Many years ago, while I could still be called a young pastor, while pastoring in Fort Wayne IN, I belonged to a group called Clergy United. Loosely tied to the county’s Council of Churches, this was a monthly gathering of “ministerial” and “religious” types from around the metropolitan area. It was composed of many Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, The Jewish rabbis of the community were also a part of Clergy United. For a time the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Fort Wayne and South Bend joined our gatherings. The group was generally led by pastors of mainline Christian churches. The meeting topics stayed away from theology, and often were a forum for politically correct social causes. The extremely conservative Missouri Lutheran pastors and many of my evangelical brethren did not participate. The fundamentalists of the community saw the group as agents of the other side in the ongoing war with Satan. I believed that we needed to work together with all people of faith in any increasingly secularized world.
One meeting during Lent, I was asked to give the closing prayer for the group. Still somewhat new and definitely outnumbered in the theological scheme of things; I went ahead and simply prayed a word of thanksgiving and hope to God. That’s when I made a drastic “mistake.” At the conclusion of my prayer I finished these words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
That’s when it hit the fan.
I had barely concluded when one of my colleagues angrily and publicly dressed me down. “That was the most offensive prayer I have ever heard. How could you dare pray those concluding words. You have offended those of us who do not share our brand of Christianity, and you have offended our dear friends and partners, the rabbis. (My accuser was the Unitarian-Universalist pastor.)
It was pretty intense stuff and I was spinning emotionally. No one said bothered to say anything. Whether they were in agreement with my accuser or in shock by his rudeness, or just in a hurry to get back to work; I do not know. I mumbled a blanket apology to anyone I might have offended and exited as quickly as possible. It gave new meaning to the expression “running for cover.”
I tend to be a sensitive guy. At that point in my life I was also a bit of a people-pleaser, not wanting to be disliked by anyone. But I do believe in a person’s right to choose their faith and believe it is important to respect the faith of others. My personal intolerance tends to run to things like “soap opera country music” and people who think you have to have the communion bread prepared just so, or persons who want to live far into the past (like 1950) instead of being useful and Christ-like in the present.
So the next day I set about to write an apology to a man I deeply respected and continued a friend, Rabbi Dick Saffron. In it I wrote that I had not intended to offend him, but that I always conclude my prayers “in the name of Jesus Christ, my Lord” because that is the God in whom I believe and it is the essence of my faith.
Rabbi Saffron graciously wrote back, “Steve, I was not offended. You were expressing your faith as a genuine person of faith. What would have offended me is if you had taken so sacred a relationship and trivialized it by praying something politically correct and false out of a desire to appear tolerant of another’s faith.”
I appreciate the integrity of a man with whom I share a common heritage but not a common Messiah. He taught me a powerful lesson about the higher value of being a person of spiritual integrity even at the risk of being declared intolerant by a more shallow cultural value.