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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Unexpected Turns
January 18,2011

Today hasn’t unfolded anything like I’d imagined it would. I began the day facing a jam-packed calendar, beginning with a committee and ending with a radio interview. It would be a good day, even if very full.

The committee meeting was about to be called to order when I was beckoned out to take a phone call. My father had just fallen on this morning’s black ice, barely a few feet from his front door. He hit his head hard on the concrete sidewalk, passed out, and by the time he regained consciousness had bled a good deal from a nasty head gash. I dropped everything, canceled my appointments, and went straight to the ER to meet him. The rest of the day, well into the evening, has been a series of tests, tests, and more tests, and finally a precautionary admission to ICU. I’m writing this from the ICU waiting room.

Three long hours this morning in an overrun ER waiting room was broken up by unforeseen celebrity, as KDKA had a reporter interviewing people injured in ice-slicked falls. Our interview made it on air, no small thanks to my mother’s spunky good humor.

Blessedly, Dad’s prognosis is excellent. We’re grateful for all the medical precautions being undertaken, and relieved that it appears all will be just fine.

Life’s biggest challenges arrive unannounced. We abruptly find ourselves in a new place, unexpected and often unsettling. Suddenly, everything is upended, and we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Perhaps this is not a bad metaphor for life in the church these days.

A generation ago, most of us expected that the church’s “fat years” would continue ad infinitum, when suddenly a spate of “lean years” hit us. It was more than just a membership drop – the church’s central influence in American culture evaporated almost overnight. We tried knuckling down to restore our former glory, but were no more successful than a farmer planting twice as much seed to combat a drought. What do we do when our old way of doing things no longer does what it used to do?

There was a time when hanging a Presbyterian shingle on the right street was almost a guarantee that people would come. That day is gone – for all denominations, not just our own. Today doesn’t look anything like we thought it would when we started out on this path. Everything has changed.

When things go differently from what we had planned or desired, we have a choice – will we embrace the unanticipated reality God has permitted to come our way, or will we wring our hands over our unrealized expectations? I am convinced that the new waters we are being forced to travel as congregations, as a presbytery, and as a denomination are not signs of divine abandonment. Far from it. Rather, they constitute a God-given opportunity for new ways of living. We are forced to move out of auto-pilot, whether we wanted to or not. We are disabused of illusions that our destinies are under our control. Unanticipated turns can lead us into new dimensions of faith, as we enter places where we have no idea how we got here, or how we’ll get out of here. When our resources evaporate and plans crash and burn, how do we respond - with panic, despair, or fresh attentiveness to God?

What unforeseen turns are we being forced into personally? Where are our congregations facing unexpected challenges? How will our presbytery respond as we grapple with the reality that our income no longer supports our mission? In all these things, I invite us to faith in a time of disorientation – faith that the new place into which God is taking us will be blessed and fruitful beyond anything we can possibly imagine, because the Holy Spirit will surely be moving among us. Indeed, it can be so. By God’s grace, it shall be so!

Confident in grace,

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

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