Brother Ray’s Serpent Bites
One of the first pieces of information that Chuck and I learned through talking with the people at the Church of the Lord Jesus was that Dewey Chafin had been bitten 133 (now 139) times throughout his forty plus years of serpent handling. Almost all of the men and some of the women in the church exhibit some sort of deformity on their hands and fingers from a past serpent bite. An atrophied finger, the loss of movement in part of a hand, or simple scars from a serpent’s fangs, are proudly exhibited by these church members when they are asked about their “battle scars.” According to Brother Bob, Pastor of the church, the serpents “are the visible sign of the devil,” and when one has power over these serpents through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he or she is, in effect, exerting control over the devil. None of the church members seeks medical attention when bitten by a poisonous snake; in fact, Brother Bob’s stepdaughter was killed by a serpent bite in the 60s. But what does it mean when someone is bitten or when someone dies of a bite? Has the power of God failed that person in some way?
At one of the first services that Chuck and I attended, we witnessed an individual’s being bitten five times by a handful of copperheads. This person was not seriously hurt, but his hands and arms swelled up pretty badly. Brother Ray was eighty-two years old and had been with the church almost since its beginning in the late 40s. He was a very powerful force in the church, and I absolutely loved to hear and watch him sing and dance in the services. Ray was always one of the first people to handle the serpents in the services, and he had his own boxes of the creatures that he himself hunted, which he brought with him to church. Ray’s right hand was bitten over twenty years ago by a diamondback rattlesnake and became extremely atrophied. His index and middle fingers were completely unusable, and both of his hands had a swollen appearance. Before that service, Ray had been bitten 89 times throughout the almost fifty years that he had been with the church. During that Sunday morning, while holding a handful of copperheads, Ray was bitten five more times on both of his hands.
Ray did not yell out or even drop the serpents when he was bitten. The only way that I could tell that the bites had occurred was because he jerked just the slightest bit. He gently put the copperheads back into their box, and immediately the members of the church gathered around him and laid hands on him. I expected the music to stop at that point. I expected the service to be completely halted and all attention to be put on Ray. I expected him to sit down and care for his body. I expected this to be a tragedy.
But none of these things happened. Someone gave Ray a cloth to soak up the blood on his hands, and the music continued playing, full force. People gathered around Ray and prayed over him, touching him and caring for him, but he remained standing. In fact, another member of the church, Ruby, who appeared to be in an ecstatic state, dumped out another serpent box, picked up a huge rattlesnake and two other smaller copperheads, and handled them right there beside Ray. As she was about to put them back in the box, Ray took the serpents from her and handled again, even though he had been bitten not even five minutes earlier. Ray danced and showed everyone that despite the poison coursing through his body, he was protected from the effects by the power of the Lord.
After Ray was finished handling, Brother Dewey came out from behind the pulpit and took the three serpents. He began to preach, asserting that the Bible “didn’t say these snakes wouldn’t bite you or wouldn’t hurt you.” He continued, “[The Lord] said, ‘these signs shall follow them that believe.’ These are the signs nobody wants to follow.” In other words, because the Word says those who believe in the Lord “shall follow” the signs in Mark, the Jolo church members feel that it is a command that they handle serpents. In an interview with Brother Bob, he added to this point: “If we’re led by the Spirit and it [the serpent] bites us, then it was God’s will.” Furthermore,
If it bites you and you’re under the anointing, and you die, you’ve just done God’s will. That was your way to go. That was just your way to go. Because there’s going to be something that takes everybody out of this world. To me, it’s fulfillment of the Word…the Bible says, “happy are you if you die in the Lord.” What better way would you find to die than doing what God said to do?
Thus, the church members accept a certain degree of mystery associated with the will of God. No one knows for certain why God might allow a serpent to bite an individual, but one must simply have faith that there was a reason.
At the end of the service, Ray’s hands had swollen a great deal, but he wasn’t feeling sick, nor did he exhibit any effects other than being a little “itchy.” He stood up to testify and said,
I’d like to praise God for being here…thank Him for the Spirit. I’d like to thank him for the bites I got today, all five of them. I praise Him for it because they’re not hurtin’ – they’re itchin’, but they’re not hurtin’. They’re swellin’. But you know, I thank and praise Him for it because that lets me know that He’s able to take care of me if I just trust Him. I’ve got to trust Him so He can take care of me. If I do what He says to do, I’ll be all right…I praise Him for puttin’ His Spirit on me to lead me and guide me, I praise Him for each and every thing He does for me…I started to go to that box of rattlers over there, but He moved and led me to the copperheads. I got the copperheads and I got bit. But that was for somethin’. That was done for somethin’ – to show me that He’s still able to take care of me even if I’m an old man. I praise Him for it. And I’ll pray for you all, the best that I know how.
Ray felt that there was a reason for what, to an outsider, would appear to be a “breakdown” in the power of the Spirit. His getting bitten was not a breakdown at all but was God’s way of showing Ray that He would still take care of him, even though Ray was an “old man.”
According to the members of the Church of the Lord Jesus, God has a reason for everything that He does, and they as His children must simply trust that will, even if they do not understand it. They are receptacles for His supernatural powers, and through Him they are able to perform certain miracles, but they are not in control – God is. And most importantly, it is through their ability to surrender their control and to have complete faith in Him that they are able to tap in to the powers of the Lord.
© Shannon Bell, 2000