Wednesday, May 16, 2007

snake-handling for jesus

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. —Mark 16:17-18

So what’s the deal with the Holy Ghost? In today’s evangelical churches we talk a little about the Holy Spirit. We might hear that we should “listen to the Spirit” or that the “Spirit moved me to talk to someone about Jesus,” but generally we stick to the more tangible two of the Trinity. I just read this book called Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. The basic story: Raised as a Christian and ignoring his faith for years, New York Times reporter Dennis Covington travels to the backwoods of the American South to cover the murder trial of a snake-handling preacher accused of using the rattlesnakes to kill his wife. The story becomes a longer assignment to delve into the lives and religion of the poorest, rural, white folk in America whose relationship with Jesus includes singing, dancing, speaking in tongues, handling snakes and drinking strychnine from mason jars. With a couple photographers in tow, Covington rediscovers his faith and handles some snakes. From Salvation…

About that time, Brother Carl himself walked in with a serpent box containing the biggest rattlesnake I’d ever seen. Carl smelled of Old Spice and rattlesnake and something else underneath: a pleasant smell, like warm bread and apples. I associated it with the Holy Ghost. …Anyway, that is what I smelled on Brother Carl that day as he talked about the snake in the box. “I just got him today,” he said. “He’s never been in church before.” Carl looked over his glasses at me and smiled. He held the serpent box up to my face and tapped the screen until the snake started rattling good. “Got your name on him,” he said to me. A shiver went up my spine, but I just shook my head and grinned.

One of the big questions is what happens when the handlers get bit. Does it mean that they weren’t right with the Lord? Were they disobeying the Spirit? Regardless of why, snake handlers often get bit, some die and others keep doing what they feel the Lord is calling them to do. From Salvation…

Billy and Joyce lived in a neat little farmhouse behind a collapsed chicken farm outside Section. Billy was telling about a rattler that had bit Gene Sherbert on the foot. “Like to killed him,” Billy laughed. “He was so swollen he looked like a toad frog, and he was itching and the juice was running out of his hands and feet.” …That Gene Sherbert was a card. ‘And then he just got stiff,’ Billy said. He paused, real serious. “We thought he was dead. But then awhile later, he opened his eyes. He said, ‘I believe I need to handle that snake again.’ So he did.” And the Summerfords started cackling again.

Maybe the best book I’ve read this year. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in compelling stories and great writing.

Pentecost and me

When I was thirteen my family took a road trip to visit some friends in western Idaho. As a kid I loved road trips. My dad would wake at 3am and load the van. My room was directly across from the door that opened to the carport. Half-awake, I would lie in bed and listen to my dad coming in and out of the open front door, the sound of the van quietly idling. My brother and I, in pajamas, would crawl into the warm cocoon of the van and fall back asleep as my talked quietly over the sound of the heater. By 7 or 8 in the morning we would be halfway to wherever we were headed and we would wake up and put on our real clothes, eat some donuts, and start complaining about how much longer we had until we got to our final destination.

One this particular trip, the destination was in the mountains outside of Moscow, Idaho. I loved visiting my parents’ friends, Ron and Barb. They lived so far back in the woods that during the winter it was a twenty-minute snowmobile ride from the main road to their cabin. The little cabin was nestled into the side of a big rocky hill; it had tin roof that would roar when it rained. At night you might hear owls, coyotes or a mountain lion scream. That summer they had a fair amount of bear meat stored up in the freezer; a neighbor had shot the bear raiding his beehives and the beast had crawled up on their front porch to die on a sunny spring afternoon.

This is taking a long time, but what I’m getting at is this: I was raised in a very conservative church. The type of place that believed that any musical instrument was the work of the devil, that women should never speak, lead, or pray in front of the congregation, and that women who wore pants were most likely lesbians. I was thirteen when I visited my first Pentecostal church service. We attended the Sunday service with our parent’s friends and I have to tell you, I think the outright rowdiness of the service, the noise, the dancing, the shouting, and the blazing-hot rock band offended our middleclass faith. People danced up and down the aisles to rock-n-roll versions of classic hymns, prayed on their knees, spoke in tongues, rolled around on the floor. My family quietly exited the church and stood out in the grassy parking lot among the pick-ups and muscle cars waiting for the end of the service.

When my wife and I lived in Portland we attended a church with a middle-school drill team for Jesus and the people behind us in the pews spoke in tongues in low murmurs and we bolted from that church as quick as we could. But in an orderly, casual fashion – my wife got to leave first, then 3 minutes later, my brother followed, I was supposed to wait 3 or 4 minutes, but some shouting in tongues send me for the door in hot pursuit of my brother.

My experiences in those Pentecostal churches have always led me to wonder about the Holy Spirit. But the book I started reading this week has got me wondering in a major way. I’m reading Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Review to come.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

home? at last

so here we are, settled in at the lake house with tricia's parents. it's a great place to spend the summer and relax. i've applied to burlington-edison high school. it's pretty exciting; they have a really cool social studies curriculum. i'll keep you up to date. the big issue lately is whether we could live here in the pnw. obviously a large number of friends and family and our church is here = lots of support for new parents. but seriously, the weather is an issue. luckily, it has been quite nice and sunny so i feel a little less sad to be back. i do miss mexico, the humidity and sun, the ocean and the people. i gotta work something out to do both. maybe in a few years. now we're just settling back into normal life. i miss the road.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

road tripping in the american sw

we’re making some major drives from leakey, tx to bellingam. the first day was to las cruces. it’s funny, so much of texas is not worth seeing for more than a few minutes, but when you pass into n.mexico it’s obvious. It’s just prettier. The air is clear and and the desert sky is crisp and the food is great. i'm seriously addicted to new mexican chile. red or green hatch valley chile sauce on enchiladas, eggs, ice cream.

utah is also gorgeous. all the little towns look the same - they're all these perfect little towns nestled against the small mountains/big hills that run through the middle of utah. the streets are clean and quiet. the houses are well maintained and the mormon churches are spotless and always surrounded by new little sub-divisions. a little too perfect. kinda scary. we stayed in the town of nephi, south of provo on our way through. after spending too much money on fancy/mid-range hotels in las cruces and flagstaff, we found a 1950s hotel with big, quiet rooms and broken neons out front. nice and cheap. we were especially thankful that we had not tried to make it into provo - apparently it was byu graduation and all the hotels were full. not to mention cheney was in town for the commencement speech. almost as scary as the recent rollingstone article that interviews right-wing christian groups willing to vote for a mormon republican for the '08 presidential election to punish centrist republicans for not sticking to "family issues"! yikes.