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Living with Grizzlies

Grizzly bears are arguably the most significant animal threat to humans in North America. Unlike my homeland, South Africa, where the man eating predators are almost exclusively confined to areas where people are safe from them, many national parks in North America allow campers and hikers to explore areas where bears roam freely in the wild.

Grizzly means golden haired, but a famous pun was institutionalized by naturalist George Ord when he classified them, “not for their looks but for their grisly character,” as he averred. “Grisly” means “causing horror,” so Ord classified the mainland Grizzly as urcas arctos horribilis, or “horrible American bears.” The mainland grizzly is the largest and most aggressive species in America. They grow to be over 360kg. And at 2 meters tall and 1 meter wide they are the dimensional equivalent of meaty, man-eating, Ford Fiesta.

These deceptively docile-looking fuzzy creatures are notorious for their dexterity at killing humans with a casual swat, but then also feasting on the carcass. Since they can move faster than the average cyclist, there is no use trying to outrun them. Your best defense (apparently), should you have the unhappy privilege of encountering one in the wild, is to lie in a fetal position, play dead, and hope its not hungry.

Unless you are Timothy Treadwell.

Treadwell was nicknamed the Grizzly Man. He spent a total of 13 months, or 35,000 hours in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, living with bears. He captured some of the most intimate and spectacular footage of grizzlies. Over time the bears began to accept him in their presence. He could walk right up to them and stroke them like a domestic pet, something no other human being has captured on film. Treadwell was not afraid of the bears, nor were they afraid of him. And that became a problem. The park officials viewed him as “misguided at best, and at worst, dangerous.” They were concerned that his example could lead others to believe the bears were harmless, and venture to approach them. All other bear experts agreed that the grizzlies were still wild, still dangerous, and that Treadwell was treading on thin ice by being near them. And the experts were right.

In 2003, toward the end of his 13th visit to his precious bears, this time with his girlfriend Amie, tragedy struck. For absolutely no known reason—except that it is exactly what grizzlies do—a bear suddenly killed both Treadwell and his girlfriend, and then ate them.

The only part of his body found was a severed arm with his distinctive wristwatch still ticking, as if the bear wanted to make some macabre and ironic point about his time with them running out.

In the spiritual realm there is a great danger that Christians forget that the other believers in the church are still sinners. We grow used to each other, but we are still dangerous creatures, capable of inflicting devastating injuries on our unsuspecting victims. People are sinful, and to forget that is to set yourself up for a painful reminder.

Living with sinners, even in church, comes with a level of risk at being summarily mauled, nipped, or at least occasionally scratched.

Luke 17: And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.  Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.

Jesus warned his disciples to expect that they would be tempted to not forgive, and that the temptation would come via other believers. When you let your guard down and forget the residual sin nature resident in all of us, you run the risk of being surprised by an unsolicited attack from your otherwise docile pew buddy. Know that the temptation will come, so that you will be prepared to forgive quickly, and thereby disarm Satan of a favorite tool–a crowbar of grudge-holding used to split churches. The solution is not easy, but it is simple: remember that living with sinners is liek living with grizzlies. We are all predictably unpredictable.