During the reenactment of the American Civil War Battle of Selma, Alabama, my family and I watched with great interest as authentically outfitted soldiers recreated the details of the Union victory. Our seats were behind the Confederate lines where the outmanned and outclassed ragtag army sought to hold one of the last manufacturing bastions of the dying Southern nation. As the battle raged we heard the deafening roar of the cannon that eclipsed the pop of musketry. The Union forces crept closer to the Rebel fortifications until finally they overwhelmed the defenders.
As this was happening we watched a pre-adolescent boy holding the regimental flag of one of the Confederate units. At times he was completely obscured by smoke from the artillery, but when the clouds blew away he was standing there still. When men fell at the cannon, he could not take their place, lacking the skill and strength to man the big guns. As the riflemen ‘died’ around him, he could not pick up their gun and fire. He could only watch as the invading army came closer and closer. But through it all he held the flag, holding his position until the last moments of battle. He could not fight, but he never retreated. He kept the flag flying.
I had the happy circumstance of being appointed to a corps where the preaching experience was a sheer joy. The soldiers brought their Bibles, followed the passages and sometimes, wonder of wonders, they took notes. Every message was challenging because I knew these people were hungry for the meat of God’s word. The corps grew remarkably. Like the colors in a spectrum, one blessing bled into another.
My next appointment dramatically contrasted with this other corps. I followed a gifted and beloved officer. The attendances fell immediately, there were some administrative problems, and most difficult of all, the soldiery was decidedly different. In the new corps I had an uncharacteristically large number who were mentally retarded or borderline cases. Others were painfully shy or illiterate. When I preached there was no flutter of pages turning, no look of acknowledgment, no sign of life at all. These people neither smiled nor frowned, yawned nor fidgeted. They simply seemed to stare into the Great Beyond. It was painful for me and, upon reflection, I am certain for them as well.
For some time I fought a temptation to resent my people for their limitations. On the one hand, I wanted to preach as I always had, an approach I justified as ‘lifting up my people’. On the other hand, I knew it was my obligation to meet the needs of my people whether that was comfortable for me or not. If I was to be their servant, there was no other option.
I finally resigned myself to the latter position. I felt no surge of joy, no exhilaration at my spiritual victory. But as time went on I began to understand that the full potential of a number of my people was to occupy the same seat in the same row for the same hour Sunday after Sunday. When they sat and listened to me, it was as they had done for officers gone before. When the plea went out for volunteers, they never stepped forward. The simplest chore was too heavy for them. When we sought Sunday School teachers and local officers we looked past them, to avoid embarrassing them and frustrating ourselves. But still these faithfully came, Sunday after Sunday. Like the boy in the Battle of Selma, they could not man the cannon nor serve as marksmen, but they faithfully held the flag and never retreated.
Perhaps Paul pictured these when he wrote to the Romans, ‘I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; to the wise, and to the unwise’ (1:14, KJV). These who seemed so limited taught me a valuable lesson in being a servant. And they never even knew it.