I've been struggling with how the Church responds to its members when they 'make a mistake', 'commit a crime' or in church language sin. Do we offer grace? Do we offer hope? Do we offer reconciliation with God and community?
Three examples to consider:
1) Columbine. Last spring marked the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings. One of the shooters parents, Dylan Klebold,were looking for a pastor to do his funeral. I understand they were refused many times and frantically called a Lutheran church. The Lutheran pastor, “the Rev. Don Marxhausen believed that Dylan's parents deserved to hear the message of God's grace.” The pastor extended God’s love along with God’s understanding of suffering and pain with this family. Eventually, Rev. Marxhausen would lose his pastorate because of his continued relationship with the Klebold family. He believed they should have been offered the ministry of presence after such a tragedy. Recently, my wife Amy went for a walk with a friend through the Columbine memorial at the city park. The memorial remembers the 13 victims of this crime but does not mention the 2 shooters, who also died of their own hands. Tragedy and pain is complex and in this situation very emotionally charged. God’s call on our lives is to remember this: the complexity that is pain and suffering leaves no one untouched and only God’s grace can help us walk into the light of healing.
2) BTK. I lived in Wichita during the BTK resurface. BTK was a serial killer who lived in the community for thirty years after his crimes were committed. After BTK, also known as Dennis Rader, was captured and arrested it began known that he attended a Lutheran church and was president of the congregation. Following his arrest, his pastor visited him in prison, sometimes twice a week offering pastoral presence and even communion. The pastor, Rev. Michael Clark, offered Dennis Rader his presence in his ministerial role. “Clark has received criticism from people upset that he has continued to be Rader's pastor. But that's his calling, he has said--to minister.” Even in the face of criticism, the pastor continues to offer support to a believer in God who seeks repentance and reconciliation. This takes grace to another level and especially the verse in Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you visited me”. This is our call from God, to be present with people.
3) Pennsylvania Gunman. Last week, George Sodini walked into an exercise gym and killed 3, wounding 9. He then turned the gun on himself; tragic and difficult to understand. For a brief time he attended a non-denominational Christian Church in the area. According to the article, he was asked to leave for harassing a woman. Clearly, there are some issues with this man and the church took appropriate action. However, the church did not pray for the man on Sunday, they don't pray for the dead. One deacon said this, "We believe in permanent security — once saved, always saved," Rickard said. "He will be judged, but he will be in heaven. ... He'll be in heaven, but he won't have any rewards because he did evil." Wow! I did not know there was a special ice cream section in heaven. So, this is why we do acts on earth, to get goodies in heaven. I know I'm being cynical and snotty in my response but making these statements pushes my sensibilities of God’s grace. Further, to not offer prayers for the man or his family is not grace-filled but judgment-filled. Where is God’s presence?
What is the difference between these examples? How does the church respond to people? How do we offer grace instead of judgment? I believe the church is called to offer opportunities for repentance. I acknowledge we must have boundaries and accountability for sins. I don’t live in an imaginary utopian society, there is punishment for crimes, both human and Divine. The Church exists to offer healing and a safe place for all sinners to come and leave whole taking Christ with them. If this is true, we should pray for people, we should visit parishioners in prison and we should hold funerals for the dead. Everyone deserves resurrection and it is God who gives this gift, not humanity. I invite you to be open to God’s presence by recognizing how God’s power of resurrection transcends all our human traits and failures to raise us from the ashes into grace and reconciliation with God.