Snakes and Sermons

As a child I loved camping. 

We were a family of six, but my mom didn't share the joy, so she often stayed home. Usually, it was my dad, and various mixtures of my older brother and sister, my younger brother, and myself. 

I can remember loading up our sleeping bags, tent, firewood, food, and camp stove into the car. Excited for the adventure, we would sleep little the night before and once sleep did find us, it was cut short by being shaken to consciousness. My dad had an obsession with early starts so, before the sun was awake, we would be heading to a campsite along a mountain stream. 

My dad loved fishing… me, not so much, but I wanted to love it because he did. So my siblings and I always took our poles in hopes of catching something. A fish on the line was rarely in my future, which meant I frequently lost interest and found other means by which to occupy my time.

At times, large ant hills provided great entertainment as my younger brother and I would dismantle all their hard work with a long stick. Probing into their inner chambers, we would watch them frantically scurry to identify the threat and eventually rebuild. We were fine tormenting them but kept our distance to avoid the risk of being bitten.

On other days, we would find a tree that would double as a target for stones we had collected along the trails. We would hurl them at a designated spot on the trunk, or at a conspicuous limb sticking out oddly. The contest would then begin. No real score kept, but we both knew the tally in our heads.

Mountainside hide-and-go-seek was another staple pastime. Scampering across streams, diving behind trees or shrubs, always on the move to avoid being caught, these games would last for hours.

But on one particular camping trip, I found myself wandering around the trails alone. I don't recall what was going through my head at that moment, probably some scenario of survival. A downed pilot behind enemy lines desperate to find his way home, or an outlaw avoiding capture for crimes he did not commit. Either way, I had a massive gun in my possession, I am pretty sure it was made of pine or fir.

My daydream of adventure and perceived invincibility was cut short as I saw it lying in the path just a few feet from my shoes and froze in fear. But it just laid there with no regard for my presence. No undulation of muscles, no twitch of the head, no flick of its massive tail, or tasting of the air with its tongue. Its menacing eyes just looked away from me. I had never seen a snake remain so calm in the presence of a human. 

Slowly the fear began to subside, my imagination became a little less pervasive, and I started to see the danger for what it was. 

Just skin. Remarkably intact, but only a shell of what the snake used to be. 

As an adult, I have a deep appreciation for this experience.

As relationships unfold and people begin to "shed skin," it becomes easy to focus on what they were, the faults of their past, the sins of their fathers. Judgment is handed out for things they have no control over, or for decisions made in another life.

The fear of what was destroys the chance to appreciate what is.

Every decision we make is the product of our past experiences, past decisions, past relationships whether good or bad. When we refuse to open up and acknowledge that who we are is based upon who we were, we begin to experience a suffocating force, a fear of what others might think, a fear of the hurt we might cause. As a result, we retreat from intimacy, minimize the experiences of others, and doubt who we are and what we can become.

This refusal to embrace the truth of our lives will eventually destroy every relationship we have unless we give people a reason to see us differently, unless we chose to see others differently.

I remember a sermon from when I was a teenager. 

I take that back; I don't remember the sermon at all… I remember one line:

"who you were doesn't matter, who you are matters."

While I appreciate the point he was trying to make, this pastor could not have been more wrong.

Who we were does matter. Our life experiences are the DNA for our emotions, our ability to navigate relationships. They create the pathways of thought and emotion in our minds and souls that guide us in every interaction. 

Who we were matters, and it is what we do with it that defines us. When we embrace our history and trust others by inviting them into our stories, our hurt, and our sadness; we also invite them into our hopes, dreams, and together we share in our joys. 

When we hang on to the skin that hides the brokenness and pain that we have experienced, it slowly begins to poison our view of what we can become. When we do the same to others out of fear, we stifle opportunities for personal growth, the growth of relationships, and every time we refuse to face the reality of the history that has made us who we are or has made others who they are; we destroy an opportunity for rebirth, for discovering new potential, for healing.