It's easy for me to be abstract, analytical, and theoretical. I am strong on the intellectual side of things, and I've come to appreciate how God wired me. He knows that I have to learn by observing opposites ("this is how NOT to do this"), by digging into things for myself ("research, research, research"), and by making each element of truth my own, being able to say not only what but why I believe. And that's a good thing.
The shadow side of that, though, is that it's also easy for me to be distant. An introvert by nature, I can lose myself in my books. But God is so faithful. Over the years I've learned that I have to walk out every single thing He lets me teach - and I mean all of them - He requires me to learn "feet to the ground" in some form or fashion. One of those ongoing lessons is the importance of incarnational ministry.
That's a fancy missions-geek term for "getting my hands dirty". And it is thoroughly Biblical. Based on the concept that Jesus "emptied Himself" to serve others, giving up His rights and preferences to come to earth as fully God, with the limitations of being fully man, incarnational ministry simply means coming alongside those God asks me to serve. It's about walking alongside them in a way that is respectful of who they are, while trying to humbly meet needs.
That's the analytical definition. The practical definition, however, is a lot messier. It involves picking up AIDS babies whose bodily fluids will undoubtedly end up on your skin; touching kids with scabies and knowing you will likely get it; living in a leper colony; identifying with those "outside the camp" and advocating for them as if you were one of them; and a host of other things it's easy to talk ourselves out of doing for quite logical reasons.
For me, incarnational ministry's practical definition is roaches.
Yep, you read that right. Roaches. One of my big incarnational lessons came when a small group I was part of did ministry at an elderly lady's home. She had dementia and paranoia, and couldn't keep a housekeeper. We cleaned her house, put up siding, the works. My job: the kitchen sink. Not bad huh, doing dishes? Well I put on my gloves so I could use scalding water and it's a good thing - because when I reached in to start pulling out dirty dishes and putting them on the counter to run a sink of water, a family/horde/small army of roaches climbed up my hand. (Oh have I mentioned i HATE bugs? Seriously, creep me out. I have locked myself in a room to avoid going into a room with a wasp. Seriously.)
I fought the nausea and the urge to scream and prayed Lord, help me out here. Immediately the thought came to my mind: This is what the incarnation looked like from heaven's perspective. Perfectly "clean" holiness - God Himself - entering filthy earth - and not just watching, but actually taking on our sins on the cross. "Becoming sin" Paul called it.
Suddenly a pile of dishes didn't seem so bad. That reminder motivated me to get my hands dirty - to do incarnational ministry. And while I was at it, I thanked God for coming to earth in human form and dying on the cross to get rid of all the roaches of sin in my own life.
I'm glad He didn't save me from a distance. And by His grace, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, I'll continue to learn how to serve in all sorts of messy, incarnational ways that run counter to my nature.