As Wise as Serpents and as Gentle as Doves


Red Haired Woman

Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

I don’t know if you’ve ever known anyone who contradicted him or herself. I found someone who did last week and it was an instructive experience. I had gone up town to do some shopping and parked at the “old” post office in Manassas.

I did my shopping and came back to my car to find a small, somewhat elderly woman (it was hard to tell her age) with red hair that stuck out in all directions, examining the front of my wagon. When she saw me, she turned and said, “Is this yours?” gesturing at the front bumper.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, wondering if she had backed into me or something like that. It would be hard to tell since my car has more than a few dents.

“What does this mean?” she hissed in a manner generally reserved for wicked witches. But she didn’t look like a witch, except for her face and hair, and, come to think of it, she was wearing slightly ripped black clothes that draped off her so that she looked like a small black pine tree with a red star on top. She pointed to my license plate, which reads “WINGS-AM,” and stands for On Wings of the Morning, my first novel.

I explained this to her and then she asked, “Are you a writer?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you write this book?” she said in an accusatorial tone, pointing to the license again.

“I did.”

“What’s it about?”

I gave her my elevator speech and concluded by asking, “Would you like to see a copy?”

She nodded, somewhat eagerly, I thought, and I gave her one of the books. She held it close to her face, sniffed it a time or two and then handed it back to me.

“I can’t buy it. I don’t have any money.”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

“Well, thank you anyway.” She handed me the book and turned to leave. Then she did what I call a Colombo turn. In every episode of that show, Colombo starts to walk off from the suspect but stops, turns back to them and says, “There’s just one thing I don’t understand…” Then he reveals a clue that nails the suspect.

Reddi Whip (for so I named her because of her red hair and abrupt manner) came close to me, looked me in the face and in a conspiratorial whisper, said, “You have to be careful talking to strangers. You never know who they are or what they could do.”

I backed up a step, wondering what she would do and who she was. But she just gave me a curt nod, turned, and wove her way to the post office. They’ll know what to do with her, I thought.

As I drove home, I thought about the lady and how she warned me against the very thing she had done. I wasn’t sure of the significance of the encounter at first, but after some thought, I decided that Jesus gave the same advice in Matthew, without sporting red hair and witches’ apparel. He said, “Be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves,” and that advice is still sound today. In New Testament times, serpents were regarded as the wisest of animals, much as a fox is said to be sly or crafty in popular belief. The gentleness of a dove requires no explanation, so Jesus is saying, in so many words, “Be peaceful, forgive, don’t get angry no matter how much you are provoked, but at the same time, don’t be stupid. Keep your wits about you, learn how the world works, and figure out the best way to bring my good news to everyone, even those who are serpents. And I will help you.”

We can and should use this two-thousand-year-old advice. We would all be better for it.


God Is in the Details

Self Check Out

Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

I don’t know if you pay much attention to details. I know I don’t, which is why I never noticed that my S-10 had three doors or that our daughter Amy had a job for three weeks. Sometimes we think of details as small and unimportant. We might say, “Oh, that’s a mere detail. Don’t worry about it,” but they’re important after all.

The architect Mies van de Rohe, who was given the name Maria Ludwig Michael Mies van de Rohe at birth and who dropped off all but the “Mies” uttered the words of the title of this writing. By saying so, he wanted the world to understand that a design succeeds or fails through attention to small matters which, overall, add up to great buildings or symphonies or brick walls or sweaters. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the very old rhyme,

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail,

which speaks to this idea.

I was reminded of this statement when I made the third of three trips to the Food Lion we patronize yesterday. I was using the self-checkout, which I like except when the voice tells me to take my groceries and leave. She or it doesn’t say those exact words, but I’m close. Anyhow, I was trying to take one of the plastic bags off its wire hanger and not having a lot of success. I finally wrenched it free, and in so doing, tore one of the handles. I looked to see what damage I had caused (I don’t know why—it wasn’t like I crashed into a cart with my car), but I was curious, as I am about most things. There I saw, for the first time, that the handles have small oblong slots in them, which slide over the hangers. The design is so ingenious that I’m surprised that I had never noticed it before. Or I should say that I wasn’t surprised that I never saw it.

It occurred to me that without the slots in the handles which allows them to come off easily, I would never be able to take a bag off, and other people would have greater difficulty doing so. This small detail of design does make a difference.

I think God is not only in the details, God is all about detail. The scriptures tell us that God is the almighty creator of the entire universe, and yet he watches out for sparrows and counts the hairs on our head (you may insert your favorite bald joke here). And if God is concerned with details, so should we be, paying attention to everything we say and do and think. If we do so, then we are showing the world the love and grace of God, who attended to every detail of our salvation, arranging events and calling unlikely people to bring Jesus Christ into the world, to nurture him, and finally to see his sacrifice on the Cross. In that way, the smallest details added up to the greatest demonstration of love ever seen in the universe. Let us thank God for the details that insured our salvation!

Nothing to Sneeze At

How Many TImes

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about how many times you’re supposed to say “God bless you” after someone sneezes. I think we all say that after one sneeze, but what happens after two? Do we say “God bless you again” or “One more time”? What if someone has a sneezing fit? Do we give them three blessings and then they’re out? Does this trouble anyone else? It certainly does me.

So, I did what I do when I’m troubled about something: I try to find all I can about it, and what I found about this is there is no definite answer to this difficult philosophical and social dilemma. So, what do we do?

We could be like the French who, I am told, say, “A tes souhaits,” or, “As you wish,” after the first sneeze (I know, I don’t understand that either).

The second time, they say “A tes amours,” which means “To your loves,” a kind of offering of a sneeze to your significant other, I suppose. (As Alice said, “Curiouser and curiouser.”)

The third time, in France, IF the people involved know each other well enough and IF they can joke about it, they say “Va crever,” or, “Why don’t you just drop dead?” (Yep, the French are known for their sensitivity and compassion, especially toward relatives. But they did give us a lot of cool cheeses and the croissant, so I won’t say too much.)

On the other hand, some English speakers suggest saying, “God bless you,” the first time, “God save you,” the second and “God stop you from sneezing!” the third. An alternative is to say, “Bless you,” the first time, “Bless you again,” the second, and after the third sneeze, “Are you okay?” The person who recommended this approach commented, “That seems to do the trick.”

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering exactly what all this business about what to say after the first sneeze has to do with anything. It seems to me that, in this world we live in, we all need all the blessings we can get, even those that ostensibly come as a matter of politeness. Still, God hears even the prayers of unbelievers (and there’s your oxymoron for the day), and we could do a great deal worse than blessing each other, regardless of the reason. And what you say after the first sneeze is entirely up to you. As the kids say, it’s all good.