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Bonhoeffer’s Surprising Path to Gratitude

What to do when disillusionment settles in

It is about that time. It generally only takes a few weeks at the start of the school year for disillusionment to set in: midterms are distributed, first papers are submitted, detentions are scheduled, parent meetings are called, budget lines are sinking, and the weaknesses of our summer planning are exposed. The flaws of our students, their parents, our colleagues, and our administration are no longer hidden by the banners, the shiny notebooks, the new white-soled shoes, and the smiling faces of back to school. Now the real task begins. Students can quickly become the obstacles to the realization of our well-wished dreams, goals, and visions..

Gratitude often feels just out of reach. If only a few of the circumstances in our lives would take a different shape or if only a few students would take a different posture, we would feel thankful in natural and authentic ways. Yet so often, our opportunities for gratitude are reduced to moments of indulgence.

Much is at stake in the classroom. However, it is often not the things we imagine that matter most. How easy to find oneself decrying to a colleague the most recent outburst, irresponsible decision, disruptive comment, flagrant disrespect, pathetic effort, unintelligent statement, naive complaint, conniving glance, deceitful response, inattentive posture, ungrateful remark, or lackluster performance of our students. The two-headed monster of blame and envy begins to take form in our hearts. If only we had this year’s Sophomores or maybe it was the Juniors, well the Juniors minus one…or maybe minus two…, well, we’ll just have to wait a few years, the fourth grade teachers seem pretty happy.

In Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the dreams, agendas, and visions we bring to our communities are often our greatest hindrances and the sources of our crises. Yet, as Bonhoeffer points out “God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves.”

Bonhoeffer was no stranger to the struggle. His adult life was lived in the long, dark shadow cast by Hitler’s Nazi regime. He wrote and taught at an underground seminary, training pastors until the school was closed by the Gestapo. He resisted the path of acquiescence taken by many of Germany’s churches in the face of Nazi pressure. This commitment to community through Christ and in Christ would eventually lead to his execution and martyrdom less than a month before the end of World War II.

For Bonhoeffer, the path to gratitude in Christ-centered community was submission. We must first submit our own agendas and dreams entirely to create the space for gratitude to be cultivated and Christ to be truly central. Bonhoeffer chastises: “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

Bonhoeffer cautions his small community of pastors-in-training that this is particularly true for the pastor who finds himself complaining about his congregation. And it remains just as true for teachers. We have not been appointed the judge of our students, nor their critic. The dynamics of power are placed in our hands by our age, our position, our education, the size of our desks, and the colors of our pens. We are entrusted with delicate, tender lives, and our first task is always repentance: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me. They are only ever “ours” in the sense that they are recipients of our affection and sources of our joy. Be ready, it will be gut-wrenching; but take comfort: “Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God.”

It is not the test scores, the performance reviews, or the behavior plans that are at stake in the classroom. No, what it is at stake is much smaller, but far more glorious. It is the daily moment-by-moment fight for gratitude.

Quotations taken from chapter one of Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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