God’s Love and a Little Girl’s Mandolin
Tony Cooke

God's Love and a Little Girl's MandolinIt is vital that we never forget the importance of one soul, of one person. We are encouraged to think big, to dream big, and to plan big. We want to see God’s love and the message extend to the ends of the earth, to countless multitudes. We love the m-word: multiplication. We love another m-word: multitudes. All this is good, but it is not good if, in the process, we forget the value of the individual, of every person.

We all have different callings and gifts, and every one of them is to be appreciated and valued. I remember hearing a famous preacher honor his wife, acknowledging that she was a much better personal worker than himself. I appreciated his humility and candor as he extolled her important contributions. Something unhealthy and unholy has happened, though, if personal work, one-on-one ministry, is devalued. If a preacher loves crowds but is dismissive toward individuals, something very unlike Christ is happening. Consider Jesus’ perspective on this:

Matthew 18:10, 12-14 (ESV)
See that you do not despise ONE of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and ONE of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the ONE that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that ONE of these little ONES should perish.

Jesus not only taught the value of one, but he demonstrated it with his actions. Consider the times the Savior met and interacted with single individuals. Here are just a few:

  • Nicodemus (John 3)
  • The Woman at the Well (John 4)
  • The Woman Taken in Adultery (John 8)
  • The Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19)
  • Zacchaeus (Luke 19)

In a day when mega-churches with multiple campuses receive so much attention, it is important to always remember that God doesn’t just care about numbers, statistics, and masses of people; he cares about individuals.

With this in mind, I want to commend a friend of mine, Phil Edwards, who pastors in the hills of rural North Carolina. His is not a heavily populated area, and his red church building on the hillside is the only structure you see for quite a while on that stretch of Highway 18N. Pastor Phil knows all the church people by name, and when I’ve been in nearby Sparta with Phil, he seems to know practically everyone in his community. They know him, too, and they clearly admire and appreciate him. I think they respect him because they know he genuinely cares about them.

The last time I was at Phil’s church, he had just received a communication from a young lady who had attended their church several years before. Mary had attended Phil’s church for a couple of years beginning around the time she was six years old. Mary came from a tough background. Her parents were alcoholics, and her grandmother was an alcoholic and a drug addict, but the grandmother ended up taking care of Mary for a season.

Beverly, Pastor Phil’s wife, teaches school, and Mary was one of her students. To make life easier for herself, the grandmother put Mary and her little brother on heavy ADD medication. As a result, Mary wasn’t always alert in class. Not only that, but the grandmother would wake Mary and her brother up in the middle of the night and have them clean the house. It doesn’t make sense, but that was Mary’s life growing up.

Pastor Phil’s sister, Pam, drove a bus every Sunday picking up kids and bringing them to church. She started picking Mary up, and church was a place where Mary could be free and have fun. She loved coming up to the front of the church during worship where she would dance and twirl. She learned about how much God loved her, and she began writing songs about her heavenly Father. Church was a highlight in Mary’s week, and the love she received from the people impacted her life.

Recognizing Mary’s love for music, her grandmother bought her a mandolin. The grandmother had a good heart and good intentions, but in a bad moment, she later pawned the mandolin and used the money for alcohol. Not long after this, the authorities relocated Mary to another part of the state to live with other relatives. Pastor Phil and Beverly lost touch with her, but he learned about the selling of the mandolin, went to the pawn shop, and purchased it. He held on to it for many years, hoping to reconnect someday with Mary.

I was so touched when I heard this story, but you haven’t heard the best part yet. Late last year (2018), Mary, now an adult, found Pastor Phil and Beverly through social media, and contacted them. She had never forgotten the care and the love she had found at the church. She still remembered the freedom she felt at the red church on the hillside. Imagine Mary’s delight when she found out that she had not been forgotten either, and you can almost sense her joyful surprise to learn that Pastor Phil had been holding on to that mandolin for her all these years. Receiving that mandolin was a tangible expression of not only Pastor Phil and Beverly’s love, but also of Jesus’ love for her.

Today’s pastors have numerous responsibilities and wear many hats. But when I heard this story, something in my heart said, “Now that is pastoring!” I don’t want to take away from any other aspect of pastoral ministry. Preaching is important. Administration is important. Developing staff and training leaders is important. But what could any of us do that is more important than loving people, being thoughtful, and connecting with people at the deepest levels of their need?

I love Paul’s counsel in Romans 12:9, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” He proceeds to say, “Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people” (Rom 12:16, NLT). The NET renders that, “do not be haughty but associate with the lowly.” I appreciate it when spiritual leaders don’t feel they can only associate with people of high rank; Jesus never wants us to be dismissive of those that society may consider to be “the least of these.”

The Apostle James also articulates this when he warns against treating some better than others based on wealth and rank (James 2:1):

  • (KJV) My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
  • (NASB) My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
  • (NLT) My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?
  • (NKJV) My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.

As I was contemplating what James said about treating people equally regardless of status or wealth, I was reminded of something that “Dear Abby” (Abigail van Buren) said along the same lines. She states, “The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that observation.

Noted Bible expositor, Alexander MacLaren, states, “Kindness makes a person attractive. If you would win the world, melt it, do not hammer it.” Also commenting on the power of kindness, Frederick Faber says, “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.” The potential of kindness and thoughtfulness to impact and transform lives can never be overestimated.

In addition to the statement Jesus makes in Matthew 18 (referenced earlier), here are some other powerful passages that remind us of the great value of loving and caring for people, of not holding ourselves aloof and distant from those that God has given us the assignment of ministering to:

Isaiah 40:11 (NLT)
He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.

2 John 12 (NLT)
I have much more to say to you, but I don’t want to do it with paper and ink. For I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face. Then our joy will be complete.

John 10:3-4, 11, 14 (NLT)
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. I know my own sheep, and they know me.

2 Corinthians 12:15 (NLT)
I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me.

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, 11 (NLT)
We were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. We treated each of you as a father treats his own children.

As believers, we have a task. We need to remember though that our task is about people. Maybe instead of praying, “God, help me reach the world,” we would do better to say, “God, help me love one person today who really needs your love.” I’m not against the idea of reaching the world; I just think we will do it most effectively if we do it by reaching one person at a time with love, kindness, compassion, and profound thoughtfulness. I thank God for pastors like Phil Edwards, and also for the countless believers who have taken these principles to heart and practice them. They are changing the world, one person at a time.