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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Bound in Prayer
May 9, 2013

Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with
energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

One of the most encouraging things I hear is when someone tells me, “I’m praying for you.” Not only am I gladdened that my name is being lifted to the throne of grace – I am also encouraged that people are remembering me in prayer rather than in some of the other ways I might come to mind!

I have found that it is hard for me to stay mad at someone for whom I am praying. When I pray for someone, I am asking God to be with them and to help them, just as I depend on God to do the same for me. Prayer for each other sets us on a level with one another, under the mighty hand of God. It is the best antidote to the hostility and pride that so easily warp our relationships with each other.

Interestingly, the promise church officers make to pray for God’s people under their care is very new to our ordination vows. We have long mandated prayer when convening and dismissing church committee meetings, no matter how mundane their business; but only in 2010 did we add this language to our ordination vows, whereby office-bearers promise to keep praying for the people they are called to serve. Of course, the church has always expected its officers to pray for the church, but in writing it officially into our ordination vows, that expectation has been strengthened – something worth noting at a time when some have charged that the church has only been weakening its expectations of ordinands.

No particular manner of prayer is identified. Is this vow meant to specify private prayers by officers, or shared prayer when we meet? Should we pray for the whole church together, or for specific members in turn? If the latter, should we pray for each member weekly? Monthly? Annually? Ought the prayer be accompanied by a personal note or call? Might the community be divided among the officers so each has special prayer responsibility for one particular subset of the congregation? How long must we pray in order for it to “count”? Should we offer to pray with each member? The Book of Order wisely leaves such questions unaddressed. What’s most important is not how I pray for my flock, but that I pray for them. I hope and trust it makes a difference for them, but I know it makes a difference for me when I pray for them.

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the village Rabbi is asked, “Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?” He responds, “May the Lord bless and keep the Czar…as far away from us as possible.” The line is good for a laugh – but in real life, prayer does the opposite. It draws us together in the face of other forces that seek to separate us.

In his primary teaching on prayer in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin comments at some length on the Lord’s Prayer as our model for all prayer. (See Institutes 3.XX.34-42) Noting that this prayer begins with the words “Our Father,” Calvin holds that the first thing prayer does is to draw us into a prayer relationship with all who belong to the family of God. We cannot pray rightly as Christians while keeping distance from each other. As a Christian, I am called always to pray both with and for you. As an officer, I promise to do so.

Lest we be tempted to avoid praying for someone whom we doubt to be part of the family of God, Calvin emphasizes that the Christian’s prayer ought to “embrace all who are his brothers in Christ, not only those whom he at present sees and recognizes as such but all men who dwell on earth. For what God has determined concerning them is beyond our knowing except that it is no less godly than humane to wish and hope the best for them. Yet we ought to be drawn with a special affection to those, above others, of the household of faith.” (Institutes 3.XX.38, emphasis added) In other words, Christian prayer leads us to embrace all persons regardless of their religious confession, while it especially invests us in those who look to Christ as their Savior.

Calvin tenderly invites us to make our love for God the basis of our rule of prayer for each other: “Just as one who truly and deeply loves any father of a family at the same time embraces his whole household with love and good will, so it becomes us in like measure to show to his people, to his family, and lastly to his inheritance, the same zeal and affection that we have toward this Heavenly Father.” (Ibid)

The eighth ordination vow is precisely this – we promise to attend to the church given to our care in the same way we attend to God himself. Next week we will investigate how that shapes our commitment to serve God’s people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Praying with you always,

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

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