November 7, 2008

Thanks Be to God

November is, by all accounts, a month for giving thanks. Our neighbors know that as well as we do. (Let the turkey consumption and the requisite napping commence.)

Still, the holy work of being grateful is not merely in experiencing the feeling but in naming our particular blessings before the Lord. By analogy, what good does it do my beloved for me to feel grateful for her place in my life if I do not also regularly name that thanksgiving to her? Gratitude is only as good as its specified return. I imagine it is not so different with the living God (Psalm 7:17). As the old song urges, “Count your many blessings. Name them one by one. See what God has done.”

This is one of the features I appreciate about Paul’s numerous epistles. The apostle practices specificity in his thanksgiving. He names before the Lord and before his congregations the particular textures of his gratitude—the spaces and places in which he sees the Spirit of God loose and living among them.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

So it is, in similar fashion, we baptized folk are called to name before the Lord that which has blessed us along our way. It’s not only a November thing to do, it’s a Christian thing—year round. What follows, then, are a few samples from my own growing list of recent thanksgivings to God—gratitude about you, as a congregation, as I come to know you more and more with each passing month.

For instance, I give thanks to God for the wonderful music you make to the Lord week after week. In recent years, you have stretched yourselves—some reluctantly, some joyfully, I’m sure—to lift up to God praise that is as varied as it is vibrant. I commend you for receiving this effort, and for sticking together around a matter that would surely undo a less mature congregation.

I give thanks to God for the strong sense of “What’s next?” I feel among you, especially among your elders and deacons. You are not a congregation the seems shackled to your past; so many of you seem genuinely curious about what the Spirit might yet be up to in your midst. I celebrate what I sense as a holy expectation about the coming years. After all, I suspect God is more interested in our willingness than in our expertise. Those first disciples knew little about what was in store, only that they must go when they sensed themselves called (Matthew 4:19).

More concretely, I give thanks for our sanctuary—the look, the feel, the shape, the function. It feels traditional but not stuffy, open but not rootless. To be sure, a church is not its building, yet the four walls that surround a people’s worship and work is not incidental, either. Space matters, to the extent it helps and does not hinder our calling to be the body of Christ in this place. The first time I walked into your Sunday space (during an interview last winter), I was struck by how handsome, how Reformed (word and sacraments—front and center), and how well-cared for the room is. All this says much about a congregation. It is an honor and a delight to be lead-worshipper among you on each Lord’s Day.

I give thanks that this congregation is, to say it one way, a womb for mission. Tables and shawls and compassion are born here. It feels to me like down deep in the psyche of this place there are old, deep, missional reverberations that will not let this fellowship turn wholly inward upon itself. Key decisions in the past often appear marked with an impulse to consider how you might be, more and more, in service and witness to neighbor and world. I hear: Let the paint chip a bit on the Social Hall baseboard, let the tan tile in the bathroom go another year—there’s mission beyond these walls to consider. I love it.

Finally, more personally, I give thanks to God for the ways in which you have welcomed my family and worried over their needs. What has for months been to us a new place is fast becoming for us our new home, and your gracious “hello” (beginning with those blessed bow-ties) has helped to make it so.

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As I was leading my daughter through the trick-or-treat gauntlet that is Waugh Avenue on the night before Halloween, I bumped into a pack of middle school girls from our congregation, hard at work in their annual canvas. Suddenly one of them had a revelation: “Hey,” pointing at me in fresh realization, “you go to our church, don’t you?”

Indeed I do. A fact for which I am most grateful to the Lord.