A Faith Lesson from Snakes in the Grass

One morning last month, our pastor and his wife heard the birds in a live oak tree outside the kitchen window raising Cain. There was a big snake climbing the tree to raid the birds’ nests.

One morning last month, our pastor and his wife heard the birds in a live oak tree outside the kitchen window raising Cain. There was a big snake climbing the tree to raid the birds’ nests. That was the second snake sighting of the spring. The next day, they saw yet another snake in the rectory’s yard, but this one was actually a relief: it was a non-venomous king snake, beloved because they hate rattlesnakes and keep them away.

As if that weren’t enough, the pastor and his family came home from a shopping trip the other night to find that a possum had invaded their chicken coop and killed two roosters. That was traumatic for their children, but it was just another day in the life of a mission church in rural south Louisiana.

I grew up in this part of the country, and though I never have learned to live peaceably with snakes, I am not surprised by their presence. Nor by predatory possums, or coyotes, a pack of which ran through the rectory yard this past winter, chasing a deer. Welcome to bayou country.

It’s hard for me to imagine how hard this must be for our pastor and his family, who only two years ago were living in the Pacific Northwest, their lifelong home, safe and secure in the bosom of a large and loving congregation. Now, they live in a country parsonage, besieged by toothsome varmints, subtropical swelter, and doughty Southerners who hold grudges as tightly as we grip our hunting rifles.

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They came, though, because they believe God called them. There was a time in my life when I wondered if I had a vocation to the priesthood. Very quickly I realized that I love people too little and comfort too much to accept the life of serving a congregation, much less starting one from scratch – and in a place I would not have chosen to live.

In a 1958 letter collected in her posthumous book The Habit Of Being, the late Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor cautioned a friend not to judge the clergy harshly.

“It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday,” she wrote. “It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.”

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Rod Dreher
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