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When Giants of the Faith Fall: Why It Matters

“Not again!” I thought when I read that the founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, Cameron Strang, has come under fire for creating a racially insensitive work environment.

The 43-year-old was alleged to be a toxic boss who exhibited “various levels of high-handedness, shouting fits and racially insensitive slights”.

These accusations come on the heels of a spate of news headlined by Christian influencers in respected roles who have either left the faith or fallen short of living the Christian life that they claimed to represent.

In July, author Joshua Harris denounced his faith, and a month later, Hillsong songwriter and worship leader Marty Sampson said that his faith was on shaky grounds. Earlier this month, news of Harvest Christian Fellowship Church pastor Jarrid Wilson taking his own life rattled the Christian community around the world.

And now, criticisms of Cameron’s leadership skills have emerged after former employee, Andre Henry, an African-American writer, and Relevant’s managing editor from October 2017 to July 2018, posted the following on social media about a podcast episode the publication had put out on race and the church:

Several experiences & stories from my time @RELEVANT….convince me the org is not committed at all to creating an antiracist culture internally to produce a race podcast with integrity.

Cameron has since stepped down from his role, and said he will be taking a leave of absence in order to “grow and better understand important issues, especially about race and equality”.

While I do not consider myself a Joshua Harris fan, I enjoyed reading Relevant’s articles, and had looked up to Marty Sampson. So, seeing the succession of influential Christian leaders fall like a pack of dominoes is somewhat depressing.

To add to that list, the former pastor at a church I used to attend in my home country, New Zealand, was recently charged for sexually assaulting female congregants. The offences allegedly involved three female complainants, and spanned between January 2012 and April 2019. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his case is still before the courts.

While I was not close friends with the pastor, we have chatted a few times, and connected on social media. He was like any charismatic pastor—warm, friendly, and welcoming. I remember thinking how wholesome he and his wife were. I was particularly blown away at my second visit to the church, when the pastor was on stage welcoming new visitors, and mentioned how good it was to see me back at their church.

So, imagine my disappointment and sense of betrayal when I read the news about his alleged assaults. Here was a pastor who preached about Jesus and was encouraging us to live a life worthy of Christ, but was living a double life behind closed doors.

While the news didn’t leave me disillusioned with God or the gospel, I did feel jaded to read of these giants of faith failing to live up to Christ-likeness.

 

Why We Look Up to Human Leaders

We often look up to human leaders because we crave to see Christians living out their faith in the 21st century, especially in a world where Christianity is increasingly being seen as outdated and irrelevant.

This is why I love seeing or hearing young and hip Christians like Cameron and Marty dominating the world stage or standing up against cultural norms. To me, they are proof that Christians can be in this world, but not of the world (John 18:36)—leaders I can point others to as evidence that Christians can be hip, modern, and relevant.

As a result, it’s easy to gravitate towards these cool personalities and put them on a pedestal without realizing how easily it could also lead to disappointment whenever a leader or influencer fails us.

As former Relevant editorial director, Aaron Hanbury, told The Washington Post, “We evangelicals have been far, far too quick to [equate] apparent financial-organizational success and aspirational personalities with faith leadership.”

Given the string of failures that we’ve witnessed in the past few months, perhaps it’s time for us to re-evaluate who we’re following—and why.

 

Follow the Ultimate Human Leader

As I write this, it dawned on me that regardless of how cool a leader is, or how impeccable their character might seem, or even how influential they may have been in our spiritual journey (perhaps even leading us to faith), ultimately, we cannot look to a human role model because he or she is bound to fail us at some point.

Theologian Albert Mohler, in response to Joshua Harris’ divorce and deconversion from the faith, wrote that the news was “deeply humbling to American evangelicalism”, and the “heartbreaking headlines reminds us that we can place our trust in no sinful human being, but in Christ alone, the One who alone is worthy of our trust”.

While we’re looking to hip, cool Christians to lead the world stage, what we often don’t realize is that we already have the ultimate leader to follow—in the form of Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago, and changed the system and the beliefs of the ancient world. He walked among humans, experienced fatigue, hunger, and was tempted just like the rest of us (Matthew 4:1-11), and eventually suffered the most agonizing death mankind could ever think of.

Because of this, Scripture says we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Instead of desperately searching for the next big leader to look up to, we should all be focusing on following Jesus.

Of course, it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In fact, the Apostle Paul likens the Christian walk to running a race, and exhorts believers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). This verse reminds me of how easy it is for me—or for any of us, whether or not we’re in a place of influence like Marty Sampson and Cameron Strang—to go off track in my own race.

It’s so much easier for us to criticize those in the spotlight, pointing out their missteps, and shaking our heads at them. But knowing how prone all of us are to falling and occasionally going off-track should cause us to reflect on our own personal lives and examine our hearts. Just because we don’t constantly live under the scrutiny of the public eye, it doesn’t make our sins or failings any less real than theirs.

And when we do so, we’re reminded to continually fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). To “fix our eyes on Jesus” is to see him as our leader, king, and inspiration, the one who has gone before us, and is calling us to follow in His footsteps.

While it can be tempting to magnify the mistakes of these faith leaders, let’s also not forget the incredible work they have done. Cameron Strang created a media space for Christian young adults, giving us a platform to read and reflect on articles relevant to our lives. In his years serving as a worship leader, I’m sure Marty Sampson has helped countless people worship God at a deeper level. In our shortsightedness, we might write them off or disqualify them from the “race”, but I have no doubt that Jesus can redeem their stories for His glory.

If you’re like me, and finding yourself a little disillusioned and jaded by the recent news of these high-profile Christian leaders, can I encourage you to look to Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8)—and to entrust all our failings to Him?

When You Don’t Hear From God

There wasn’t a clear, booming, “Yes, go ahead with this plan”, or “Yes, this is the will I have for you” from God when I packed my bags and said goodbye to family and friends for a job overseas.

In fact, the heavens were quite silent when I made the decision to leave my corporate role to work as a full-time writer for a Christian non-profit ministry.

Initially, I wasn’t very sure how to react when I was offered the opportunity to join the organization as a full-time writer. Part of me was flattered that someone thought my writing skills were decent enough to contribute to their organization, while another part of me wondered whether it was wise for me to head back into full-time writing. The last time I did that as a journalist, things fell apart around my ears.

At the time, I was working in a retail environment for their e-commerce platform, while volunteering my writing skills with the non-profit organization on the side. My office was housed in a giant building with an on-site cafe, and came with regular work hours. I had come a long way from my days as a worn out journalist. My salary (although it wasn’t a lot) had climbed steadily since I joined, and I figured if I would be in for another pay rise if I stayed on.

But there was a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that I wasn’t stewarding my writing talent the way I should. While I was hired for my journalism background, my time at the retail company was spent copying-and-pasting product descriptions, and working long hours with various teams to promote sale events. It wasn’t a bad job, and on the surface, it looked like I had life sorted—a corporate job, volunteer work on the side, and a decent social calendar.

Accepting the job offer with the non-profit organization would mean giving up on these stabilities, and also relocating overseas. Who knew what life overseas would be like? I could be miserable, friend-less, and living on a shoestring budget.

 

Money on My Mind

Another concern that lodged itself firmly in my mind? Money.

As I had yet to hear of a super duper rich non-profit employee, I fretted to my sister, “What if I become poor forever? All of my other friends are holding big corporate jobs—they’ll have designer handbags and luxury cars.” The thing is, though I’d like to think I am unfazed by designer gear, the worry of not being able to keep up with the Joneses crept in.

My sister, who works as a dietitian in hospitals, said she couldn’t remember the last time a patient had thanked their designer handbag for giving them the strength and courage to go through their illnesses. “People usually thank their family and friends for seeing them through, not their expensive handbag.”

I was struggling between not wanting to lose out to my high-flying friends, and at the same time, not wanting to tell God on Judgement Day that I said no to joining a non-profit organization because of financial concerns.

But the brief conversation with my sister was enough for me to see how temporal material possessions are. Scripture says we are not to store our treasures on earth, where they will be vulnerable to moths, rust, and thieves (Matthew 6:19), but that it’s best to store our treasures in Heaven (Matthew 6:20). For me, that meant giving up a bit of financial security to pursue what God was pushing me to do—writing full-time.

 

Sometimes We Just Have to Obey

Having mentally moved beyond my materialistic concerns, I still found myself desperate to hear confirmation directly from God. I frantically went through any devotional I could get my hands on as I wanted a safety net—some kind of assurance that if I took the position, life would go smoothly.

So, imagine my delight when I came across an old e-book I had on my Kindle. It was a book by American pastor and author John Ortberg, titled, What is God’s Will for My Life?, and I thought, “This is it! God’s will for me is found inside this book!”.

While the book didn’t come with a concrete answer, one particular sentence jumped out at me. Ortberg looked at several biblical characters, including Moses, Gideon, Abraham, and Jeremiah, and he observed that, “Feeling ready is highly overrated. God isn’t looking for readiness; He is looking for obedience”.

The words “looking for obedience” rang in my ears. Biblical obedience means trusting God even when we don’t know the full picture. I felt like God had rebuked me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my fretting around trying to find God’s will was just an excuse stemming from my fear of putting myself under the spotlight again as a writer.

My former life as a reporter, prior to joining the retail environment, had left me spent and exhausted. So I found solace in hiding behind vendor-supplied copies for products, pushing promotional materials, and writing on the side. But I was doing just that—hiding. And when God came knocking, like Gideon (Judges 6:11-15), I offered up excuses such as, “The last time I wrote full-time, it was a flop”, and “I will never make enough to eke out a decent life”.

I started out my career as a reporter because I wanted to change lives through the written word. But now as I pushed out endless promotional materials as a copywriter, I couldn’t remember the last time someone’s life had been changed due to a phenomenal sale. Sure, they might have been happy for a nano-second after nabbing a bargain, but I doubted it had any long-lasting effect.

Furthermore, the vision and mission of the non-profit organization aligned with my beliefs, and I knew working with them would allow me to do one thing I love best—writing. And having worked with the team as a volunteer, I knew they were passionate about what they do, and I wanted to be a part of their tight-knit community.

After much hemming and hawing, it dawned on me that I couldn’t hide forever. So, much to my managers’ surprise, I handed in my resignation, and started the process of saying goodbye to my friends, workmates and sport coaches. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing, but I decided I would obey God, regardless of whether I heard any loud, booming confirmation from Heaven.

 

Faithfulness After Taking the Leap

Fast-forward three months, and I have seen God providing for me in so many ways in my new country. From an amazing friend who picked me up and dropped me off at the nearest train station every day for nearly two months until I got a car, to the provision of a new and fully-furnished flat that is located a decent 13-minute drive to work, God has shown me His faithfulness in meeting my needs. A more affordable cost of living such as cheaper groceries and petrol also means that my salary stretches a little further, so my fears of being unable to make ends meet proved unfounded.

I am not going to lie and say the first few months of settling down went smoothly. Instead, it was crammed with car-shopping, flat-hunting, settling into a new job, and to round it all off, I came down with a cold that lasted more than a week.

But I truly enjoy my new role of writing articles and creating content that hopefully leave readers inspired. A sense of happiness washes over me when I read comments on social media with readers writing to say how a certain article has encouraged them. Best of all, I leave work in the evenings feeling like I have done something worthwhile.

Looking back, while God didn’t come clanging down from Heaven to directly tell me it was His will for me to move abroad, He did nudge me down this current path through my passion (writing), and also by giving me an opportunity to work with an organization whose values and mission aligns with mine. Furthermore, had I not wrestled with God through my fears and doubts in order to come to this decision, I would not have seen first-hand His faithfulness and providence.

I don’t know what decisions you are looking to make today, but I’ve learned that we don’t always need a big sign from Heaven to go ahead with our plans. Yes, pray about it. Do your research, and seek wise counsel. These will help you discern whether the path you’re about to embark on is God-pleasing—and if it is, can I encourage you to pack your bags, and just go for it?

 

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our series on Seeking God in Decision-Making. Read the other articles in the series, “When You’re Skeptical of God’s Plan” here and “When Things Don’t Make Sense” here!

My Journey From Megachurch to Modest Church

As the darkened stage gave way to flashing lights and rousing music, the worship band emerged, urging the congregation to stand up to worship Jesus.

People rose to their feet, clapping and dancing along with the band. I stood among the worshippers, my hands lifted in the air. Ensconced inside a state-of-the-art auditorium equipped with advanced surround sound to absorb any outside noises, and music pulsating from the stage, I was immersed. By the time the auditorium lights dimmed, I felt like I had entered a sacred space.

My family and I had been attending this church for 17 years, watching its metamorphosis from a medium-sized church to the megachurch it is now, with various campuses operating locally and internationally.

I love the church’s modern building, complete with a trendy cafe serving barista-made coffee before and after services, and immaculately dressed volunteers welcoming guests with big smiles as they file past the church doors.

For the longest time, I was convinced modern megachurches were the best way to do church. Even more than electrifying Sunday praise music, delicious coffee and warm greetings, a large church meant that there was a large pool of volunteers to rely on to carry out community work. It meant there were also financial resources to host Christian conferences headed by renowned speakers, drawing in large crowds to hear the gospel and inviting staggering numbers of people to salvation.

Furthermore, I thought the church’s modern amenities was a great way to dissolve the stereotype non-Christians held about church life—that it was about kneeling at cold, hard pews, clutching onto weather-beaten Bibles and hymnals, and people mostly over the age of 60 holding narrow, outdated views on life.

I did not know it then, but I had subconsciously formed a specific view of how a church should feel and operate, and it would become an unhealthy standard I would hold other churches to.

 

Why Was I Attending Church?

A number of years ago, I moved to a smaller town for a job opportunity. Faced with limited options, I had no choice but to attend a small church that was close to my flat. The church had a modest band, and the worship was not accompanied by the throbbing lights I had grown accustomed to.

I remember feeling rather disillusioned when I discovered I was one of the youngest among the churchgoers. Refreshments after the service were instant coffee served in brown Pyrex mugs, and supermarket-variety biscuits laid out on a large white plate. The stark contrast between the refreshments available at my previous church and the current one was enough to make me yearn for the sophisticated, polished ways of my home church.

Before long, my attendance took a plunge as I was not motivated to attend church. Aside from the small music team, sermons, and refreshments, the town I had moved to was a strong farming community. Coming from a megachurch in a big city, I felt unable to connect with the other church attendees who were used to the rural life.

I did attend church occasionally, but most of the time, I stayed home and streamed videos of my favorite pastors. I missed my old church but due to work commitments, it was another two years before I made it back.

When I finally did make it back to my home church, it had grown even more over the time I was away, and as I was no longer serving in church, I had lost touch with the majority of the people. Very soon, I blended in with the furnishings; I was unseen and unheard, and it didn’t take me long to realize I felt invisible within the church.

The warm, welcoming ushers I had once loved felt a little practiced—smiles were too bright, handshakes too formal. Hanging around the bustling cafe with barista-made coffee after service is fine—if you have people to hang out with.

This little episode made me ponder on my real reason for attending church. Was I just looking to my weekly fix of coffee, bright lights, and thumping music? I have found experiences to be fleeting, where I would feel great during worship, but once the lights fade and the band packs up, I didn’t have anything concrete to hold on to get me through life’s difficulties. I wanted something more than an electrifying Sunday worship.

What Church Is Really All About

I’ve come to believe that God does not favor a church with a shiny auditorium more than He does a smaller church with its humble facilities.

The main purpose of church is for worshippers to gather and learn more about God, and to encourage one another. Acts 2:42 records that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

In light of that verse, I reconsidered the small church I had reluctantly been a part of for the previous two years, and I realized that I had been discontented because I was superficially comparing it to larger churches. God brought to mind the times He was present at the Sunday lunches in the pastor’s home, and the evening visits with the pastor’s wife. I even remembered my cell group in a new light. At one meeting in particular, I found myself in tears, stressed from the pressures I faced at work. During these hard times, I didn’t need a posh building to find God, or His people. Because God is not found in a grand structure—but wherever worshippers gather.

After yet another move for work, a friend recently invited me to his church, and it’s a medium-sized one, with its service held out of a school hall. In the past, I would have immediately compared it to my old church. But this time, I appreciated the service for what it was, with its down-to-earth pastors and attendees who hung around after church to enjoy fellowship over lunch.

The difference this time was that I had come with a desire to genuinely worship God, with or without the flashy stage and the posh environment. I wanted to foster a strong relationship with church members. And on top of it all, I wanted to grow spiritually as a Christian. In the past, I was feeding off feel-good sermons, and I was coasting on relationships built on a veneer of polite smiles and hugs. But I wanted more than just a grand auditorium, an impressive band, and a host of well-dressed ushers.

I have come to look at a church based on healthier standards such as: are the pastors living up to God’s Word? Are their teachings biblically-sound? Are the sermons in line with Scripture? Importantly, are the sermons more than just a feel-good Sunday message—do they encourage me to grow and develop to be a mature Christian? What are the church’s small groups like? How is the church serving their community?

I know it can very easy to judge a church based on its building. For example, a big beautiful church could be seen as a healthy, growing one, and a church worshipping out of a rented community hall could be mistaken as a church that isn’t flourishing. But for me, I have learned to take a step back and think, if a church is to be stripped of all its furnishings, will their core still shine for God?

Focusing on trivial matters such as the auditoriums and the refreshments robbed me of the joy of truly seeking God, and helped me realize that I was in many ways, idolizing the lifestyle the church offered, when I should be putting God at the center of it. But thankfully, God has taught me to see that no matter the size of a church, what matters most is that a church is focused on Him and His teachings.

And that’s what church is really all about.

Lest We Forget: Remembering the Sacrifices of the Anzac Nurses

The endless procession of stretchers bearing severely wounded men drove home the horrors of the First World War (1914-1918) for Australian nurse Florence Narelle Jessie Hobbes, yet her determination to save and comfort the wounded saw her press on in the face of exhaustion, the lack of food, and an unforgiving climate.

Hobbes wrote in a letter to her family that she felt the “real touch of war” when she saw this scene unfold before her. “Dear heavens, it’s awful, and every man or boy of them is ‘somebody’s boy’,” she wrote. As each stretcher passed by her, she wondered if the next wounded person she saw would be one of her own friends or family, compounding the fears she felt for her loved ones.

Hobbes, who was from New South Wales, was one of the 3,600 nurses (3,000 of whom were from Australia and the other 600 from New Zealand) who had answered the call of duty to serve in the First World War. The First World War was a four-year-long conflict, and was one of the deadliest of wars, costing both Australia and New Zealand dearly in terms of their men’s lives.

Today (25 April), also known as Anzac Day, we remember the sacrifices of these brave men, and the other Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were killed in wars, and to also honor returned servicemen and women. Dawn parades are held in both Australia and New Zealand to commemorate those who had (or currently are) serving in various conflicts.

The date, 25 April, marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, where thousands of soldiers lost their lives.

I have always been a little obsessed with stories that are set in either the First or Second World War, but most of these stories were centered around the brave men who had enlisted as soldiers. So, when I first learned of Australian author and journalist Peter Rees’ book, Anzac Girls: The Extraordinary Story of Our World War 1 Nurses, I was struck by how overlooked the roles of these nurses in war times were. I realized how little I knew of both the emotional and mental toll the war took on these nurses. I decided it was only fitting to dig deeper into their lives, and to draw attention to the sacrifices that these women made.

That was how I discovered the story of Florence Hobbes.

 

 

Pressing On In Spite of the Challenges

What really drew me to her story was reading about how the threat of death didn’t stop Hobbes from signing up to serve king and country at the outset of the First World War in 1914. Hobbes was initially stationed in Malta with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), and served in the Valleta Military Hospital. It was at this hospital that she nursed casualties of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Hobbes’ letters did not detail the injuries she saw, we can imagine the wounds inflicted on the soldiers fighting in the trenches would have been brutal. According to the Australian Nurses’ Journal, two nurses wrote that words alone cannot describe the “awfulness of the wounds”: “Bullets are nothing. It’s the shrapnel that tears through the flesh and cuts off the limbs.”

Not only did these nurses have to endure the emotional strain of cleaning, washing, and tending to the wounded soldiers, but they also had to contend with unsanitary conditions and fluctuating temperatures (hot, stifling summer months, and cold, freezing winters).

Nurses on active duty would often be moved around to different locations if they were needed. When Hobbes was stationed at Amara, Mesopotamia, she recalled how the taste of their first rain in Amara ended up transforming the grounds into a large muddy patch.

The hospital was built along the Tigris-Euphrates river, and the soil would soak up the water from the river, and wound its way into the nurses’ rooms, the hospital wards, and the walls.

Yet while these conditions were challenging, Hobbes was motivated by her love for her country and fellow countrymen, and felt a strong sense of pride in being able to save and comfort these soldiers who were fighting in the trenches.

 

Why We Should Remember Them

But as the years passed (and it has been over 100 years since the First World War broke out), it can be easy for us to forget thesacrifices these soldiers and nurses have made. We live in such comfortable times that while we do hear of wars fought afar, most of us would not have personally experienced war, and we can easily take peace time for granted. It’s hard for us to imagine what it was like for these nurses to bid their friends and family goodbye, setting off for long journeys abroad without knowing if they would ever see them again. This is why Anzac Days are so important—to remind future generations of the sacrifices of those who have gone before them.

As I reflected on the selflessness of these nurses, it got me thinking of the love Jesus has called us to show one another in Luke 10:27, where He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. These days, it can be easy to think of “loving one another” as sending text messages littered with “xoxo”, or catching up with a friend for a coffee and posting about it on social media.

But I believe Jesus is talking about love in action as demonstrated by the Samaritan in Luke 10:30, where he stopped to tend to the victim, who was robbed, beaten, and left on the sidewalk for dead. The Samaritan bandaged the victim before placing him on his donkey to be carried to the nearest inn. He even paid the innkeeper for the victim’s accommodation. How many of us would be willing to do such an act for a suffering stranger?

Therefore, I was even more inspired to read more about these nurses, who despite their exhaustion, they continued their tasks of tending to the wounded soldiers. Accounts from their diaries and letters reveal their hectic work schedules. Hobbes wrote of a frantic 48-hour shift, during which she was expecting yet another 100 badly wounded patients to pour through.

Unfortunately, Hobbes was claimed by ill health, and died on the ship that was bound for Australia, just four days before she would have been reunited with her family. A simple funeral service was held on board for Hobbes, and she was buried at sea. Her family was presented with a Memorial Scroll, which was given to soldiers, sailors, and nurses who died while serving the Australian Imperial Force or Royal Australian Navy during the First World War. The message on the scroll commemorated the fallen, who “left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men . . . giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom.”

It is said that there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for their friends (John 15:13), and Hobbes has demonstrated this through her dedication and devotion to the wounded soldiers. In turn, this reminds me of the greatest sacrifice Jesus showed when He laid His life down for us on the cross (Philippians 2:6-11). Jesus is God, yet He humbled Himself to the point of death in exchange for our freedom. And because of the freedom that Christ has purchased for us, we too can live our lives with “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) in service of those around us.

Reading and researching into the lives and sacrifices of these nurses have left me in awe. These nurses saw a need (to serve in wartime) and stepped up to the call. Even though we are not serving in a war, there are many practical ways for us to follow their lead by looking around in our community to see if there is a need we can meet. For example, it could be reaching out to a friend who may be hurting emotionally, a co-worker who might be battling loneliness in the workplace, or offering to help an elderly neighbor to run their weekly grocery shop. Let’s be willing to take a step away from our busy schedules and give up our comfort for the sake of demonstrating love in action and drawing others to the light of Christ.

As we commemorate the sacrifices of the war heroes this Anzac Day, let’s honor their sacrifices not just by remembering their stories, but also by praying that God will enable us to be as courageous and selfless as these nurses were when it comes to serving those around us.