Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Catholics and Lutherans: Cribbage, Friendship, and Communion

When I graduated from seminary college back in 1993, I had the opportunity to be commissioned in the US Navy Reserve as a Chaplain Candidate. For the next few years, I would spend summers doing reserve drilling. It was a great experience.

During my third summer, I was stationed in Newport, RI and attended Chaplain school. Every morning, after physical training, there would be a general Protestant service, Jewish prayers, and Catholic Mass. More often than not, the Lutherans in our group would opt to attend Catholic Mass rather than the general Protestant service. One of those Lutherans--a Missouri Synod Lutheran, to be precise--and I became pretty good friends.  We spent much of that summer hanging out, laughing a lot, and playing tons of cribbage.

That friendship and the experience of that summer is on my mind this week because there has been so much discussion about the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. For me, my friendship with Ryan--whom I have not seen in 21 years--has shaped a lot of how I view ecumenism. I understand that there is a need for "formal" ecumenical relations and committees etc, but I found our friendship far more productive and real than a lot of the dialogue that goes on in official circles.

One of the things that I found compelling about Ryan is that he knew his stuff. He understood what a Lutheran is and acted in total fidelity to that vision. He didn't soft pedal his Lutheranism, try to make it more palatable to a Catholic, or become wishy-washy. I found this kind of honesty and integrity refreshing. My guess is that Missouri Synod Lutherans are probably looked down upon by some of the other Lutheran communities because they are kind of immovable on certain things. But, I liked this. I knew who I was dealing with. For Ryan, words, ideas, principles, and theological statements actually meant something. We couldn't just skip over words that made life difficult in solving the divisions that exist.  Words mean something.

When Ryan came to Mass with us Catholics, communion time wasn't awkward. It wasn't awkward because for Ryan and for us, words mean something. We shared some level of communion together, but we were not in full communion with each other. In fact, if someone had told Ryan to come to communion, he probably would have been horrified. He wouldn't want to receive communion unless we were all actually and really in communion. And Ryan would have zero issue telling a Catholic that if he or she came to his service, that they should not receive communion. Is it a punishment that prevents us from intercommunion or misunderstanding? No. It is a real difference.

When communion time came at Mass each morning, I didn't feel awkward in the least. I did feel sorrowful. I was sorrowful because there was a separation. That separation is real. By not receiving communion, Ryan was a visible reminder of the painful and real division that exists.  And yet, by faithfully attending Mass each day, he was also a visible reminder of the real, albeit partial union that does exist.

Over the years, I've watched from a distance as Ryan and his wife have raised a family and as he has been promoted up the ranks of the Navy. I've no doubt that the Sailors and Marines to whom he has ministered are truly blessed. He is a faithful and great chaplain. His friendship remains a reminder to me of the painful division that exists among Christians and how we should work and pray to heal those divisions. But, his friendship is also a reminder that the only way for those divisions to be truly healed is through true friendship and through sincere fidelity to the truth. What I liked about Ryan coming to Mass and praying was that he gave an example of how much unity exists.  But, by not coming to communion, he also showed how much unity is missing. It was truthful. I learned a lot from that experience.

Much of our friendship that summer took shape while playing cribbage. Who won the most hands, I am afraid, is lost to the fog of history. I am positive, however, that neither of us would ever have "let the other guy win" because that would have been false, and friendship is built upon truth. I long for the day that Ryan and I can share at the one Eucharistic table, but that day is not now. To do so now would be false. And true friendships--true communion--is built upon truth. And this kind of truth--one that is admittedly painful--is so much better than a falsehood that is easy and cheap. 

One of these days, Ryan and I will meet up again and I will beat him in cribbage, and that will be our contribution to ecumenism. 

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