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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Wisdom from Above
January 6, 2011

I once taught in a school where a major rift emerged within the faculty concerning our effectiveness in fulfilling our mission. One side felt that the administration was impeding the mission, while the other remained loyal to the leadership. I had dear friends on both sides; both had strong arguments advocating their position. As it became clear that I would have to choose to go with one side or the other, I agonized over how I could possibly decide which voices to heed. Both sides seemed to have equally valid points.

One day a passage of Scripture burst a beam of clear light on my path. Godly wisdom, James tells us, is “…peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy.…” (James 3:17) He goes on to spell out what this looks like: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters… There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. Who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12) I saw that one group in the debate vilified the others, casting aspersion on their integrity. They were neither peaceable nor gentle, unwilling to yield an inch to those with whom they differed. There was no mercy or forbearance, only judgment. They sought not only to stake their claim on the nature of our mission – they disparaged those who thought otherwise. They had gone beyond stating their convictions to targeting people with whom they disagreed. Meanwhile, the folk on the other side were equally passionate for their position, but spoke no ill of those lined up against them. The voice of God’s wisdom became crystal clear to me.

The holiday season is a difficult time for families – even as it reunites families, it resurfaces old family tensions. It seems that this pattern extends also into the life of the church. For some reason, I have witnessed more sniping at one another in the church over the past few weeks than in the entire year preceding. Sometimes it gets expressed as anger at our denomination; other times it gets aimed at congregations, pastors, or other leaders. Sometimes the harsh words come from people in the pews, but alas, even pastors sometimes speak ill of those with whom they disagree. I’ve even had to face stones thrown our way at presbytery, if you can possibly imagine it!

Ability to air freely our convictions in matters over which we disagree is a vital mark of relational health. We need to be honest with one another – “speaking the truth in love” is just as committed to truth-telling as it is to love-walking. But when our differences of conviction devolve into personal attacks on the integrity of those with whom we disagree, we move beyond the healthy pattern of family members being honest with each other, to “speaking evil against one another.”

I must say it straight – some of the things we have said about one another have been deeply hurtful to individuals that have been targeted, as well as to people who love the people and institutions they have heard vilified. I know this to be true because several of us – pastors and members alike – have opened their wounds to me.

What is at stake is not merely whether we hurt our brothers and sisters. That itself is a tragic thing; but equally dismaying is that such behavior inevitably goes public, and causes the world to scorn the message of reconciliation in Christ that we proclaim.

And so I beg that we all call ourselves to a higher standard in the way we express our convictions, especially when they differ from those of others in our fellowship. We don’t need to call into question the integrity of others in order to establish our own. We don’t need to tear others down in order to lift ourselves up. We don’t need to call judgment upon others in order to establish our own rectitude.

I admit it – every negative word you may say about me is probably true. And much worse could well be said. The point is not whether it is true, but whether we live as a people committed to loving one another through our differences and deficiencies, just as God in Christ has loved us. This is a call to a difficult way of living. It involves us laying down our lives for one another, for the sake of our Lord and the Gospel. Are we up to it? Or will we take the easy path of simply shooting down those with whom we differ? God help us all.

For Christ’s sake,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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