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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

To Love Kindness
April 14, 2015

Some people are wired to be attentive to detail – something I prize highly in my tax accountant, especially on April 15. Others are more drawn to the big picture. Jesus teaches that God is attentive to detail, even numbering each hair of our head (something getting progressively easier for me). Yet Jesus lifts up a core principle that matters far more than the mere details of life, namely that “all the law and prophets” are contained in one thing – wholehearted love for God and neighbor. (Matthew 22:36-40) We call this the “Great Commandment,” which together with his “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) forms the core of Jesus’ teaching. Everything else in the New Testament is commentary on these two essentials.

The Hebrew Scriptures contain two texts that are widely reckoned as overarching summaries of the entire corpus: (1) The “Shema” on which Jesus’ Great Commandment is based (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), and (2) Micah’s summary of God’s law: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) The love of kindness is an essential marker of fidelity to the God of Scripture.

The love of kindness is an excellent diagnostic aid in discerning God’s will in conflicted situations. I have discovered repeatedly that I am reliably guided when I trust those voices that manifest kindness toward people and ideas whose perspectives differ from their own.

When I took my first ministry position, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly embroiled in a conflict between two groups of influential leaders. I was utterly incapable of determining which side was right about the issues over which they had become so deeply divided. Both sides seemed equally devoted to doing the right thing under the guidance of Scripture, yet they had arrived at sharply different conclusions about the direction in which God was leading us.

The conflict escalated to the breaking point, and I had to decide which side to take. I loved people on both sides, and honored the integrity of their commitment to do the right thing. As I sought to discern God’s will, it struck me that one side consistently spoke disparagingly of the other, while those on the other side spoke gently of their opponents. According to James 3:17, godly wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” In terms of Micah 6, true godliness is marked by a love for kindness.

Relationships in the church today often mirror relational patterns in the wider society, where differences have hardened into intractable polarities. Just as governmental votes on difficult issues have increasingly fallen straight down party lines, so church councils have become wearisomely predictable as members vote along party lines on matters in which deep spiritual discernment is desperately needed.

I have found that with almost every issue in the church in which my friends are passionately engaged in promoting opposing understandings of the right and godly thing to do, there is much merit on both sides. So how do I go about the difficult task of spiritual discernment when there are good points and good people entrenched on opposite sides of a dispute?

Back to the division I encountered in my first call: I cast my lot with those who exhibited kindness in how they engaged those who disagreed with them. Sometimes we can evaluate the soundness of our discernment only in retrospect, and as I look back on my journey, with the benefit of years of hindsight, I can now say with certainty that I would have been derailed from my vocational journey had I chosen the other side.

I am grieved by the prevailing anger and scorn I hear from some members of Christ’s body toward those with whom they disagree on this or that issue. I have been on the receiving end of some of that personally over the years, and perhaps I deserved it. But I have often seen aspersion cast on the integrity of people I know to be without guile, simply because of their view on this or that, or their affiliation or position within the church. The love of kindness that the Lord requires of us is utterly absent.

Brothers and sisters, let us beware forsaking kindness toward those with whom we disagree, and let us beware of those who do so. They may sound right about this issue or that. They may even be right. By all means, we must love even the most unkind; but we dare not follow their lead. As we seek to discern how the Spirit is leading us with respect to matters over which people we love may be divided, let us remember that it is good to be highly attentive to the fruit of the Spirit called “kindness.” (Galatians 5:22)

Gently yours,

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

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