Let me say up front I believe the best way to handle a snake is with a 4.10 shotgun — and I have protected my chickens several times by doing so. I am not a fan of the reptile. If there is an earthly manifestation of evil, the slithering snake has my vote. No surprise — such loathing goes back to the story of Adam and Eve.
But should we condemn pastor Jamie Coots and his practice of handling poisonous snakes during worship? Although bitten numerous times over the years, the Tennessee preacher believed God saved him each time — until Feb. 15, 2014.
Hundreds turned out for his funeral in Middlesboro, Ky. Many were supporters, others gawkers (by inference, reporters are included on that list) and the curious who ask the simple question: “Why would a man or woman tempt death to worship a loving God?”
Pastor Coots died with his faith intact, simply believing it was his time to go. He told this newspaper, “… your faith doesn’t come in until you actually get bit.”
Historians, biblical scholars and believers will argue over the Gospel of Mark, which is said to refer to God’s protection from poison, speaking in tongues, healing the sick — and handling snakes.
But has it not always been so? Is not our history rich with those who tempt fate and fight dark forces in the process by handling things most would not touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole?
Think back to Paul – whipped, shipwrecked, tormented. But his faith was strong, and he spread the Word. Or the thousands of Christians across the globe today who are raped, tortured and killed for their belief. Did they not, and continue to, handle the snakes of tyranny, bigotry, ignorance and hatred?
Do we forget theologian Jonathan Edwards (famous as the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), who died in 1758 from a smallpox vaccination, a bite that killed him as he was trying to encourage fellow citizens to inoculate themselves against that scourge?
Or what of Madame Curie, who handled the snake of radiation from the mobile X-ray units she created for WWI — and died from her efforts?
Jonas Salk held the snake of polio but lived to tell the tale and beat the illness down.
Joan of Arc died at the stake for liberty — along with any number of American founders, servicemen and women, and other patriots over the life of our nation. Did they not handle snakes of evil and tyrannical powers?
Do we consider law enforcement, emergency responders and the thousands of others who face the snakes of everyday life?
In the end, many Christians will probably agree God indeed gives protection but do not want to “tempt the Lord thy God.”
I would offer divine protection is not only given but ends at an appropriate time — his time.
Christians believe God’s son met his earthly death after being bitten on a cross. They believe Jesus handled the ultimate snake of sin, allowed it to bite him billions of times for all of the history of mankind — and died a gruesome death for the ultimate prize of salvation and eternal life.
No, I will not judge pastor Coots. All who knew him called him the proverbial “good Christian man,” who threatened no one (other than himself, you might argue). His family and flock supported him to the end, refused earthly help and relied on a higher power, a power who apparently said it was time and that his mission was complete, his journey over, his message complete.
We may not worship as he did, but we have no place to condemn it any more than the more practical leaps of faith taken by mankind before him.
Rest in peace, Jamie. May we learn from your fervor.
But forgive me if I still handle snakes in the chicken coop with a shotgun.
Mike Chambers resides on Lookout Mountain.