One week in December 2013. Two pastors. Two stories. Two deaths.
These two stories moved my heart unlike any other stories in 2013. Both involved pastors and tragedy, but unlike many other pastoral crisis stories, both stories involved the death of a pastor.
Pastoring is indeed a dangerous calling. Today I am reminded that in following the leading of the Holy Spirit – one can simultaneously be both in a safe and dangerous place.
Ronnie Smith was a pastor at the Austin Stone Church in Austin TX. No one who knew the Smiths was surprised when Ronnie and his wife Anita and their infant son moved to Benghazi Libya in the Fall 2012 to love the Libyan people and share the Gospel of Jesus. Ronnie taught chemistry to high school students at an international school.
Ronnie had mightily been used of the Lord while attending the University of Texas and then at Austin Stone Church. In November 2010, Ronnie preached a message titled The History of Redemption. The message was only scripture – which Ronnie had memorized. While it may sound like an overstatement – it was one of the more powerful messages I have ever heard (I watched it again this morning). Again – no commentary – only scripture presented in a way that it truly tells the history of redemption.
In November Anita returned to Austin with their son to celebrate the holidays. Ronnie stayed in Benghazi to encourage his students as they took their finals with plans to join his family in Austin in mid-December. Early morning, December 5, Ronnie was shot and killed by gunmen as he jogged near his home.
A few days before Christmas, Ronnie’s widow Anita sent a message to the Libyan people and her husband’s murders. Her message was immediately featured on every major news outlet across America. Why? Because few could believe her spirit of forgiveness. She wrote,
“Ronnie and I came to Libya because we saw the suffering of the Libyan people, but we also saw your hope, and we wanted to partner with you to build a better future. Libya was very different from what we had experienced before, but we were excited to learn about Libyan culture. Ronnie grew to love you and your way of life, as did I. Ronnie really was “Libya’s best friend.” I hear people speaking with hate, anger and blame over Ronnie’s death, but that’s not what Ronnie would want. Ronnie would want his death to be an opportunity for us to show one another love and forgiveness, because that’s what God has shown to us.”
To her husband’s killers, who have yet to be captured, Anita wrote: “I love them. And I forgive them, and I have nothing against them.” Amazingly, Anita Smith says she wants to make a return trip to Benghazi to visit friends and neighbors, and to mourn together.
The second death took place just five days later in Orlando Florida. A young 36-year-old pastor took his own life leaving behind a wife and three children. He had resigned as lead pastor of an Orlando mega-church after admitting to moral failure. Several of his closest friends had contacted him encouraging him to reach out to PastorServe – which he never did.
Both deaths deeply stirred my emotions. One pastor follows the leading of the Lord that takes him into one of the most dangerous regions of the world – Libya – which leads to his death. Another pastor does not follow the leading of the Lord that takes him into one of the most treacherous regions of the heart – secrecy and shame – which leads to his death.
Harboring secrets takes a pastor into the most dangerous of places. Secrets carry power. They are like hands around our neck, strangling the life out of its target. Sharing a secret with just one other trusted friend releases so much of the stranglehold.
Pastoring will take one into dangerous places. The dangerous place may be the direct result of the leading of the Holy Spirit – or the dangerous place can be the direct result of our resisting the leading of the Holy Spirit. Yet, we must remember that the safest place on earth is to be in the center of God’s will.