Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lutherans Are Sorry -- On Prayers at Newtown

Suddenly Lutherans are all over the news. Here's a pretty straightforward news report by way of example:

Since the name Lutheran is being invoked absent any subtle distinctions concerning denominational affiliation, it could be tempting for me as a Lutheran pastor to disclaim complicity. I could try, "Yes, those are those other kind of Lutherans. They're LCMS. I'm a pastor in the ELCA. We join in interfaith worship all the time, all over the place. We're different."

However, the more I peer into that pastor's actions, examine my own theological commitments, and prayerfully ponder the multi-valent faith and pastoral implications, the more I think some simple and faithful commentary is in order. Please bear with me. I'm trying to keep it simple, but some of the subtleties really matter.

Lutherans Lead With Apologies

We believe saying sorry is a good thing. Many if not most Lutheran churches begin corporate worship with confession and absolution. So in a certain sense, all this pastor is doing is being a good Lutheran, and acting within his tradition.

The Bible Leads With Apologies

Scripture is replete with testimony against the very people who hold it up as Scripture. By apologizing, this pastor is simply doing what many of the faithful have done over time, lead in their witness by owning their complicity in sin, and seeking forgiveness. He's in very good company.

But this was an apology with a difference.

Read this short statement from the CNN press release:

"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," Morris wrote in a letter to the Lutheran leadership. "I apologize where I have caused offense by pushing Christian freedom too far, and I request you charitably receive my apology."
In the same letter, however, Morris defends his decision to participate, writing that he believed his participation was "not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy."
Notice that the pastor is apologizing for causing offense, not for his participation per se. Even the news reports pick up on this (although the headlines mostly do not). I think in this way he is apologizing with integrity. He is sorry for offending his fellow clergy and perhaps even members of his own congregation. He is not sorry for trying as best he could to engage in community chaplaincy (one of the victims of the shooting was one of his parishioners).

I do not live in a communion that would ask me to apologize for participating in a service like this, but if I did, I would probably try to walk this very careful line the way this young pastor walked. And I would be grieving the whole way, because of the pain, and the sadness, and much more. I would likely make mistakes. In the midst of grief, I might make a lot of mistakes.

But then there is this letter

The president of the LCMS offered this response more recently, in the wake of the media spotlight:

In it, he writes:

As president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community. I humbly offer my apologies to the congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn.; to Pastor Morris; and to the Newtown community. I also apologize to the membership of our great church body for embarrassment due to the media coverage. I know that despite my own weakness and failings, God “works all things for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). My interaction with Pastor Morris and President Yeadon has never been anything but cordial and appropriate for brothers in Christ. Speculation that has implied anything else is false.
The day I was elected two-and-a-half years ago, I noted that the Synod had kept its perfect record of electing sinners as presidents. I also noted that I would fail at times. I am a sinner. I have failed. To members of the Missouri Synod, I plead for your forgiveness and patience as we try again to work toward resolution, faithful to Christ and His Gospel, in times that challenge us all.
When I finished reading this letter, I wept. You can tell that these brothers and sisters of ours in Christ are wrestling mightily with the struggle between their desire to be faithful to their Scripture and tradition as they understand it, and their desire to bring healing and offer caring ministry. I might disagree with them in many ways, but I can read in all of this the authenticity of their struggle.

Any of us, if we are honest, acknowledge the difficulty of balancing truth with grace, love with boundaries. There but by the grace of God go I.

When our failures are in the national spotlight

So the pastor, the district president where the pastor serves, and the president of the LCMS, wrote this joint letter:

Rob Morris, Pastor, Christ the King, Newtown
Timothy Yeadon, District President, New England District
Matthew C. Harrison, President, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

To our brothers and sisters in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:
By the grace of God, we have worked through a very challenging situation. It has been our deepest mutual concern in dealing with one another to be faithful to Christ, our respective vocations, and to each other as brothers.

We implore the church to do likewise.

We have mutually forgiven each other where we have fallen short. We are reconciled. We are at peace. We are in support of each other.

Rob Morris, Pastor, Christ the King, Newtown
Timothy Yeadon, District President, New England District
Matthew C. Harrison, President, The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

So leaders in a denomination I consider to be our siblings, even while I struggle mightily with some of their faith commitments, has decided to go on record, publicly and clearly, in favor of apologizing. Do all of us, regardless of where we come down on the side of interfaith worship and community chaplaincy, have the grace to accept their apologies?

Have they modeled failure, or have they modeled real Christian confession and forgiveness? I think they have modeled the latter. Such things are always messy. When was sin ever clean? Only when it has been forgiven.

Furthermore, the new life claimed in forgiveness frees us once again to pour out our lives for our neighbors. It is my prayer that we not get so entangled in puzzling over this pastor's apology that we fail to continue to love and care for all the families still grieving after that terrible tragedy. And we need to remember that that pastor is grieving, too.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I saw the original letter from the LCMS president, but not the later statements. I was most saddened by the concern that Pastor Morris's participation might cause deep division within the church.

  2. We are covering this on the air live at 436pm today. kbrt740 in Los Angeles. kcbc770 in San Francisco. Lots of ways to listen to live streaming audio. Special guest on our radio show will be Larry Stoterau, District President of LCMC SWest.

  3. I understand what has happened as an example of the long standing policy and attitude within certain leaders in the Mo. Synod
    which is nothing new. I had a cousin some 70 years ago who would not "say grace" (i.e. prayer before eating a meal) at the family
    gatherings because most of us there were of "other" Lutheran churches than the LCMS. Does this make sense? I see what Pastor
    Morris did as a witness as well as a pastoral act by praying in public. How can we witness to Christ if we are not allowed to
    pray anywhere, any place, for any reason???? Yes forgiveness and love trump everything, but the LCMS is hung up on a policy
    that seems to take the power out of the message of the Love of God. I grieve for them also.