very descriptive.  And serious. Perhaps I could have ignored their warnings, except that at a very early age I had many opportunities to see the monsters they described. I never got bit.  But I watched as they coiled and rattled and struck at a hoe that came their way.  I was mystified how they seemed to be impossible to kill as their long, thick, otherwise beautiful bodies continued to writhe and flail after their heads were cut off or crushed.

When I was five my dad came home for lunch in the middle of a beautiful early fall day and asked me to help him go feed the horses. He tossed a burlap bag of oats onto my fire-engine-red solid metal Radio Flyer wagon. I pulled it across the yard, and, at the edge of the woods, headed down the hill into a gully between the house and the barn. Dad was behind the wagon, keeping it from getting loose and running over my skinny five year old frame.  He yelled at me to stop, the kind of yell that lets a kid know his dad isn't kidding.  I looked down and there was a monster, stretched across the path in front of me.  It began to to move, not across the path, but into itself, coiling like a spring. It's head lifted.  It's tail did too. And began to rattle.

Dad, in a quieter voice, but even more serious, told me to back up slowly, and stand still, as he was turning to run back to the storage room to get his shotgun. So there, for what seemed like a couple of days, I stood, looking at the rattler.  I had a sense that dad did not want me to let it get away, but it would have been okay with me if it had moved on off into the woods.  But it did not.

Dad came back, moved me out of the way, and with the blast of the gun, the head of the snake disappeared. The body began to flail.  Dad and I went back to the house for awhile.  But a little later we went back.  The horses had to be fed, snake or not.  We finished our job. On the way back we found the dead snake which was a little off the path. It was huge.  Its black and grey hour-glass patterned skin was beautiful in a horrifying way.  Dad pulled out a knife and cut the rattle off the end of the snake.  I'm pretty sure that rattle is still in some drawer in my old room. I kept the rattle. And I kept the fear.

Living in the woods kids do a lot of things.  One of the things we did was shoot BB guns, mostly at the burn pile, where there were plenty of bottles, rotten fruit and other targets suitable to be destroyed by our assaults.  Somehow, occasionally, our shots would not be true, and would go places they were not supposed to go, like into the window panes of the house.  Danny and I shared a bedroom (about half the size of our sisters' bedroom I might add).  One of the window panes had a tiny hole in it produced by an errant BB shot. When I say tiny, I mean not much bigger than a nail hole.

I remember lying in bed at night, the sounds of the summer night emanating from the woods roaring in my ears, knowing that the most dangerous thing out there was making no sound as it slithered along the ground, making its way toward my window, toward the tiny pin-hole weakness in our fortress of safety, so that it could contort its amazing body, squeeze through the BB hole as some sort of ironic statement against our use of the shotguns against its brother, and finish me off as I lay defenseless in my own bed. I'm pretty sure Danny was asleep.

Fear is a powerful thing.  Whether snake or human or any member of creation, we are created to do what we need to do to survive.  In the moment of fear, we do not think, we react.  We coil up, stand our ground, rattle and lash out when we could pass on by.  We draw our weapons and kill when we could take a step back to a place of safety and choose a different way.

But fear diminishes our ability to choose a different way, a better way.  Fear, if embraced as a deceitful comfort, distorts our perception of reality.  Fear crawls into the tiny openings that we give it, expanding and growing into a mythical monster that prevents us from seeing the truth in the dark, noisy night.

Fear gives us an excuse to ignore truth and embrace lies as we huddle, afraid in the darkness, yet sadly in plain sight of the light of truth. Standing in the shadows we seek warmth and light from the pitiful temporary fire of our choosing, denying time after time after time that light which we proclaim is our only hope.

Fear is the enemy of truth.  Fear is the enemy of light.  Fear is the enemy of love.

But love is the way.

And love casts out fear.

And that is the truth.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Into the cross-fire . ..

I struggle to find words this morning.  As I think and pray about what to write I find myself tempted to become even more a part of problems that must be resolved.

Like everyone else, my mind is full of opinions.  My opinions are formed out of my personal experiences.  I defend a lot of criminal defendants. I am a lover of words.  I am a white, male son of the South. I am a follower of Jesus, a United Methodist, a father, a grandfather, a Democrat with libertarian tendencies and more.  But it seems that every opinion expressed these days provokes an equal and opposite opinion.  We all feel threatened.  Some of us have good reason.  Most of us do not.

Those of us who do not have a good reason to feel threatened owe the rest of our sisters and brothers a helping hand. . . and head and heart.  Those who are truly threatened because of their skin color, or because of the badge they wear, or because of the God they worship, or because of the person they love, or because of whatever label or target is slapped on their back by public opinion and discourse are afraid for good reason. Some of each of these groups have very recently been shot and killed just because of their label, for Pete's sake.  Fear causes a focus on survival, to be defensive, to fight or to flee depending on the threats of the moment.  For the benefit of all who have good reason to feel truly threatened, to be afraid for their lives, the rest of us need to step back, cut them some slack, offer them love and support and safety in this moment. 

All of them.

But the truth is, we cannot afford to step back to a safe distance and expect them to find us and come.  The threatened, frightened and injured often hunker down and retreat to their sides for defense. We who are not truly threatened must step forward. We must step forward into the in between.

Into the cross fire.

Carrying nothing. Open hands. We must drop the weapons of our harsh, judgmental words,  our positions of privilege or power, our eloquent opinions, our revelations of blame.  We must strip off the jerseys we wear to identify which side we are on, revealing only our bare human identity. We must be willing to take the bullets and stones throne by both sides out of their fear. And in that place, between the fearful, injured sides, we must create a place of safety born of justice and love.   A place that we must not be tempted to give up, leave and join or rejoin a side, even though living in the cross fire is frightening.  We must create a place so good, so just, so loving, that those in fear will feel safe to leave their opposing sides, drawn to join  the loving circle.  A loving circle has no sides. Everyone sees the face of everyone, as everyone faces the center.

It is a dangerous place to stand defenseless, with open hearts and arms spread wide, taking the blows of both sides meant for the other.

That's the way it has always been in the cross-fire.

But it is our only hope.  It always has been.


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