A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
August 23, 2012
My first call took me to an associate position on a large staff, and my eagerness to serve the Lord was exceeded only by the wetness behind my ears. I could identify all too well with Solomon, who upon ascending Israel’s throne cried out, “O Lord, my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or to come in.” (1 Kings 3:7) I wasn’t there long when a dispute arose among my staff colleagues, and they were split down the middle – and I was way too young and inexperienced to know which side to take. I respected them all, but they had separated into two camps over an issue that is now only a dim memory. But the lesson I learned through that ordeal is as fresh for me now as when I learned it during those trying days.
The basic question facing me was this: When both sides in a church debate cite Scripture, the Confessions, the Book of Order, and Calvin himself in support of contrary positions, how do we decide which side is right? Like young Solomon, I cried out for God’s wisdom in the face of my dilemma. It was clear that I was facing not just an impasse in the church, but a major fork in my own life’s journey. Which way should I turn?
I was studying the book of James at the time, and I came to the profile of godly wisdom in James 3:13-18. What especially struck me was that godly wisdom is “willing to yield” (v. 17). Translations of the Greek eupeithes are many – pliable, teachable, submissive, easily entreated, persuadable. They all point to the same thing – godly wisdom is marked by willingness to yield. It does not need to have the last word. It speaks with a humility that regards others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). It does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Using this yardstick, I was able to see past the contest between two well-defended opinions to the heart of the matter – those on one side would not yield an inch, and spoke harshly of those from whom they differed, while those on the other side were willing to negotiate, and spoke no ill of those arrayed against them. I cast my lot with those who were easily entreated – and have never regretted it.
By the time you read this, we will have concluded a special meeting of presbytery for the purpose of considering a “gracious dismissal policy” for congregations seeking to leave the PCUSA. As I write, I have no way of knowing how that meeting will go, nor do we know how the conversations about congregational departures will unfold in the months to come. People in good conscience and of fervent commitment to our Lord and to the Gospel certainly do take opposing positions on the question of whether to leave the PCUSA or to remain in it. We also will likely have deep differences about the most honorable way to walk through the dark valley of separation. Those fault lines will run through congregations, and not just between them. Many among us will wonder with whom to cast their lot, as they will have great affection and respect for folk on both sides of the conversations.
As these conversations unfold, we would all do well to ask ourselves: Are we so committed to advancing and defending our already-established positions that we can no longer be entreated? John Calvin reminds us that there are some things on which there can be no give – that Jesus is Lord, that God is good, and that God is One. But let’s be honest – most of our disputes are about things far less consequential. Could we not be a little more ready to learn and to yield, and a little less adamant in maintaining our positions? Could we not embrace the grace of giving others the benefit of the doubt a little sooner?
The psalmist sings, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” (Psalm 40:6) As we seek God’s wisdom in the face of difficult choices, perhaps we would do well to begin with joining the psalmist in offering the Lord an open ear. And then let’s be more attentive to those whose ears are open, and a little less taken by those whose words are many, positions are hardened, and spirits are unbending.
Listening for the Lord’s wisdom,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Click here for the directory of archived letters.