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The Thoughtful Pastor: A return to spiritual disciplines a good start in wake of shooting

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The Rev. Christy Thomas, Commentary

Found at the scene: hundreds of shell casings and more than 15 30-round magazines. Besides the bloodied and dead bodies, the shooter left that evidence behind. In a church. In a place of worship. In the spot many people call the "sanctuary," the sacred space.

A sanctuary is supposed to be a place of safety, a place where frightened and pursued people can go for safety and refuge. This is why some cities are calling themselves "sanctuary cities," as they are specifically saying to some scared people, "We will not pursue you here. You will be safe."

In the religious world, it is often a consecrated space, a space carefully set aside as the most sacred space in the building. In the ancient Hebrew temple in Jerusalem, it was designated as the "holy of holies." In the Christian church, it is where the altar is placed. That space used to offer legal protection to those who stayed within the consecrated area, protecting people from arrest.

The whole idea behind the word is safety. We have bird sanctuaries, wild-life sanctuaries, anything-threatened-with-extinction sanctuaries.

And Sunday, we had a murderous man destroying lives in one.

More than likely, this is a case of domestic violence running amuk. Devon Patrick Kelley, a former member of the U.S. Air Force, had been court-martialed for a case of domestic violence. He had beaten his wife and cracked the skull of his stepson. There is a reason why perpetrators of domestic violence are forbidden from purchasing and owning guns.

But, for some God-only-knows reason, the U.S. Air Force did not report the court-martial to the FBI, which would have then placed this man on the "no-buy" list. And so this angry, angry man, with his wife now out of his reach, decides to see if he can punish her by killing her parents.

Her parents, only occasional attendees at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland had kept with their pattern of sporadic attendance and are still alive. Twenty-six others, as we all know, are not.

And every single pastor I know is asking, "Could this happen here?"

Yes, it could. This is not the first attack in a church. It won't be the last.

Churches have long sought to be open places, spots where people could come, sit quietly, pray, collect their souls. I remember as a young woman being able to walk into chapels of churches where I had no membership tie, and just sit in the holy quietness for a while. The doors were wide open. They were indeed sanctuaries.

But we are losing those safe and necessary spaces. And one of the reasons is that we have a gun problem in the U.S. We need to acknowledge that. The level of gun violence here far exceeds that of any other so-called civilized nation.

But we've also got something deeper. We've got an anger problem here. Certainly, that anger problem is exacerbated by the overwhelming presence of firearms. But it is further exacerbated by an increasing lack of reasoning power and personal restraint by a proper exercise in holy self-control.

We are a free-wheeling society. When people from other, more restrained, countries visit here, they are often shocked by lack of constraints on what is considered proper public behavior. We are also a society that genuinely does tend to idolize angry, vengeance-seeking, impulsive people. We heap praise on them, create TV shows and movies about them, elect them to the highest offices in the land, make them into celebrity superstar pastors, turn them into gods.

We like them and want to be like them.

So what are we going to do?

I am suggesting a return to the teachings of spiritual disciplines as a start. Disciplines such as fasting, silence, self-control, stillness.

I remember once reading of a teacher who had taken a group of students on a hike on a hot day. They reached a clear mountain stream. The students, all thirsty, wanted an immediate drink of water.

The teacher said, "First, you will sit by the steam for 30 minutes."

The students protested, saying they were "dying of thirst."

The teacher said, "You will not die. I promise you. But you will learn something you will never forget: the capacity for self-control. Discovering that capacity will serve you well the rest of your life."

That story has long stayed in my mind. Too many have decided that any impulse to satisfy the self, whether it be hunger or to play out deep anger, must be satisfied immediately. We became afraid to leave the house without our water bottles, or our guns. We live in fear of doing without, rather than practicing the freedom of self-discipline.

Only in teaching these kinds of things will we find safety. And, frankly, churches need to stay vulnerable. We cannot wall people off from the safe space where we meet God.

Email questions to the Rev. Christy Thomas to thoughtfulpastor@gmail.com, "like" her Facebook page at Christy Thomas or message her on Twitter at @christythomas, or by mail to: The Thoughtful Pastor, 3555 Duchess Drive, Denton, TX 76205.