Statement to the Grace Family from the elders about Orlando on June 19, 2016:
Your elders want you to know that we take very seriously Paul’s description of elders in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, and his instructions directly to them when he was in Ephesus. Acts 20 and especially verses 28–30 record his charge:
28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 men will arise and distort the truth.31 So be on your guard!
Faithful shepherds must always be scanning the horizon for danger and ask, “From where are the attacks coming in our culture?” We believe they’re coming from several places and at an alarmingly increasing rate. News, and perspectives informed by an unholy mix of agendas bombard us and coax us to look at the world from their view. Sometimes the challenges are so loud we want to lift our voice and address them directly and so I speak on behalf of all them when I say the following from my own heart:
Exactly a week ago [June 12] I stood before you to open Psalm 19 but was unaware that just a few hours before fifty souls in Orlando had suddenly and prematurely stepped into eternity. When I heard the news my first reaction was disbelief because the number was so high. I was horrified, and then angered when I learned the background of the terrorist, and then when I found out the specific location of the attack—in the most transparent confession I can express to my church family— in my heart the tragedy seemed . . . a little less tragic.
I had just preached about blind spots, areas of sin of which we’re unaware, and we prayed that God would reveal them to us and save us from them. The meditations of my heart were not pleasing in God’s sight—they were wicked. I didn’t mean to think it, it just arose from somewhere within me and revealed that there was no truth in the innermost part.
As I considered my thoughts in light of the Law of the Lord I realized a few things:
- I was reflecting the spirit of Jonah who waited outside the city of Nineveh hoping that God would change his mind and destroy the enemies of Israel rather than have mercy on them. He who had just received the mercy and rescue from God now wanted to withhold it from others. He somehow, in his twisted thinking, thought he was deserving of grace, but they weren’t. His selfishness judged personal comfort from a plant to be more important than 120,000 eternal souls who did not know their right hand from their left. Jesus, was more comfortable seeking the lost sheep and had pity on them, but saved his harshest words for those who felt they needed no mercy.
- If I think I am better or that I could never have been a part of such a horrible scene I again misunderstand Grace. Imagine where I would be or you would be if our parents were born in Afghanistan and we were raised with extremist voices promising you salvation through violent sacrifice. Without the grace of God where would we be? Perhaps you say you would never be involved in such sexual sin. Are some sexual sins now worse than others in God’s eyes? Do I thank God that I am not like other people or is my prayer “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner?”
- We don’t know if any of those who died had placed faith in Jesus, but if they hadn’t the tragedy is that they no longer have a chance to repent, no longer have the opportunity to change their eternal destiny. Fifty image-bearers, whose souls are worth more than the entire world, have now been lost. Human dignity is grounded in God himself. This is an assault on God’s image-bearers, and we should mourn that. In order to mourn murder we don’t need to ask if they were gay/straight, white/black, young/old, American/foreign, or Christian/atheist. We only need to know that they are God’s image-bearers, created for his glory.
- Has the grace of God penetrated my heart so that I could sincerely wish it could have been me who died instead of them? That’s exactly what Jesus desired and did. Paul felt the same way toward his fellow Jews who killed Jesus and were trying to kill him. In Romans 9:3 he would have taken their place in hell for his place in heaven if possible. These are the meditations that are acceptable in his sight because they are his.
Others might be entertaining thoughts about the goodness of God in this event and wonder where God was. Where was God? In the same place he was when his son was dying—on the throne of the Universe, grieving over the sin of his children and the consequences they were suffering because as a race they freely chose to turn to self-destruction.
I’m not implying that the victims of these attacks brought these immediate consequences upon themselves. Jesus directs our thoughts away from such speculation to what we know to be true. We don’t and can’t know exactly why things happen as though God immediately rewards every sin. Listen to his words from Luke 13:
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
When the world gets lost in the details of whom to blame and issues of security and gun-control and gay rights, the Church needs to double down on the most important issues of evangelism and compassion modeled by Jesus, and the boldness and convictional kindness inspired by the Spirit. We reject a tolerance that requires affirmation of choices but embrace an unconditional acceptance that Jesus died for all and nothing lies outside his ability to redeem. At times like these we also feel pain with the world and as the Psalms teach us we genuinely lament. We lament sin, we lament death, we lament the destructive forces of evil, we lament the choice of Adam and the way all his offspring repeat that choice on a daily basis. We lament the absolute hopelessness of the mess of a world we live in, except for the absolute cure of the Cross and the certain anticipation of Messiah’s return.
These are some of the meditations of our hearts about Orlando that would be acceptable in his sight. We want to cultivate a Church culture of transparency. We don’t want any shred of a pharisaical mindset that pretends to be better than we are. We want to strive for personal and genuine holiness and we want to reach out to all who need a savior. Ray Ortland, pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, TN opens his worship service every week with the following welcome (and we do as well):
To all who are weary and need rest; To all who mourn and long for comfort; To all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares; To all who fail and desire strength; To all who sin and need a savior; This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus Christ, the ally of his enemies, the defender of the guilty, the justifier of the inexcusable, the friend of sinners.
LORD, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our thoughts be acceptable in your sight because you are our Rock and our Redeemer.