Denison Forum – Megachurch pastor killed on way home from church: Thanking God when it’s hard to be grateful

“Pastor Dimitri was one of the brightest, most intelligent, and most innovative leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.” This is how one pastor remembers Dr. Dimitri Bradley, the founder of a megachurch in Virginia who was killed in a car crash last Wednesday night while driving home from church.

The fifty-one-year-old pastor and his wife started City Church in Richmond in 1998 in the living room of their home, growing it to nearly four thousand members. A memorial service for Dr. Bradley will be held this Saturday at 11 a.m.

In other news, a pilot was flying his single-propeller airplane in rural Minnesota last Saturday when disaster struck. According to the Scott County Sheriff’s Office, the plane “hit a cluster of power lines and became suspended on a guideline, upside down.” The pilot was inside, hanging upside down as well.

Workers de-energized the power line and rescued the pilot. He was uninjured.

“So this is what God is really like.”

It’s easy to give thanks to God for remarkable stories such as the rescue of the stranded pilot. I’m sure you have your own examples of wonderful provisions that make thanksgiving joyful this Thanksgiving week. As we learned from Mister Rogers yesterday, ten seconds is enough time to remember those whose love has been instrumental in our lives.

However, the Lord states that neither his capacities nor his character change with changing circumstances (cf. Malachi 3:6). It is therefore just as logical and plausible to view him through the prism of Dr. Bradley’s tragic death as through our gratitude for the pilot’s survival. I’m sure you have your own circumstances that make thanksgiving challenging this week.

After C. S. Lewis’ wife died, he wrote in A Grief Observed that he was not in danger of ceasing to believe in God. Rather, he was in danger of believing “such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

We have all been there. When our first child was born, I was filled with unspeakable gratitude to the God of life for his precious life. When that son was diagnosed many years later with cancer, my gratitude was replaced by unspeakable grief. He is well today, but his suffering is still one of the great tragedies of my life.

Giving thanks “in” and “for”

Scripture requires us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). But there’s a but: Paul says to be grateful “in” all circumstances, not “for” all circumstances. Perhaps we are not required to be grateful for hard times, just to find a way to be grateful in them.

Apparently not.

In Ephesians 5 we find this command: “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20 NCV). Not “in” but “for.” “Always” (pantote) for “everything” (panton).

Paul lists no exceptions or qualifications. Taken together, these two verses therefore teach that I was to give thanks in the midst of our son’s cancer diagnosis and for it as well.

What makes thanksgiving hard for you this week? In the face of whatever you just named, you are to give thanks, both in your circumstances and for them.

In difficult times, this seems an impossible request, one we will explore across this Thanksgiving week. For today, let’s remember the story of the man led by God to make it.

“How much he must suffer for the sake of my name”

God said of Paul, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). There could be no greater privilege for a Christian. But this privilege would come at a high price: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (v. 16).

And suffer Paul would. The cost of preaching to Caesar was being imprisoned in Rome. The cost of preaching to the Jewish authorities was being persecuted by them. The challenges he faced were exceeded only by the courage he manifested (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24–28).

And yet, every difficulty Paul faced was necessary to fulfilling his purpose. If there had been a better way for him to preach to Caesar than by appealing to Caesar and thus being transported to Rome as a Roman prisoner (Acts 25:11), I believe God would have found it. If there had been a better way to reach the Philippian jailer than by allowing Paul to be imprisoned in his jail (Acts 16:19–34), I believe the Lord would have used it.

We find this theme throughout Scripture. Joseph went from Potiphar’s prison to Pharaoh’s palace. Moses fled from that palace to meet God in the desert. Daniel’s salvation in the lion’s den proved to the Babylonian king that Daniel’s God was the one true king.

The higher the mountain, the harder the climb

You may not know the reasons for which God is allowing your present challenges, but God does. The reasons may never make sense to you on this side of eternity, but one day you will know what you do not know today (1 Corinthians 13:12). And you will know that the God of the universe is also a Father who loves you more than you can possibly comprehend.

Across the rest of this Thanksgiving week, we’ll explore three other reasons to be “thankful in all circumstances” and to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” For today, let’s choose to believe that the God who saves pilots from death also redeems the deaths of pastors. Let’s trust what we do not know to the Father who knows everything.

And let’s remember: The higher the mountain, the harder the climb. But the greater the view when we arrive.

 

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