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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What Do You Know?
October 4, 2018

One especially illuminating episode in the book of Acts is Paul’s encounter with the good people of Lystra. (Acts 14:8-23) It is early in Paul’s first evangelistic journey, and he is still learning the ropes of his missionary calling. Lystra is the third town in Asia that he visits, and there his fledgling ministry proves wildly successful. That is, until naysayers begin to rally opposition, and the tide turns against him. Eager to silence him, they stone him and drag him out of the city, leaving him for dead.

At the presbytery office, we often encounter situations where people are unhappy with their pastors. But we have yet to deal with people trying literally to kill the preacher. Paul endured levels of opposition far beyond anything we face. Being stoned and left for dead is serious church conflict of the highest order. Where was presbytery when Paul most needed it?

Like the Energizer bunny, Paul gets up from his near-death experience, shakes himself off, and keeps moving on to the next town. Soon he returns to Lystra, the scene of his stoning, declaring, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul preaches on persecution because he has just endured persecution. His message is framed by his life experience.

Aspiring novelists are counseled, “Write what you know.” Let your words flow out of what you have deeply studied or experienced. The same is good advice for ministers: “Preach what you know.” Each sermon should be informed by our own personal experience and awareness of God at work in us and through us and around us. Just like Paul.

I don’t mean to diminish other preachers in saying this, but I have found as a preacher that telling my own story is far more powerful than trying to illustrate my point with stories of others. The internet is chock full of sermon illustrations for every biblical text and imaginable sermon topic. These stories are often great, and I would love to use them. But I have discovered that it is much more effective for me to say something about how the sermon’s biblical text reflects and interacts with my own life story. I have learned that my sermon should be rooted in what I know firsthand. If this sermon doesn’t relate to my own world of experience, why should I expect it to do so for anyone else?

For the past month, my personal world has been dominated by a sudden cessation of my Dad’s ability to move his legs due to an attack of sciatica, and a host of other medical complications that has triggered. I have been living between home, office, hospital, and rehab center, doing as much of my work as possible at my portable desk (aka laptop computer). And the end is not in sight.

What could my personal experience have to do with our life and work as presbytery? One takeaway is relevant to all of our life and work: I am discovering more deeply than ever that it is never too late for hope. For faith. For love. And that is something our congregations need to know, especially when they are unsure whether they can continue to support a full-time pastor, or even whether they can survive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge our family faces is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Can Dad ever return home? If so, how long will it take to rehabilitate him to that point? If not, where should we move him, and when? When will the next emergency arise, the next midnight call come? How long before Dad’s earthly days are done? All this uncertainty underscores how dependent on the Lord we really are, whether or not things feel nicely under our control. It turns us to the Lord with a clearer sense than ever that, in the words of the psalmist, “My times are in your hand.” (Psalm 31:15).

Uncertainty about what lies ahead gnaws at many of our congregations. Often my church visits arise from anxiety born of this uncertainty. Can we receive uncertainty as a gift, rather than as a curse? It can be truly a gift when it reminds us that no matter how much we think we are in command of our destiny, only God is truly in control. It re-centers our hopes on the Center of all things, and breaks our illusions of self-sufficiency. And if God is good, all shall be well. And yes, we testify from long years of experience, God is good. All the time.

Yours in persisting hope,

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

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