A Time to Reflect
A Time to Reflect
Last week you received my letter indicating my plan to retire at the end of this year. Such decisions are long in the making. It has been five years since my wife and I attended the very helpful retirement seminar offered by the Board of Pensions, and so the questions related to retirement have been with us at least that long.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was certainly in a reflective place when he concluded, “For everything there is a season … [God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds.”
The decision to retire is certainly a time when thoughts of past and future are top of mind. Yet it is not the only time such concerns press in. The whole church sits on a pivot point related to the pandemic, remembering life before the pandemic while seeking to discern what might lie ahead.
Crises like the pandemic underscore what is true all along – we can’t go back to where things used to be. The only future that we have is one that is ruled by the God who declares, “I am making all things new.”
Reflection is by its very nature a contemplation of what has already happened. It is to look again at what we’ve already seen. Like good sleuths, we hope to find some clues in our retrospection that provide new insights on who we are and where we have been, to help us gain a better sense of what might be possible on the road ahead.
In reflecting on my time as General Minister of this presbytery, I have landed on a couple of touchstones that help me better understand my journey with you these past thirteen years, and offer some clues about what may lie ahead after I’ve set aside the mantle of this call.
The first touchstone is a formative experience barely a year after I began serving Pittsburgh Presbytery. I was on a retreat at a Catholic monastery together with a group of others who had recently begun serving as presbytery leaders. We were literally high up on a mountain, and as I prepared to come down from the mountain to fly back home, I heard almost audibly an inner voice, “I have given you the ministry of good cheer.”
When I got to the airport I received a call from home that something terrible had happened back on the home front at the presbytery office. I then recalled that when Jesus instructed his disciples to “be of good cheer,” it was in the context of his prediction, “In this world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33, KJV)
Ever since, I have been challenged to carry this ministry of good cheer wherever I have gone. It is not a matter of being optimistic, but of being convinced that in the end God’s purposes will prevail. The reign of God is not a mere pipe dream. Our joy and responsibility as the church of Jesus is, in the words of our Book of Order, “the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.”
Which leads to my second touchstone, a conviction that has slowly but surely formed, namely that my mission is to help the church understand and exhibit the reconciliation that God has accomplished in Jesus. Reconciliation with God necessarily entails reconciliation with each other.
Reconciliation means nothing if we already all think and look alike. It’s only when we are different, even at odds with each other, that reconciliation has any real meaning. As a reconciled community, the church is by definition a gathering of people who have no natural likelihood to be together, but discover and believe themselves to be inseparably bound in Christ to those who are not like them.
This is in fact the primary work of the Spirit, according to John Calvin. The Spirit unites us to Christ, and thereby inseparably unites us to each other.
The well-being of the church and the effectiveness of its mission depend on it being composed of people who are different from each other. None of us can say to those different from us, “I have no need of you,” or worse, “I’d be better off without you.”
Yet we do feel that way sometimes. I had a conversation with one of our pastors just last week who was facing that sentiment from some members of the congregation. They were distressed over being part of a denomination that included people who see things very differently from them. Fresh off the heels of a General Assembly that made some very unpopular declarations (which I outlined in last week’s letter), those feelings are multiplied among many of us. Why would we want to be hitched to a church that includes people whose perspectives are so different from ours?
We’re hitched not because we wanted it, but because the Spirit has done it. The only question is whether we will live and display the reconciliation that God has already accomplished among us.
I may be retiring, and my ministry may no longer be focused in this presbytery, but I will always be hitched to you. And for that I am immensely grateful.
Yours for the long haul,