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February 11, 2013

Newtown, President Harrison, the LCMS

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

When we consider our lot in this world, the ideal of perfection is never reached unless we scale perfection on the failure meter. All human beings who breathe air fail; we, to use a churchly word, “sin” regularly, whether in our hearts or in our deeds. We are creatures of sinful perfection. Acknowledging this human characteristic is important in our relationship with God. We see ourselves as those who have fallen short of the glory and perfection of God, turning our collective backs against the one and only Triune God, and in this acknowledgement of failure, we come before our Lord to repent and lay low our failed state.

In repentance, with our very beings torn apart by sin, our Father in heaven reaches down from heaven through the spoken and peaceful word forgives us our failures and sins. Through the blood of His Son, we are forgiven, granted pardon and peace, even though we deserve to be punished for our sins and failures. Yet because of Jesus Christ and Him crucified for us, God doesn’t count the sins of our lives against us; instead, He looks upon us as those cleansed and redeemed through the blood of His only-begotten Son.

We are sinners, yet we are forgiven. In fact, we live this life as forgiven children of the Lord, struggling in this life not to ‘do bad’ yet knowing that our Lord Jesus died for us. And when we fail our Lord and sin, our heavy hearts are laid before Him, and He comforts us with words of love and forgiveness.

The past couple of weeks, our Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has gone through another media firestorm, one fanned by people from within our Synodical ranks. A good pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, who had to bury a young child from his congregation following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in December 2012, prayed the benediction at a community event organized by the local clergy association. President Barack Obama spoke at this event, bringing words of comfort to a community that was mourning the loss of 26 innocent children and teachers. Some of the clergy vested, dressed in clerical robes, for this event. The pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church participated without “getting dressed up.” The hearts of all Americans, questioning why a young man went on such a murderous rampage, found a tiny bit of comfort after that event, not because of the various prayers spoken by religious leaders, but because the President stood on stage and spoke loving words of comfort.

In the weeks that followed this event, the people of Newtown began the process of rebuilding their shattered community.

News vans and reporters who flocked to this small Connecticut town left the weary to themselves. Newtown, CT moved from page one in the newspaper to page 15. Bad weather in the Midwest and a Presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. lead television newscasts as Newtown, CT was pushed to after the first or second segment on the television news. Politicians in Washington D.C. and in state capitols of Hartford and Albany tried to score political points with gun control measures that they claimed would end senseless violence against the innocent, but no one really believed those proposed and signed laws will do any good.

The healing in Newtown continues. They need our prayers. They need our support. They need our love.

What has always bothered me about this story is the way it has been politicized. Before one of the victims was carried out of Sandy Hook Elementary to go to the morgue, politicians were promising political answers to this type of senseless violence. Whether it be to take guns away or prohibit people with mental disabilities from owning guns, these people ran to news cameras to score political points with the public. I say politics should take a backseat when dead children are lying in their blood on their classroom floor.

However, politics never takes a break, whether on television or the newspapers, or, sad for me say, in the church.

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has been a lightning rod when it comes to public acts of prayer. In 2001, Atlantic District President David Benke was at the heart of a move by some from within the LCMS to remove him from office since he took part in a memorial service at Yankee Stadium. Worshiping with those who reject the Triune God and our rightful understanding of what it means to be a Lutheran is a no-no within the LCMS. And this is good. We believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified for the sins of the world. We should never take part in worship that minimizes Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for us at the cross. Public worship with other faiths does just that – it minimizes Jesus and promotes the general notion that any pronouncement of a generic god is OK. We Lutherans believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and anything short of this proclamation is wrong.

District President Benke’s supporters ran a very good public relations campaign under the banner “It’s OK to Pray.” Eventually, DP Benke regained his office, and the negative press the LCMS received eventually faded as we worked hard to try to rebuild our tattered image. And yes, it was tattered. Our small 2.3 Million denomination was ridiculed far and wide by ignorant media people who spun the news to make those who believe in worshiping the true God rightly as being small minded. After that controversy, my prayer for our Synod was that we would learn to properly deal with these types of issues of public prayer in a more adult fashion.

Yet, as we’ve seen in the past several days, this is not the case.

LCMS President Matthew Harrison, a wonderful leader and tremendous pastor, has been at the heart of the media’s latest war against the LCMS. He tried to deal with the Newtown public prayer issue like a leader is supposed to — working within the system, talking with all sides, and eventually coming to a peaceful conclusion. Pastor Morris of Christ the King Lutheran, who prayed the benediction at the end of the community event in December, admitted that his actions that night may have offended some within the Synod, and for that he apologized publicly. This good man showed true pastoral leadership in admitting he fell short of being a perfect theologian and publicly admitting such. Apologies, at times, can be a dime a dozen, but Pastor Morris’ heartfelt apology gave me a sense of peace.

But for me, it was President Harrison’s actions that left me feeling proud that he is our Synodical leader. He didn’t fan the flames of discontent, but worked to bring the sides of this issue together. It has been President Harrison who has stood above the attacks by some from within the Synod and from the media who have spent time ridiculing the Synod and its theology on public prayer. President Harrison issued a letter dealing with this “fanned into flame” controversy, and also produced a video that you can watch below. First, from the letter President Harrison wrote:

I, along with New England District President Yeadon, asked Pastor Morris for an apology for participation in the Newtown prayer service, hoping to avoid deeper internal controversy and division in the Missouri Synod, which, in the past, has struggled with this issue to the very breaking point. I naively thought an apology for offense in the church would allow us to move quickly beyond internal controversy and toward a less emotional process of working through our differences, well out of the public spotlight. That plan failed miserably. Pastor Morris graciously apologized where offense was taken as a humble act to help maintain our often fragile unity in the church (1 Corinthians 8). He did not apologize for participating, even as he carefully provided his reasoning for participating due to deep concern for his flock and the people of his horrified community. I immediately accepted his apology, looking forward to continued conversation toward greater unity in the church. I had hoped to veil him and his congregation from unhealthy criticism within the church. I urged and still urge that anyone contemplating action in the church courts not do so. I desire nothing more than to keep our church body from deeper division so we can continue to work through our challenges with less heat and more light. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the two letters that we each provided to the church was picked up by the media, who distorted the facts of an admittedly nuanced situation that is very difficult for most people, even within the Missouri Synod, to understand. I kindly refer you to my letter and Pastor Morris’ letter for further clarification.

I desire nothing more than to keep our church body from deeper division so we can continue to work through our challenges with less heat and more light.

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.

Personally, I just wish those who have fanned the political flames of this issue from within the LCMS would act in the same vain as President Harrison. Yet, I will not hold my breath.

The LCMS deserves better. We are a church under the banner of Jesus Christ. That last thing we should be proud of is the politics that is played on blogs and in church hallways. Our Synod deserves leaders who profess Jesus amid the attacks and smearing of our faith, and proudly stand up to witness and raise up Christ, to show mercy to the needy, and to work together as those beloved by our Father in heaven.

Many times since being installed here at Saint Matthew’s, I have said how proud I am to be part of the New Jersey District. Our leadership works hard to foster unity between churches and clergy people. I am proud to say that I get along with my clergy brothers as we work together not just to teach and preach Jesus Christ, but to live as best we can serving others. Maybe some within our Synod need the New Jersey District example to guide them.

In conclusion, President Harrison’s latest video:

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