I was verbally assaulted yesterday after worship. That sounds so dramatic, but I don’t know any other words that better describe it. I was the target of fifteen minutes of verbal abuse, and what made it even worse is that it came in the guise of a theological critique of my sermon, the worship service, and the congregation in general.
Here’s what happened. We had a family of first-time guests yesterday, a mom (Martina) and her six kids, aged in their teens and twenties. At least I’m assuming they were a family, we never really got that far. They came up to me in the line after the service, near the back. There were a dozen or fifteen people left in the line after them. We shook hands and they told me their names, and I introduced myself and told them how good it was to have them here in worship.
It kind of went downhill from there.
“Is this a Bible believing church?” Martina asked next.
Maybe I should interject here that my sermon, from Romans 3 and 2nd Corinthians 5, had centered on the theme that Christ died for all not just some, that there is no distinction between people in God’s eyes, that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and that God loves all of us rather than only a particular group. The children’s sermon featured a craft made by some of the kids of the church, made out of posterboard, felt, markers, and yarn, that depicted a beautifully diverse circle of people all holding hands with the phrase “God loves us” in the middle of the circle.
The overall theme of worship was, “No matter our differences, God loves us all.”
Martina and her family proceeded to subject me to fifteen minutes of tag-team haranguing that was comprised of a litany of ultra-right wing Christian language and a succession of what sounded like rehearsed buzz words and phrases. They were very sad for the children, who had not heard the call to repentance this morning. They were angry about how I had presented that which what makes us all the same: I emphasized that God loves us all and they wanted me to emphasize that we all sin. They were worried for the soul of one parishioner with whom they had spoken, who dared to say that he hoped everyone would get to heaven. They questioned my own faith, and my role as a pastor who would only preach a part of the Gospel. They lamented the spiritual condition of this congregation who is clearly suffering under my leadership.
And on and on…
It is kind of hard to describe, but their tone was bitter and angry, accusatory and malicious. It made my stomach hurt.
I realized after a minute that they really didn’t want to have a conversation. From what I can remember, my own responses to them included:
- I would love to have this conversation with you, but not right now. Please call me at the church first thing in the morning.
- It isn’t reasonable to include every aspect of the Gospel message in every sermon, and your observations are based on hearing only one sermon. Growing in faith means being a part of a community over time, which gives you a chance to hear different points of emphasis at different weeks.
- If you would like to wait for me, I’ll continue this conversation in a few moments. Right now we are being disrespectful to the others waiting in line behind you. (This was after 5 – 6 minutes.)
- It’s not really up to me whether everybody goes to heaven, is it? I think God makes that decision, and that God really, really wants everybody to get to heaven. Today’s sermon was more concerned with living a Christ-centered life right now, as I mentioned from 2 Corinthians this morning.
- Salvation is a journey, and as John Wesley pointed out, people find themselves at many different places on that journey from the very beginnings of a relationship all the way through being perfected in love. You can’t speak to everyone every time.
And so forth …
I think that, halfway through it, I understood that nothing I said was going to make a difference on Martina or the older ones, so I started meeting the eyes of the teenagers. They were standing in a semi-circle around me, each within two to three feet of me, so it was easy for me to see them all! I noticed that sometimes the teens would kind of “shush” one another at times to allow me a word in edgewise. I noticed that the youngest ones didn’t say anything. I also noticed that they would glance quickly over at Martina when I was looking at them – looking for …help? …affirmation? …what? But they mostly met my gaze steadily, even when I invited one teenage boy to turn around to the people behind them in line and explain to them the reasons for the hold-up or that, if they were concerned for particular people, they might want to go to those people and have this conversation with them rather than me.
I have to confess that I took a kind of guilty pleasure in the final moments of our … ahem … “conversation.” In an attempt to make her final emphatic point, Martina observed that I was nothing like John Wesley, and began quoting the hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” at me. I’m sorry to say that I was amused by the look of surprise in her eyes when I began matching her word for word, and even finished the verse for her when she stopped.
Now, this has been my perspective on what happened. I’m sure that Martina and her family have a different take on it. I honestly would love to hear it and understand it, but I don’t think I ever will. But I wonder, what was their motivation? What was at stake for them? Even bracketing out the content, what possessed them to have this conversation at this time in this place? Why would they have possibly felt that was appropriate?
I’m not going to obsess over / dwell on this event. Writing this article has been a very helpful part of shaking the dust off my feet and moving on (thank you, MS). But I also don’t want to just ignore it altogether, because who knows who the next target will be? I had heard of stuff like this happening, but this was really one of the very first times it happened to me with such violence. If my writing about it helps another victim of such verbal abuse, then I’ll write about it a million times.
When my son Wes asked me about it later (yes, he saw it happening, as did my daughter Cori and a bunch of other people), I kind of explained how that when I said “God loves everybody” it made those people angry.
Wes said, “That’s sad.” That’s about right. Thanks for the perspective, Wes.
Update: Also posted here.