A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
December 6, 2012
I remember it like it was yesterday – a movie unlike any other to have shown until then, “Scared Straight” aired in 1978 to critical acclaim, chronicling a New Jersey program in which a group of juvenile delinquents was subjected to harrowing treatment by prison convicts trying to scare crime out of them by revealing graphically its devastating effects on its perpetrators. The show was also memorable because it was the first time broadcast TV aired a program that included, unedited, a number of profanities commonly used by prison convicts. By all accounts the program was amazingly successful in providing a wake-up call to youngsters headed in the wrong direction, and it continues to be emulated broadly today in treating young offenders. To “go straight” is to set aside destructive ways and embrace life-giving ways.
The primary words for “sin” in both Hebrew and Greek mean “to miss the mark.” A crack special-forces team of seven hundred left-handed marksmen from the tribe of Benjamin were said to be distinguished by the fact that they could all “sling a stone at a hair and not miss.” (Judges 20:16) The word “miss” in this story is the word ordinarily translated “sin.” The essence of “sin” is missing the target God has set for us. The term “depravity” means literally “crookedness.”
We refer to fraudulent persons as “crooks” – crooked people. Crooks appear to be heading in one direction or saying one thing, when in fact they are doing or saying something else. According to the Bible, this is the essence of all sinfulness.
One of the most well-known Advent passages is Isaiah’s word that, when Messiah comes, crooked ways are made straight. Luke records John the Baptist claiming these words’ fulfillment as he prepares the way for Jesus. (Luke 3:5) This is what Jesus does – in taking away our sins, he straightens us out so that our aim is true, our word is trustworthy, our motives are transparent. With true “Jesus people,” what you see is what you get.
Alas, depravity continues to grip not just the world around us, but people in the church as well, and all too often it is especially apparent among church folk who appear most pious. This was the problem that Jesus faced with the religious leaders of his day, a problem he termed “hypocrisy.” They said one thing, but did another.
Sadly, there is a similar lack of transparency manifest even among some Presbyterians. Such folk say one thing, but do another – and I have discovered that the more piously people style themselves, the more prone they often are to crooked ways. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to make such discoveries after reading the Gospels, but it still shakes me whenever I encounter it. Oh, it’s not overt crookedness; to the contrary, it is carefully hidden, to the point that those who engage in such behavior may themselves become oblivious to it. I have learned the hard way to beware of those who parade their piety as being somehow superior to that of others. Or from another angle, I have learned to beware of those who cast aspersion on the spiritual integrity of others, as though their own is superior. Some church leaders are apparently so committed to advancing their cause that they care not whether they bend or obscure the truth, if that is what it takes to lead people in the direction they believe they should go. Wherever we see untruthfulness being practiced or condoned, we can be sure that the pathway being advocated is not the way of the Lord.
None of us is able fully to heal our own crookedness – otherwise, why would we need a Savior? All we can do is bow in penitence before the One who alone can transform us, who alone can straighten out our depravity. There at the throne of grace we ask for a change of heart so that our old manners of manipulativeness may yield to new ways that are open, honest, and true. How can we represent authentically the way of Christ before the world if we cannot be honest with each other within his household? As we prepare for his coming, let us humbly repent of all we have done that is covert, of all we have said that misleads. Let our yes be yes and our no be no. Let us be a people marked by transparency, generosity, and integrity in all that we say and do. It should be said of every Jesus-follower, “Now there is someone who shoots straight!” Nothing less is befitting for those who claim to follow the One whose coming we celebrate in this holy season of Advent.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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