Of snakes and vulnerability
A reflection on Lent 4B - Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21.
When I was a little girl I used to visit my great-grandmother who lived outside Pocatello, Idaho, in a big yellow house on a family farm. My great-grandfather, and his parents before him, farmed the land. The front of the house was on a dirt road with a deep ditch that ran between the house and the road. I remember playing in the front yard of this house where my brothers and I would find frogs and garter snakes near the ditch. I had no fear of snakes and would readily pick up a baby garter snake like I’d pick up a kitten.
Years later, as a college student, I lived near several beautiful national parks in southern Illinois. These parks were prime hiking areas through rugged terrain, the remnants of glaciers which left huge rocky bluffs, dark forests, and deep freezing cold lakes. This was a natural habitat for venomous snakes; rattlers and black water moccasins, among others. The distinctive noise of a rattle snake always gave me fair warning, but water moccasins were more subtle, one had be attentive to avoid them.
Now I rarely encounter snakes, but when I do I am extremely cautious around them because I can’t identify them, and I never know if a snake is poisonous or not.
Some people are terrified of snakes, and for good reason. Statistics list a fear of snakes as one of the greatest fears people have. Certainly the Hebrew people were afraid, as we heard in our reading this morning from Numbers. The people were weary of walking and eating badly and never having enough water and they were really afraid of snakes. God heard their complaints and grief and responded by turning the very object of their fear, snakes, into a source of healing. Moses’ snake on a stick became a symbol of God’s healing grace to the Hebrew people.
Many times in life, that which causes our greatest grief and sorrow is also the stimuli for our deepest spiritual growth. Looking back, we might consider Moses’ snake stick to be a metaphor for spiritual growth and maturity. The paradox of illness that brings healing, of vulnerability that brings security, of death and new life, is a theme in our chapter this week in our Lenten book, “The Restoration Project” as we consider what it means to be stripped.
In “The Restoration Project” the author aligns being stripped with deterioration, with the process of reversing the deterioration of DaVinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper by stripping away years of dirt as well as paint from previous attempts at restoration. We humans deteriorate too from unhealthy behaviors such as feelings of entitlement, prejudice, and judging. Jesus reminds us that we are not behave this way; we are not strip others of their basic human right for dignity and integrity.
And yet people are stripped all the time. People are stripped of life - think of those murdered or under the threat of terrorism and war. Stripped of hope, think of those in poverty or war torn regions or deeply depressed. One can be stripped of integrity, think of those who are raped, abused or belittled, those who have suffered decades of racism or sexism or genderism. One can be stripped of responsibility if one is fired or laid off or in other ways deprived of meaningful work. One can be stripped of one’s identity by abuse or oppression or imprisonment. One might be stripped of one’s name, sold into marriage or kidnapped or trapped into sex trafficking or human slave labor. One might be stripped of one’s knowledge by disease or an accident. There are countless ways that one can be stripped.
On the other hand, stripping can be paradoxical. When one is intentional, one can be stripped of the behaviors that limit our ability to grow in relationship with God. Stripped of envy, greed, gossip, complaining, or a failure to embrace our true self-worth as God sees us. These may be unconscious; learned behaviors from our family system, or socially reenforced values that emphasize the individual at the expense of everyone else. No doubt there are behaviors and values from modern society that we need to be stripped of. Stripped of these so that we can recognize the ways that God is active in our lives. When we are able to truly embrace the depth of God’s love for us we find we have no need for envy, for greed, for self-aggrandizement, for belittling others, for belittling self. As one develops a sense of self grounded in God, one also forms with in one’s self a deeper level of self-awareness and other awareness, of compassion and acceptance of others for being who they are.
When I was growing up my role in my family was to support my mother’s version of her self and the world around her. This was a subtle, unconscious process between my mother and me, as most interpersonal family dynamics are. As a young adult I wasn’t able to sort out what I really thought about anything, my sense of self and every opinion I had were wrapped up in my mother’s definition of the world. Confused and depressed, I sought help by going to therapy. It took a long time for me to reorganize my interior sense of self. I had to strip away the false identity I had acquired from my family system, and grow a new sense of identity as my own person within that family system. Therapy was the process that helped me look deep into myself. But I was able to be vulnerable and do that deep work because of my prayer life and relationship with God. God pushed and prodded me, whispered into my soul, and sustained me through all my struggles, into a truer sense of self. Becoming a mature Christian is a lifelong process. I have been blessed to grow in my faith and in my personhood because I have been a member of mature Christian communities and thus with other people who are on a similar journey.
The Gospel of John reminds us that God’s love, expressed in and through the life of Jesus, is expansive. Jesus shows us how to be mature Christians. I lose sight of what Jesus teaches when I put limits on what God’s love is like. But I have tried to strip away those limitations I’ve placed on faith, placed on God, placed on love, placed on other human beings. No doubt doing so has left me vulnerable. But, much like the people who encountered Moses’ snake on a stick, God’s grace was able to work through the most vulnerable aspects of my life, transforming them into healing and wholeness.
What is your snake on a stick, your vulnerable place, that is longing to be healed?