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The Compassionate Savior

Much has been said about compassion ministries in the church. Indeed, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has a long history of ministries of compassion, going nearly all the way back to the beginning of our denomination. The Dorcas Society, now known as Adventist Community Services, has been a hallmark of the Adventist Church, collecting and distributing items to those in urgent need. The stereotype of blue-haired old ladies folding clothes for ADRA is not always consistent with reality, but I have some of those exact memories from my childhood growing up in the church. In fact, I spent many a morning in the summers folding clothes with some of those faithful women, who were modeling their lives, consciously or not, on a woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha.

In the modern era, we changed the name to Adventist Community Services. I remember thinking this was a good change when it happened. Less embarrassing, more respectable. After all, who knew what “dork us” meant anyway? Now, with the benefit of a few years, it strikes me how sterile “Adventist Community Services” sounds and how Dorcas Society evokes narrative and community for me.

But regardless of what you call it, the Adventist Church has had a noble and respectable history of serving the needy and underserved, whether through our medical work, education work, disaster relief, economic development, or local community action.

That being said, there are three aspects of Jesus’ ministry that can continue to shape our work in a more positive direction.

First, ministries of compassion are the gospel. That one simple adjustment would make all the difference in local communities around the world. Ministries of compassion are not an “entering wedge.” Of course, the phrase “entering wedge” has many problems in itself. The word wedge implies that we are “breaking in” to people’s lives or prying something open so we can give them something else. It remains true that you cannot trick people into the truth or coerce them into freedom in Christ. To “wedge” ourselves into people’s lives by pretending to be nice to them is not compassion. It is manipulation.

Additionally, compassion is not a precursor to something else. It’s not pre-evangelism, as I have so often heard. Compassion is the good news that the poor are (in some cases literally) dying to experience. If you are homeless and hungry, an affordable apartment unit and a warm meal is good news. “An apartment won’t save their soul,” some might say. How can you be so sure? That depends on a lot of factors, which brings me to my second point.

Second, Jesus focused his attention on specific people. Jesus wasn’t interested in “sharing the gospel with the whole world in this generation.” He was interested in the woman who came to Jacob’s well. She was a Samaritan, he soon learned. And she had some pretty deep needs and a broken spirit. Jesus was interested in Nicodemus and the Rich Young Ruler and the hosts of other people he touched and listened to.

This is a case where both/and thinking is required. For example, in my community, our congregation is involved in several different aspects of what is an increasingly organized campaign to end homelessness in Hollywood and Los Angeles. Ending homelessness. That’s a tall order. Some would say idealistic, even. But it’s something that the community needs to come together to work on.

However, as we have sat through countless meetings and conversations, one thing bothers me. We keep referring to “the homeless” or “clients.” Does anyone know these people’s names? Does anyone know their stories? So, while we will continue to work on ending homelessness in Hollywood, along with all our community partners, we are convinced that we need to know these individuals. I’m so happy that most of our members know the names and pieces of the stories of half a dozen homeless or extremely low-income men and women of our congregation. One thing they will never get from a service provider is friendship. And, in God’s economy, friendship might be the one thing that will be healing.

Jesus’ ministry of compassion, as Gary Krause brings out so well in this week’s lesson, was personal. He touched people’s lives personally. He didn’t start any campaigns to save the nameless, faceless “poor.” He went about doing good to specific people. It’s easy to wear a bracelet or donate to a campaign. Those are both things I do. What is harder is to stop on the sidewalk, learn someone’s name, and listen patiently to her story. That later requires that we learn to love people.

Finally, our ministry should be shaped after Jesus’, which ended on a cross. That doesn’t mean we all need to have a martyr complex. What it does mean, is that our ministry, like that of Jesus, is to be characterized by compassion, which literally means, “suffering with.” What would happen if, as N. T. Wright suggests in his amazing little book, The Challenge of Jesus, Christians would simply “be with” (incarnation?) people in our communities at the point of their pain. What if we poured ourselves out, like Jesus, in these places, expecting nothing in return?

One of the things we continually ask ourselves in our congregation is, “How can we be the presence of Christ in our community?” The point of the question is not to answer the question definitively, as if there is a right way, but to fund our imagination about what it means to be the people of God in a place. The conversion the church needs is to see this incarnation—this suffering with—as the gospel of Jesus Christ; the gospel of healing and wholeness and life.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. The author suggests that ministries of compassion are not a precursor to something else—something more important. Do you agree?
  2. Is “the gospel” limited to words, doctrine or theology? In what sense is healing and love evangelistic (evangelion—to proclaim good news) and not just pre-evangelistic?
  3. Where is your community, your neighborhood, in pain?
  4. What can your congregation be with your community at its point of pain?
  5. Can you imagine your congregation being with your community without having to bring all the “right answers”?

Ryan Bell pastors the Hollywood, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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