A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Thanksgiving for “And-ers”
November 27, 2014
Last week I introduced the notion of Christianity as a disciplined practice of “and-ing” in the face of the “or-ing” that dominates our polarized world. Conjunctions matter. Whether in theology, politics, economics, culture, or race relations, the Christian way is distinct from the polarizing ways of the world by being marked more by “and” than by “or” or “but.”
I have long sought as good pedagogical strategy to respond to students’ oral contributions in class by using “and” more than “but.” In almost every instance, students’ comments have at least some merit, even if they are also riddled with errors. I have discovered that they learn far better when I affirm their contribution with “yes, and…” than when I reply “no” or “but.”
On this Thanksgiving Day I want to give thanks for two saints who helped me understand that what was good pedagogical strategy is also good for our engagement with one another in discovering and living out the fullness of the Gospel. Many considered both Susan and Marge to be contrarians pure and simple. I learned to treasure them as my great teachers in “and-ing” my faith, life, and ministry.
They “and-ed” me in very different ways. Susan came to all of my Bible studies, and invariably raised her hand to challenge me to consider the current topic from a different angle. If I was stressing divine Providence, I could absolutely count on her to bring up human freedom; it was that way with every topic, with every text. She was not trying to undercut me, but to make sure we always considered a variety of perspectives as we sought to understand the full counsel of Scripture. She typically began her comment by saying, “On the other hand.…” Susan was not trying to negate my point, but to lift up other perspectives as also being worth consideration. Her rejoinders made some folk uncomfortable, but I welcomed them gladly, because they always broadened and deepened our understanding of what Scripture teaches.
Marge, on the other hand, kept her silence. She was already well into her 90s, but still sharp as a tack. She just sat there and took everything in, then proceeded almost weekly to prepare a two-to-five page paper, single-spaced, that she handed me the next week, in which she lifted up all the things I had missed in my presentation in class or from the pulpit. She called it flipping the pancake – it’s never done properly if you cook only one side. I made the mistake of responding in some detail to her first paper or two – no pastor had ever done her that honor before! And so she kept at it for as long as I was there, pushing back at me precisely because she thought that what I had to say was worth engaging.
I never got to the place where I presented all sides so thoroughly that Marge and Susan didn’t have some significant rejoinder. They kept “and-ing” me, and I kept “and-ing” them back. I am far richer for it.
I hope they’d say the same, but they both died not long after I moved to my next pastoral call. Hanging on my office walls today are some family photos, a clock and calendar, tributes to Luther and Calvin (of course), and two treasures that have graced my walls ever since – Susan’s original watercolor rendering of that church (she happened to be a professional artist) and a banner from Marge of a lighthouse, which was her personal life symbol. These saints are still very much with me, and for their ongoing reminder to me of the power of “and-ing” I give special thanks on this Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving Day is observed by people of all faiths, as well as none. For Christians, it is a day especially marked by the wonderful word “Amen” which means “so be it!” In contemporary idiom, “It’s all good!” According to Paul, Christians are always an Amen people because Jesus is the divine “yes” to all of God’s promises. (2 Corinthians 1:20) Yes! Amen! So be it! It’s all good! May these words well up within us especially on this Thanksgiving Day.
Many of us will gather for dinner today with people we don’t see regularly. It may be extended family, dear friends, or strangers. At many family reunions, we will encounter not only the joy of renewing kindred bonds, but sharp reminders of long-held differences. Healthy families are marked not by full agreement of everyone around the table, but by our commitment to “and” our differences – we will not let them separate us. At our best, we will come more fully to appreciate the perspective of those who see a different side of things than we do. Might there be in that a good lesson for how best to thrive as the family of God that gathers at the Table of the Lord?
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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