God’s Gift of Snakes in the Wilderness
March 11, 2018
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9
I picked the Old Testament and the New Testament readings because they are inextricably linked. To understand the good news of the gospel of John, to understand the God who loves the whole world and the kind of sacrifice he gave us, I need to know that that God can walk with me through the wilderness, snakes and all, not taking the sources of death and suffering away but helping me to remember and to turn to my source of life, to the places and people in whom we find God. To remember that I never walk alone.
Today I will start with Barclay’s ideas of the gospel of John and end with my ideas about snakes.
John was Jesus’s disciple and Jesus is known for loving him affectionately, possibly as his younger first cousin. We see John resting on Jesus’s arm in DaVinci’s Last Supper. He was Jewish but in 100 AD, a good thirty years after the other three gospels were written, John and his community decide they need to write a very different gospel, one that appealed to the crowd of Greek Gentiles all around them. Why? The scholars propose that this gospel was written as a bridging across cultures. John and his community want the Greeks to know their God, rooted in the Semitic story of the Old Testament. John wants to show God as loving and choosing them, just like he chose the nation of Israel, to have as his people.
Around 100 AD, there were lots of new ideas and different schools of thought. Those include Gnosticism, a sect of John the Baptist worshippers, Judaizers still wrestling with how to integrate the Jesus experience into the Jewish tradition. The gospel of John has an agenda to clear the fog of these distractions or heresies, just as Jesus cleared the temple. Kevin last week told us John spent more verses on the story of clearing the temple than any other gospel and that it happens in the gospel of John toward the beginning of Jesus’s ministry and not the end. I propose that this placement and emphasis was on purpose. The gospel story becomes a new remembering.
- A remembering that imagines God as larger than the Judaic narrative and for more than just Jews.
- A remembering of God’s deliverance for them and now for the whole world.
To think Greek, or if you had grown up Greek in 100 AD, you would value two things:
- The first is a reverence for Logos—the Word of God. Words were the building blocks of understanding life. The spoken and written word of God gave order to the physical and spiritual worlds in which they lived. The Word was the order under which the world continued to exist and be predictable with patterns—The Word was the very reasoning of God that kept this world going. In addition, words gave to men and women the ability to judge right from wrong. The Word was the nothing less than the mind of God.
- The Greeks also had the conception of two parallel worlds, the world in which we live and the unseen world that, for the Greeks, was more real and permanent. This earthly world only stands as a poor, pale copy of that world, only shadowy unreality. Plato built upon this way of thinking (with words) and held that in the unseen world there was the perfect pattern of everything in this world. There, you could see the perfect chair from which all earthly chairs are inadequate copies. God maintains the perfect and the real and the most true form of chairs, love, humans.
From these understandings, the start gospel of John grabs the attention of the Greeks -
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him all things were made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. … This Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
God, in man form, coming to earth is the most real and true human we could ever get the chance to know.
The gospel of John does not have many Jewish elements that the other gospels have. There are a couple of miracles, but only ones that establish Jesus’s perfection and divine authority. In the miracle at the Wedding of Cana, for example, we literally see the intoxicating truth of Jesus, bringing to them the best wine after they ran out of their more imperfect wine. Jesus and the wine are seen as “being more real” than the watered down reality of here and now.
John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God who spoke this world into being, so loved all of us, Jews and Greeks alike, so much that he gave (not sent) his only Son, a more authentic and true manifestation of a human than we can imagine, so that anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus’s realness and truth will understand and possess that eternal, more perfect world inside their being, right now. They will not perish in ignorance but live in abundance, right now, living as Jesus did.
Using the words of God’s loving and giving and God’s only Son are ways the gospel of John introduces the Greeks to Jewish narrative. Now, not only is there a parallel world but that most perfect and eternal God also longs for a relationship with us. Now the whole Jewish narrative in the Old Testament scriptures can be opened up to them. All the stories of a perfect and eternal God, pursuing, saving, delivering, accompanying the Israelites are now stories about the God that wants a meaningful connection with them, this growing into greater intimacy with God.
While brilliantly crafted, none of this means anything unless we know we need God. In those moments, will we remember God is this close and has come this far?
Now what of the serpents? Don’t we want God to kill the serpents? We are already in the wilderness, do we have to keep the serpents around?
So most of my life, I have always been aware of how much suffering I have not encountered. This made me feel a little guilty until I read more Catholic spiritual writers about how getting closer to suffering means getting closer to God. Solidarity and compassion are our true journey. So we don’t just wait around and have bad things happen to us good people, we get closer to those who suffer and their suffering. Now, the idea of welcoming suffering had a purpose and a really good purpose. This idea marinated in me as I changed careers form engineering to social work. I came to DC in 1993 and allowed my seeking and curiosity to explore the suffering currently and in history around racism, inequity, oppression in Latin America, poverty. I learned from Eighth Day, from new friends in the Chocolate City, from Potter’s House books, from Eighth Day sermons, from this community and its many manifestations. This seeking and curiosity continued in my 2-3 years in Danville with chronically mentally ill and abused and raped women. Back to DC, my psychiatric hospital turned into the Potter’s House coffee shop, and Mike and I began a biological family. In both the Potter’s House and our home, we welcomed extra people to our home and soon discovered that our family was bigger and always now would be bigger than our biological mix.
In the past five years, we have struggled to find relief for my son’s depression and his occasional scary voices or as the medical world would say, his “auditory hallucinations.” Five years ago I was also calling them hallucinations and joined with the psychiatrist, with increasing disappointment, as he prescribed medication after medication. My son’s depression has been lifted to a large degree, but his anxiety and voices remain, even with today’s miracle psychotropic drugs. We sought out recommendations and found the “best psycho-pharmacologist in the area,” who had twenty years of teaching neuroscience and running Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder and anxiety clinics. At the end of our first meeting with this diminutive woman from China, named Dr Tao, she confidently proclaimed my son as not psychotic (good news) and just as confidently said that there is no medication that will address these voices. (not so good news).
So my son has to live with his serpent. As a mom, I must live with his serpent, too. How in the world can I guide my son and his serpent to find a way to live together? I began looking for others that lived with this particular serpent. I began with the National-Alliance-on-Mental-Illness (NAMI) family groups where parents of mentally ill children go for support. There I met some parents with hope, ideas, determination, love and also parents with fears, panic, anger, and depression. In fact there are actually two NAMI groups: one tends to lean in the more hopeful direction and the other in a more discouraged direction. Another way that I sought more wisdom was to google. In the early days I googled studies and medication trials and after Dr Tao’s proclamation, I now found myself googling more at the edge of peer support and I found information on the Hearing Voices Movement. In the mid-1990s a voice-hearing patient challenged her psychiatrist, Dr Romme, to point out exactly how she was psychotic or delusional when he hung a crucifix on the wall of his office ascribing to those supernatural events. She demanded that he let her talk with other voice-hearing clients of his for support. Dr Romme took up her challenge and threw an even larger net and appealed on television for voice-hearers in that country, (the Netherlands) to come together to form a non-medical and confidential support group around the experience. Within twenty-four hours they had responses from seven hundred voice-hearers, in and out of the mental health system. And so the movement began. A few years later, they published a book called, “Living with Voices” where fifty people share their stories of panic and making peace with their voices. Thirty of the fifty do so without medication. In August I attended the 10th International Hearing Voices Conference in Boston, MA, first one in the US. I spent two days meeting people who have wrestled with not only voices but sometimes also visions, delusions and psychosis, only to have come out on the other end having integrated the experience into their lives. One of the board members of the Hearing Voices USA, a sixty-two-year-old woman with the life-long label of schizophrenia, stated that “sometimes you just need to spend a few years in the woods.” I met two new college grads who each made it through college because they had other voice-hearers as support and places to go for respite and breaks. I volunteer at the Arlington mental health clinic, teaching a cooking class, and have for the few years since leaving the Potter’s House. I had given the Living with Voices book to a peer there and she came to me saying she was interested in leading a Hearing-Voices Support Group. We began that group in September and traveled to Massachusetts in December to be trained. We trained for four days with twenty-five other voice-hearers and with two leaders who also live with daily voices. During one exercise, we were to answer different oral questions “yes” or “no” by going to one side of the room designated “yes” or to the other labeled “no.” One of the questions was “If they came up with a pill that would get rid of your voices, would you want to take it.” To my surprise, everyone but me went to the “no” side of the room. One of the leaders, while sharing their story, talked about how she knows one of the three voices she lives with as a female yenta, a spiritual guide in the Jewish tradition. This trainer is a real Jennifer-Jones type of woman, no nonsense, no time for overly sentimental expression but she teared up as she shared some of the encouraging words this voice was sharing with her about us in that moment. Each of these people truly had their serpent lifted on a staff and that serpent was their source of healing.
So my son, who never once opened up the link to the TED Talk I sent him or the online Hearing-Voices group he could join, or any websites where he could learn more. Guess what he is doing on the other side of the planet, in Hawaii? Yep, watching those same videos (I sent them to the clinicians there) and listening to the stories of other voice-hearers who faced the dark side of their voices directly, much like the response of African and Asian individuals who find themselves newly hearing voices. My son is creating his own rituals, ceremonies, and reflections in an effort to integrate these voices into his life. He is putting his serpent on a pole and staring straight into its eyes for healing. So if he can do that, what can we manage to do?
So while John 3:16 clearly lays out that God has done all the work for salvation, can we respond by managing the source of our suffering? Can we be as bold as Christ to look at our suffering and our death straight in the eyes?
In the next five verses John talks about how if there is any judgment or condemnation that turns our faces, our paths, ourselves from God, it is of our own creation, an unwillingness to look for the healing in what makes us suffer.
Let me read it from the Message -
God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the healing of the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him,
19-21 This is the crisis we’re in: God’s light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness, places of distraction and avoidance, because they were not really interested in the path of pleasing God or receiving healing the way God wanted us to. Everyone who makes a practice of denial and is addicted to illusion, hates God’s light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God’s light.
So if there is a hell, it is our own creation. For me, now, having also faced the death of my parents recently, I feel that the suffering we experience now not only pales in comparison to living in the consciousness of God that they have now. Still the suffering now is essential for us to know the presence of the living God now, walking with us, through the wilderness, snakes and all, not taking the sources of death and suffering away but helping us to remember and turning our eyes to the source of life and death and knowing that we will never walk alone in either place. If we can walk this way, in this life, we do nothing less than heal the world.