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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Holy Longing, Part 1: Holy Dissatisfaction
November 30, 2017

Welcome to Advent! In this holy season, we cultivate a deeper awareness of our Lord’s presence in the world. We acknowledge in Advent that, while Jesus came for the sake of the whole world, many missed him even though he was right there with them. They were looking for God in all the wrong places, wanting God to come to them on their own terms. Advent points us instead to practices of openness and readiness to “prepare him room.” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the Word) Advent invites us to know more fully the One who has already come into the world as Savior, and it nurtures in us a stronger and surer hope that he will come again to complete his mission of saving the world for which he died.

Those who missed him at his first coming did so in part because they believed they did not need a Savior like him. Sure, they wanted someone to overthrow their oppressors, but they were blind to their own need to get right with God. I wonder whether our hope for Christ’s return in glory is similarly blunted by a sense that things are pretty good for us already. Do we really need, or even want, a new heaven and new earth?

Several years ago, Dr. Jane Vann of Union Presbyterian Seminary conducted an in-depth study of several congregations that demonstrated multiple signs of vitality in their life and mission. Her research led her to identify several consistent characteristics of such congregations, most of which are not surprising: vibrant participatory worship, strong educational and discipleship programs for all ages, excellent communications, intentional efforts of welcome to strangers, deep engagement in local and world mission, and so on. Then, amid this highly predictable set of vitality markers, one pops in that I didn’t see coming: Vital congregations are unhappy with where things currently stand with their life and ministry. They are deeply committed to the mission of Jesus Christ, and know that they fall short of what they could be. I call it “holy dissatisfaction.” Things could be better. We could be better witnesses to the Gospel, we could take better care of the needy among us, we could offer better welcome to the stranger, we could do a better job of preparing our young people for a lifetime of Christian discipleship. (Jane Rogers Vann, Gathered Before God, Westminster John Knox, 2004)

Vital congregations, to put it another way, are Advent congregations. They are always looking for Jesus to do more in them and through them than they have yet experienced. They keep looking for God’s kingdom to come in greater fullness, not just in the sweet bye and bye, but here and now. In us. Through us. For the sake of the world.

And so I invite us in this Advent season to seek a holy longing for something better. Let us confess that we have been too easily satisfied. We say we want the church to grow in its vitality and witness, but only so long as we don’t have to change anything. Resistance to change is a direct manifestation of unholy satisfaction with the status quo. Do we really want Jesus to break in and make all things new?

It is hard to act hungry when you’re full. Perhaps we need to empty ourselves of some of the temporal and material comforts we’ve accumulated unto ourselves. Perhaps we need to be more ready to forego some of what we have or what we do, trusting that God's new world is far better than we can imagine – even though all we can see at first is what we stand to lose.

One thing we all can do is to ask the Lord to give us a heart that longs for the better world only our Savior can bring. With the psalmist, we can petition, “Give me an undivided heart.” (Psalm 86:11) A heart ready for Jesus. A heart that welcomes the new world he brings – here and now, as well as at the consummation of all things.

Yours in seeking a holy longing,

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

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