I’ve heard that question posed in numerous places, sometimes with anger and disgust and other times with bewilderment. The disgust comes from places like Free Republic and elsewhere on the right wing fringe (see below); the bewilderment often from the left ("Tiller was religious?!?").

Tiller was not a member of my parish, but he was a part of my denomination: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’ve never been to worship at his parish in Wichita, but when I heard of his murder, it changed the way I look at mine.

Barbara Shelly, a KC Star op-ed columnist, put in her two cents about the kind of church Tiller was part of:

What kind of church would embrace George Tiller? A church that believes the creator endowed human beings with both conscience and intelligence, to enable us to wrestle with the complicated questions. A church that recognizes that one’s relationship with that creator can’t be dictated by a central authority, or proscribed by a narrow list of rules.

Tiller’s church, Reformation Lutheran in Wichita, Kan., is one that trusts its members with the freedom to decide on matters of conscience. It holds that a choice made for good reasons and in good faith does not separate a human being from God.

Thanks, Barb — that pretty much says it.

Of course, this set off the folks at Free Republic (and no, I won’t link to them, thank you very much):

The ONLY people claiming that Tiller was shot by Roeder are members of that church. Roeder pled innocent.

Why should we believe people who made America’s most notorious late term abortionist their usher?

Isn’t it more likely they did the shooting themselves and ID’d Roeder as a patsy?

Oh please.

But let’s think about Tiller being an usher.

Ushers help old folks with their walkers and canes out of their cars. They hold open the doors for pregnant mothers or those bearing treats for the fellowship hour after church. They greet visitors with a welcoming smile, and longtime members with a hearty "good to see you again." For people with grief, they offer a comforting shoulder; for people with joy, they offer congratulations. Ushers offer whatever assistance they can to make everyone feel at home. To get theological for a moment, ushers are the first people someone encounters at church, and the message from the usher to the guest is simple: "I may or may not know you, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are both children of God, and so I welcome you here."

When I read the stories from Tiller’s patients (and there are more here), or stories like Christy’s, the notion of Tiller being a church usher makes sense. The bottom line of being an usher is to care about others, whoever they may be and whatever the circumstances of their lives. Tiller cared so much for his patients that he endured years of protests, vandalism, threats of violence, and actual violence. In the end, his compassion cost him his life.

I was away last Sunday, and so tomorrow is the first Sunday I’ll be in my parish since Tiller was murdered. I won’t be looking at my ushers in the same way ever again.

(Sorry if this is a little heavy for a Saturday morning, but it’s been that kind of week.)