The old guy in this picture is called John. John Smith. A very ordinary name for a pretty extraordinary man. But then he’s never been overly interested in his own name.
John Turnbull Smith used to be involved in rally car racing in his heyday. He wasn’t the driver, he was the navigator. He had to sit in the car beside the driver and use the paper maps to navigate the route down to the meter and the second. He would calculate exact moments of when to turn, when to change gears, when to put down the accelerator for a long straight. He would recalculate in a moment when the driver missed an instruction. Not the glory man, but the brains behind it all.
When he was almost fifty, he BEGAN his forty-year tenure of leading in the church. He was ordained as an elder, a man who took responsibility for the spiritual oversight of the congregation, supporting the lead pastor, making decisions, correcting courses, giving fuel when it was needed. Not the front man, but adding spiritual weight behind it all.
Today, at the age of eighty-eight, he retired from it all due to the strain of his wife’s ailing health. The reason I write this is partly to honour him and partly to point out a very strange and rare quality he has that all of us would do well to note. You see John doesn’t just hold the record for the longest-standing elder in our church. He also holds the unenviable record of being the most regularly stepped-down elder in the history of the church! The various lead pastors and eldership teams that he has served have had different seasons in the last forty years, and sometimes he has been needed to play an eldership role, and other times he has been asked to step back and let others do it. Remarkably, he took his demotion as willingly as his promotion, always wanting to play whatever role he was needed in, or even no role at all. A true servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, his goal was always to serve His interests, even if that meant sitting on the bench with a smile on his face and no offense in his heart. You see, there will be times in our lives when we will be promoted, and that promotion will come with added responsibility, and the way we respond in those moments will determine a lot about our characters. But there will also be times in our lives when we are demoted: when we are benched; asked to step aside in favour of someone else; asked to relinquish our seat of honour; asked to take a lesser role or one with less glory attached. Our response in these moments is probably more important and definitely more revealing. Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Further on in this letter to the Philippians, the writer, Paul admits to a challenge he is facing. He is needing recruits to send to the various churches to continue the work he has begun, but he’s finding them really hard to come by. He says that he will send to them a man called Timothy, with this recommendation: For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 2:20-21) Finding people to do good work is not very difficult, but finding those who do the good work for the right reasons is. Accepting a role of responsibility is admirable, doing it excellently is worth celebrating, but being able to put the interests of that thing above your own interests, above your own ambitions - that is rare indeed. The deception of our hearts is such that you will almost certainly feel that this warning is not for you. If that is your first thought, then you are most at risk. But remember one day, when you are asked to step down from something, the response of your heart says everything about your reasons for serving in that role. We do not serve others for our own identities, for our own ambitions, for our interests. John Turnbull Smith is an eighty-eight-year-old man that overflows with love, joy, encouragement and strength. He has guarded his heart from offense, and thus his heart remains a wellspring of life. His testimony shows us that we are never too old to serve, that the way we respond when we are benched has an impact on how quickly we are called back onto the field, and that, ironically, God is most able to promote us when we rid ourselves of our own ambition.