By Ken Woodley
If I had a dime for every time I’ve thought a squirrel scampering through dry leaves in the woods was a bear, my pockets would sound like a tambourine.
The leaves of long gone autumns amplify the sound of a squirrel until it takes on Jurassic Park-like qualities. Especially if you’re deep in the woods, alone with your thoughts and the sound of birds tuning their violins and violas. The sudden “eruption” of a happy squirrel hoping to hide a nut from its friends can cause whiplash.
Eventually, however, one learns to smile, or perhaps even chortle. Nope, not falling for the old squirrel-in-the-leaves again. That’s no bear. Hahahaha.
Until, one day, it is.
That happened to me last summer. There I was, coming to the end of a hike. There was the highly-traveled two-lane highway going past Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park. I could see it through the trees. There was the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. There was my car in the parking lot. I could see it through the trees. And there was the bear. I could see it, skidded to a halt 40 feet away from me, through the trees.
We stood staring at each other. I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised.
I’d read in a newspaper once that if you don’t project fear and panic and, instead, make yourself loud and large, a bear will leave you alone.
Loud and large? My fear was loud and large. Don’t project panic? I was almost projectile vomiting panic.
There was only one thing to do and I admit, on the purely musical level, it wasn’t the best choice: I began singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving my hiking stick in the air as I walked away. (To this day, I have no idea why that song came into my head).
As I emerged from the trees, two people were just getting out of a car. They must have thought me insane. There I was almost screaming “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” and waving a large stick around as if I was being attacked by bees. Or was John the Baptist on a particularly “Oh-you-brood-of-vipers” day.
They backed away, dread showing in their eyes. The man reached for his wallet and I think the woman was about to dial 9-1-1. I tried explaining the whole bear situation. I am certain they did not believe me.
I share this story because all of us find ourselves, like Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, in the wilderness from time to time. Unlike Jesus, we don’t directly encounter the devil but we do run into “bears.” And I am not speaking of the animals with four legs.
Things happen to us that can provoke an initial “in the wilderness” reaction of fear, perhaps even panic—whether it’s a health issue, job related or a personal relationship. We are tempted to give into our fears and worries and allow them to morph into panic. Then, like Jesus, we need to hold on tightly to our faith in God. We need to let our souls be loud and large—even if that means singing “Jimmy Crack Corn And I Don’t Care” at the top of our lungs. When we do, we realize that, whatever song we choose to help us journey through our wilderness of fear, God is singing harmony. The angel of his presence is with us.
And sometimes in the wilderness—not always, but occasionally—we discover that it was only a squirrel scampering through the leaves.