A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Seasons of Loss
June 20, 2019
I’ve been thinking a lot about loss in recent days. Last Sunday was our first Father’s Day without Dad Wiens, my wife Tammy’s father, who passed away just before Holy Week this year. He was a giant on whom we leaned greatly, and Father’s Day only underscored the acuteness of our loss. We experienced another loss last week, when we had to put down our beloved dog Cameron after 13 ½ years of faithful companionship. No longer does his glad greeting welcome us home. Both of my parents have recently lost their mobility, Dad through a stroke and Mom by way of spinal stenosis. They are still with us, but they have lost much.
In his epic “In Memoriam,” Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson concludes, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” It is good and right to grieve our losses of family members, of beloved pets, and of our independence. Yet the sense of loss is great only because our love of what we lost was great.
I know congregations that greatly grieve what they once enjoyed but now have lost – crowded sanctuaries, full coffers, community influence, sparkling facilities. I see grainy old photos hanging on their hallway walls – of classes filled to capacity, of church steps overflowing with members gathered for their community portrait, and so forth. It’s not just the loss of numbers, but the loss of capacity that is so difficult to embrace.
The writer of Lamentations pens one of the all-time great loss elegies in the history of literature. God’s people have lost everything, having been torn from their homes by a vile predatory foe, and taken captive to a distant land with little more than the shirts on their backs. What a dreadful fall from the glory days of David and Solomon! Yet amid his great wails of lament, the writer catches himself short. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:21-23)
No loss is so great that it eclipses God’s mercy and faithfulness. To the contrary, those losses that seem especially acute testify most fully to God’s mercy and faithfulness, in having granted us the privilege of enjoying for a season that which we now have lost.
And there is more. If God could be so good as to bless us with people and situations that mean so much to us that losing them is grievous, why would we doubt that God could bless us once again in the days that lie ahead?
Our losses as individuals and as churches may well be deep. Yet they are never the last word. Jesus reminded his followers that new life can come forth from a seed only if it falls into the ground and dies. (John 12:24) His resurrection abundantly confirms that death is not the final word.
Jesus taught that we must be ready to lose if we are ever truly to win. (Matthew 10:39) Our Book of Order declares, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its own life.” (F-1.0301, emphasis added) True faith embraces loss as well as gain. Paul reports, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. …I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
Grieving our losses can lead us to appreciate more fully the beauty of all we have been blessed to enjoy. Acknowledging that our heritage is a God-given treasure positions us to expect new blessings from One who spoke elsewhere through the writer of Lamentations to God’s people amid their exile, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Little is lovelier and more God-glorifying than genuine hope amid life’s ruins.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister