Soon after the Murrah Federal Building Memorial in Oklahoma City was finished, I happened to be traveling from Colby to Austin for a week of study leave. I decided to stop in Oklahoma City for lunch and go to the Memorial site where the bombing of the Murrah building was.
It was one of those places and experiences that had a profound and sobering effect on me. The long reflection pool, the bronze gates of time at each end of the pool. But what effected my somber mood at that place was the field of chairs. And the utter quiet of the place, especially as a number of people, almost worshipfully wove in and out of the chairs.
There are 168 chairs—one for each of the victims of the bombing of the building that took place on April 19,1995. There are tall chairs for the adults who were killed and short chairs for the daycare children who were killed in the building. On each chair is a name. A name of a person, who at 9:01 was alive and going about their day. But one minute later, at 9:02 was dead from a bomb blast created by Timothy McVeigh.
I think the bombing of the Murrah building affected me more than 9/11. Maybe because it's closer than New York. It was in our own front yard, so-to-speak. And it was one of the first of what has become a string of terroristic, sadistically evil acts in our country. And it wasn't instigated by some radicalized foreigner. Timothy McVeigh was an American. Why would a citizen of our great country create a bomb that unleashed such a devastating carnage on innocent people? Your immediate answer may be something like, "Timothy McVeigh was the embodiment of evil."
Fortunately, a similar explosion was averted this past week in Garden City, where three degenerates were going to blow up an apartment building that housed a large number of Somali immigrants. The Somali's were all Muslims. The shock waves and after effects of evil would have spread across our state like a wildfire, had those demented men succeeded. Which is what they hoped would happen by their evil act.
The concentric circles of grief from The Murray building bombing were almost too much for me to understand at that time: 168 people dead, 168 families impacted involving how many people, and all the friends of those 168 people, all the firefighters and police who were first responders who found the 168 dead, not to mention all of us who watched our televisions with gaping looks of disbelief at scenes of a building with it's whole front blown away, exposing offices like gaping wounds in a human body. How will all those wounds ever be closed and healed? Have they ever been since that awful day?
In the picture we are looking at (looked at at the start of this sermon), there is a man embracing the chair of a loved one killed that day. What struck me is that what that man is attempting to embrace is the family member he lost; but at the same time he is being forced to embrace the great evil that took the life of that family member from him. It is a weird combination, isn't it?
The memorial site itself is this messy mix of a place of atrocious evil that has now become a sacred place, where people whisper as if they were in a sanctuary. Imagine the before and after pictures of that place. The Murrah Federal Building with its whole front facade blown away. Then a picture of a long reflection pool, the gates of time at each end of the pool, and the field of chairs. Go back and forth in your mind between those two pictures. Bombed ground to sacred ground. The panic-filled busy-ness of a blown up scene, now a still and glassy pool. A place of killing evil now a place of somber sacredness.
I imagine the difference of those two pictures in my mind, and just maybe that is how we need to deal with the evil that we face in life—how do we transform that evil into sacredness? This sermon series is about how to find meaning in our lives. One of the stark realities of life is that evil can take away our meaning in life. Either leach it away inch by inch, or devastate us with its explosive quickness. The mystery is that evil can bring us meaning in life, not through its evil, but through forcing our reaction to that evil.
Evil has a plan, I think. And that plan is to get us to react in a negative, life draining way to whatever evil threw our way. Evil wins not by the evil in itself, but in any of our defeated reactions to what has happened.
I've been watching the past season of the show, Bones, on Netflix. (Anyone watch that show? It's about a team of forensic scientists who solve murders for the FBI.) One of the characters in the show, Hodgins, was examining the body of a police officer who had been murdered. Unbeknownst to Hodgins, the person who left the dead body of the murdered police officer, had put a bomb in the ribcage of the corpse. When it went off, Hodgins survived, but was paralyzed. The evil act was killing a policeman, then planting a bomb that would injure even more law enforcement people.
Hodgins was understandably bitter. Pent up anger, that turned into demeaning outbursts. From his wheelchair, he lashed out at his co-workers, his friends, and especially his wife. Evil was winning. Hodgins was giving in to that evil. He had other choices of how to react, but he chose to let the evil of the murder and the bombing get the better of him. That one, instantaneous act changed his life—but for him and his reaction, for the worse. The evil of the bombing became the tragedy of another man losing his meaning in life. It wasn't the bombing itself. It was the bitter reaction Hodgins chose that compounded the evil. Hopefully in future episodes, Hodgins will work through that. But what if he doesn't?
What if we don't? What if we allow the evil in the world to also destroy and compromise our sense of meaning in life? Somehow we have to overcome the evil. That's what we're praying when we say that phrase in The Lord's Prayer: "…deliver us from evil…" That phrase is a little misleading. Most people pray that phrase thinking that they are praying that God would keep them away from evil—that God would put up a spiritual blockade so that evil never touches us.
But the word "deliver" really means to "rescue." "Rescue us from evil." That has a whole different meaning. It means the evil is already upon us. It is overpowering us. It is getting the better of us. By praying the Lord's Prayer, and that phrase in particular, we are praying for rescue from an evil that is already happening to us—right now.
What we need to be rescued from is not only the evil that is beating us down, but also the evil that wants us to react to it, when it is over, with feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness, hollowness, frustration and more. Once the evil event is over, then comes the wave of emotional reactions that can destroy us just as surely as the event itself. What we are asking God to rescue us for is so we won't give up our sense of meaning in reaction to evil, that God had given us before the evil attacked.
What we are asking God, through that phrase in The Lord's Prayer, is to remove the toxic impact of evil. It's those toxic leftovers from evil events that usually get us. Most of us, remarkably, get through the big, awful experiences that we would also label as some kind of evil. What we have the harder time doing is dealing with the toxic after-effects that have a way of poisoning our personal meaning.
Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the bombing, a Remembrance service was planned. One of those who attended was paramedic Darrell McKnight who now looks like an off-duty Santa Claus, and talks in a low rumble. He has struggled with drug addiction and developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which he attributes to the bombing.
"To say how the bombing has affected my world would simply be that April 19th was a game changer in my life," McKnight said. "I don't think you could have been there without being affected by it deeply…That was a lifetime of trauma."
The ensuing 20 years have have taken their inexorable toll on McKnight, who said he's never been able to remove memories of being handed lifeless babies he could do nothing for, or of seeing corpses displaying the bomb's full brutality. He remembers talking to a woman he had found trapped under tons of debris. The woman was injured so badly that she would surely die and McKnight said he was unsure whether she was even aware the rescuers were there.
One of the ways McKnight chose to cope was through drugs, most notably, methamphetamine. "(It's) a great way to self-medicate ... I'm really open about my addiction issues that came after the bombing," McKnight said. He's been clean now for 4 years, he said, "dealing with life on life's terms rather than Darrell's terms. It hasn't been real easy."
"Deliver us from evil." "Rescue us from evil." The evil is not just the bombing (or whatever other atrocity evil explodes into our lives). Evil is the continuing toxic effects to such an experience, that on a continuing basis makes us say, "It hasn't been real easy." But that's what Jesus wants us to pray for—to be rescued from that ongoing toxicity that threatens to take us over. Jesus wants to restore a sense of deep meaning back into our lives.
Jesus doesn't want us locked into the downward spiral of spirit draining after effects to evil, just as much as we don't want it to happen. Like Darrell found, the further he got into his toxic reaction to the evil he saw, the harder it was to free himself from it.
Jesus Christ is able to purge the toxic poison of evil's hold on us, take it upon himself, and do away with it. We can't do that for ourselves, because once we allow those toxins into our spirit, they become entrenched and we are their prisoner. Only Jesus can deal with that level of the after-effects of evil. That's what Jesus wants us to go to him in prayer for, so that we might be rescued from evil.