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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

The Ministry of Provocation
April 19, 2012

I learned a lot about my ability to stretch myself physically while climbing Scout Mountain. I spent my teen years in a community that was separated from the rest of the world by a great Pacific inlet that pierced the rugged British Columbia coastline more than 100 miles inland. The only way to civilization was by boat or by air. So we were more or less forced to entertain ourselves – with the abundant resources of some of the world’s most beautiful topography at hand. With four or five friends I explored the vast wilderness regularly, including Scout Mountain just north of town. It was a beautiful climb with some challenging stretches, though short by Rocky Mountain standards. We got familiar enough with it that we sometimes climbed it at night to get a world-class view of meteor showers.

In climbing we played a game that went virtually unacknowledged – it was simply to push each other to the limit. We climbed as fast as we could, refusing to acknowledge any windedness – my lungs screamed for air, but I denied them satisfaction, only to provoke my friends to push harder, and in turn they did the same for me. There we’d sit at the summit after virtually running up the mountain, refusing to pant, but barely able to speak for lack of oxygen.

In similar ways, when we join together in the journey of discipleship, we provoke one another to greater achievement than we ever imagined possible. We’d never know in isolation the capacity that we have for working in Jesus’ name. It’s only by being together, prodding one another to go farther, wider, and deeper, that we work to our full potential for the sake of Jesus Christ.

The benefit of such provocation is available only to people who spend extended time together. And we benefit most when we take up with people whose perspectives and capacities extend well beyond our own. Being with people “just like us” doesn’t do it.

As our Mission Study Team engaged in Bible Study over the past several months, one of our critical texts turned out to be Hebrews 10:24-25 – “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” It came home to us in this way – we aren’t being all that “presbytery” can be if we neglect meeting together. Oh, we have presbytery meetings all right – but none of them is attended by more than 30% of our minister members or by representatives from more than 40% of our congregations. It’s hard to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” – perhaps as good a job description for presbytery as there is – if we don’t gather together in such a way that we get to know each other well. It’s not just that we miss a meeting – we’re missing the provocation that we all need in order to excel in Gospel ministry.

The end of the passage describes what we do when we gather as “encouraging one another.” So what is the purpose of our gathering: To provoke, or to encourage? The answer, of course, is “Yes!” Provocation to love and good works encourages us to keep bearing witness in word and deed to the Gospel – whether we feel like it or not.

When we were kids, my brother and I both learned to play the piano. I would sit at the piano for hours just because I loved to do it; but for my brother, it was like pulling hens’ teeth to get him to practice. My folks cajoled, threatened, and bribed him year in and year out. Were he not part of a family that regularly provoked him, he would never have learned to play. Suddenly something hit him in his late teen years – he became a self-starter, and turned out to be a formidable pianist.

The benefit of prodding sometimes takes a very long time to realize – but in the end, we are better for it, whether it be through a twelve-step program encouraging us to cease harmful behavior, a parent forcing us to do homework, a spouse pushing us to send out our resume, or a pastor admonishing us to remain constant in prayer. With enough prodding, new ways of living that are more life-giving can become part of our natural way of living. We will receive the benefit of provocation in places we most need it only when we are part of a community that is close enough to us and loves us enough to keep pushing us forward. What would it look like for Pittsburgh Presbytery to be that sort of community? This is one way of putting a core question that emerged for our 2011-2012 Mission Study Team. For their vision of how Pittsburgh Presbytery could better engage such a way of being together, see their new Mission Plan proposal.

Still needing to be provoked,

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

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