A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
January 15, 2015
Tis the season for resolutions to change our ways, even though just two weeks into the New Year some have already abandoned their hopes to stop doing some old things or start doing some new ones. Appropriately enough, for Christians this season is marked (at least for those who follow the church lectionary) by the word “Repent!” ringing loudly in our ears, because in Advent, then again less than three weeks later at the festival of the Baptism of our Lord, John the Baptist’s ministry is front and center. The core of John’s message is this: Repent!
Metanoia, Greek for “repentance,” means literally a change in one’s mind, attitude, or perspective. Changes of behavior have little chance of surviving long if not rooted in a changed disposition. Just ask anyone who has tried to make permanent a New Year’s resolution.
Repentance involves leaving our own preferred path to walk in a way other than our own. It is our admission that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we all have turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Repentance is not something we do once for all, but an ongoing practice in our spiritual journey with a Savior who even at the end of his life still prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Alas, far too many people who take their religion seriously become repentance-resistant. In the Reformed tradition we have another word for being repentance-resistant – we call it being unteachable. It is the Achilles Heel of “true believers” who become so convinced they have it right that looking at things from another angle becomes unthinkable.
Readiness to see things from another perspective is the root of true repentance. This is one reason we need the church. We need people who see things from a different angle to show us a pathway different from our own. This is why congregations need other congregations (as we do in presbytery), so that they can see aspects of fulfilling our Lord’s commission beyond those they discovered on their own.
Repentance is not a call to abandon what we already know, but an invitation to learn still more. An artist does not abandon her portrait design when looking at her subject from a new angle; rather, she supplements what she already knows and thereby strengthens the final product.
In order to gain a new perspective, I need to move to a place where others are already positioned. Repentance requires that I learn to sit with others and consider matters from their angle. When we claim to be repentant but refuse to consider the viewpoint of others, we are fooling ourselves.
One of the great privileges of my ministry is that I get to spend time with congregations from a wide variety of perspectives, and I see how each of them has a beautiful, unique, authentic perspective on the nature of the Gospel. These various perspectives are wonderfully complementary, and each of us could grow greatly in our understandings and ministries if we spent time listening and working with folk whose vantages vary significantly from ours. Instead of seeing churches with a different viewpoint as our antagonists, might we see them instead as friends who can help us know Jesus Christ and his calling to us more fully?
“Repent!” the Baptist cries in the wilderness. Jesus follows with the same message. Why should we repent? They provide the answer: Because the reign of God is near. The reign of God is by definition not the reign of Me. If I want to be part of God’s reign, I need to be prepared to venture beyond my vista, my agenda, my preferences, my demands.
Alas, we far more easily proclaim ourselves ready to align with God’s perspective than to consider perspectives of individuals or faith communities other than our own. In claiming I am willing to see things God’s way while I am unwilling to see things from viewpoints other than my own, I am declaring in effect that my way is God’s way. God forgive such arrogance!
My willingness to repent before God is tested materially in my willingness to consider the perspectives of folk different from me. It’s not about casting aside all that I have learned of who God is, what God has done for us, and what God asks of us; rather, it’s about growing in my understanding of those things by seeing how others have learned them.
So I extend a small challenge for those desiring to grow in their Christian faith and life in the New Year: Sit for a while with someone who sees things from a different angle, not to debate them but to learn from them. I suspect that if even just a few of us were to commit to doing so, the kingdom of God would draw nearer than we can imagine.
Eager to learn from you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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