Maxwell Grant: Beyond the Panic Room


A few years ago, I received a letter at the parsonage where I live with my family. It was on heavy paper - even heavier than the kind they use to tell you that you've been accepted to college. It almost declared its own momentousness, that paper. In fact, for a moment, I wondered if someone had left the church a big bequest in their will, and I worried that someone had died and I hadn't written them a note. But it turned out not to be that.

Mercifully, nobody had died without telling me. Actually, it turned out to be something far stranger. Because what it was, was a letter from a company that made VIP panic rooms, or, as they preferred to call them, "safe rooms." "The world is a troubled place," it explained. "But your home, and your loved ones, should always be secure." Who could argue with that?

The letter went on to explain that they could design a room within our house, complete with its own power source, communications hub, ventilation system, secure entry, weapons cache, food preparation area, full-spectrum lighting, hidden or public as I preferred, and designed to whatever specifications I chose: perhaps I wanted a wood paneled study with button-tufted leather chairs and cut crystal whiskey glasses, like an English gentlemen's club; or perhaps a western-themed ranch longhouse effect, or even a speakeasy with a pool table and a bathtub...I think the bathtub was for making gin, or something. I found myself idly wondering if that one came also with a machine gun, and I suspect that the answer was that it probably could provided, of course, that I were willing to pay for it. could not help but reflect on what kind of a panic room I might want.

But more than that, I found myself reflecting on what a strange world we are living in. I don't think many church councils or vestries would go for the expense of a panic room in the church parsonage. But, even if money were no object, I doubt many would do it.

There's no disputing that these are fearful times for many people. Apparently, the business of panic rooms picked up considerable after 9/11 and has continued to be robust even to the present.

One website I checked out noted with a certain degree of calculated rue that North Korea's missiles could now reach the North American coast...that dangers are all around us.

Nevertheless, I think few churches would go for the idea of a panic room in the parsonage - or even for some "come one, come all" shelter located somewhere in the church itself. I mean, imagine the committee assigned to decorate that. "Now, pastor, Betty really likes silk flowers and pastels, but we're concerned that the men are going to think it's too frou-frou...." Safe to say, if we were having this conversation, it would be a sign of how remote our worst fears actually were.

But, more deeply than that, I think we resist the idea of church as a shelter. At least that kind of shelter. On some deep level, if church becomes a shelter, it seems as if it diminishes our sense of church as a sanctuary, as a place that's set a place that stands for something different than the vicissitudes of our political life, even when they get scary.

Church as we imagine it seems to embody a different kind of ideal. It isn't just a big panic room.

In John's Gospel, there is an early moment when Jesus gives a particularly hard teaching and abruptly loses many disciples, and so he finally asks the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" And Simon Peter answers, "Lord, to whom can we go?"

There is no panic room we might hole up in. There is no safe space where we might wait out the chaos until your teachings sink in. But it's more than that. It's that the gospel life seems to embody a different kind of ideal, too. And it's that ideal that the Apostle Paul is getting at in his famous words to the church at Ephesus, when he admonishes them to "put on the whole armor of God." Paul is writing to a church that would have eagerly embraced even the most bare bones kind of panic room, had there been one. Paul is writing to a church that knew oppression, in a dark time for Christians all across the Mediterranean.

The churches that met in the catacombs of the Empire did so, in no small part, because even Roman centurions were reluctant to go after dark in the places of the dead. But not so for Christians, who resisted that kind of superstition as part of the old mind they needed to turn away from.

Nevertheless, if you can't hunker down physically, there are any number of ways you can hunker down mentally...and indeed, spiritually. Just because you're willing to worship in the relative safety of a creepy catacomb doesn't mean that you are truly open. And for Paul, that represents a much more serious danger.

"Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh," he says, "but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, and there is some truth to the even today. While there are real things to fear, for sure, the deeper danger is what our worst fears can make of us, no matter how remote they may be.

For years, we have heard that, statistically, fear of crime far outruns the actual likelihood of crime in almost every place. This is what keeps the people who build panic rooms in business. It's not the enemies of flesh and blood who seem poised to undo us, even as they try their worst, so much as the power of our own worst fears to warp our perspective. And make no mistake: fear has the power to warp our perspective so completely that we can no longer distinguish friends from enemies, or find a way to work for tentative understanding, much less peace.

And yet, to read Paul's letter to the Ephesians, it's clear that this is not a new problem. Throughout history, we know that there is case after case of groups that refuse to be afraid, anymore - groups that embrace a deep kind of martial toughness. Sometimes for good...sometimes, well, hmmm...

As a native New Yorker, I remember the subways of the 1970s and 80s, which didn't always seem safe, especially later at night - and at that time, a group of martial arts trained volunteers began riding the subways, dressed in red berets and muscle shirts. They were called the "Guardian Angels."

Now I was young, but to be honest, I was more scared of them than I was of anybody else I personally ever encountered on a New York subway. But I guess that for some, the only answer to fear is a show of toughness, a clear message that says, "Don't mess with me." And yet, that's not Paul's message to the church at Ephesus. Paul's message is to name where true strength and security are to be found.

Many years later, the Heidelberg Catechism would think of it this way: "Question: What is your only comfort in life and in death?" "Answer: That I am not my own, but belong - in body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ." It's the question behind every panic room, and an answer worthy of Paul, himself.

Paul's own answer is an invitation to the church to arm itself - to become centurions, but of a particular sort - centurions who "belong - in body and soul, in life and in death" to Jesus. This means not only following a different Lord. It means taking up different tools. Instead of the armor of fear, he invites the church to "put on the whole armor of God."

  • A belt of truth, instead of leather.
  • A breastplate of righteousness instead of metal.
  • Shoes that make them ready to lead the charge for the gospel of peace.
  • The shield of faith. The helmet of salvation.
  • The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

What is it that will save us? For Paul, the armor of the world is not the answer. To his way of thinking, panic rooms don't keep us safe. They keep us scared. The only way to safety is to seek the peace of God, the peace that passes all understanding, and that means suiting up to engage the world.

Knowing it is hard. Knowing it is risky. Knowing that the work of transformation is slow. But also, that it's good. And vital. And full of grace. It means following Jesus and taking up his tools. The tools that build. The tools that nourish. The tools that heal. The tools that teach.

I think that throughout our lives, we get caught up in many kinds of arms races. We learn to defend ourselves with words even more than fists, and with defensiveness and anger more than swords or guns. We set up perimeters into which we permit no incursion, based on the baggage and the wounds we carry. And then one day, we find that we are all alone in a panic room we've built brick by brick, and day by day.

We're capable of surviving indefinitely, but we're no longer truly living. This is not what God wants for us. It is not what God needs from us.

Paul's challenge to us is to lay down our remember that we are not simply our own, but that we belong body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ - the Son of God, who bursts down the doors of every prison, even the doors of death itself.

Let us pray.

Lord, there is so much in our lives that tempts us to hole ourselves up - to wall ourselves in -  hoping this will keep us safe forever. But you would lead us out and remind us that we are precious in your sight. This is what matters. Encourage and support us so that when you knock, we are sure to open.  Amen.