So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.
You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.
Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from CNN.com — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.
Film at 11. And here is the news:
Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.
Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.
Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.
“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.
That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.
So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?
There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.
Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.
Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.
Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.
“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.
The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.
“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.
“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”
This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.
Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?
I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.