Joplin and Christian Unity: Lessons in Leadership and Humility.


To instance in the duty of prayer: ‘tis manifest, we are not appointed, in this duty, to declare God’s perfections, his majesty, holiness, goodness, and allsufficiency, and our own meanness, emptiness, dependence, and unworthiness, and our wants and desires, to inform God of these things, or to incline his heart, and prevail with him willing to show us mercy; but suitably to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask. And such gestures, and manner of external behavior in the worship of God, which custom has made to be significations of humility and reverence, can be of no further use, than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others. – Jonathan Edwards (Religious Affections, Yale Press, pg. 114)

We arrived in Joplin late last Sunday night, after going through Oklahoma and part of Arkansas, we finally made it. The ride there was an interesting one: for example, I rode most of the way in a bus with no AC , but the driver named Bob kept me company. We talked about Revelation and his seminary education and how he ended up having a transportation ministry. He has a monthly Christian newsletter type of email he sends out each month on politics, which goes out to roughly 11,000 people all over the world. Bob is an awesome guy, I hear he’s about 70 years old too. That is incredible. Along the way we stopped at a Macdonalds in Oklahoma that I hadn’t been to since I was a small child (about 4 years of age), they supposedly had the largest play-place in the country, sadly it got taken down not too long ago and the AC didn’t work there either. After ordering a 7$ chicken nuggets meal with cold fries, we were on our way.

That night we set up cots that I call, “the devils children”, reason being that a few weeks prior we had set up those cots for the kids at youth camp, taking roughly 6 hours to do 29 of them with about 8 or 9 people helping. Interestingly, they set up like clock-work this time around. The trailer where we were supposed to take showers shut down at about 10pm, so we had to wait until morning. It was not great, but hey, I knew I was in for something. The Church we stayed at was Forrest Park Baptist Church, a few miles away from where the tornado hit. They turned the place into a relief center and somewhere to stay for all the volunteers helping out. It was projected that roughly 4500 people came out the first couple weeks after the Tornado hit, six weeks in and there were hardly 50 people staying inside the Church, with probably a couple hundred at most helping out. The locals work had just started and we came in to help at a crucial time.

After getting to bed by 1 (thanks to my wise choice of drinking “Volt” just before lights out), we woke up the following morning around 7; I got up by 6:15 to do my devotions by the window overlooking the parking lot, which, to my surprise, was where the youth wanted to go as well. I got there first, so I did catch the worm that time around. My devotional for that morning was from Pastor Charles Swindoll, which is from a book of his called “His Finishing Touch”, that mornings devotional was about how “people need to be in cricket places and crickets need to be in people places”, what Swindoll is saying is that just as the cricket in his Church would make noise each Sunday morning in the sanctuary by going somewhere foreign to him, so Christians need to branch out and try something new and grow for the better. I was in Joplin, so I considered it a very welcoming thing to start off the day.

After being the second in line to the showers, I helped the volunteer set up the tent and the chairs, then I finally got to wash off all the dried sweat before the day of more sweating began, the twist came when I saw a cricket jumping in the shower (remember my Swindoll devotional?), oh Lord, you do have a sense of humor.  After waking up the “minions” (the youth kids), we made it down just in time for breakfast. I had a bowl of cheerios with some milk since that Vault messed my stomach over and then some. Loading up the van and getting my supplies together (long sleeve shirt, sunblock, and sunglasses) we went down to Grace Baptist to see what our assignment would be. That day, both groups from our Church would be working on two wooden sheds from the ground up.  A man by the name of Howard (his last name escapes me, it has something to do with metal) showed us what we needed to do; Jon, the youth Pastor and guy in charge of the Church group, had experience working in construction, so he got to operate the machinery and wear his big tool belt while at it. Me, being a musically-oriented, theologically-inclined person, was off to a very, very, slow start with setting up the foundations and organizing the wood. Those youth kids are way smarter than they realize, I hope they understand that theology is a beautiful subject that each should pay attention to, just like they did with construction.

The heat was wearing all of us down, but the Lord had answered prayers for rain the day prior, so the morning was in the high 70’s-low 80’s until around 1. The amount of water you have to consume on the work-site is something like two to three gallons of water, and you have to constantly apply sunblock or else your sweat will be the least of your worries (in the end, I ended up burning both my nose and back).

Returning to the Church and settling in for dinner, we each had a time to relax. Dakota, one of the youth students, at some point during the first or second day decided to try and pick up a kid about twice his size, after a mishap the kid landed on his foot and had swollen to the size of an orange overnight. By the second day all he could do was carry the water for us. But the leaders had more wisdom: we played a game called “settlers of catan”, which by all means is addictive at its root. I probably played the game for 15 hours over the course of the trip (it helps pass the time).

From the second night onward, we would have devotions together as a group out of the book of Proverbs. Each night we would study a chapter and split off into smaller groups and learn the passages together, by the third night, people began to see what wisdom means Scripturally (for me, it was understanding that God “by wisdom founded the earth”, meaning if it worked for God, it should work for all of us to have wisdom), and seeing the leaders truly open up and use their minds and hearts to the glory of God really impacted me in a profound and humbling way. I don’t think people realize that when you’re known as the “Bible guy” its harder for people to feel comfortable around you and share, its also more difficult in the sense that I get this idea of being secluded and have a false assumption that maybe nobody really studies their Bible. I was wrong, wrong, then wrong some more. The leaders at my Church are great people of God, and even though we may not emphasize the same things theologically (even though we agree on 90% of things) we still have a growing relationship with the Lord, and the insights and stories I heard from them truly brought grace to my heart and gave me a solid foundation in reality.

This brings me closer to my last point, which is on Christian unity. I believe people view Christian unity in one of several ways: they either accept everyone without consideration; acknowledge other believes and pay attention to their differences and emphasize the main points of the gospel; look for every person who fits their theological niche, or they are people who think we should all be spiritual pacifists who emphasize peace and love. How you view unity quickly arises when you’re in a situation such as this one in Joplin: if its about you, then you become easily worn out  when you notice that people aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing as much as what its going toward. If it’s about helping the people, you easily become discouraged if you’re working in an area where nobody shows up but you’re Church, if its about your spiritual reputation, self-pity will sneak in without notice.

You see, its easy to go down there and help from a human-centered perspective; going to help out the people because you care and want them to be well and better off than they are right now. That is precisely what the last half of the ten commandments emphasize and what Jesus points toward in the sermon on the mount. But what’s missing from this picture is the big picture: who are you doing this for in the end? As Christians, everything we do should be to glorify our Maker (1 Cor. 10:31), and everything we do should be towards our Maker (Col. 3:23), if we aren’t ultimately here because God wants us to be, then we take away the glory of God and put it on ourselves, our works. We begin to see what we’ve done as an accomplishment in earning something for us, instead of earning good in the sight of God and man by doing everything in His name (2 Cor. 8:21).

What I saw in Joplin astounded, humbled, crushed and moved me. We were all working from the same mind and same purpose, each of us put our hands and feet to the grind and worked for God’s glory. We did our tasks with joy and accomplished a lot. Here’s something else to ponder: Are you doing everything in life from a desire, or a holy desire? Scripture tells us that God desires every person to be saved, but this desire is ultimately coming from God desiring their salvation for them to Him. We are told that all things come from Him, to Him, and through Him [Rom. 11], and that He upholds the universe by the “word of His power” [Col. 1:17], so when God desires something, its for the best of the creature. Are you living in light of today, the people around you, the time, your circumstances, etc? Or are you living from the desire to please God and serve Him?

As you do some digging, I want to encourage you with something else I learned in Joplin: keep training yourself for godliness. In 1 Timothy 4 Paul reminds Timothy to keep pressing on in his daily life, to keep going, and he makes a comparison between an athlete and the Christian:

1 Timothy 4:7-8 [ESV]
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

It takes discipline, effort, passion, and satisfaction in God to grow in godliness. Don’t forget who you’re living this life for.

So in the end, I learned that I need to take responsibility as a leader and put my heart into doing whats best for the kids: when they get in arguments, I need to lay down discipline and take the lead. When I’m with them, I need to listen carefully. When I teach them, I need the Holy Spirit helping me, and when I see them, I need to remember who I’m doing this for.

I met amazing people like Howard and Jesse, I got to grow in my relationships with people at my Church. I got to see each one in a new light and appreciate them in ways I hadn’t before. Truly God is glorified and honored when we work together, may He get the glory from all of this and its fruits. Working in construction most of the time sort of gave me a new experience and insight, I didn’t get to evangelize to anyone there, I met mostly volunteers and local people from the Church, but the principle is that God has called us to plant seeds, not trees. Seeing large trees torn out from the ground with their roots and laying in the street paints an intriguing picture with that in mind. What we did there was so minor, but it was enough to make a difference for a few people. And God does what He wants with the seeds, we just happened to have had the privilege to lay them down, hopefully deep.

Two people that really stand out to me are Howard and Jesse: Howard is a construction worker who came down from Texas to help out after the tornado, he intended to stay a couple weeks, but by God’s Spirit he has been there two months and counting. He’s in it for the long haul, and that is worthy of double respect. Seeing him shed a tear in thanking us the last day made it all worth it.

Jesse worked with the supplies and is a local servant of God at his Church, Grace Baptist. When he asked us to help him out with the water and boxes at the end of a couple days, he seemed broken for the people there, truly he is an example.

God bless Joplin and the people there.

This brings me to my final point:

Please continue to pray for those in Joplin and pray for God to send more people. They always need help, so please keep them in your prayers.

Thank you for reading this, and God bless,

Austin Thompson

 
This is the view from the window during my devotions.

  
One of the sheds we were working on.
  
Those trees look like modern art, but in fact are tornado-damaged.
The sign says, "down, not out!"
This is the damage done to one of the schools out there.

This is us at the last day. Howard is the one in the middle-far-back with the hat on.

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