May 24, 2016: Elisha’s Bears

I’ve been thinking more about my preacher friend who, as I mentioned a couple of weeks back, once took his congregation a bit too literally—or maybe too liberally—when the members told him to get real wine for a Communion service. He’s now an educator, doing well in another state, and occasionally we still swap stories and laugh about our days as ministerial cubs back in the 1980s. The first time I ever went to preach to his flock for him, though, I don’t recall laughing. Don’t try guessing the name or location of the church; I’ll never tell. Sweet Tater knows, and that’s enough. And she won’t tell either.

I arrived during Sunday School and seated myself at the back of the adult class to listen. The elderly teacher was lecturing on I Timothy 2:9-10, which speaks of the styling of hair and the wearing of ornaments. Want a further exposition? Look it up yourself. Right now I need only say that the teacher, though speaking in the mildest of tones, took a very conservative approach to the verses, more so than I would have done even at the time and much more so than I would now. But even though I thought he was a bit hidebound I knew that my own grandparents had shared his opinion exactly. If I could respect them, I could also respect him.

Not so, apparently, for at least half the class. I don’t recall ever hearing an older individual addressed more rudely, harshly, or disrespectfully by such a large group of younger ones. Those who disagreed with the teacher acted as if he’d accused them of murder or something just as bad, and the walls echoed again and again with tearful cries of “Judge not, that ye be not judged!” and that tired, overworked old saw “The Lord knows my heart!” But through it all, the teacher responded with perfect old-time manners, returning smiles for glares and soft words for harsh. In so doing he earned not only my respect but my admiration. But he was a gentleman, and I—well, I’m just a common tater.

Finally one man dispelled the tension just a bit by telling a story about his wife’s losing her wedding ring and her beheading of every chicken he owned to search their gizzards for it. That pretty much concluded the Sunday School, after which we had what passed for a worship service and the irked, flustered congregation sat through a fairly lame sermon by an extremely spooked young preacher. My pastor friend, however, appeared to be well accustomed to such shenanigans from his flock—likely they were most all family, which is about how such things work around here—but after the service endedand the crowd dispersed I observed to him that if the kids of Bethel had acted any worse to the Prophet Elisha than that Sunday School class had treated its teacher, I’d have hated to hear the racket. (II Kings 2:23-24. You can look that’n up too, preferably before reading on.)

“You know,” my friend mused in reply, “I have trouble understanding that. The Bible says that Elisha cursed those little kids for mocking his baldness, and then two she-bears tore up forty-two of ’em for it! Would a God whose son said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven’ really use a prophet so touchy about being bald that he’d cuss a bunch of little boys and girls for teasing him about it, and then have the Lord kill ’em with bears?”

I couldn’t answer him right away, because at the time that one had me stumped too. Now I’ve come to view it as probably a memory some ancient scribe had of a cautionary tale his parents had told him as a child so he’d behave. When I was growing up my father had his own similar yarn, of a blue-nosed monster that lived in the well house and ate razor blades and broken light bulbs but preferred little kids when he could get them. Was Dad right for telling me and my cousins that story? Rest his soul, I don’t hold it against him, and it for danged sure did keep us kids away from the well pump when we were little—which, of course, was exactly what Dad intended. I can smile even now thinking about him.

Sad to say, though, I heard the text of Elisha’s bears all too often in sermons for years after this incident, first by yet another young preacher still in high school who’d been rebuked by an older one for skipping class, and in every single case afterward by similar speakers who were obviously peeved at somebody and just itching to sic the Prophet’s bears on the perceived offender.If only people would just let them durned old bears hibernate! But if I recall right, on that long-ago day my final reply to my friend was something like this: “Well, you better be glad your Sunday School teacher didn’t remember that Scripture and call out Elisha’s bears himself—or then again, maybe the bears were already sitting in his class!”

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