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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Giving Up
August 18, 2016

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?” I didn’t have to deal with that question in my youth, because we didn’t “do” Lent back then. But somehow Lent has found its way back into our church over the past forty years, and the virtue of “giving up” something we enjoy on account of our faith has gained some new traction among us. The better question is not about Lent at all – what have we given up for the sake of Jesus?

We have long been schooled in the virtue of steadfastness, of sticking to our guns come what may. Politicians running for office are scathed by claims that they have changed their minds about this or that, because we view an unchanging mind as evidence of good, reliable character. We have bought into the notion that “accommodation” to others signals weakness, and that “compromise” demonstrates failure of conviction. “Politics” is viewed as the arena of betraying our principles in order to secure our benefit, so “politicians” are assumed to be corrupt. “Political correctness” is dismissed with scorn.

So whatever happened to the noble art of negotiation, of giving up something for the greater good? Why have we bought the idea that changing one’s mind or making accommodations to the views of others are character flaws?

Jesus commends more than once the process of negotiating a settlement of differences. In Matthew 5:21-26 he directs his followers to come to terms with accusers, rather than simply ignoring them or insisting on their own way. In Luke 12:57-59 he urges his disciples to try and settle disputes before going to the bar of judgment. In perhaps his most perplexing parable of all, Jesus praises a shrewd manager for negotiating settlements with his master’s debtors. (Luke 16:1-9)

The Christian church’s first major Council, recorded in Acts 15, relates the settlement of a dispute over the question of whether believers in Jesus were obligated to abide by Jewish ceremonial law. The final answer of the Council was “yes and no” – they settled on a position somewhere in the middle between those who were contending for a straight “yes” or “no” response.

While “compromise” and “accommodation” have accrued negative connotation in popular usage, “negotiation” and “settlement” are still honored as practices that serve the common good. They preserve the rights of all parties to receive due benefit, and they conclude with agreements that bind the parties by contract. They are tools that enable us to live and work together while honoring our differences.

The first sign that the process of negotiated settlement has worked well is that all parties feel like they have lost something. Everyone is more aware at first of what they have lost than of what they have gained. With time, the gains become clearer. The most short-sighted thing to do when we count our losses is to bolt – yet that is a temptation to which we often give in, without waiting until our benefits become clear. The greatest benefit of negotiated settlements is that they create the groundwork for continuing to be in relationship with those whose views and interests differ from ours. We are all inevitably stronger when we stick together with people who see clearly in places where we have blind spots. We discover the beauty and benefits of not merely tolerating each other, but of truly needing each other.

The Olympics set before us the power that comes from sticking with something through thick and thin, as we see competitors who have been relentless in their pursuit of excellence. Being uncompromisingly resolute can be a very good thing as a rule of personal living. But when it turns into an unwillingness to compromise with our sister or brother over matters of common good, it weakens us. When it comes to personal discipline, Paul says he gives everything in himself to be a winner. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:12-14) Images of contests he aims to win abound in his reflection on his personal life. But when it comes to how we live together, something very different emerges in his counsel – we need to defer rather than to conquer. “In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

Presbyterian polity seeks to embody this way of living together through formal protocols. Our Book of Order is a field guide for living together in the way Scripture calls God’s people to live together. It is not a perfect order, but it is as good a guide for practical ecclesiology as there is anywhere. I love the Book of Order because it helps me better love Jesus and his church. It helps me give up what I need to give up, for the sake of achieving something better than I could possibly attain if left to pursuing only my own interests. What has the Book of Order meant for you?

In praise of good politics,

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

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