This morning I read a news story explaining that the pastor from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in Newton, CT had to issue an apology to the LCMS president for participating in a prayer vigil two days after the murder of innocent adults and children because leaders of other faith traditions also participated.
Here’s a highlight from Pastor Rob’s apology letter (read the entire letter for context here):
To those who believe that I have endorsed false teaching, I assure you that was not my intent, and I give you my unreserved apologies. If any of you know church members or friends or family who are now confused because of my participation, believing that the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod fully endorses the doctrine of anyone else who was on that stage, please correct this confusion lovingly, and I will personally be happy to help in any way that I can. Feel free to pass on my apologies for having given that impression.
Here’s an excerpt from LCMS President Harrison’s open letter response (read the entire letter for context here):
I asked Pastor Morris to apologize for taking part in this service. I did this for several reasons:
- I believe his participation violated the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship, particularly with those who reject Jesus (Romans 16:17), and was thus a violation of Article VI of the LCMS Constitution.
- Pastor Morris’s participation gave offense in the Synod, something we are to avoid, even if we are doing something we believe might be appropriate (1 Corinthians 8).
- I most sincerely desire to avoid deep and public contention in the Synod. Our mission is too vital, our fellowship too fragile for a drawn out controversy.
Reading both of these faith leaders’ full letters, I find they both offer substantial reasons why they wrote what they wrote from their particular contexts and faith convictions. I come from a different context, though, and I think I need help understanding their context better. Because right now, I’m left with three thoughts and a bonus observation:
1. The LCMS is not the ELCA – or – painting Christians with a broad brush is a bad idea.
The public and the media often lump Christians together as one big, well, lump, unfortunately. Painting with a broad brush just doesn’t work. And while this article mentions Pastor Rob is a Lutheran pastor, it doesn’t make the distinction between his denomination, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the very different Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), as well as other Lutheran denominations (quick bit on their differences at the bottom of this article or in this PDF download directly from the LCMS). This may not seem like a big deal until one realizes that for as many similarities they or any given Christian denomination may have, there are quite stark differences, too, including whether or not an ELCA pastor is welcome to participate in an interfaith worship service (he or she totally is, by the way).
It would be like if your parents were called in to talk with the principal about your “permanent record” only to discover halfway through the meeting they called in the wrong parents because the meeting was actually about another kid in your same grade with a very similar name. Close, but no cigar. (True story, by the way…)
2. What is “interfaith,” anyway? – or – Is God for some, not for others?
I am stymied to learn the LCMS doesn’t allow its pastors to be in worship services created by and for and partaken by more than one faith tradition and, if I’m reading Pastor Rob’s letter correctly, that even means other Christian denominations outside the LCMS. For me, this is at the very least disappointing and at the most, just plain heartbreaking. What a limitation! What an antithesis to evangelism! What a way of saying to the people, “God for some, not for others” and to God, “Sorry, God, that’s not our policy.” I know, truly I know the LCMS has – and is welcome to have – specific views on Scripture which dictate this decision. I don’t begrudge this church that decision. Decisions like this is part of what gives Christian denominations their distinct flavors. For me, from my theological context, it’s heartbreaking because it feels like putting people in boxes and putting oneself in a box and taping up the lids.
We are in an interfaith world. We are in a post-modern world. We are in a world in which not everyone is exactly like me or you or him or her and thank God for that!
One of the images I most remember after the murders in Sandy Hook was of this photo of Pakistani children lighting candles for their fellow murdered children. They have a sign asking for peaceful, loving solidarity. Are they Christian? Are they LCMS? Are they in the same box as murdered children in Connecticut? Or are they too interfaith to be human?
We’re not in boxes. And even if we wanted to be, I don’t think it’s realistic. We’re in a salad. A mosaic. A cornucopia. A horn of plenty. A whole lot of people with a whole lot of ways to be born, live, and die and all in the sight of, in this writer’s opinion, a Creator God, Reconciler Christ, and Sustainer Holy Spirit – a Holy Trinity with love for all.
We’re not in boxes. Thanks be to God.
On a personal note, if I hadn’t of caught wind of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on tour with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, I never would have seen the video in which Archbishop Tutu speaks of the “Three-Mile-Per-Hour God” at Seeds of Compassion – an interfaith gathering. Closing myself to interfaith ministry would have closed me off to one of the most compelling, poignant images / names of God I have ever experienced.
On a further personal – and evangelistic – note, if you’re curious as to what my denomination, the United Methodist Church, says about “interfaith” work, it’s mentioned five times: all are about entering “serious interfaith encounters and explorations between Christians and adherents of other living faiths of the world,” and doing so “in accordance with the Wesleyan ecumenical spirit.”1
Oh, good. So it’s not just me.
And, really quick, a bonus question about the LCMS and interfaith: why does President Harrison specifically mention the presence of Baha’i and Muslim faith leaders but not Jewish faith leaders? I may have to take a cue from the great fictional Jewish character played by Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night here: “Don’t get me started…”
3. I have an emotionally-charged idea – or – President Harrison should personally tell the family from Pastor Rob’s church who lost a child at Sandy Hook Elementary that it was wrong for their pastor to minister them.
I think he should say it to their faces. I think President Harrison should go to Newton, CT, sit those parents down, and tell them it was wrong for their minister to be their minister. And minister to other families steeped in tragedy. And minister to the city. He should tell them there’s a time and a place for proclaiming the Word of God and two days after your child was murdered, when a massive gathering of friends and family are huddled together, setting aside differences, uniting under God’s big tent, holding each other tight, praying like they’ve never prayed before, your pastor should have looked you in the eye and said, “I won’t be there. It’s against the rules.”
I would think many young clergy hope to catch the attention of his or her bishop or president or other ministerial authority figures. But not this way. This is happening in Pastor Rob’s first six months in his first appointment. He did what he thought was right for that family, other families, the city. And he was told to apologize. And he did. With due respect to Pastor Rob, I completely understand why he would do this. He took particular vows. He has particular theology. He entered covenant with a particular denomination. For all I know, Pastor Harrison was there when he took those vows, made those promises.
A minister is called to work that is sometimes pastor, sometimes prophet. To me, when Pastor Rob spoke that benediction, he was playing the role of pastor. When he apologized, he missed playing the role of prophet. I get why he did it. Much easier for me to stand behind my blog pulpit – far removed from Newton, CT and the theological and doctrinal stances of the LCMS – and say he should have played prophet if that’s how the president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is going to put him in his place his first six months on the job. Much easier for me to say that than for him to do it. Still, I do wonder what message President Harrison is sending the pastors in his faith tradition, young and wise in experience, about making sure they maintain their non-prophet status.
So who will do it for him?
Who will ask President Harrison to apologize to Pastor Rob?
Who will be Pastor Rob’s pastor? His prophet?
But I could be wrong. President Harrison points out he’s not Jesus nor is he infallible. He and I have that in common. So here’s Pastor Rob’s one-minute Scripture-laden benediction at this interfaith gathering, now offered up to you, the many in the mosaic. What do you think?
Bonus Observation: Pastor Rob gave an ACTUAL apology, not a fake one and that’s AWESOME.
The non-apology goes, “…I apologize if anyone was offended…”
The actual apology goes, “I apologize where I have caused offense…”
Pastor Rob chose the latter.
And for that, as well as being a pastor to people who need a pastor, Pastor Rob Morris is a rock star in my book.
P.S. – I know there are some who would make the point, from Scripture, that not participating in things interfaith is actually God’s policy. I happen to humbly disagree and also, by Scripture (Ephesians 4:6).
1. Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. 2008. Pages 84, 364, 587, and twice on 701.↩