On Sunday night, I was up late watching the news come in that US Special Forces had killed Osama Bin Laden. The next day, processing my reaction to the news, I felt the need to have some sort of service at the congregation I service - some opportunity for us to pray and talk together. I bounced the idea off colleagues who helped me think whether or not this was really the appropriate course of action. In the end I decided to go ahead and have a service of prayer and conversation on Tuesday night.
I had a couple of reasons for deciding to do this. First, this was a historic event - one of those, "you will remember where you were when you heard," events. And I believe that we need to make the faith community a part of those events in our lives. As people try to figure out the meaning of major events in our world, the church cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. People are looking for answers - and if they cannot seek those answers in the church, they will look for them elsewhere. The death of Bin Laden certainly will not be the end of terrorism, but it is a symbolic victory - and who knows better how to talk in symbols than the church?
Second, the death of Osama Bin Laden brought forward raw emotion for many people. It brought back to the surface feelings of grief, anger, and fear that originated in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The church needs to be a safe place for people to come and live out those emotional responses. A place where the people of God can expose their wounds and their scars, seeking the comfort of one another and the presence of the Great Healer.
And third, the death of Osama Bin Laden stirred in many people the tension of their dual citizenships in the United States and the Kingdom of God. As Americans, there is a natural response of nationalistic triumphalism, a certain rejoicing at the execution of justice. As children of God, a pondering of how this fits into God's justice and Jesus' command to love our enemies.
And so I called for a service of prayer and conversation. It was intentionally not a "class" or a conversation in the Parish Hall. We met in the sanctuary. The people of God find our meaning in worship, in prayer, and in Scripture. I sent out emails, spread the word over facebook, and on Tuesday night about 30 people gathered in the sanctuary of St. John - Prairie Hill.
I prepared a bulletin of sorts. It had a bare bones liturgy, but more importantly it had some pertinent prayers and readings from Scripture. I didn't know if we would use the liturgy, but I wanted it to be available as a structure in case the conversation got heated or we need the structure to move us forward.
We opened with the gathering litany from the ELW Vespers service, and a prayer for the Spirit's guidance in our worship and conversation. And then, I opened the floor. We talked about how we heard the news, and our initial reactions. We talked about how our reactions changed after we had sat with them for a couple of days. As we talked, from time to time I would stop the conversation and offer a prayer or a reading, to keep us centered. Almost everyone present shared in some way, and in all we talked for about 45 minutes. We closed with Luther's evening prayer and a benediction.
The prayers I included came from ELW with some slight modification. The were the prayers for enemies, prayers for our nation and our leaders, prayers for those in military service, the prayer of St. Francis, and a few others. The readings I included were the judgement of Cain, Romans 12:2-21, and Matthew 5:38-48.
Everyone in that group that gathered expressed some sort of conflict about their reactions. What did it mean to pray for our enemies? What if you were not able to forgive your enemies - not just Bin Laden, but the people in your life who had wronged you? And we talked about those tensions, together. I shared with them the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his conflict over the decision to take part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. I talked a little bit about Luther's two Kingdoms. I'll be honest, I don't remember everything I said. What I know is that, at the end of the night, we had all expressed our relief at the death of Bin Laden, our struggles to love and forgive our enemies, and our desire to become people who live into the Sermon on the Mount.
And I took a number of other things away from this. Even in the very conservative area where I serve, there was a real sense that rejoicing was not the right response to the death of another. As much as my clergy colleagues have been talking about this over the last few days, you would think that most people's reaction was one of joy. I certainly did not see that. Relief is a much better word. Less a shout of alleluia, and more a collective sigh of relief.
I also observed that people were hungry to hear what the church has to say. They wanted to know, what does this mean for my faith? What does Scripture say? I think we (clergy, church leaders) have done the people of God a disservice by not making the church a place where people can come to make sense of the events of the world. I'm not talking about political commentary or partisanship -- they can get that everywhere else. Nor am I talking about being berated by a prophetic pastor who tells them how far short they fall and how wrong their politics are. No, I am talking about a safe place, where they can engage in dialog with each other, the Scriptures, and their pastor about how their faith can help them understand the political and historic events of the world.
Finally, I observed that the congregation was hungry for me, as their pastor, to be honest and authentic with them. The room opened up when I talked about my own struggles to love and forgive my enemies. Had I tried to say that I am able to live into the Sermon on the Mount without struggle, they probably would have tuned me out. Yes, pastors, speak with authority when God calls us to. But, there are other times when your people need to hear you say, I don't know, or I pray for God's strength - because God knows there are people I struggle to forgive.
Pardon the rambling nature of this note. I am still very moved by the experience that we had, talking and worshiping with these people whom I love so much. Their faith inspires me, and their willingness to listen for God's voice speaking through the Body. It was a small group that gathered, but I think that what took place last night at Prairie Hill was exactly what everyone needed.