When I got back from my daughter’s college graduation last Sunday night I found a message in my inbox hinting that “something” had happened during the 11:00 worship service at Richmond’s First Baptist Church that day, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I found out what it was. Joyce, my secretary, told me that one of our homeless neighbors had come down the aisle in the middle of the service demanding to know why “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul” weren’t in our hymnbook. He said that he was “a miracle of God,” and wanted to share his testimony.
As I heard the story at staff meeting on Tuesday I learned that Bob Palmer, who was standing at the pulpit when the man came forward, told him very graciously that if he would just have a seat someone would be glad to help him out after the service. Ralph Starling stepped forward to intervene, but was greeted by a threatening gesture that forced him to consider another approach. Eventually an off-duty Henrico police officer, who was visiting the church, escorted the man out of the building, but by that time the spirit of worship had been badly broken. Phil Mitchell stepped to the pulpit afterward and prayed that our scattered thoughts might return to the Lord, and at the close of the service Ralph Starling suggested that in our prayers that week we might offer a prayer for this man, who certainly needed it.
As the story unfolded I realized that the man who had disrupted the service was Daniel, one of our regulars at community missions and someone who has been featured on this blog. He is still recovering from surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor, and most of the time he is gentle and thoughtful and kind. Knowing him as I do I could almost see him standing there with his hymnbook, wanting to share his testimony and sing a hymn. And church is a good place for that kind of thing, isn’t it? If I had been there I might have let him do it.
But, then again, maybe not.
He wasn’t entirely sober at the time. He was loud and belligerent. He frightened a good many people in the congregation who didn’t know him, and who worried that he might have a gun. We can thank God for church members and staff who remained calm in that moment. We can thank God that there was an off-duty police officer to escort him out of the building. And we can thank God for those who brought us back into His presence through prayer and reminded us to pray for this man.
Daniel stopped by the church yesterday between services to apologize. I could tell he had practiced his speech. He said, “I am truly and humbly and sincerely sorry for what happened last Sunday. ” I accepted his apology and then asked him what had happened. I wanted to hear his side of the story. He said, “I just wanted to sing that hymn, but I couldn’t find it in the book.” And so we took a hymbook out of one of the pew racks and looked for “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” As you might guess, they were both in there. He seemed comforted by that, and thanked me for showing him. I asked him if he had been drinking and he confessed that he had: “Just a little to stop the shakes.” “Well, I’ll need to ask you to leave then,” I said. He nodded and said, “I know.” I showed him to the door and he apologized once more before stepping out into the rain.
The staff is working to put together a security plan that will help our congregation feel safe in the sanctuary because things might have turned out differently than they did and it might have been someone other than Daniel. We don’t want anyone to be afraid to come to church. I am reminded that the word sanctuary means, literally, “a safe place.” But I’m grateful that this Sunday it turned out to be a safe place for Daniel, a place where he could confess his sin and ask for forgiveness. He made a mistake and he knew it. He promised it wouldn’t happen again. He was so full of genuine remorse that I felt myself moved with pity and heard myself saying, “I love you, Daniel.” Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “I love you, too.”
And then I kicked him out.
Love has a tough side, and I’m sure Daniel knows that, but as he walked down the sidewalk in the rain I could almost hear him humming the tune he had come to church to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”