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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Loving God by Loving God’s People
May 16, 2013

Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with
energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

In our eighth ordination vow, we promise to attend to God’s people in the very ways we commit ourselves to attend to God. Indeed, devotion to God and service to God’s people are inseparable, as John indicates: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John 4:21) As I noted in this space last week, John Calvin teaches that we must engage all persons as though they are brothers and sisters, not just those whose profession of faith matches our own. Our love for God is poured out unmeasured, just as the sinful woman did when pouring out her alabaster jar on Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-38) – and in the same way, our ordination vow binds us to give all our best to all whom we serve in Jesus’ name.

Perhaps no phrase of our ordination vows is more oft-quoted than this enumeration of the four dimensions of our promised service to God’s people: energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. I’ll admit it upfront – some days I do better with these commitments than I do on other days. Some days my energy feels boundless despite my advancing years, but some days I am pretty much working on fumes. Some days I feel really sharp in my perceptions of what is going on and what is most needful, but other days I feel far less certain. Some days my imagination for the possibilities that lie before us rises high as the heavens, while other days I struggle just to get through the day’s agenda. And some days my capacity for self-giving love feels deep and robust, while other days I feel like I’ve got precious little to offer that could be of much help to anyone. I suspect you feel some of that same ambivalence. Blessedly, in this vow we promise not to be constant paragons of energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, but to seek to serve in these ways, whether or not we’re feeling fully up to it. Regardless of whether my personal resources are robust or meager, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Remember Jesus’ response when a scribe asked him to identify the greatest commandment? “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29-30, quoting Deuteronomy 6) And then Jesus follows with a freebie (he had been asked only what is the greatest commandment), saying, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” In other words, Jesus binds love of God and love of neighbor inextricably. Everything God calls us to be and to do flows out of a single stream of love.

Notice how the four-fold character of our service to God’s people, as specified in our eighth ordination vow, directly parallels the four-fold love for God that Jesus commands of us:

The way we engage God’s people is seamlessly woven into the way we love God. A coldness of heart toward our neighbor – any neighbor – discloses a place of coldness in our heart toward God. But a heart aflame with love for God cannot but pour itself out unreservedly for our sisters and brothers.

John Calvin crafted a seal that functioned as his personal signature – a burning heart lifted up in an open hand. He adopted also a slogan that accompanied the image: “My heart I offer up to you O Lord, immediately and sincerely.” This is the essence of the promise we make in our eighth ordination vow.

While this ordination promise does not say so explicitly, beneath this promise lies a pledge to persevere in the work to which our vows bind us. Energy means ongoing, unflagging work. Intelligence leads us to work smart, pacing ourselves for the long haul. Imagination keeps us ever straining forward with visions of new possibilities, despite temptations to give up, give out, or give in. Finally, Paul reminds us, “Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) We are committed to this ministry for the long haul, and to fulfill it with excellence, with God’s help.

Sticking the course with you,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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