Two pastors testify to the transforming power of worship
By Paul Seebeck
During the first week of Lent in 2009, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Wilmette, Ill., shot and killed his wife, her son and himself on church property. When the pastor, Sarah Sarchet Butter, heard the news, the first thing she did was put out a call to members of the congregation to gather for worship. Today she insists that worshiping together is what helped her and the congregation live through this nearly unspeakable tragedy.
“Worship is an act of shalom,” says Butter. “Our culture is so violent, polarizing and condemning, so full of angst and uncertainty. I believe worship is a place where God’s reality transcends ours, giving us the strength to be a healing, redeeming presence and blessing to our world.”
Charles “Chip” Hardwick, director of theology, worship and education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), agrees. “Worship helps us meet God and encounter a reality different from our own,” he says, explaining that it is in worship that we glimpse what God wants for the world.
Like Butter, Hardwick recalls a time in his own career as a pastor when congregational worship transformed the fear of violence into a vision of peace and wholeness. Both ministers say they have witnessed the miraculous in worship as the reality of God intersects with and challenges a culture that glorifies violence.
Their stories reveal how choosing to worship can be a powerful act of nonviolence.
One Sunday, when Chip Hardwick was serving as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Bloomington, Ill., he met a couple before the service who were newcomers to the largely upper middle-class congregation. Their appearance suggested they had come for one of the monthly Sunday dinners the church was offering as part of its mission with poor and homeless people in the community. Before the meal, the man, Tim, and his wife entered the sanctuary for worship.
“About halfway through my sermon, the man begins to walk down the aisle toward me,” Hardwick recalls. “People told me afterwards that they thought he was going to pull a knife or gun, and that they were afraid for me.”
Looking back, Hardwick says he is grateful that at the time he didn’t think about an incident he had heard about in another church, where a man came down the aisle waving a gun on Sunday morning.
Hardwick kept preaching as Tim neared the front of the sanctuary. Then Tim knelt at the steps to the chancel. Hardwick welcomed him, calling him by name. One of the church’s elders came from the opposite side of the sanctuary to kneel with Tim and put his arm around him.
“I finished preaching and joined them in reciting the Lord’s Prayer and various Psalms,” Hardwick says. “Suddenly I felt an arm on my shoulder. It was one of our college students. Soon I began to hear others praying. Led by the youth, nearly a quarter of the congregation came up to lay hands on Tim, as if it was the most normal thing to do in worship.”
The theme planned for worship that day was God’s presence with us, through the Holy Spirit, Hardwick recalls. “As the service continued, with prayers for alertness to the Spirit’s work and the singing of ‘Be Thou My Vision,’ we sensed the Holy Spirit inhabiting our space. Through Tim, God gave us insight into the divine vision.
“We never saw Tim again,” says Hardwick. But he believes the Holy Spirit was doing some powerful work in many who were present in the sanctuary that day.
“As I was walking out of the sanctuary after the benediction, many in the congregation were in tears,” Hardwick says. “One of the saints of the church later described what had happened to him as he watched this drama unfold. He went from thinking Tim had a gun and fearing for my life to feeling a sense of shame for having judged this man simply because he smelled and looked homeless.”
That church member looks differently at homeless people now, Hardwick says. While he and other worshipers were worried about violence, the Holy Spirit transformed their fear into the shalom, or peace, of “God with us,” he adds.
Worship should be “a place for us to practice the way our lives can be when we go out into the world,” Hardwick says. “My prayer is that in worship we create an alternative space where God shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.”
Resurrection is real
Because Wilmette, Ill., is an affluent suburb, north of Chicago, the double murder and suicide on property owned by First Presbyterian Church received a lot of attention.
“It was viewed as an anomaly,” says Sarah Butter, the pastor. It was not the kind of thing people expected to happen in that kind of neighborhood. She is uncomfortably aware, however, that on the south side of Chicago, suicides and murders in poorer neighborhoods with fewer resources happen far too often and with very little notice.
Rick Wiley, who committed the Wilmette murders, was a repeat offender. He had served 15 years in prison for murdering his first wife in 1985.
Wiley also was a member of First Presbyterian Church. His parents were members of the church as well. He struggled with mental health issues.
After Rick’s release from prison in 2000, he returned home, and the church welcomed the prodigal son back into the community. People helped him rebuild his life. They helped him finance a carpentry business and hired him to remodel their homes.
Eight months after his release, Rick married Kathy Motes, the church secretary, who had an 8-year-old son, Chris. The family needed a home, so the congregation invited them to live in the manse next door to the church, which was unoccupied at the time.
“When I came to serve as pastor here, Rick had just married Kathy,” Butter recalls. “People in the church, who made me aware of his history, were moving with caution to optimism, to the hopeful chapter in his story.”
But then, in March 2009, the worst thing happened. After an argument one weekend, Wiley shot and killed his wife, his stepson and himself.
Butter was terrified that the tragedy would split the church. She could hear in people’s reactions a sense of betrayal: “Wait a minute—he did it again? You welcomed him back? You jeopardized our safety?”
The tragedy raised complex, theological questions: Who was to blame? What does it mean to forgive? What does it mean to be a Christian community?
“Perhaps this is the risk of ministry,” Butter says. “Scripture never tells us if the prodigal son who was welcomed home made the same mistakes again later, in a worse way.”
What do you do when the space that you consider sacred is crawling with police and yellow crime tape? Instinctively, I put out the word: “We will worship at 7 p.m.”
—Sarah Sarchet Butter
As reporters swooped in to interview people who knew the victims, Butter and other church members resisted attempts to sensationalize the story. “They were trying to make Rick a monster,” the pastor says. “As people of grace and faith we tried to say no. He was a child of this church family. We lost three people. This is not a story of the violent ‘other’—this is about one of us.”
Over time, says Butter, the congregation developed a vision of “working to create shalom in every household, of working by God’s grace to transform painful places into places of healing and hope.” But it took a while to get there.
“What do you do when the space that you consider sacred is crawling with police and yellow crime tape?” Butter says, remembering the Monday afternoon when police discovered three dead bodies in the church manse. “Instinctively, I put out the word: ‘We will worship at 7 p.m.’ I didn’t know if any of the congregation would come, but that night the sanctuary was full. We turned to God for solace, comfort, hope and wisdom. Our worship was an intentional act of refusal—refusal to ignore, to sensationalize or to demonize.
“We spoke that night about the things of God that would transcend this violent tragedy,” Butter continues. “We asked for help to be people who would not try to escape but would face the wounds and pain with grace. It didn’t happen immediately, but our healing path forward started that night when we held candles, prayed and sang.”
Because the murders and suicide occurred the first weekend of Lent, says Butter, “It felt like six weeks of Good Friday that year. We kept gathering for worship, for conversation, for a place to ask difficult questions, to lament, and to be shaped by God’s words.”
On Easter Sunday Butter was afraid, again, that no one would come to church. “But this was God’s Easter,” she says. “It was standing room only.” And once again, God’s grace brought new life and healing through worship.
“In spite of the violence and volatility of this world, in spite of the evil and desperation, the resurrection is profoundly real,” Butter says. “Life is stronger than death.”
Butter turns to the 1983 Presbyterian confession A Brief Statement of Faith to express what she has come to understand as a “profoundly beautiful” truth: “ ‘In life and death we belong to God.’ These words mean a whole lot more now.”
Paul Seebeck, a Presbyterian minister, is a communications associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Meeting violence and suffering with faith
Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life, by Abigail Rian Evans (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)—worship resources for a wide range of life events
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro (Zondervan, 2010)—prayers, songs and other resources from a variety of traditions
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher (Jossey-Bass, 2007)—the story of how a small Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pa., responded with forgiveness following a mass shooting in a local schoolhouse
A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss, rev. ed., by Jerry Sittser (Zondervan, 2005)—reflections from a religion professor at Whitworth College who lost his wife, mother and 4-year-old daughter when a drunken driver ran into their car
Educational and worship materials from the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.
How touching to read these two congregations stories! Having served as a school principal on the North Shore not far from Buuer's Wilmette, I experienced the ongoing tradegy of a young woman acting out her pain in two elementary schools taking the young lives of children. Years later folks were still struggling with how to make sense of the tradegies and come to a sense of peace and forgiveness. Now in retirement, my family worships at 2PC in Bloomington. Although we were not yet members when the laying on of hands happened with Chip and the congregation, the story is told again and again. I believe it is partially meaning making and partially forgiveness of selves to step out and serve others despite the fear... Resulting in becoming atonement with peace in our calling to "be the church." I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to worship in such a church home as 2PC, especially as we continue to ponder the impact of violence on our souls such as Aurora and the Shik temple as we continue our journeys with Christ.