When I was 13 a group of people came to my congregation to destroy. They sat among us on a first Sunday, when we fast and come together to share our tender testimonies of Jesus Christ. One of our own took his turn, grasped the podium and leaned into the microphone, and began yelling excoriations of our faith.
For heavy, silenced minutes we sat pummeled by his surprise attack, and as his heated voice rose and fell, we stared — incredulous, wounded. Many among the congregation, my parents included, had done much to help this man, providing a vehicle for his family, bringing in food when they were hungry, fixing car and appliances, sitting with their energetic children as they grew accustomed to church services, judging nothing as we welcomed him with friendship. I looked at my parents, who had been more involved with their family than most, and saw the wounds from a friended traitor.
As he wound down, some began walking toward the seats on the stand, backs straight, eyes afire, moving to the defense of the faith. Strangers in the congregation stood and yelled, interrupting them, telling us that we were damned, that we should listen to him, that they had been sent to save us. They stood and spoke to one another across our normally quiet sanctuary with the raucous tones of dissenters, impervious to our shock and dismay.
People I had worshiped with spoke in the orderly way of our testimony meetings, but they testified with a power beyond the familiar familial feel of that sacred setting. Above the congregation a web began weaving as we drew to one another, bound with threads of long experience and a fired faith. No one impugned those who were among us unfriendly or assailed our neighbor who had attacked us, but instead the glow of faith grew warm as one after another testified of Christ. I stood too, determined to demonstrate that even a youth could tell the difference between what we had long experienced and this soiling of a sacred sanctuary. We moved spiritually shoulder-to-shoulder, that web woven tightly above and through us, and eventually those angry strangers rose and left, shouting obscenities as they went.
I have never forgotten what it means to stand in defense of the house of God.
Thirteen was lifetimes ago, and I’m less tempted to whip out a sword than I once was. Much of the difficulty we face as individuals is best handled with love and patience, with long-suffering and meekness, with more desire to serve and less desire to be proven right. Much of what we would correct rights itself best over time. Most causes are populated with the hurting, the marginalized, and the frightened. Every person is our neighbor; every thought leader is our brother or sister. There is much to be gained by listening.
Lines of demarcation, however, are firmly drawn by God himself. The sacred is untouchable, an ark that needs no steadying, a holy of holies that is not for common traffic. We do not lightly lift ourselves toward God like Babelites with challenge in our voices. By divine definition, we meet to partake of the emblems of the sacrifice of God in fellowship and unity. Like my friend James, I have never cared once what someone was wearing in that meeting, but to clothe oneself with prideful defiance is to invite into that communal web of faith a snake who searches to destroy. Like Rachael, I think there are better perspectives on the interplay between the Church and the individual, and the kind and meek will offer them humbly.
I know this, however: God’s house is not a place of contention, a market of dissent and argument, an economy of intellectual barter and spiritual entitlement. It’s a place of worship, and if we soil it, when we are ripe we will be cleansed from it. I seriously doubt the young activists who planned this quiet demonstration of solidarity expected it to take on the life it has, and I feel for them. When we toy with the sanctuary of God, we handle a fiendfyre that will quickly grow unmanageable, that will force a division of wheat and tares with the fire of faith and the fire of dissension clearly separated. I have felt those fires, and it is a thing both marvelous and terrible to behold.