Thursday, June 13, 2013

the significance of insignificance: tornadoes, Hur, and non-profits

I want to tell you a story. Some of this story is currently well-known, but I'll add a little bit to it that you may not have known:

On May 20th Moore, OK was hit with a devastating tornado which broke records in wind speed and property destruction. Somewhere between $3-$5 billion was estimated in damage. Educational programs told us that the best of houses collapse to winds of just over 100mph. This tornado had winds of over 200mph. We watched horrified as it struck hospitals, houses, and elementary schools. The 2-3 mile wide strip of damage quickly became referred to as Ground Zero.

In the hours and days afterwards, thousands of people flooded to the disaster area to help in any way they could. Average people were digging through piles of rubble to find survivors and their pets. Others gave rides to those whose houses were obliterated.

Posted by TylerMenge on ireport.cnn.comBut actually, way too many people than were needed went to Ground Zero—so much so that emergency vehicles couldn't enter and exit. First responders had little room to work; police shut down the area and all the news channels pleaded for people to stay away from the disaster area. There were so many helpers (and people wanting pictures) that they were actually causing harm.

The fact is, everyone (including you and me) would have loved to have been the person who saved a life at Ground Zero even after first responders arrived. We all earnestly want to make a difference, but we also want to feel important, to gain respect, and have a story to tell. We want to help, but only help in certain, specific, heroic ways. What was actually needed was for the majority of volunteers to be indistinct, invisible cogs in a vast machine that did more to help tornado victims than any number of non-united individuals could have. To be fair, there was no lack of volunteers for any job in the first several days, but the sheer number of people who continued to be drawn to Ground Zero spoke to how insignificant people felt such jobs were. Who would be impressed with me to hear that I helped organize a pile of empty cardboard boxes miles from any tornado damage? More importantly, would I even believe that I was doing something significant?

Moses Holding Up His Arms During the Battle, with Aaron and Hur, by John Everett MillaisI'll tell you another story from a not-often-discussed passage in Scripture (Exodus 17): The Israelite army, commanded by Joshua, battles against Amalek. Moses stands on top of a hill overlooking the battle and raises his hands. As long as his hands are raised, Israel does well, but when he lowers his hands, Israel gets beaten back. The battle goes on for hours, and Moses is unable to keep his hands up on his own. Eventually two men, Aaron and Hur, find a rock for Moses to sit on and help hold his hands up. Israel wins. Which person/people would you label most responsible for the victory (not including God)? It's easy to see how all parties in the story played a crucial role, but let's be honest—Aaron and Hur had a pretty unexciting job.

With this in mind, let's divide non-profit work into three categories. The first category we'll call direct contact. This is the work that is the most visible: raising your hands so that God will grant your army victory, rescuing survivors from rubble, giving life-saving CPR, giving food to orphans, leading someone in prayer to place their faith in Christ, etc. Lives are changed, and evil is thwarted. This is the "glamour" job—the one that can feel the most rewarding and impactful and typically receives the most publicity and praise.

The second category we'll call direct support. In other words, work that makes direct contact possible, like being an ambulance or fire truck driver (but not treating or rescuing anyone), cooking/donating the food given to orphans (but not being the one to give it to them), sharing the gospel with someone who doesn't immediately place their faith in Christ, holding up Moses' arms, etc.  This position doesn't catch as much publicity, but some praise can still be garnered because it's easy to see how it facilitates the "important" stuff.

Let's call the third category support support, as in the supporters of supporters. This is work that makes direct support possible, and it typically happens out of sight of and at a different time than direct contact work. These are jobs like ambulance engine maintenance, child sponsor, or the purse-carrier to one of the hundred guys who buys bronze to be made into swords and shields for the Israelite army (or however that worked). Support supporters are the accountants, the media makers and AV techs, the donation-sorters, box organizers, phone-answerers, coffee-getters, building managers, and much more. When they are volunteers, they can have a hard time seeing their part in the bigger picture of helping others and can lose focus. When they are paid, we sometimes like to call them "overhead."

For the most part, support supporters aren't heroes on their own, but their combined, organized force can be a critical part of making things happen. If we relate this to a human body like Paul does in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, we get a great picture when we look at blood—a single blood cell has little to brag about, but blood is clearly a vital part to enabling everything the body does.

So the solitary, "insignificant" support supporter who brags about their contributions is probably exaggerating. But then again, isn't the same true for the direct contactor, who is supported by an army of "blood cell"-level people? I think this is what Paul gets at:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  (Romans 12:3)

Sometimes you might be called to be Moses. Other times, you might be called to be Hur. Or a blood cell. Whatever your position, judge carefully your true significance—don't assume you're worthless; don't assume you're the star.

I may write again sometime about the implications for missions, serving others, financial support, "hero" praise, and so on, but before I do, I'd really like to hear your thoughts and experiences on the matter. Comment below?


  1. I definitely appreciate your thoughts on this, Chase. I feel tension between my natural bent toward supportive background roles and the desire for just a little bit more glory. Good to have this "members of one body" perspective.

  2. Jennifer SkinnerJune 26, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    I love this post. It made me cry. As someone who works in non-profits (albeit arts non-profit), I completely understand how people want to give time and money in big, visible ways. I also understand very clearly how financial support makes a HUGE difference. Even in-kind financial support.

    On the other side of this, as a "sender" in this part of our lives, we struggle with wanting to give more, but also not feel like we're just saving up money for an unknown purpose, check writers sending money into a black hole. Paying for overhead. Not enough to make a difference. Thoughts like that go through our minds.

    I feel like there is a balance - of course when we get to heaven, we will be able to see what small efforts led to big results (can't wait for my kids to meet the kid who received that chicken they sent last Christmas through World Vision!). But in this life, I want to feel a personal connection. Maybe that's selfish?

  3. Thanks, Amy!

    Jennifer, thank you for your transparency! I'm glad that this post spoke to you. I think we've all been in a position of wondering/doubting if our hard-earned money is getting as much "bang" as we would like it to when we give it to non-profits. On the flip side, non-profits frequently struggle because many donors want to give money toward "exciting" direct-contact kinds of things and not toward the daily grind of keeping the lights on and the printer full of toner.
    I think you're right--that there is a balance. I just hope to get much closer to it on this side of heaven.


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