Another horrific school shooting. Pictures of students, hands up, running from their school under the watchful eyes of heavily armed police are disturbing. I was especially struck by the image of two women weeping over the loss of life or the trauma of it all. I noticed on one woman’s forehead was a cross of ashes. Wednesday, February 14th was Ash Wednesday this year. So as I looked at that photo I wondered, how do we begin to respond to this as followers of Jesus Christ? (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)
We know the nation will grieve with those who are grieving—and so should we, praying for parents and family members who lost their children to this violence. We must also pray for the survivors, some if not most of whom will be in need of healing from the trauma, physical and emotional.
We know that the nation will revisit the discussion we have following every school shooting: gun control and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable. But I can almost guarantee that the one thing we will NOT hear in these public discussions, in the secular square, is how the Church must prevail against the gates of hell.
Jesus said about the church that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Since gates do not attack, Jesus must have meant that we, His Church, must identify the gates of hell in our own communities to which we have been called to share and advance God’s Kingdom. This school shooting reminds us that those gates can swing open and unleash hell upon our communities in a split second. You may have noticed that the shooter in this case confessed that he heard “voices in his head” compelling him to undertake this horrific shooting. He planned this act to inflict maximum causalities, pulling a fire alarm in hallways he knew well. Throwing smoke bombs to add to the confusion. Unleashing hell with a weapon of considerable power. And then blending in with the crowd in the confusion that followed. The planning and execution were diabolical.
I have a dear friend named Jim, a youth pastor who some years ago was praying and felt a great burden for Hispanic families in Los Angeles where he was living. He prayed further and felt led to go and speak with the principals of several local high schools in the heart of the city. These schools had large Hispanic populations. He asked the principals what they felt were the most pressing problems they were dealing with among their students. Then he listened carefully. They each shared their alarm at the breakdown of the traditional, Hispanic family, the loss of discipline and the disrespect children had for their parents. Jim offered to come into their High Schools and talk about ways of restoring the God-given purpose and shape of a family. He also promised to keep the language as faith-neutral as he could, to avoid running afoul of those who would otherwise bar such faith-based approaches even in an after-school setting. But he also made clear that the culmination of this teaching seminar for families would be a retreat that would be no-holds-barred as far as faith, prayer and Biblical healing were concerned, for parents and their children.
The short story is that the seminar was so successful in healing families, reconciling parents and their children, and restoring discipline that Jim was invited to other public high schools in Los Angeles, as well as in adjacent counties.
Jim identified one of the gates of hell in his community, and through courageous witness, Christ-like love and prayer, he and his ministry teams prevailed against those gates.
So here is the question to you and me and our churches: where are the gates of hell in our communities, and how might God be calling us to get out of our buildings and prevail against them, before they swing open and unleash hell again?
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.