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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Watch & Pray
March 13, 2014

In continuing our series on “Presbyterian Distinctives,” I invite us to consider another feature of Christian identity that is particularly prominent among Presbyterians.

We are deeply committed to clear, critical thinking about faith and life. Presbyterians prize rigorous learning, something reflected in the fact that more than 80 American institutions of higher education are directly related to the PCUSA, with many others having Presbyterian roots. Presbyterians are among the most highly-educated of all denominational populations.

John Calvin spent more time in the classroom than in the pulpit. The academy that was established under his leadership in Geneva became the prototype for the modern European university. He considered mastery of the social and natural sciences, philosophy, law, and the arts no less important than theology.

Yet for all our emphasis on learning, Presbyterians commensurately appreciate just how limited our knowledge really is. The more we know, the more we realize how much we do not know. True learning increases, rather than diminishes humility.

When it comes to faith, the more we learn about God, the more awestruck we are at the One who is beyond all comprehension. Rigorous study leads us not away from, but toward deeper adoration of God.

Jesus instructed his disciples to “watch and pray” as they faced their hour of trial (Mark 14:38). I used to tell our youth that Christians live always with one eye open –“watch” – and the other closed – “pray.”

We need always to be on the alert, watching carefully, thinking clearly, studying closely everything going on around us. Ignorance is not praiseworthy. Presbyterians are characteristically voracious life-long learners. One eye always open.

Yet we know that our learning is inescapably incomplete. Keeping watch is insufficient by itself. It must be accompanied by the inner disposition of full, glad submission to and engagement with the One who alone knows all. In short, our watching must always be accompanied by our praying. One eye always closed.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national offices house a department with no parallels in other denominational traditions – the Office of Theology and Worship. Tammy and I were privileged to serve in this office for a number of years. This combination of what are elsewhere separate offices – the theology office and the worship office – is a uniquely Presbyterian phenomenon. Especially for Presbyterians, learning and prayer are inseparable.

According to an ancient church maxim, lex orandi lex credendi est – roughly translated, it means that prayer and belief are inseparable. One important way this works out is that our hymns (which are in essence sung prayers) shape and reflect our faith much more deeply than we know. If you want to know a church’s core faith commitments, listen to the songs it sings.

Just five months ago a new Presbyterian hymnal was published entitled “Glory to God.” It took nearly five years to prepare, because its editors knew that their task was far more rigorous than just assembling a collection of popular songs. In my judgment, they did a superb job of providing us a treasure-house of song that is both theologically sound and spiritually enlivening. The hymnal teaches faithfully our core tradition while presenting us new expressions of that faith drawn from around the world.

As a pastor, I find it as theologically challenging to choose hymns well as it is spiritually challenging to prepare sermons well. Many popular “Christian” songs are theologically barren, or worse, theologically skewed. Since people are more likely to go home from church humming the songs than repeating the sermon, I consider it urgent that our hymns are as theologically sturdy as my preaching is spiritually vital. Other pastors are similarly careful about the music they select.

When we are most true to our inherited DNA, Presbyterians are distinctively committed to holding together things that all too often are sundered: Theology and worship. Profession and prostration. Mind and heart. Rigor and grace. Truth and love. Study and prayer. For Presbyterians, each always requires the other.

Watching and praying with you,

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

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