The Possum Story: A Lenten Lesson


This past week was a bit more anxiety filled than usual.   After a year of procrastination, I finally decided to take action and have a doctor remove the mutant mole that found its home right below my ear.     When all was said and done, and Wednesday was over, I found myself wiped and exhausted.   I was looking forward to a couple hours of nothing on the couch, before I retired for the evening.

 The last thing I remember was letting the dog out into the back yard and slowly slipping into slumber on the couch, in front of a taped episode of “The Biggest Loser”.  A couple of hours later, through the deep sleep I found myself in, a faint sound began to register in my head.   It was our dog, Sammy.  

 The bark was barely audible with the windows closed, yet I cursed the dog thinking that he had been out there barking and keeping the neighbors awake.  How long had he been barking I wondered.  In my dazed state and angry, I opened the sliding glass door and called for him to come into the house.    It was then I realized that his bark was not right.   Immediately I said to myself:  “Self:   Something is wrong here.”  The first thought that popped into my head was that there was a evil, gang member, drifter lurking out there in the darkness… or worse still… perhaps it was some boogie man in demonic clown make up hiding in the darkened bushes of my yard.   Whoever or what ever it was probably all set and ready to break into my house and wreak havoc on my family, but thankfully Sammy had managed to stop him…or it.

Someone I knew, had to go out and investigate.  Someone had to fend of the dark demon menace of my backyard.   Someone had to cowboy up and go and investigate.  I thought about waking up Sophie to do it…but figured I would just catch slack if I did.  By default, this most unpleasant of duties had befallen me.

So with only a little additional hesitation, I tentatively made my way to the far corner of my back yard.    It didn’t take long for my eye to catch a flurry of movement in the corner and to make sense of what was going on.   It wasn’t some Freddy Kruger demon in the back yard.   Rather, Sammy had captured some animal and there was a major epic battle going on.  

Usually, the only animal that is not a cat or dog we see in our neighborhood is a skunk, so images of a pepe le pew spraying my dog filled me with terror.  Sammy had gone after a skunk…   What do I do now?

 After a few seconds of yelling at the dog in the darkness to no avail, I realized that I needed help.   This dog, just wasn’t paying attention to me.   I knew in that moment, that I had to call in the big guns.   I realized that when I cant get people’s attention, there is only one thing to do.  I ran back to the sliding door and yelled for Stacey. 

 In a flash the two of us were making our way to what was sure to be our inevitable stinky fate.   As I worked my way to the corner, I realized with both dread and surprise, that this was no fluffy, cute skunk.   This was some bizarre oversized rodent.    “Good God,” I said to myself “Sammy had caught himself some bizarre mutant rat.   A few seconds later it dawned on me, that it wasn’t some rat on steroids but rather a possum that was cornered and now fighting it out with Sammy.  Despite years of undergraduate, graduate, and seminary education, I was surprising unprepared for this moment, and unsure of what I was supposed to do now.

 I have never been one that has felt incredibly comfortable out in the wild.   I find that there is something oddly comforting for me in the soft glow of a street light or the concrete of a sidewalk.   Ultimately whatever animals are scurrying around in the darkness of my neighborhood, be they squirrels, raccoons, skunks, bats or whatever…Yours truly would prefer that they stay in someone elses yard.   I am not equipped to be the animal control officer in my neighborhood.  Don’t get me wrong,…I love nature and love spending time outdoors…I only have a problem when nature invades my world.  My idea of watching and interacting with wildlife, is spending time on a bench in front of Wal-Mart on a Saturday.  

 So anyways, there we are:  Stacey and I standing in the darkness of our back yard pleading with Sammy.   For a split second Sammy backed off a few inches and turned to glance at us.   In that moment, the fear ratcheted up ten fold.   When Sammy turned we realized that he was covered in blood.   In that moment, the panic hit.   

I needed to find something.   I needed to get a tool.   I needed to figure out how to get Sammy away from this animal.    I turned to Stacey, with my eyes surely bugged out, and said I gotta get something, and ran to the house.

I made a bee line towards our back door, at mach 4.  I ran as fast as my feet could take me.   I ran past the rake.   I ran past the broom.   I ran past a snow shovel.   Nothing was going to stop me on my quest to find something to separate the two animals.   Before I knew it I was in the kitchen, in a fast forward fit of frenzy, I looked left and right, there has got to be something I said to myself.   No sooner did I think it than the answer came into vision.   There on the counter was a pasta pot, filled with about two inches of water.

Grabbing a hold of it with both hands I ran back towards the back yard.   In hindsight, I have no clue why the pasta pot became my deterrent of choice, other than simply I panicked in the moment.    Needless to say, the image of me running with it screaming, “Im coming, Im coming!” must have been a sight to behold.  I got within a few feet of the commotion, stopped dead in my tracks bewildered at what good the pot was going to be, and tossed the water on the dog and possum. As can be expected, the incredible genius of my idea proved ineffective.   In that moment, realizing what a stupid choice in weapons I had made, I effectively nullified my man card.

 With no other option, I started swinging that empty pasta pot.  I was a man possessed.   I was a mad man wielding the full force of my Teflon potted vengeance.   In the process I whacked myself, the possum, and my dog.   Both animals must have realized the ludicrousness of a grown man using an implement of pasta as a weapon, because the fight stopped.   For a moment, they both stared up at me as if to say, “are you kidding me”.   

In that moment, Stacey grabbed Sammy’s collar and hauled him back, and the three of us made a mad dash back to the house…as if there were other mutant rats waiting in the darkness to launch an attacked.   Once inside we began the process of inspecting every inch of our dog.   In the end, it was Sammy that walked away as the victor, seemingly unscratched from the encounter.   The blood that now made his fur a rich auburn color, was solely the possum.

When the dust settled, I started to worry that the animal was rabid, and with Stacey returning to the bedroom, I decided to google “possum” to find out as much about the animal as possible, now that its whereabouts were unknown.     After several hours, I shut off the computer with a plethora of random facts about the possum, and a draft for this morning’s extremely out of the box message.

In my travels across the internet that night, I learned a thing or two about possums.    In addition to a core body temperature that is so extremely low that it is virtually unheard of for a possum to be rabid, I learned that they don’t live that long.   The average possum only survives a year or two, as they all to frequently fall victim to animals like Sammy. Although they look vicious, are one of the fastest of animals, and have more teeth than any other animal in North America, there is a trio of inevitable weaknesses that exists at their core that eons of evolution has not erased; the possums are the most fearful of animals.

When cornered the possum employs three basic tactics to survive.   First they play possum.   The fear, completely uncontrolled in the mind of the possum releases a chemical that puts them in an instant coma.   In an instant they drop to ground, foam rises in their mouth, and foul smells start emitting from there backside.   Perhaps an animal or two will think the possum a carcass and wander away.  Four hours later the chemical will likely wear off and the possum scrambles away.    That is if the offending animal doesn’t think the possum is a chew toy.

The second defense mechanism involves displaying their numerous razor sharp teeth.  When cornered the possum will open their mouth to reveal the danger inherent in their chompers and let out a horrific growl like scream.  Again, maybe an animal or two will see those teeth and think twice, but those that don’t soon realize that it is all show.   For some unknown reason, once their mouth is wide open, they refuse to bite.   Some scientists believe that the jaw locks open, and as such they can’t use their teeth in their defense.   Only rarely do they actual go from open mouth to biting their attacker.

Lastly, and most peculiar, is their initial response to danger.   Although they are fast animals, when they are surprised by an attacker they don’t turn and bolt.   Instead they position themselves face on to the threat, and try to walk backwards away from the situation.   This is probably why the possum found itself stuck in the corner of our back yard.    They walk backwards blindly and are often victims of walking blindly into corners or up against walls.    Again, scientists believe that it could be a mental defect in the mind of the animal.

As I think of these reactions to stress and danger, I marvel at what an interesting animal met its fate in my back yard.   At the same time, I cant help but take a moment and realize that there are many of us that respond to the challenges and attacks we face in exactly the same manner.   In our community there are too many possums. 

We all know those who face the struggles of this life, or the darkness of doubt, and roll up in a ball and play dead, or play possum.    We know those who when facing a threat or danger, show their teeth but never use them, like the possum.   And we all know those who cant move forward towards peace and safety, because they are too fixated and concerned about where they have been.

Last week, I introduced us to Lent, and spoke about how this is a period of Holy Waiting for each of us.   We wait for that moment that is so clearly visible on our horizon, when the gift of hope, love, and grace find its way into the darkness.   This period of Holy Waiting is a time that is not passive, but should be about preparation and activity.   It should be a period when we change our focus and our direction.

In Lent we are in a period of darkness, but we are promised if we continue to move forward, more and more light will come our way, until we are surrounded by the light of the resurrection.    What is revealed in this season, is witnessed thoughout our individual faith journeys.

How we respond in the dark moments of our life, define our journey.   When life is dark, hard or full of regret, we can fix our focus on the promise of Jesus, or play possum.    We can look pain, struggle, and grief face on and move past it, our curl up and play dead.   

We can also face the enemy that is the doubt and uncertainty found in the challenges of this life, and do so with a full set of weapons at our disposal.   Those weapons are some of the strongest available:  prayer, community, assurance, and so on.    These are the tools that will lead us out of the darkness.   Yet too often, we refuse to use them.  In the end, we are no different than the possum showing the weapons that are his teeth, and refusing to use them when they most need too.

Lastly, too many of us cant move towards a fuller and more complete life, because we refuse to look forward.   Instead we get stuck focusing on the regrets of past bad decisions, missteps, and mistakes.   Our faith tells us that that stuff matters no longer.    Our faith tells us that we are to turn our back on the past hurts once and for all, and run towards the promise that is on our horizon.   Instead, we act like the possum and fail to run towards safety, because we are incapable of turning from what is behind us.

I heard a story this past week, that caught my attention.   It was of a NCAA cross country invitational held in Riverside, California.   The race was 10k through trails and forest.    At the half way point,..or about three miles in…there was a fork in the trail.   As the first three runners approached the fork one went right in error, and the other two went left.    The runners who chose the correct way knew the course and believed that the other runner was making a mistake.     Seeing the runner make the wrong turn, they both stopped and questioned their own route.   As they stood there, for only a few seconds, the bulk of the runners hit the fork.    They all took the wrong turn and headed down the incorrect path, following the misguided runner.

 One of the other two runners instantly became distressed.   He stood frozen, and all of a sudden was unsure.   He eyed that path, and although he knew he was headed in the right direction, couldn’t shake the doubt.   Long after the second runner took off and continued on the course towards the finish, the second runner stood debating his decision.   He eyed that fork intently.    Eventually, he headed back and took the wrong path with the rest of them.  Which runner are you called to be.

In the end this isLent, and this is a period of Holy Waiting.   It’s a period of waiting that comes with a challenge.     We are challenged to face the darkness head on, knowing that Jesus, Easter, and the empty tomb awaits us on the horizon.    We are challenged with moving forward no matter what situation we find ourselves in.   

We are challenged with seeing through the darkness, and using all the tools at our disposal.   We are challenged to be more than just the possum glaring his teeth.   We are called to respond to the darkness with prayer, with worship, with devotion, and with community.   We are faced with a choice of using what is at our disposal or giving up or in.

In Lent we are challenged to turn away from all the stupid decisions of our past, and all the hurts we have felt and caused and keep moving.   We are challenged to be people who realizing curling up in a ball and playing dead is not an option.    We are called to be people who do not act like the possum refusing to look forward, or the runner talking himself out of what he knows is right and true.   This is one of the lessons of Lent and shame on us if we fail to see it for what it is.

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