I was thinking today about serving and all the ways that word is used… serving our country, serving the poor, serving God, serving a meal, serving a sentence. The common ground here is giving of ourselves in some way that serves a greater good. Albert Schweitzer said “… the only ones among us who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” Serving doesn’t just give us a warm fuzzy feeling. Service allows us to practice self forgetfulness as we focus on fulfilling a duty or obeying a higher order or meeting the needs of another. Service is next on the list of 12 ways to live out the resurrection. Number 7 on Rohr’s list says, “Choose as much as possible to serve rather than be served.”
I know I have much to learn about serving and what it looks like to lay aside my claims to my life and my time. I can get so steeped in the entitlement our culture says I deserve. Lately I’ve been trying out some new ways to serve, and I’ve noticed a few things. One is it doesn’t come naturally to lay down my life. Even with all the best intentions, I bring my ego in with me. When serving a meal at a homeless shelter recently, I learned to my dismay that when I’m giving of my service and time, I expect something in return, and that is gratitude. The meal we were serving was home cooked with care by several parishioners, all of whom are good cooks. I was impressed by both the quality and quantity of the food. Some people we served were grateful, to be sure, but others were unappreciative, critical and downright demanding. At first I was quite taken back by this. Shouldn’t they be thankful to have a free dinner? But as I stepped back, I wondered about their situation. I wondered what kind of day they’d had. I wondered what it must feel like to have to accept charity just to survive, to take whatever people offer you, whether you like it or not. How grateful would I be if I walked in their shoes? This was a free meal, and they didn’t owe any of us anything for it, not even gratitude. Hopefully I can take what I gleaned from this as well.
Recently I completed training to serve as a hospice volunteer. I’ve had several people ask why, and won’t that be so depressing? I’m sure that it will have sad days, but I know I will learn immeasurably from those who are letting go of life. As I practice my own version of letting go, it will become its own reward. The thing I love most about working with the poor in spirit is that they recognize their own poverty. The rest of us can ride a long way on pretense and illusion, but they have no such luxury. They have been broken open, there’s little to protect or defend anymore, and they’re just so honest. It’s freeing. I see their humanity alongside my own flawed nature, and it humbles me every time. It’s part of their gift to me, reminding me that we’re all the same.
Just like service has many faces, Christ does as well. He may appear today in a homeless shelter, or on a street corner begging for money. Tomorrow he may look like a rehab resident trying to find hope for a new start. He may show up behind a prison wall, or as an immigrant seeking refuge, or as one who has called in hospice. However he shows up, his teachings on service rock the status quo. He said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” “The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve.” And when we wonder whether our service makes any difference, he says, “In as much as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” In identifying with the least of these, I hope these teachings become ingrained in me some day. I look forward to the day when laying down my life is second nature, and service is offered up with a smile, free of charge.