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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Spiritual Sclerosis
January 19, 2012

As our bodies age, we harden in places designed to be supple, even as we soften in places that should stay firm. Muscles and bones become mush, while tissues designed to be soft and supple harden. One of those areas of hardening that we’re dealing with right now in my family is the hardening and thickening of hearing mechanisms, resulting in the need for investing in those horrendous amplification appliances known as hearing aids. Age has hardened our parents’ ears so we need to ratchet up the volume in order for their hearing to register. Already I have faced a similar problem with my eyes, as the formerly soft lenses that once bent easily to adjust from distant to close-up vision have hardened so that I can no longer see close-up.

The condition of hardening of bodily tissues that should be soft and supple is often termed “sclerosis” – something especially deadly when our arteries are hardened by fat buildups, and thus rendered unable properly to conduct blood flow. A critical part of the body that should be open and supple has narrowed and hardened, compromising the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout our system.

John Calvin refers to his personal spiritual life very little. In the one place where he speaks of his personal conversion, he says, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life.” (Introduction, Commentary on the Psalms.) Scripture often speaks of rebellion against God in terms of “hardness of heart,” and the prophets promise that when God goes to work on us, it is to give us a “new heart” that is teachable rather than obstinate. (See Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36)

“Teachability” is a necessary condition for being the kind of person God wants me to be. James says that one of the marks of godly wisdom is that it is “willing to yield” (James 3:17) – which may be one of the best definitions of teachability anywhere.

I don’t know about you, but I find my flexibility being deeply challenged at this juncture in my life and ministry. I find myself called to stretch in places that don’t want to stretch, and to be firm in places where relaxing would be a whole lot easier.

One way our hearts harden is by emphasizing one aspect of truth at the expense of another. Rather than having enough openness and flexibility to embrace the full range of truth, we stake our claim around one corner of the truth as though it were the whole.

This affliction often affects how we conduct our ministry. Frankly, I sometimes felt like that church I was being called to serve as pastor expected me to do just about everything simultaneously – always be visiting the sick, always be in the office, always be out in the community, always be in study and prayer, and so on. I was sorely tempted to respond by hardening around doing a few things I preferred, and leaving the rest unattended. Similarly, like all who are ordained to office in the PCUSA, I promised at my ordination always to seek the “peace, unity, and purity of the church.” But I have tended to harden around one – I’m a “unity” guy, others rally around “peace,” while some focus their energy on “purity.” When push comes to shove, which of the three matters most? – such a question already indicates the onset of spiritual sclerosis. Far too many of our congregational and presbytery debates see the peace, purity, and unity folk lined up against each other rather than working together. Such alignments are signs of systemic spiritual sclerosis.

A healthy body will stretch rather than harden around core functions. A healthy church will not rest until all three features of church health are vital. Peace, unity, and purity are competing values only in a church laden by sclerosis. A healthy church system is flexible enough to embrace them all, even when it seems at first that they may be at cross-purposes. A healthy church will not harden around one or two at the expense of the others.

Let us pray that the Lord softens us spiritually, so that we may be equally and uncompromisingly committed to the church’s peace, unity, and purity for which Jesus poured out his soul in fervent prayer and his life in sacrificial offering.

That we may be tender before the Lord and one another,

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

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