Testimony by Betsy Nelson
Many years ago I was walking with friends in downtown Chattanooga. It was late, probably 10 pm. We were walking to our favorite hangout, The Pickle Barrel. It was mid-November, and chilly enough for a jacket, but otherwise pleasant. This was not uncommon to walk at night in downtown Chattanooga. It was a safe town.
I caught a glimpse of a guy sitting by himself in Miller Plaza. This is an open area where bands sometimes play on the weekends. He was sitting by a fountain that had been turned off because it was winter. Something about him caught me. I felt instantly that he needed help of some sort. I told my friends that I’d catch up with them in a little bit.
It was as if there was a hand on my head and it turned me in that direction. The entire time I was walking across the street I was arguing with God. What are you doing!? I don’t know this person. It is late at night. I am a small white woman!?
Chattanooga in general was safe to walk at night, but I’d been cautioned about strangers my whole life. My parents meant well with their concerns and fears, but they themselves were ruled by their fears. Fear is what killed them, ultimately. I wasn’t rebelling against them by doing this, but I knew that I had to do something. I had to get over my trained fear and listen to that voice that compelled me onward.
As I got closer to him, and saw that he was probably 6 feet tall, maybe 140 pounds. He was pale, and had dark hair. He also had a silver ring on his wedding finger that could have been a wedding ring.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have a script or training for this. I was terrified. But I felt like I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I was there already. I was looking at him, and he was looking at me.
I asked him if he was OK. He said he was. I knew he wasn’t. I kept talking with him. I wasn’t prying, and I certainly didn’t tell him that God sent me over because something was wrong. I just made light conversation.
We exchanged phone numbers and parted for the evening. It was months later that he told me that he was going to kill himself that night.
It was because I came up to him and distracted him that he didn’t.
This story has stayed with me for over half my life.
I still feel that pull to go up to strangers and ask them if they are OK. I still don’t know what to say or do. I don’t always go up to them. I wait to see if the pull is really there or if I’m just imagining it.
I don’t want to seem crazy.
It isn’t normal in our society to go up to strangers and talk to them. We are told not to. We are cautioned daily about how dangerous it is.
And then I remember this story. Normally we are told we might die if we go talk to strangers. Yet in this story, the stranger would have died if I hadn’t gone up to him.
It was a weird feeling, this pull. It was as if I had no say in the matter. I was as if I was a puppet. It was kind of unpleasant. It certainly was going counter to anything I’d been told by my parents or priests.
Yet it is everything.
We are told that if we are acting in accordance in the will of God, we are safe.
This is what snake handlers do. You know, the ones you’ve heard about in rural parts of the South or in the mountains of North Carolina. The ones who use snakes as part of their worship service.
They take their lead from the words of Jesus in Mark 16:17-18 “17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; 18 they will pick up snakes; if they should drink anything deadly, it will never harm them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will get well.” And also these words from Jesus in Luke 10:19 “19 Look, I have given you the authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; nothing will ever harm you.”
I want to take that bravery out into the streets, into the market place. I want to take that and make it useful.
Snake handling done for the sake of snake handling is pointless. But I also say communion for the sake of communion is pointless. They both might make you feel closer to God. They both might make you feel connected, and may remind you of your covenant with God. But they don’t mean anything if you can’t or won’t take that energy outside.
I don’t do this a lot. I saw a guy recently at my doctor’s office that I felt a small pull toward. I thought – what should I do? I walked out of the foyer, and I stopped for a moment, standing a few feet from the doors. I waited for the pull again. I waited for the hand on my head, directing me back.
It didn’t come. I don’t know if I missed it, or if it wasn’t something that I HAD to do.
I don’t know. I’ve not found books on this. I’ve not found a teacher.
Perhaps the experience itself is the teacher. Perhaps I need to just let God guide me through this. Sometimes this walk of faith feels like walking in darkness, with tiny pools of light to guide me. When I’m brave enough to step forward into the pool of light, another lights up before me. I don’t know where I’m headed, but I trust who is leading me.
I test everything. Does it feel crazy? That isn’t enough. Look at Moses – he talked to a burning bush. Look at Mary – she talked to angels who told her she was going to bring forth the Messiah.
Am I being asked to do something dangerous? That isn’t enough. Look at Peter – he walked on water. Look at Abraham – he was asked to sacrifice his son.
It is totally crazy to follow God. No wonder non-Christians feel like we are zombies. We pray about everything, asking God for guidance. We don’t rely on our own knowledge, because we realize that it isn’t enough. We are trying to tap into a bigger source. We aren’t lessening ourselves, we are plugging into Source. We are trying to upgrade from a 110 to a 220. We are trying to upgrade from a water hose to a garden hose. But it is hard, and confusing, and weird because there aren’t that many guides on this.
Here’s a test – is it for me? Or is it for others? Who will benefit from this action? If it is selfish, then run away. If it is self-less, then run towards it. If you are serving others, you are safe. Now, this doesn’t mean that nothing “bad” will happen – but it means that if it does, then it is also part of God’s will.
Confusing? Sure. But the Bible is full of stories that are confusing and yet many of us use them as the basis for our faith. I’m just bold enough to think there is some truth in these stories, and that it applies to us, right here and right now.
By Betsy Nelson