A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Firm Foundation
July 10, 2014
I grew up in a camping family – every summer we found some park in which to pitch our tent for a week or two and enjoy a brief spell of life apart from most modern amenities. We loved our large cabin tent – it was a haven not only for wonderful sleeping during cool Canadian summer nights, but also for a ton of lively story-telling. Yet as much as we treasured those tenting expeditions, the fun never lasted beyond the threat of the next summer storm. Accommodations for the longer haul needed a better roof, more sturdy walls, and above all a firmer foundation.
When I first entered the sanctuary of the church that would soon call me as its pastor, I was immediately enthralled with the history disclosed by its beautiful dedicatory windows. They testified to a firm foundation established by its forebears over many generations. No wonder the church was going strong 220 years after it was founded! When I descended to the basement, I discovered a massive stone foundation on which the beautiful sanctuary had been erected generations earlier, echoing in limestone what the windows proclaimed in glass above.
What is the foundation on which the church is built? “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord,” one hymn-writer declares, while another marvels, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!” Ephesians 2:20 speaks of the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church, while 2 Timothy 2:19 identifies our firm foundation as this: “The Lord knows who are his.” Each of these answers, in its own way, identifies something unshakable on which we can always rely no matter the severity of storms that assail us.
One of Jesus’ most well-known parables (Matthew 7:24-27) contrasts the foundations on which two men built their houses – one on rock, the other on sand. As long as conditions are pleasant, like a cool Alberta summer evening, any sort of structure will do. But when storms arise and struggles assail, only a strong foundation keeps our dwelling place secure.
Most of the time, foundations go unnoticed. They are subterranean and unfinished. We don’t paint their walls, install windows, or finish the ceilings and floors, because we expect few to see them. They’re just there. As glad as we are that they are up to code, engineered for structural soundness, and durable through all manner of weather, we pay them little notice. Until the storm hits, that is.
Four years ago the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a major revision of its Book of Order. Significant as it may be, the Book of Order is not the Bible, and its rules do not trump Scripture. Rather, it is our church’s best attempt to concretize biblical principles into a set of shared practices and commitments that equip us to be strong and fruitful as Christ’s church. It sets forth a “rule of life abundant” for our fellowship – biblically rooted, theologically sound, pastorally proven, and thoroughly God-glorifying. For many decades it included three main sections – one on governance, one on worship, and one on discipline. The 2010 revision added a critically important fourth category – foundations. Before it addresses the practical questions of how we govern, how we worship, and how we deal with failure, our Book of Order now seeks to identify the foundation upon which those practices and commitments are built.
The former Book of Order identified various features of our foundation here and there, but did not lay them out anywhere in order. Our revised version now identifies our foundations as one discrete section among four, each identified by their first letter:
F – Foundations of our life together
G – Governance of our life together
W – Worship as the core practice of our life together
D – Discipline that insures the ongoing integrity of our life together
The “Foundations” section contains some new material drawn from other sources such as our Book of Confessions. It also includes provisions originally present in other parts of the former Book of Order, now set forth in ways that strengthen both our understanding and our caretaking of our foundations.
In a time when some folk wonder whether and how our beloved church can weather some storms we are currently facing, it is critically important that we consider the sort of foundation that can keep us strong all the way through. Understanding the storm is important, but attending to our foundations is what will cause us to survive and to thrive today and tomorrow, to the glory of God.
So I invite you to journey with me in the coming weeks through the “Foundations” section of our recently-revised Book of Order. There we will rediscover some of the core gifts God has given us to keep us strong for the long haul. As we own anew our foundations, may we be encouraged to trust that God has great things yet in store for us!
Your partner in God’s work,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters.