As a pastor, I have been guided for years by a quote from one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison. It is a command that pastors and parishioners give thanks for the church God has placed them in.
If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian community in which we have been placed, even when there are no great experiences, no noticeable riches, but much weakness, difficulty, and little faith – and if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so miserable and so insignificant and does not at all live up to our expectations-then we hinder God from letting our community grow according to the measure and riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ. That also applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous parishioners about their congregations. Pastors should not complain about their congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. Congregations have not been entrusted to them in order that they should become accusers of their congregations before God and their fellow human beings. When pastors lose faith in a Christian community in which they have been placed and begin to make accusations against it, they had better examine themselves first to see whether the underlying problem is not their own idealized image, which should be shattered by God. And if they find that to be true, let them thank God for leading them into this predicament. But if they find that it is not true, let them nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of those whom God has gathered together.
One might think that in quoting this I am presently in a position of observing “no great experiences, no noticeable riches, but much weakness, difficulty, and little faith.” Quite the opposite in fact. We are experiencing wonderful things right now, I see many signs of strength and I continue to be surprised by faith. It does not mean, though, that we do not have struggles, areas of growth, or even sin needing proper repentance. The reason I quote it is simply that in this time of Thanksgiving which should be marked by gratitude to God for his many blessings – we should also give thanks for our church.
Rather than being “accusers” of the church God has placed us in, hindering spiritual growth in our midst because of an attachment to an “idealized image” of a church which simply is never the reality of any church that has ever existed – we are to give thanks for our church. The church is a beautiful but messy place. It is filled with beautiful, messy people. It is led by B-E-A-U-tiful, but messy pastors.
Without question, though (and Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount confirms this), the most important things that happen in the church happen behind closed doors: personal prayers, group bible study, lovingly speaking the truth about personal sin, comforting the grieving, loving on a youth from an unbelieving home, driving someone to the hospital, graciously correcting biblical error, forgiving one another in grace. This only happens when people love and thank God for their church.
I get to see these behind the scenes realities play out more than most. Yet, their beauty lay in the fact that they are behind the scenes, not self-righteously desiring “to be seen by others” [Matthew 6], but desiring to please an audience of One. So there they should stay.Yet – I am thankful for our church, for the “measure and the riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ” at EPC. For the light of Christ that shines in darkness.
Yet, even if none of this was happening and faith was a struggle, I hope I would be thankful for the real church (not the idealized one) – with real people, each and every one of you – that God in his grace places me in according to His good purpose and will.
Bonhoeffer could give thanks from a prison cell. . .