What Time is It?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 17, 2022

What Time is It?

 Fifty-three years ago, the new jazz-rock band sensation “Chicago” broke onto the popular charts with a song that asked, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” It answers a casual request for the time of day from a passer-by with a deeper question, “Does anybody really know what time it is?”

The writer of Ecclesiastes celebrates that God has put a sense of time into the human heart, declaring that there is a time and place for everything. Knowing the time we are in is critically important for us individually and corporately. True wisdom asks not only what to do, but if it’s time.

Paul makes a similar point when he declares that all things are permitted, but not necessarily helpful. That which may be good here today may not be so tomorrow or elsewhere. Getting the time right requires wisdom, not just knowledge.

As I write, I am watching the first snowfall of the season outside my window. It’s time for snow, after all, so why fret that just a few days ago we were walking around outside in shorts and tee shirts? That was untimely for mid-November in Pittsburgh; snow is not.

Just as the natural seasons vary across the span of a year, so the church marks each year by working its way cyclically through the life of Jesus. That annual journey ends this coming Sunday, with the affirmation that in the culmination of time Jesus is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Every year we celebrate that Jesus wins in the end; then we repeat the story. This Sunday it is time to celebrate Jesus’ royalty; next Sunday we will plunge back into the darkness of a world desperately in need of a Savior.

Over the past year I have contemplated much the matter of time – when will it be time to retire? What will I do next? I find myself drawn to the psalmist’s song of faith, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God;’ my times are in your hand.”

What is true for me at a major inflection point in my own life is true also for us corporately. Our times are in the Lord’s hand. If that is so, the beginning of discerning the times is to seek the Lord. It requires us to lift our eyes, open our ears, reach out our hands, and fall to our knees. It’s about being attentive before being assertive.

There are at least three junctures in a congregation’s life cycle where anxieties about uncertain times rise to a particularly high level. One is when its pastor leaves. Another is when it no longer has enough resources adequately to pay its staff and maintain its facilities. And a third is when it no longer has the capacity to continue as a congregation. Are these times also in the Lord’s hands?

Of course, we know the right answer. Our first task, then, in knowing the times, is to be more attentive to the One who has promised never to leave or forsake us.

When I arrived as General Minister of Pittsburgh Presbytery, we were spending significantly more to run our presbytery operations than we were receiving in income. Rather than respond first by slashing costs, I called a team of pastors and elders to join me in asking the question, “What is the sustainable mission to which God is calling us?” We grappled for months with the challenges before us, without seeing a pathway forward, until one day I invited us all to pray together, leading out from our hearts, for an extended period. As we spent extended time in prayer together that day, suddenly we saw the way forward, almost as plain as day. The time we had previously spent in study and conversation was critical background work, but it was only in the context of concentrated prayer that we saw clearly what our current time called for from us.

We are living in times that are unprecedented, at least in our lifetime. We are still struggling against a lingering pandemic that has killed millions. We breathe huge sighs of relief that the bitterly contested election is finally over, only to have Donald Trump begin the next election cycle one week later by announcing his run for the presidency in the next election. We seek a time of respite from the polarizing toxicity that grips our social order, only in vain.

What time is it for the church, as it seeks to be part of God’s mission in such a time as this? I don’t know the answer for every church in every place, except for this – it is time to discern where God is at work, and this requires much prayer. It is time to lift our eyes, to open our ears, to reach out our hands, and to bend our knees. In doing so, we will come to know more clearly what God is calling us to be and to do in such a time as this.

Yours in looking to our Lord,

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