A while back, when GraceisEverywhere was only a tickle in my brain, I came across an article in The Washington Post about a snake-handling pastor. It’s a good, thoughtful article that doesn’t try to sensationalize or ridicule its subject, and, as I often do, I filed it away in memory. Six months later I read that the pastor in that article, Randy “Mack” Wolford, had been bitten during the outdoor service he’d been planning and died an agonizing death. As the photographer noted, Wolford was “a victim of his unwavering faith, but also a testament to it.”
It can be easy to dismiss the people who occupy the extremes of Christian faith. To think they’re crazy. To shake our heads and say, “I can’t go there.” But a more interesting and complicated question to my mind, is not why are these Christians so different, but how are we alike? What part of the Christian message is so important to someone that they would handle snakes? How do they see God? Why do they adopt this practice and not any one of the many other available options? What do they believe about God that makes this possible, desirable?
People like Mack Wolford believe that God is powerful–that He makes promises and keeps them. I suspect that a lot of you reading this would agree. I also sense that people in Pastor Wolford’s tradition believe that we can compel God to do things when we act on His promises. I’m not so sure it works that way. But how different is this approach from what Elijah was doing with the prophets of Baal in I Kings 18?. Are we ready to condemn Elijah for his audacity? Are we ready to say that tests of faith never come from God? Should we never remind God of his part in our covenantal relationship–never make demands of the Almighty?
Perhaps we need to ask these sorts of questions from time to time, so we don’t grow too comfortable in our own practices and forget how strange most of them are to anyone who is not a believer. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “What do I believe about God that makes me do what I do?” Are the extremes of faith so far from where I stand?
In addition to the two articles already mentioned, I commend to your attention “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith” by the Post photographer who stayed until the end.