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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Steady Does It
February 11, 2016

We are in the midst of a season in our public life where presidential candidates constantly recalibrate their campaigns to the shifting sands of public opinion. In the deeply religious state of Iowa, candidates frequented worship services to express their commitments to the values highly-churched Iowans prize; subsequently in New Hampshire (the least religious state in the union), church visits by candidates were rare.

In my student days I attended services at a rapidly growing new church that, in a few short years, had mushroomed to over 1,000 members. Alas, not long after my arrival a bitter power struggle developed among the pastors and elders. Within three years the church dwindled to the point that it had to be dissolved. A few years later I received my first pastoral call, to serve a congregation that was founded in 1776. Out front they attached my name to the church sign, which now read: “XXXX Presbyterian Church. Pastor: Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge. Since 1776.”

Through these two church experiences I came to appreciate the beauty and power of the witness of a congregation that stays on course over the long haul. Because of the constancy of its saints, that congregation’s impact on its community was measured in centuries, not years. Had that congregation not remained steadfast through thick and thin, the entire community’s story would have been very different.

Knowing that the culmination of his ministry was drawing near, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) This marks a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. He has just descended from the mountain of his transfiguration, after having previously itinerated throughout Galilee and neighboring regions performing many miracles. Focusing intently on the destiny that lies ahead, he performs few miracles as he makes his way toward Jerusalem. It is along this journey that the lion’s share of his teaching takes place – on the road to Jerusalem, his disciples in tow, taking in all they can in preparation for what lies ahead.

Meaning well, they try to redirect him out of fear of what surely awaits him in Jerusalem. His entourage dwindles. The Gospel of John says that the crowds melt away until only the twelve are left. (John 6:66-69)

A well-meaning soul pledges to walk with Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus doubts that he is up to it. Another promises to follow him, but only after putting his affairs in order; Jesus dismisses him. Staying the course with Jesus is as demanding as it is daunting. (Luke 9:57-62)

Jesus not only refuses to be deterred from pursuing his destiny – he also refuses to panic when trouble emerges along the way. His friends urge him to hasten to a place of safety at one point, because Herod is chasing him with the intent of killing him. Jesus responds, in effect, “I’ll not be hurried, there is no need to panic. I’ll keep going at the speed that I have been called to go.” (Luke 13:31-35)

When we say we’ll walk with Jesus for the forty days of Lent, we’re joining ourselves to one who is both undeterred by the prospects of struggle ahead and unhurried by pressure looming hard on his heels. His pace and direction are set not by the ups and downs of shifting expectations and circumstance, but by his calling that remains constant. His approach would be political suicide in our presidential primaries.

Walking with Jesus means setting our own face forward regardless of the swirling tempests surrounding us. Our way forward is marked more by deliberate diligence rather than by reactive urgency. We seek neither to take the world by storm nor to flee the calamities that threaten us before and behind. Steady does it. As a disciplined walk in Jesus’ company, Lent is an exercise in steadying ourselves. In step with our Master, we press steadily forward toward our God-given destiny.

There is growing panic in some churches as they see their numbers dwindle. Many good saints are beset with worry that the world will get the best of the church. Others drift from church to church, constantly casting about for (to borrow from the inimitable Flip Wilson) “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” Shifting, turning, fleeing, experimenting. In contrast, the way of Jesus is marked by a steady pace on a single path. Can we join his journey for these forty days, and maybe even beyond?

Your fellow-traveler,

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

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