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Be an Onesiphorus

Ten days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, residents of North Platte, Nebraska heard a rumor that soldiers from their town, part of the Nebraska National Guard Company D, would be coming through on a troop train on their way to the West Coast. About five hundred people showed up at the train depot with food, gifts, letters, and love to give the boys. When the train showed up, it was not the Nebraska National Guard Company D boys on board; it was the soldiers from the Kansas National Guard Company D. The North Platte residents decided to give out their gifts to these soldiers they did not know. It was a spontaneous act of genuine devotion that touched both the soldiers and the people, who came to the depot that day.

A few days later, a 26-year-old woman named Rae Wilson wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper recounting the profound experience they’d shared that night. She then suggested the town organize a canteen, so they could do something similar for every troop train that came through. For the next four and a half years, the people of North Platte and the surrounding communities met every troop train that came through their town. Every day, they prepared sandwiches, cookies, cold drinks, and hot coffee. They had baskets of magazines and books to give away to the soldiers, and snacks for the train. There were even birthday cakes for anyone having a special day. And they did this, some days, for as many as eight thousand soldiers and sailors. By the time the last train arrived on April 1, 1946, six million soldiers had been blessed by the North Platte Canteen. Forty-five thousand volunteers had served faithfully until the war was over and most of the troops had been transported home.

The story of the North Platte Canteen is a great reminder of what it truly means to be a refresher to those around us. These men and women exhibited exactly what it meant to be an Onesiphorus, who in my opinion is one of the most underrated characters in the bible. If you’ve been at Cedar Park long enough, you’ve probably heard my dad preach about him several times, but it’s remarkable how there is so much to glean from someone who is only mentioned in three verses of the bible. The apostle Paul told Timothy, “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome, he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! - and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Timothy 1:16-18). From these few verses, I think there are three things we must understand to grasp what it really means to be a refresher like Onesiphorus.

The first may seem obvious, but in order to be a refresher we actually have to “do the refreshing.” In the story I shared of the people of North Platte, they understood the situation and what those young men would have to go through during the war, so they decided to give them a boost by providing homemade goods and other items to lift their spirits during a very trying time. Not all of us will end up organizing a mass community service effort to provide food for troops, but there are other things we can do to refresh one another, and you’ll see that sometimes the smallest things you do can have the biggest impact. We’re told that Onesiphorus’ work ranged from service in Ephesus to even something as simple as just physically being there for Paul, which goes to show that there really is no act of service too small that can have an impact on someone.

The second point is that we must be willing to refresh people regardless of the circumstances. When the people of North Platte discovered that the train of soldiers was not from the Nebraska company they originally anticipated, that did not prevent them from serving the people who were right in front of them. Regardless of what company these troops came from, the townspeople knew that they could still do a good thing. When it came to Onesiphorus, he did not let Paul’s “criminal status” with the Roman government hinder him from doing what he knew Paul needed in order to be refreshed. I think sometimes we like to help others up, until the point that being around them at a certain low point makes us too uncomfortable. However, it is at those rock bottom moments that people need us the most! Which is why we must to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and not let someone’s circumstances hinder us from doing what we know can to be done to refresh others.

One of the biggest takeaways I found from the story of Onesiphorus was the lengths he went to help the apostle Paul. Can you imagine traveling to Rome and trying to find someone in the first century? I can barely meet someone at a restaurant in Austin without needing Google Maps and the ability to call them to find where they are. But Onesiphorus understood what he needed to do for Paul, and he did not care what it took to accomplish that. Refreshing someone is not something we do out of convenience; it requires a greater amount of effort and a sacrifice of our time or resources. Despite all that it took in order to be a refresher, Onesiphorus understood how fulfilling of a work this is. And so my prayer for each of you is that you find those around you who are in need, and you do what you can to be an Onesiphorus.