When Evil Walks In

“I don’t want you to alarm you …” Tell me, is it possible to hear those words and not be alarmed?

The pastor of the church where I would be preaching that Sunday called to alert me about an “incident” during worship the previous week. A man showed up in the middle of worship and walked down the center aisle carrying a large duffel bag and ranting. He was “subdued” by the ushers and escorted out. “I don’t think he’ll be back, but the state police will be there on Sunday just in case. I thought you should know.”

Her voice was calm, and reassuring. Still, this is what I heard:

Crazy man.
Large duffel bag.
Had to be subdued.
State police.

My training as a lay preacher covered the design of worship services, doctrine, hermeneutics and Biblical exegesis. But not once did anyone tell me what to do when worship was disrupted by an angry man with a large duffel bag. All I could think was, “I’m just the substitute teacher! This is way above my pay grade.”

Other than being greeted by state troopers (which was, at once, reassuring and unnerving), it turned out to be an unremarkable worship service.

My worst fears didn’t come true that Sunday, but other churches haven’t been spared the horror I feared.

This week, it was Sutherland Springs, Texas where murderous evil breached the sanctuary. And, as if the execution of 26 people and wounding of as many more wasn’t horrible enough, the fact that it took place in a church was particularly hard to bear.

For believers, the idea that their sanctuary could be violated in this way was unthinkable. Many people think of church as the ultimate safe space, a place we can enter and then pull the drawbridge up behind us, leaving the world and its madness behind. When massacres happen in Sutherland Springs or Charlottesville, our idea of church as a spiritual stronghold is challenged.

So, here are the questions I’ve been chewing on:

Should we expect to feel safe in church?

Is church a space where God will not allow the world to intrude?

It strikes me that this is a First World Question. According to Open Doors USA, each month, 214 churches are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians worldwide. In countries like Syria and Iraq, the Christian population has been decimated. Churches in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia Pakistan and Kenya have been destroyed and Christians murdered.

For all the talk of the marginalization of the church in the U.S., and the ongoing culture wars that can make us feel under attack, the church in America doesn’t know the first thing about persecution. For too many of us, church is a soft place to land, a city whose walls protect us from all harm. The rest of the world has no such illusions. Every worship service is a defiant declaration that Jesus is Lord; no one expects the surrounding culture or political organization take that lying down. They are sorrowful, but not surprised, when evil comes to church.

I’m not suggesting that what happened in Texas last week was persecution; in fact, as of this writing, motives are unclear. But it has caused me to admit that I think that somehow when the church doors close behind me, the world and its evils will not intrude. I admit that I am like many people who think of church is where I can let down my guard and make the world go away.

But if the church is being the church — open doors, no moats or drawbridges here — it is possible evil will walk in. It is possible that God’s holy space will be profaned in word or in bloody deed. It is easy to worship in safety. Worshiping without guarantees of physical safety or comfort — now that’s real faith.

I recently went on pilgrimage to Ireland, tracing the steps of St. Patrick. One of my favorite places was Ballintubber Abbey, continuously in use since it was built in 1216. In 1653, the abbey was burned by Cromwell’s forces, destroying the roof and several outbuildings. Nevertheless, for the next 250 years, people continued to worship there, week after week, regardless of weather, and in spite of laws prohibiting it. As I sat in the rebuilt abbey, I wondered: Would I have been so faithful? Would I have been as brave? Would I have been a lookout for the priest hunters who came to kill my pastor? Would I have helped him escape certain death? Would I have been willing to kneel on the cold ground in worship?

Or would I have wondered, as I did this week, “Should I expect to be safe and comfortable in church? Will God allow the world to intrude?”

I don’t know why, but sometimes evil walks into church the same way it drives down the bike path or firebombs prayer meetings or enslaves young girls. I don’t know why God doesn’t always intervene to prevent such suffering.  But I do know that proclaiming Jesus is Lord is a declaration of war and I should be ready:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:13-17

 

 

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Division

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THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME  … is over.

Unfortunately, nothing has been settled. Oh, we have elected a president, but it feels more like the campaign has just gone to extra innings. People’s antipathies towards the candidates or their supporters didn’t change just because one of them got more than 270 electoral votes. In fact, they have hardened into brickbats that we’re just itching to hurl at each other.

To hear the fake news sites tell it, we have only two narratives to choose from:

  • The benighted, racist, uneducated people in those flyover states have led us down the road to perdition.
  • The arrogant, out-of-touch liberal snowflakes can’t seem to grasp that they’ve gotten their comeuppance and should suck it up and move on.

In the real world — the world where people have to look each other in the eye as opposed to the faceless ether that is social media — things are messier. I have a friend — a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat — who had as much distaste for Hillary as any Trumpster. I know people who voted for Trump, believing as much as any blue-stater that he is at best a vulgarian and at worst a sexual predator. True believers aside, I think many people made a decision that required them to make peace with things they found objectionable, even abhorrent. And many, like me, are angry and resentful about being forced to make such a choice.

Now that the election gravy train has left the station, the media are only too happy to continue the narrative that we are hopelessly polarized. Reactions to the election have dominated the news, from violent anti-Trump protests to reports of attacks (verbal and physical) on minorities. Once more, we are being asked to wade through the muck and discern what is true (some reports have been proven false), and figure out what we will do about it.

“How could this be?” a friend lamented. “Has this river of hate been here all the time? I thought we had made such progress since the days of segregation. Now I think it never really went away.”

If we are surprised by the vitriol we are hearing it is because we have bought into the idea that if we legislate goodness, people will be good. We think that if we make it socially unacceptable to express the ugliness in our hearts, the ugliness will disappear.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
                    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

We can be frightened, we can be disappointed, we can be angry about the ugliness being manifest in our country. But we should not be surprised. There is a dividing line between good and evil, all right. But it isn’t only between Us and Them. It is also within us — each of us, all of us, no exceptions. This is not something that can be legislated, regulated or reasoned away.

It is not a political problem, it is a spiritual one.

I’m not suggesting that some people are irredeemably evil (as one candidate did) and we should sit idly as we descend into mayhem.  Laws can and should regulate behavior by imposing penalties for actions society deems undesirable. They are necessary, both as a deterrent and as an enforcement of the common will. This is one of the primary functions of government.

But laws cannot change the human heart.

While they can constrain our behavior, no government and no law has ever succeeded in making people good.

With the humility of people who know that the dividing line between good and evil runs through our hearts as well as those we vilify, there are things we can and should do in this most unsettling season:

We can and should look at why, at this moment in our history, the angry beast within us has been awakened, and with such fervor.

We need to ask why we won’t tolerate any views other than our own. Technology has allowed us to construct intellectual bunkers, and in this respect, it has not served us well. Armed with a TV remote and the “hide” button on Facebook, we can filter out what we’d rather not hear. 

Let’s be brave and actually listen to “one of them”. Not agree, not affirm, not encourage. Not try to convince or out-argue (does that ever work?) Just listen, and if asked, state our position with as much grace and love as we can muster.

We need to use every means given to us by our democracy to uphold our ideals of justice, equality, opportunity and freedom:

Vote. Pray. Write letters.  Run for office. Teach.  Be an example of the good you want to see. Pray some more. 

We need to do one more thing. We need to seek God, who alone can change our hearts and the hearts of those who sow dissent and rancor. I think of John Newton, the slave trader whose heart was transformed by the knowledge and love of God. He renounced his wicked profession, went into ministry, and became a mentor to William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in ending the slave trade in England. He also wrote these words:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

This is what God can do that Congress can’t: make the blind see.

This is what no president or senator or court can do: redeem an “irredeemable” and declare victory over a divided heart.

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