Last week, five people were stranded twenty-one stories underground at Grand Canyon Caverns following an elevator malfunction. After more than twenty-four hours, the group was rescued by a team that used a tripod apparatus with a rope they fed down the elevator shaft to hoist the party up 210 feet to the surface.
In other news, seven people were hospitalized after a steam-powered train derailed at Missouri’s Silver Dollar City amusement park last Wednesday. After three cars tipped on their sides in the derailment, a passenger called 911 and ambulances from several districts were sent to the scene.
And a Michigan man learned on his way to work that he had won $100,000 in the state lottery, but he couldn’t tell his family because his phone battery was dead. He had to wait until after work, which, as he told reporters, “felt like the longest day ever because I was so eager to finish work and tell people the good news!”
All three stories caught my eye because they illustrate a pastoral principle the Lord is reinforcing in my life these days: the privilege and urgency of incarnational ministry.
The people stranded at Grand Canyon Caverns could not rescue themselves. Nor could those injured at Silver Dollar City. And we cannot use our cell phones to share good news if our battery is dead, a fact that applies to our technology and to our souls.
On this All Saints’ Day, I would like to think with you about one of the ways the world knows we are truly the “saints” of God: serving those in need with compassion empowered by the Spirit of God.
Leadership advice from an Air Force general
General Alfred Flowers is the longest-serving airman in Air Force history. He recently joined the Bush Institute for a leadership program where he was asked to identify ways he has been successful in leading through challenging times.
His response: “In my journey of forty-six-and-a-half years in the military, I’ve encountered a lot of leadership challenges. I’ve encountered personal challenges. I encountered systemic challenges. But I found the common denominator is people. People want to be respected, they want to be trained, they want to know that you care about them, and they want to know that you don’t think it’s all about you. I don’t know any leader—I don’t care how educated they are or what rank they might be in the military—that’s so well equipped that they can do it all by themselves.”
He added “I’m a person of faith. I believe that part of our problem in today’s society is that we’re too focused on ourselves and not our fellow man. We are getting further and further away from a nation of love and morals, and we’re seeing cracks in the moral values of this country.”
Consider this sentence again: “[People] want to know that you care about them, and they want to know that you don’t think it’s all about you.”
Now consider a pastor who made a significant impact on your life.
To what degree does Gen. Flowers’s observation describe them?
Paul’s four “faithful sayings”
I read every day from Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening devotional. Spurgeon recently pointed to Paul’s four “faithful sayings,” which caused me to identify and contemplate them. In each case, I will cite the English Standard Version, which uses “trustworthy” where Spurgeon’s King James Version translates the word “faithful.”
The first: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). Here we are reminded of Jesus’ purpose for his incarnational ministry: to save those who could not save themselves. Such compassion is the heart of our message and the model for our ministry.
The second: “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Here we are reminded that serving in pastoral ministry is a “noble” calling (kalos, “praiseworthy, beautiful, important”). In a culture that measures success by the degree to which others serve us, God considers us “noble” to the degree that we serve others.
The third: “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” (1 Timothy 4:8–9). Here we are reminded that our personal character rather than our public status is the key to “value” in this life and the next.
The fourth: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy” (2 Timothy 2:10–11). Here we are reminded that whatever it costs us to serve others leads to “eternal glory” for “the elect.”
The paradox of compassion
These “faithful sayings” combine to assure us that serving those who cannot serve themselves is the heart of what we are called to do. Most of the lost people I have known did not know they were lost. And many Christians who were far from the Lord could not find their way back by themselves. They needed the biblical truth I was led to share from a heart of compassion.
C. S. Lewis was right: “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.” What a privilege we have been given to join God in changing eternal trajectories, one soul at a time.
Of course, compassion fatigue is a reality for such servants, which is why our spiritual “batteries” must be recharged every day. We cannot give what we do not have or lead others where we will not go. That’s why praying every day for the Spirit to manifest his “love” and other fruit in and through us is vital to our souls and to our service (Galatians 5:22–23).
But when we choose to serve with incarnational compassion, we discover the paradoxical truth that what we give to others we experience in return. When we help hurting hearts, we are helped. When we comfort grieving souls, we are comforted.
Frederick Buechner was right: “Compassion” is “the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
What God does through us, he does in us as well.