When Church isn't Safe

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The Sutherland Springs church shooting in 2017 left many churches, including my own, reeling. Twenty-seven lives were lost, making it the fifth deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. An event so violent and so prevalent was bound to make an impact on church life, opening our eyes to the fact that churches are not exempt from the violence of current culture. 

I knew this, but perhaps I was naive about it. As children, we used to play outside the church at night during choir practices, kicking balls into the neighbor’s yard. We’d run down to the local donut shop for snacks after services. I had never felt unsafe at church - in fact, it was in its sanctuary filled with people that had watched me grow up that I often felt safe from the outside world.

The news of a church shooting overturned my perception of church safety. It made me realize the church cannot always be a safe place. Sometimes, as past and present culture show, it can be the most unsafe place. 

Our congregation acted accordingly. We increased security measures, placed locks on doors and moved our prayer meetings from the chapel (which only had one exit) to the main building. My mom told us not to close our eyes while praying at church. It started as a joke - anyone could come in while our heads are bowed!

Yet for me there was still this nagging fear, creeping up to remind me that church was just like everywhere else: vulnerable, public and open to violence. 

I began to fear going to church and became exhausted from worry. I stopped listening to sermons, keeping my eyes on the exit closest to me. I began to question whether this fear was real or simply neuroticism, and of course since I was unable to come up with a conclusive answer I only became more anxious. I kept my eyes open during prayer.

Human beings feel fear. It’s natural. But when my fear became overwhelming, it led me to the realization that I was powerless. And in powerlessness, there’s only one place to turn: God’s word.

God’s word explores the depth of human feeling, showing us the way different characters reacted to different emotions, including fear. A notable Bible writer who wrote on fear was David, a warrior and a king who had many enemies. Throughout his life, many people - enemies, friends and even family - wanted him dead. More than once, David was forced to flee for his life.

A quick skim over David’s life in the Bible neglects the emotional weight of his experiences. How did David feel when Saul threw a spear at him? What was he feeling when he heard others condemning him? What was going through his mind when he had to run from his own son? David must have felt worried, stressed and, yes, fearful. We can catch a glimpse of these emotions in the Psalms he wrote, including Psalm 3, which he wrote when fleeing his power-hungry son Absalom.

In Psalm 3, David identifies physical and spiritual danger, citing threats not only to his body but to his soul. His son, who had recently taken over his kingdom, wanted him dead. Thousands of followers were leaning on him for protection. Strangers condemned him, saying he had no salvation in God. David must have felt afraid.

But Psalm 3 is not about how afraid David was. It’s not even a ranting description of all the things he was worried about.

David talks about how God is a “shield,” his “glory,” and the “lifter of my head.” It describes how God answers his cries, and how he sleeps peacefully. It describes how the power to defeat enemies is God’s, not his own. And finally, it claims that salvation belongs to the Lord.

We live in a violent time, but not more so than David’s. Though our times are different, violence, hatred and sin still exist today resulting in terrible consequences that are felt by everyone, including the church. But like David, we can take comfort knowing God is God even in these terrible circumstances. While nowhere in this world will be truly safe from sin, we can find rest in the knowledge of God.

While Psalm 3 is born out of fear, it is ultimately about God’s power and how much David trusts in Him. In the end, we can find courage and peace not in our own control (or lack thereof) but in how much we trust in God’s control. 

This is not an easy truth to swallow. I am still afraid sometimes, especially with news of more tragedies plaguing what was once considered safe places. But I am trying my best to exercise the same trust in God that David had in places both “safe” and unsafe. In every time and in every place, God is still in control.

Sometimes I keep my eyes open during prayer. I still feel afraid. But sometimes, even if it takes effort, I try to close my eyes and listen to God’s word:

“But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill.” (Psalm 3:3-4, English Standard Version)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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