A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
It’s All Good
January 24, 2019
Last September, my dear friend and colleague Chip Andrus was called home by God after several years of struggling with melanoma. Chip was perhaps most well-known as the leader of the music team that gathered commissioners together for General Assembly plenary sessions over the past eighteen years. It’s not original to him, but one of Chip’s favorite sayings at times of delight and calamity alike was, “It’s all good.” It reminded us that, under God’s providence, all shall be well.
The assertion that “It’s all good” goes back to the Bible’s original creation story. After each day of creation, God declares that everything created that day is good. (Genesis 1:3-31) Earth’s every topographical feature, all its flora and fauna – it’s all good! The creation story emphasizes the manifold variety of all created things, declaring that creation’s stunning diversity is inherent to its goodness. Human science acknowledges the same thing by noting the biodiversity of healthy ecosystems.
John Calvin deemed the natural world the “theater of God’s glory.” Creation portrays visibly God’s majestic sovereign artisanship. According to Genesis 1, God’s culminating creative achievement is humanity, whom God created to bear God’s own likeness. (Genesis 1:27) Paul considers each of us “God’s masterpiece.” (Ephesians 2:10, New Living Translation).
In our Reformed tradition, sin has sometimes been considered the dominant feature of human identity. The first of the five central convictions of classical Calvinism articulated by the Synod of Dort (1618-19) is humanity’s “total depravity.” In other words, every man and woman violates God’s intention for them, whether expressed through the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-31), or the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). No exceptions. This is the only theological doctrine, some have said, that is empirically verifiable.
The universality of human sin can be fully acknowledged without granting it the privilege of being the foundation of our theology. What defines our essence – our shortcomings and flaws, or our original God-created goodness? We sometimes call our sin “original,” as though that is how we were created. But that’s not how the Bible describes our origin. Sin is a serious, but secondary feature of our identity. More fundamental to our identity is our original perfection.
Presbyterian DNA has expressed itself in our being historically among the first to affirm the integrity of peoples other than ourselves. One of the ways this has been manifest is that Presbyterians have stood in the vanguard of ecumenical and inter-faith efforts that seek to affirm and collaborate with religious groups different from us, even as we maintain our own unique identity. We may disagree sharply with some of their practices (e.g. excluding women from pastoral ministry); yet we affirm common cause with them whenever possible. We know that our own integrity is not advanced by casting aspersion on the integrity of others.
Similarly, we have long been on the forefront of seeking justice for those to whom it has been denied. Last summer, our General Assembly demonstrated this core commitment by marching to the St. Louis City Detention Center in a call for justice for petty criminals being held indefinitely in jail due to their inability to post bond. We do not gloss over the detainees’ misdeeds, yet we hold that the most important thing about them is the dignity they have been given by their Creator. Other faith groups may do similar things, but for Presbyterians, it’s just in our DNA to advocate for those suffering injustice.
If creation is the theater of God’s glory, humanity occupies its center stage. Presbyterians are most true to their identity when they ground their relationships with fellow-humans in appreciation rather than denunciation. Alas, sometimes we do better at affirming groups far different from us than we do with those closest at hand. Something is amiss when we are better at affirming people of other faiths than at affirming members of our own household with whom we somewhat disagree. Despite our reflexive inclination to think and work for the best for people different from us, Presbyterians have exhibited a troubling tendency to be fractious toward those with whom we regularly break bread. Beloved, it ought not be so.
And so I offer a modest proposal. Beginning within our own congregation and denomination, we covenant to speak well of fellow-believers, even when we disagree. In so doing, we will honor God’s image in one another as the most important determinant of our identity. And we will be more faithful to our Presbyterian DNA.
It’s all good!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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