He disengaged the cruise control with his left thumb and habitually lifted the signal lever to communicate his intention to merge onto the exit ramp. Pastor Shipley was returning to his office, a 45-minute trip from a hospital call on Mrs. Schneider after her surgery. As he approached the stop light at the top of the ramp the man appeared with his cardboard sign. “Disabled Vet Anything Will Help,” the sign read. Pastor Shipley eagerly hoped the light would stay green long enough for him to just roll by the weather-beaten figure in oversized coat and trousers; but the car in front of him slowed abruptly when the light went yellow.
“Maybe if I don’t make eye contact, he’ll just stand there and not approach me,” thought the pastor as he tried to look busy by rearranging his small visitation Bible and private Communion case scattered on the front passenger’s seat. Movement out of the corner of his vision caught his attention as the man shuffled along, coming closer but staying safely distant along a well-worn path near the cement curb. Pastor Shipley did risk a glance at the man’s face. The face was creased from the sun and wind, but it still had an echo of being young rather than old. The man’s shadowed eyes did not look directly at anyone or anything in particular … just out there somewhere. The sign, with its message, he held squarely to his chest like a shield with his coat of arms. “I really wish this light would turn green!”
As a good citizen, Pastor Shipley was rescued by his immediate obedience to traffic laws, lurching forward when the signal commanded him to enter into the intersection.
Pastor Shipley pulled into his familiar parking spot outside the door to his office at the church. He gave a quick and carefully worded update to his secretary on Mrs. Schneider’s condition for communication through the congregation’s prayer chain. As he strode toward his office he reflected with pleasure, and just a little bit of pride, on the faithful and caring community of Christians he was privileged to serve as pastor.
The prayer chain was just one way that this family of God in Jesus really demonstrated compassionate care for one another. He knew that Mr. Schneider and the three teenagers in the family would have several meals being delivered over the next couple weeks while his wife got back on her feet. Mrs. Schneider’s fellow choir members would see to that! Other families from the congregation were signed up to assist the Schneiders with their crazy sports schedule, making sure the two sons and daughter got to practices and games on time. What’s more, her job was waiting for her when she healed. This was just another example of the Body of Christ caring for God’s people; and he had seen such compassion from this wonderful congregation hundreds of times in the past several years as they demonstrated God’s love in Jesus to one another. What a wonderful expression of God’s Kingdom on earth!
At his desk, Pastor Shipley prayed briefly for guidance, clarity, and faithfulness before pulling out his sermon preparation file. He reread the appointed Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday, Luke 4:14–30, “Jesus rejected at Nazareth.” Pastor reviewed his initial study notes:
- Jesus in the “power of the Spirit” (It’s like God’s coming Kingdom is “on the march”!)
- News about Him is spreading
- He went to the synagogues (local places for God’s people to gather to hear His Word) NOTE: Jesus “” He didn’t stay in one place. He went to people. Again God’s coming Kingdom “on the move”!
- He went to the synagogue in Nazareth (Jesus’ home town)
- He purposely turned to the section of Isaiah that speaks about “preaching good news to the poor …”
Pastor Shipley’s eyes froze. His mind seemed to be stopped at a red light. The memory of the man with the sign swirled like a wintery specter in his thoughts. The pastor could feel his throat tighten, his stomach sag; and he heard his heart in his ears. Rarely had he had such emotional and visceral experiences. It was unsettling. But he chose to embrace the event and allowed the image to remain. He decided to engage with it. (Preachers call this “ruminating” on the text.)
Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy regarding the “year of Jubilee.” There was freedom for the captives. There was hope for the hopeless and sight to the blind. This was/is Jesus, the embodiment of God’s Kingdom, on the move in the power of the Spirit; and he was ushering in the great reversal of sin’s destructive forces in God’s creation. Wherever Jesus came, lives were transformed. Brokenness gave way to His wholeness. Weakness gave way to His power. Demonic strongholds gave way to His authority. Emptiness and hunger gave way to His fullness and provision. Bondage gave way to His freeing grace. Fear melted in the face of His love. Distress and disease gave way to His compassionate care. Confusion gave way to His wisdom. The wretched were redeemed. The devalued were considered precious in His eyes, and the lowly were raised up.
Again the man came into view—the vacant stare, the over-sized coat and trousers, the sign. Pastor Shipley thought, “I wish I could have a ‘do-over’ at that intersection. But what would be different? Hand him a couple dollars? … A gift card to a fast food joint? … A bottle of water? … A tract that shares the Gospel of salvation in Jesus?”
In the congregation he served there was a system of compassionate care. There were relationships of families and friends, all gathered in one way or another around the Savior. Mrs. Schneider and her family would be well cared for because of this congregation, this Body of Christ, this system.
But this man at the intersection was somehow outside of any helpful system. Pastor Shipley knew that this unfortunate veteran was not the only one who had fallen through to his isolation. There were the elderly without family or financial resources who were left to live out their lives in understaffed nursing homes run by the state or county. There were children living in poverty in this county who were dependent upon the subsidized breakfasts and lunches provided by the public school. But what happened to them in the summer, or on weekends? There were teens who, in search of some secure system, found a semblance of belonging in a gang. There were the families, some with two parents and some with one, who were working, but made just a few dollars more than the allowed amount to receive assistance in the system; but not really enough to live on with any security.
“Our government is failing these people!” Pastor Shipley blurted under his breath. Then he breathed deep and read the notes on the text from Luke again. God’s Kingdom is “on the move” in the power of the Spirit in the person and work of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ.
Connecting the Dots
It didn’t take much for the Holy Spirit to begin to connect the dots for this prayerful man of God. Suddenly, there was a rush of energy. He quickly tapped out the following on his computer as the thoughts flowed:
“Showing compassion is not the job of the government. Showing compassion is the work of God’s Kingdom people as the Body of Christ. God’s people can work in the ‘gaps’ of existing systems. Yes, we want to have systems of compassionate care within our congregations. But how might the people of God demonstrate the movement of the Kingdom of God in the ‘power of the Spirit’ through individual acts, and perhaps more importantly and more effectively, through systems of compassionate care? Jesus ‘went’! He went to where the people were; and as he went, he showed compassion and brought hope and wholeness to sin-broken lives. We need to consider how to extend compassionate care to those outside the congregation … to the injured, hurting, grieving, dying, and hopeless in our community.”
Pastor Shipley had very little idea about what to do next. Nor did he really know what he might be getting himself and his congregation into. But a fire of compassion had been lit; and he wanted the Holy Spirit to fan it into flame.
On his notepad he wrote “next steps.” They were as follows:
- Visit privately with a few key leaders in the congregation and share my experience and thoughts.
- Pray, asking the Holy Spirit to give direction and encouragement. Invite others to join with me.
- Seek some counsel from others: Compassion ministries already working in our area, my Michigan District Congregation Mission and Ministry Facilitator (CMMF), my fellow circuit pastors.
- Seek out some resources to become better educated about how to be truly helpful to people in need. Review the book, When Helping Hurts. Find additional resources.
- Request a demographic study of my community from the Michigan District.
- Meet with community leaders to ask, “How might the Church help?”
- Go back to the intersection and try to find the man with the sign and ask him out for lunch this week. Ask to hear his story.
Pastor Shipley knew that compassion ministry was not going to bring salvation because it is not “the Gospel” in its narrow sense. However, compassion ministry is the RESULT of the Gospel in the lives of God’s people as they live out their part in God’s advancing Kingdom, in the power of the Spirit. And compassion ministry may lead to wonderful opportunities to share the saving message of Jesus and salvation that is found only in Him. He would leave that up to the Holy Spirit.
For further reflection and study:
When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
To Transform A City: Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City, by Eric Swanson and Sam Williams.
Talk to the Michigan District LCMS Congregation Mission and Ministry Facilitators (find yours at michigandistrict.org/facilitator) and other servant leaders supported by the District who are hard at work in various expressions of Great Compassion Ministry.
Photo (c) vuk8691/iStock.