One of the interesting aspects of being in a different country is that many of the skills of watchfulness I’ve developed have little use here. The things that are dangerous back home are not necessarily dangerous here. Worse, the things that are dangerous here don’t always trigger alarm bells for me. Take snakes for example. Although I spent most of my childhood in Brooklyn, New York, my summers were spent at camp two hours north of the city, or as we would say “upstate”. Dad was a camp director and Mom was camp nurse. My friends and I would spend our days tromping through the woods, building forts, hunting for frogs and other small creatures that we could feed to our collection of snakes! For most of my life the shout “snake” means grab a forked stick and get ready to grab a writing creature. Fear? What’s that?! Only chickens or city kids are afraid of snakes. You want to be afraid of something? Be afraid of getting pushed onto the subway tracks, or getting mugged on the way home from school, or walking past a drug deal gone bad. That’s scary. Snakes? Not a chance. Then I came to Zambia.
The first time I visited this country was in 1995. Julie and I were dating and her parents got the sense that this was serious. They decided that the city boy needed to come to Zambia to see where their little African princess had grown up. I agreed and made plans to go. As part of the preparation I remember Julie warning me, “We see a snake, we run the other way!” I was shocked. Why? Why would you run from a snake? She exclaimed, “In Africa, snakes can kill you!” Oh right, I guess I didn’t know that. My natural defenses were useless in Zambia’s Northwest Province. Sure enough not a few days into the trip I was staring into a small bush and saw a pretty, green snake. It was all I could do to hold my hands at my side and not reach in to grab it. I shouted “snake” and everyone hollered “watch out!” It turned out to be a harmless green tree snake. See! What’s there to worry about? A few days later the night watch guardsman killed a six foot cobra near the house. Yikes. OK, I get it. Or at least I did.
Yesterday, a two foot snake crawled out from under a carpet that had been left on the lawn overnight. Julie saw it and shouted “snake!” I grabbed my camera and came running. Mark caught it and we killed it. You can see a video of the mayhem here. When the whole incident was over I was struck with the fact that I am still not instinctively afraid enough of the consequences of being bitten by a poisonous viper.
The parallels to the spiritual life are unavoidable. Christians are enjoined to watch out, be alert, and be on guard (Eph 6:18; 1 Pet 5:8). Attentiveness comes with an increased awareness of the consequences of inattentiveness. Are you aware of what the World, the Flesh and the Devil, want to do to you? Am I filled with a healthy fear that keeps me on guard? When your alarm bells go off, do you run towards the temptation, or do you run away from it? Be alert. It’s a jungle out there.