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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Destination Unknown
October 13, 2011

As I write, we are celebrating Columbus Day, honoring the explorer who ventured over uncharted waters to discover a new passage to India. According to Columbus scholars I’ve heard, Columbus died convinced that the Caribbean Islands he discovered were in fact part of India. In celebrating the courage of someone who took great risks in travel, we also celebrate someone who didn’t really understand where he landed.

The story of Abraham is our classic Bible text of launching out in faith without knowing where the journey will take us. According to Hebrews 11, Abraham had no idea where he was headed when he left Haran at God’s bidding.

I remember as a child hearing a preacher offer a memorable illustration of the way of faith. He said, “Some people define faith as sitting on a chair because we’re confident it won’t collapse. That’s not faith, that’s horse-sense. Faith is sitting on a chair that isn’t there!” Whereupon he leaned backward into an invisible chair and fell unceremoniously on his posterior. You can appreciate why I remember the sermon.

Acts of faith can seem imprudent, even reckless. They always have an element of “destination unknown,” otherwise they wouldn’t be acts of faith.

We Presbyterians are careful people. Our hearts are warmed when we hear Jesus saying that we should first count the cost before we make a commitment. Now that’s sensible! We’re mapmakers extraordinaire – we study something from every angle before deciding on a course of action. We have a policy in place for almost every possible question.

Still, we know deep down that people who make the biggest difference in the world are not map-bound. They are willing to explore uncharted territory in order to follow their dream – people such as Christopher Columbus, or much more recently, Steve Jobs, the recently deceased founder of and genius behind Apple and Pixar.

Recently the Lectionary has been following Israel through the Exodus, a forty-year journey through uncharted territory. Each time the going got rough, the people clamored to go back to Egypt, even though life in Egypt had been impossibly difficult. Compared to the unknown that lay ahead of them, Egypt suddenly began to look mighty fine.

I wonder if something similar happens with the church today. We find ourselves in a place we’d never meant to go – membership has declined, budgets are strained, venerable edifices are crumbling, standards are being rewritten, congregations feel that their denomination has abandoned them, and the list goes on. We look back to earlier days with more than a twinge of longing for familiar old territory, quickly forgetting that things “back when” weren’t all that idyllic either.

Like the disciples on Galilee, we are traveling rough, even dangerous waters. Do we keep moving forward even when we don’t know where our ship is headed, or do we beat a retreat, or even jump ship? Where is our Captain when things are so dire? Ah, there he is, quite unperturbed – asleep no less! – amid all our panic.

The most important thing for faith is not that we have a map during the storm, but that we stay close to the Captain. An old gospel song goes, “With Christ in the vessel, I can smile at the storm.” Our confidence lies not in our ship being unsinkable, but in our faith that the Captain won’t lead us to destruction – or, in terms of the Exodus, God doesn’t lead us into the desert to feed us to the vultures. Pick your metaphor, storm or desert. Either way, the challenge is the same: will we keep moving forward, even when we have no idea where we’re headed? As we press forward to destinations unknown, may we be bold to follow the pattern of our early Christian forebears, “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” (Hebrews 10:39)

Keeping the faith,

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

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