It’s one of those days where a nation is met with terrible news of unspeakable, unpardonable violence. We wish for less of those days. We cringe at the hearing of them. Sometimes we are quick to respond.
My mother brought to me another sad truth about the acts in Charleston: Those who survive such a tragedy, who are in such close proximity to the violence, especially if they are children, may forever associate that place, that very location, with the violence and the blood that struck.
A worship center, a house of praise—wherever it is you gather—this is meant to be a sacred and holy space. Granted, to many devout people, it is not about a location itself, or whatever ornamentation, architecture and scented air that occupy it, but about the people and the God they come to meet there. But wherever that location is, we set it aside, sanctify it, as a sacred place, a place where comfort and security and safety is valued.
How terrible it is for such a place to be so violated, so irreparably damaged!
But is that damage irreperable?
Consider the cross, the crucifixion, a story that means nothing to us without resurrection, without healing.
I’ve sung many times that old tune, “Kneel at the Cross.” One line sings, “leave every care,” and we sing it often as if all we have to give to God are these petty worries and concerns. But what about our strongest trials, our tragedies, our most incredible woes? Still, what better place to go than to the place where God himself suffered everything? Who else can identify with tragedy?
I don’t imagine it would be easy for me to return to a place of worship after I had survived such a terrible tragedy and witnessed horrible violence. I would want to move on to a different location, too. But I do know that I would very much want to remain with the same people who survived it with me, even if their presence reminded me of the violence. After all, the family and friends of Christ, even those who ran out on him, met together after his return. Would they have even found the courage to do so if he had never returned?
If we believe in the resurrection, we must believe that such a sacred time and place as a gathering of believers to pray is ultimately invincible in the face of death.
Sometimes our first response to these stories is to meet to think of how we can better secure the premise of a church building or chapel—lock more doors more often, post guards, install video cameras. Whatever our measures, we must still communicate to the world that when and where we meet to praise, worship and pray, we are a place where vulnerability is welcome. A church must stand out as a people different from any other gathering or space in the community. It must still be a place where people can be trusted, where anyone who walks in will not be judged or looked upon suspiciously, where we are only on our guard against spiritual darkness, even if it means we are vulnerable to physical danger.
We must be a people willing to suffer shipwreck, imprisonment, torture, accosting, shame, abuse, death—all in the name of our love of one another and the God we serve. It must not cause us to cower, nor must it cause us to exchange the Way of Christ for that of the World.
I will say this: the moment you begin patting people down in the foyer, the day you’ve lost your focus. Do not create the same atmosphere of distrust and fear that places barriers between people who need to love one another more and hate one another less. I would rather die suddenly in a room full of people I love than to live without trusting anyone and feel alone all my life. How else are so many killers bred in this country, and others?
When we come to worship, we come at the feet of a King who has been tortured, cursed, and spat upon beyond what most of us have ever witnessed. We must hold to the faith that can overcome any tragedy. We must keep praying. And however we respond to tragedy—as individuals, as congregations, as nations—we must not change who we fundamentally are.
Pray. Pray. Pray.