“Sharing Heaven with Serial Killers” by Rachel Welcher

Roy Ratcliff is the pastor who baptized infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

After Dahmer was convicted of 15 murders and sentenced to many lifetimes in prison, Ratcliff began visiting him and sharing the gospel. According to Ratcliff, Dahmer struggled to grasp the depths of God’s grace. It’s not hard to understand why. For someone who committed such atrocious acts, grace must have seemed unattainable. But in a 1994 interview with Stone Phillips, Dahmer said: “I have accepted [Jesus] as my Lord and Savior.” Though we won’t know of his sincerity until heaven, it’s possible that one of the most twisted serial killers of our lifetime said yes to grace.

Do you want to see Jeffrey Dahmer in heaven?

Ratcliff wrote a book about the time he spent with Dahmer. If you skim the comments under the book on Amazon.com, you will quickly see that our definition of grace doesn’t always reflect God’s. One reviewer wrote:

I don’t know why you, or the person who posted above you, cares about the state of Dahmer’s soul, much less has any desire to meet him in heaven. It’s just plain creepy. Some of the people who have read the pastor’s book, and written reviews, are thrilled that God can and does forgive anything, and how much hope it gives them of getting into heaven. Good Lord, what kind of sins did they commit themselves, to be “relieved” by something like that?

Not everyone shared this reviewer’s feelings, but it made me wonder about the limits we put on grace. We love knowing God can save someone like Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson from a past of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but do we rejoice when he extends grace to a man who raped, killed, and even ate his victims? We want to see Brad Pitt in heaven while hoping Hitler didn’t have a last-minute conversion. We want God to forgive us when we worship our mini idols of leisure, but we shudder to think of a pedophile receiving the same forgiveness.

I praise God the decision isn’t ours. While I am guilty of holding onto mercy with tight, stingy fists, the God I serve is not. He offers grace through Christ to any who call on his name (Rom. 10:13).

Because of this, I might one day be singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” beside Jeffrey Dahmer. This excites me for three reasons.

1. It means there is hope for me.
Many of us have heard of King Manasseh. He’s the one who burned his sons alive and liked to hang out with sorcerers and witches (not the J. K. Rowling kind). One of the first things he did after becoming king was to “rebuild the high places” where people worshiped Baal. He didn’t listen to God until he was in a bind—literally (2 Chron. 33:10). And yet “when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chron. 33:12–13).

If there is hope for King Manasseh and Jeffrey Dahmer, there is hope for you and me.

I found it interesting when the Amazon commenter asked: “What kind of sins did they commit themselves to be ‘relieved’ by something like that?” So many. I have failed to be holy. I have failed to be patient. I have failed to extend the sort of mercy I’ve received. I have utterly failed my Maker. So yes, I am relieved he can save someone like me. Hoping that grace doesn’t extend all the way to serial killers and evil kings is a misunderstanding of grace. It trivializes sin and underestimates the omnipotent goodness of God.

2. It means there is hope for others.
I have a list. It’s stored in my heart, not on paper. It’s filled with names of people I love who don’t love God. When I read about Manasseh ignoring God’s voice and committing infanticide, I think about my own sins. Then I think about the people on my list. I know that unless they cling to Christ they will wear their own punishment. Until they submit to God, humble themselves, and seek his face the way Manasseh did, they will not see grace. But I rejoice in the availability of grace:

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus. (Acts 3:19–20)

I rejoice in the assurance that if they surrender to God by clinging to Christ, they will be saved. They will be forgiven. There is hope for them. In Hebrews 7, Jesus is described as the perfect high priest. So perfect that daily sacrifices are needless since his death achieved what all previous sacrifices failed to: permanent, once-and-for-all atonement for sin:

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Heb. 7:25)

“To the uttermost.” Some translations say “completely” or “forever.” There is no caveat here. Murder. Homosexuality. Infanticide. Idolatry. These sins do not pose a threat to God’s grace when we draw near to him through Christ. Every person on my list and yours is a candidate for mercy.

If God does not offer grace to sinners like Manasseh and Dahmer, there is no hope for us, and there is no hope for our loved ones.

3. It means God gets all the glory.
The extravagance of God’s grace reveals the extent of our insufficiency. We need him, and that’s uncomfortable. Humiliating. When it comes to defeating sin, Christ alone stands victorious.

Some of us hate receiving gifts. Instead of a thankful smile we respond, “You really shouldn’t have.” Acts of mercy make us feel indebted instead of blessed. But this is damning pride. My pastor reminded me in a recent sermon: “There is no catch to God’s grace but this: you can only receive it as a gift.”

I wonder what Jesus’s genealogy would look like if it were up to us. It certainly wouldn’t include Rahab (Matt. 1:5), David’s most disgraceful sin (v. 6), or the likes of King Manasseh (v. 10). Surely we would select our favorite saints and revel in the thought of linking arms with them. But God defines grace. He marks out its path, its length, its depth. The scribes in Mark 2:7 rightly questioned: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” No one. And he offers forgiveness even to the worst person you know.

Stephen’s prayer while being stoned is extraordinary: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60; cf Luke 23:34). Perhaps even more extraordinary is Saul’s response: “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1). The conversion and subsequent ministry of Saul, better known as Paul, is one of history’s most powerful illustrations of God’s relentless grace.

Praise God that he shows mercy to the merciless and love to the unlovely. Praise God that he redeems rebels like us.

My Number One Headache In The Church…

Emotionalism. There, I said it. So many people in the church are hyper-emotional, like all the time. From what they desire in worship to what they desire for their kids, emotionalism dominates heads and hearts. You hear it from semi-innocent statements like, “I just wasn’t being fed.”, said by classic church hoppers and shoppers everywhere to semi-innocent questions like, “Did you have fun today?”, asked by well-meaning parents everywhere after they pick up their kids from some event or program at church. Yes, emotionalism in the church is one of my biggest headaches.

Now, to be clear, I am not anti-emotion. I am not anti-fun. I am not the anti-Christ. I just have a very legitimate concern that people in the church – people who genuinely love Jesus – have an overt fascination with feeling something. It seems to me that many people in the church are looking for some sort of mountain-top experience that will get them high on life and ministry. There seems to be a desperate desire to feel something exciting and amazing…no matter the cost.

I remember growing up as a preacher’s kid when Rick Warren made his debut splash with his classic work, “The Purpose Driven Life” (and its’ counterpart, “The Purpose Driven Church”). I remember my Dad clearly (and with some crustiness in his demeanor) say, “This isn’t the church. This won’t last long before the next hype arrives.” What was my Dad talking about? He was talking about the church’s desire to reach the lost, by any means possible, stopping just short of outright, outrageous sin to reach them. He was talking about the church’s desire to reach the lost by acting lost. He was talking about the church’s strategy of figuring out what culture wants and meeting those felt needs with gusto, giveaways, and gimmicks…all topped with a little bit of Jesus to make everything kosher. He was talking about the church and culture colliding into one hot mess express – emotionalism…The belief that if you don’t feel it, it isn’t real.

I meet people nearly every day who are in a desperate search to feel something. Some end their search in the forbidden arms of another. Others end their search by shooting up some forbidden substance. Less drastic measures come in the form of simply trying to generate a laugh or a tear as they sit in a worship service or small group gathering. People want to feel. People, in our culture, need to feel…At least they think they need to feel.

Now, certainly, the head and the heart are connected. Biblical truth should result in the heart responding, and that includes some degree of emotion involved. But, make no mistake about it, the order is important. Head, then heart. Many in our culture (and in the church) have inverted the order at their own peril…Heart, then head. They want to feel something before they think something. This is dangerous…

We see this clearly and humorously in the life of a toddler. They feel something in their hearts and immediately act out what they (honestly) feel so deeply. They’ll throw themselves onto the floor. They’ll cry many, many (real) tears of sorrow. They’ll scream. They’ll demand change. And all because Mom and Dad gently, but boldly stated, “You can’t eat toilet paper.” The toddler is simply trying to “live their truth”, but Mom and Dad know their toddler’s version of reality will end in a stomachache…or worse.

It is dangerous to put heart over head. What you feel, desire, and nurture in your heart will (inevitably) lead to action. That’s why we need our heads FILLED with “the truth”, not “my truth” or “your truth”, but “the truth”. We need to know some things before we feel some things and then act out on those things. Does that make sense? So many in the church want to feel something so deeply that they’ll bypass the hard work of thinking to satisfy their insatiable appetite for emotion. It’s like cheating on a math exam. You might get a 100% because of your final answers, but your route towards the solution was fraught with deception and error.

Friends in the church, life and ministry is more than your feels. It’s more than fun. It’s more than friendly high-fives and fist-bumps. Life and ministry is war. The battle against the thick darkness, instigated by the world, the flesh, and the Devil, demands intel. Yeah, as a former intel analyst for the United States Army’s Special Operations’ Community, I can 100% guarantee you that intel drives operations. Without actionable intel, no bad guys get shot in the face…and no bad guys get arrested for interrogation. It’s intel, then ops. Just imagine a group of soldiers (even highly trained and decorated soldiers) simply going into downtown Baghdad for operations. Who is the target? What did they do? Where are they located? Why do they need to be captured or killed? How do you reach the target? Operations demand intel. Same is true in the Christian experience. It must be head, then heart. Know some things. Feel some things. Then act. You may or may not enjoy it. You may or may not have fun. But you’ll be engaging in true spiritual combat operations, and that, my friends, makes all the difference in the world. Stay bold. Stay in the fight. Stay head strong, then heart strong…Why? Because the darkness is thick out there, but so is Gospel hope.

 

Annual Election of Officers (2023)

Our Annual Election of Officers is fast approaching! All church members, in good standing, who are 14 years of age and older are kindly invited to nominate and then vote for individuals in the following categories: Deacon (3 Open Positions), Clerk, Treasurer, Financial Secretary, and Sunday School Superintendent. Below you will find the church’s timeline of events:

Sunday, October 23 – Nomination of Officers Commences – Deacons distribute nomination letter and ballots by mail the week prior.

Sunday, November 6 – Nomination of Officers Closes – Nominating and Election Committee meet on Sunday, November 6 at 2:00 PM to discuss results.

Monday, November 7 – Wednesday, November 16 – Nominee Contact Process Begins – Contact proposed nominees to see if they’re interested in serving. These individuals must reply by the close of business (5:00 PM) on Wednesday, November 16…

Sunday, November 20 – Official Posting of 2023 Officer Nominees – Posting of nominees will be done on the church bulletin board and via our blog. Two week notice of Special Member’s Meeting to elect officers will be given.

Sunday, December 4 – Annual Election of Officers – Election will be held by secret ballot.

All elected officers will take office on January 1, 2023. Please be in prayer concerning who you would have serve and if God is leading you to serve.

The Day My Facebook Post Went Viral…

It was a simple enough post. I took a screenshot of our Commander-in-Chief as he gave his primetime address to the nation (Thursday, September 1st) from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His speech, entitled, “The Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation”, came equipped with all the optics of the former Soviet Union (or Nazi Germany) with an ominous dark backdrop that dripped with blood red lighting. His speech was passionate, clear, divisive, and (dare I say it?) terrifying.

Yes, in a primetime address to the nation, President Biden said, in part, “MAGA Republicans pose a clear and present danger [to American democracy]. It’s in our hands, yours and mine, to stop the assault on American democracy…MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards. Backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”

Never in my lifetime have I heard a sitting U.S. President target fellow Americans with such heinous words. I felt what many of my fellow Americans felt: anger. So, knowing that the pen is mightier than the sword, I took that screenshot of our Commander-in-Chief and wrote the following Facebook post:

My name is David Cotner. I’m a child of God, a husband to Heather, a father to five, a pastor on the prairie, an Iraq War Veteran, and (now, apparently) a threat to democracy and the very soul of our country…

The darkness grows. It billows from the top as the sewage of fear erupts below. Yes, the darkness is thick out there, but so is Gospel hope…

#WeNeedADeliverer #WeNeedARedeemer #HisNameIsJesus

That’s it…I felt that my post was simple, fairly unemotional, and filled with Gospel hope. I looked it over, smiled, and said under my breath, “Here. We. Go.”, fully expecting about 15 likes and 2 comments (which is pretty average for my Facebook posts, especially the ones with a political flair about them)…That post went live on Friday, September 2nd, and initially gained about 15 likes and 2 comments (par for the course)…Then, slowly, it began to be shared…2 shares…4 shares…6 shares…All pretty standard stuff. I thought nothing of it. September 2nd eventually bleeds into September 7th and I notice my phone is blowing up…Multiple friend requests and dozens of new follows on my page…”What in the world?”, I thought to myself. But I was busy with ministry responsibilities and kept going about my day. Later that same day (September 7th) I realize that my September 2nd post is getting more and more reactions and comments…50 likes…60 likes…70 likes…And the comments kept at the same pace…50 comments…60 comments…70 comments. But what really floored me was the number of shares my post was generating…400 shares…500 shares…600 shares…At present, my post has been shared 2,000 times, and continues to gain traction…

According to online sources, a Facebook post is considered “viral” when it reaches at least 1,500 shares. Now, to be clear, I had no intention of this post becoming viral. I’m just a no-name preacher man out in the middle of the prairie trying to spread a little good by telling people about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. I merely made my post to infuse Gospel hope into the darkness and fear of our current political climate. But (man alive!) what a rush of adrenaline to see this post go viral…

Goodness, this blog post is already getting too long. I’m already at 573 words in this blog post. Online experts say that people’s attention spans usually dwindle rapidly at 500 words. So, if you’re still reading this, congratulations. I have no prize for you, but congratulations. You’re 73 words above average. And make no mistake about it, “readers are leaders”…So keep reading!

You know, obviously, I’m amazed at the number of shares this post generated. It clearly struck a nerve with people and ignited something deep within them. But why? It’s simple really: Words. Are. Powerful. They can be used for evil or for good. We teach children at a young age, and rightfully so, that they should choose their words carefully…The Bible admonishes us along these same lines: King Solomon states in Proverbs 18:21a, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” King Solomon continues in Proverbs 25:11 with this poetic truth, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Then, in the New Testament, Pastor James, writing to his congregation, warns: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:5b-11). Yes, words are powerful. So, choose them wisely.

I’ll end with this…I love the darker characters in novels and movies: Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker, V in the movie “V for Vendetta”, and Willy Wonka and his band of merry Oompa Loompas. I love all of these fictional characters, but I’m especially drawn to Willy Wonka. “So much time and so little to do! Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.” 🙂 Why the draw towards Willy Wonka? His charisma? His leadership style of the mysterious chocolate factory? His dark sense of humor? Yes. Yes. And yes. But more than all that…I love Willy Wonka’s use of words. He does it so well, embracing the reality of darkness, but with an eye towards hope. Remember the final scene of that 60’s classic? “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” This remark given as Charlie Bucket cautiously, but bravely does the right thing in returning the Everlasting Gobstopper to Willy Wonka. Yes, I love people (fictional or not) that embrace the reality of darkness, but with an eye towards hope. And that’s why I made this viral post to begin with…To remind people that the darkness is truly (devilishly, hellishly) thick out there, but so is Gospel hope.

And what is the Gospel? Listen closely…”Oompa loompa doompety doo. I’ve got a perfect puzzle for you. Oompa loompa doompety dee. If you are wise you’ll listen to me…”

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (The Gospel of John. Chapter 3. Verse 16.)

Yes, the darkness is mighty thick out there, but so is Gospel hope. Do you have such hope?


The Big 5…

I recently had lunch with two traveling representatives from Faith Baptist Bible College. In addition to representing the college, both of these young men are actively studying for the ministry. Indeed, they were young, eager, and had many questions about life and ministry. They asked many good questions, but one question in particular was especially great…One of them asked, “What are your go-to passages in a counseling situation? When things fall apart in someone’s life where do you take them in the Scriptures?” Here was my response:

1. Psalm 13 – For those being pulled by the strong rip currents of suffering, I take them to Psalm 13. Yes, for all those desperate for answers and relief Psalm 13 is a ray of hope and light.

2. Psalm 23 – Arguably the most famous chapter in the entire book of Psalms, Psalm 23 is literally appropriate for any season of life. With God’s presence promised even in “the valley of the shadow of death” and “His goodness and mercy” promising to chase us down “all the days of my life”, Psalm 23 is strong enough to breathe new life into dying situations and get fearful, anxious people over the hope line.

3. Psalm 46 – This is definitely one of my favorite back pocket Scripture texts for those entering Depression’s dark Mansion of Horrors. This psalm provides powerful reminders that since “God is our refuge and strength”, we only need to “be still, and know that I am God.”

4. Psalm 88 – Ah, yes! For anyone who is feeling alone, abandoned, or betrayed, Psalm 88 is dynamite. It literally ends with the words, “Darkness is my closest friend.” Fade to black…

5. Psalm 121 – Everyone feels the weight of this fallen world from time to time, and for those especially burdened by the nastiness of it all, Psalm 121 is a dear friend. “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

So, there you have it…The Big 5…My go-to list when life gets tricky. And remember, friends, the darkness is mighty thick out there, but so is Gospel hope…