Opportunistic omnivores. What a great phrase! No, it has nothing to do with ruthless mergers and acquisitions. It’s how our Walk in the Woods guide, Sam, described the black bears in the Smoky Mountains on our hike up Mt. LeConte last fall. Black bears will eat anything they don’t have to work too hard to get, she explained. Fruits and berries on low hanging branches. Apple cores left behind on the trail. Candy wrappers from litter bugs. I’m sure they describe themselves to their other bear friends as easy-going and open to a wide range of cuisines, but, basically they’re lazy and non-discriminating. (Note to self: that whole ‘play dead’ thing if you meet a bear is bad information, at least where black bears are concerned. They’re not particularly looking for humans but, hey, if they don’t have to chase down supper…)
It got me to wondering… have Christians become opportunistic omnivores in our spiritual eating habits? Has the bulk of our diet become fruit picked off of low lying branches – Facebook quotes, inspirational emails that must be re-sent lest the receiver face peril, the latest podcast from the latest popular speaker? Are we picking up whatever others toss out on the trail – a new book here, an article there — readily accepting both apple cores and candy wrappers, not always certain which is good for us or how to tell the difference?
We ministers of spiritual formation often live in a fantasy world where black bears are the exception and everyone we shepherd is a yellow-bellied sapsucker. With focus and forethought, yellow-bellied sapsuckers methodically drill several rows of holes in the tree bark, go off for a while and come back later to a delicious meal of tree sap and the lovely insects that have been caught up in it… and they carry multiple highlighters under their wing for color coded study. They are intentional, disciplined and well-fed. And they are rare.
Black bears, on the other hand, are a growing population in Christian life – in all of life, really. Think about how we want and expect our news, entertainment, communication, even our education and career advancement – readily available and with little effort. But just because we can grab it on the go, like a meal through a drive-thru window, doesn’t mean we are headed anywhere meaningful. It just shows we are in a hurry and will take what we can get.
If black bears are, indeed, opportunistic omnivores, (and I trust Sam completely – hence the homemade hemlock tea we drank), then those of us who lead in ministry need to take responsibility for our poor collective eating habits and stop lamenting that bears are not birds and don’t fly. How, instead, can we find ways to make nutritious content and life-giving practices easy to access along the trail? Are we offering a picnic where bears gather, inviting folks to a feast at places and times and in ways that they can realistically participate? Clearly, they are hungry.
Why does it matter? Empty calories leave us powerless in the face of life, as individuals and as the Church. A malnourished faith leaves us weak when we face struggle, vulnerable when we face danger, uncertain when the choices of life have to be made. We are anemic, individually and collectively, and we are in denial.
When a bear eats one too many Snickers wrappers, when he gets too accustomed to the human scent left on food trash found on the trail and begins getting more comfortable and aggressive approaching campsites and rest areas and people, he is apt to find himself in the Bear Relocation program. The park service will tranquilize the bear and physically move him to an area of the park miles away. While they have him sedated, they mark him and take lab samples. It’s a way they can track the bears and study their health and habits.
So all because of his bad eating habits, a bear wakes up one morning with a splitting headache and a pierced ear, tattooed and with a tooth missing, and has no idea where he is or how he got there…. and some girl keeps calling.
Don’t be that bear.
Are you spiritually hungry? What does your daily diet look like? Don’t consume the easiest thing that comes along and call it a day. Hunger for the feast.