In less than six months we will gather for our ASM annual meeting to consider "interfaith friendship as incarnational mission practice." The past two Sundays three serendipitous events occurred which resonate for me with our ASM theme and make me anticipate our gathering even more! To be clear, the stories I relate here are not about interfaith friendships, but they are about friendship in the midst of difference and thus illustrate the generative nature of the theme ASM President Dr. Bonnie Sue Lewis has chosen.
First, this past Sunday I preached at two congregations near my home. This is not particularly unusual in itself. It is something I do every month or two. I preached on Mark 1:14-20; a few months ago I had written a short commentary on this text for the ASM "missional preacher" website. But the day before I was to preach, I saw something new in the text that I hadn't even mentioned in that commentary. In Mark's account of Jesus calling disciples by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls for three actions on the part of his disciples / eventual friends: Repent, believe, and follow. I closed my message by lingering with my congregations on the priority Jesus placed on repentance. Repentance is how our believing and following begins. Perhaps that is especially the case in our interfaith friendships. But surely not only there.
With my congregations I also spoke about another event that had occurred the previous week. I had visited a Coptic Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon (the only Coptic church in Oregon) with my class of undergraduate students studying the history of African Christianity. In their ancient liturgy we heard the simple prayer, "Lord have mercy," well over a dozen times. I was reminded of the multiple layers of that simple prayer that simultaneously reminds us of our need to repent and the abundant grace and mercy that is poured out for us by our Lord Jesus Christ. While worshiping with these Coptic Christians I was also reminded of how little I pray for Christian sisters and brothers facing persecution in Egypt and elsewhere. Lord have mercy, indeed!
My third serendipitous event occurred the evening after I had preached on the Gospel of Mark. I went with a new friend to an evening service at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in a nearby town. I am still somewhat new to the American West, so I decided several months ago that I needed to better understand the Mormon tradition in my new home. As I climbed into my friend's car that rainy evening, I asked again what this service was going to be about. He said that he thought it was going to be "A kind of revival service." He is always generous to find words within my own Protestant and Methodist tradition that make sense. At the end of the service which was indeed "A kind of revival service," one of the priests from the regional ministry area or "stake" came up to me and asked, with tears in his eyes, if he could give me a hug. We had met just once before, but we had a meaningful conversation. As we embraced he said, "Thank you for being so kind to us." I recall that I mumbled something along the lines of "But, of course, we're supposed to love one another." He had previously told me of some hurtful encounters he had with evangelical Christians many years ago in our area. I don't yet know the history or current reality of Latter Day Saints - evangelical relations in my new home, but I know I need to learn. I also don't know what repentance would look like in this case, but if I am to follow Jesus more closely in my new home I need to open my heart in prayer about this. My friend's tears and words of gratitude, it seems to me, can serve as a kind of icon for my prayers in the months to come.
"Repent, believe, follow." "Lord have mercy." "Thank you for being so kind to us." May these phrases resonate for you too in the days to come as we all look forward to our ASM meeting on "interfaith friendships" at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana. I'm looking forward to seeing you there!
To be clear, I don't see my relationships with LDS friends as an interfaith friendship. The evangelical - LDS dialogue that has taken place for the past 20 years seems to mostly use the language of "heterodox Christian sect" as a descriptor of the Mormon tradition that LDS Christians themselves are comfortable with. For now, so am I.