Friday, March 20, 2015

 Faith and Service
By: Mike Aycock

I have read the posts in this blog with keen interest and an open heart, finding that they have been articulate and deeply genuine, each one giving me a new insight into this mystery of faith. I was asked to contribute one as well, touching on faith and service. Being human, that’s a complex topic for me. So I’m going to try to encompass it with a few verses and a few experiences to see if they add up to an insight.

Because Jesus sets this idea out so elegantly and beautifully in the gospel of Matthew, I’m moved to start there, just as so many do, in the 25th chapter. Near the end of a long response to the disciples’ questions about the end of the age, Jesus takes up the matter of judgment, describing those who will be chosen with a small piece of drama that is so powerful I simply can’t help repeating it:

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

That last sentence, Matthew 25:40, was on the door of my wife’s office at Covenant Cooperative Ministry.

Whatever we say in the mission statement of CCM, that one sentence was her personal mission statement. And whatever impurities any of us, Rose included, might have in our hearts as we try to serve others, the unconditional love that Matthew 25:40 implies, a love that transcends our daily situations, can call us to do things we would sometimes not do. As for Rose, one only had to watch her interact with anyone who came through the door of the ministry to see the love of God come shining out through her in those moments.

I speak of my late wife because I will be the first to admit that she did more than anyone else on this earth could accomplish to move me toward serving for the love of God, to try to embody Matthew 25:40. I will also admit that I didn’t start at that place.

And maybe Rose didn’t either.

She had another quote on her door when we moved into our current offices that first spoke to me because it came closer to the way I made sense of service. This one was from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.

This, too, is an elegantly compressed way of saying a great deal about the deep fountains of our sense of altruism. For a sizeable portion of my life, it could have been my personal mission statement. I still love this quote.

You won’t be shocked to know that I was pretty full of myself when I was younger. (Some who know me may be thinking, “when he was younger?”) Like many of us when we’re in the exuberance of our twenties, I had a series of things that I thought I would do and be that were mainly about me, from being a writer to being an athlete. However, when eating my beans and rice in my walk-up apartment, and thinking how I would dazzle the world, it struck me I might need to have a job or two in the meantime. My uncle, who is about my age and who grew up pretty much as a sibling, was driving a truck for a national mission service at that time, and, hearing my dilemma, gave me some advice: “Many people find that they’re happy when they’re serving others.” This truism hit me hard enough that I saw all my best teachers, for example, in an entirely new light. So I set out to try to be the best servant I could be. I know this sounds like a chapter from Siddhartha, but it really did inform my life. It was what Rose and I talked about the day we met.

So, even though I thought it was a huge risk when she told me we were going to start a Christian social service from scratch with no money, I did understand where she was coming from. I knew there was nothing like the feeling we get when we truly do something good for someone else. I had helped her at several of the social work positions she had held, had taught and coached for years, and knew the joy we can feel serving.

The difficulty, of course, is that we may be doing all this, really, for ourselves.

I could cite hundreds of examples, but one particular client one Christmas season brought this home to me. She became angry when Rose told her that two of her children didn’t qualify for our Christmas program. The reason was very clear and was one we warned about in the application process, a rule put in place to keep resources from being duplicated among other services. The client didn’t want to hear any of that. She teed off with some power, her main argument being that she was entitled to this service. This was what we were here for, and we had better serve her or else. When she got near a boil, I jumped in to defend my wife, who had been listening patiently and trying to reason. I was hot. It ended in the client stomping out. I noticed our lead pastor following her out, and, looking out the door, saw him praying with her on the sidewalk. He had asked her something that Rose often asked: “What’s really troubling you?”

That was one of many lessons I was given by being part of Covenant Ministry. God provides us an unconditional, ever-renewable love that is beyond imagining. Any time that we can tap into that, on any scale, we have a better chance of reaching outside our self-gratifying reasons for helping others and can possibly even change a life. The same person I spoke of above returned a different person and has helped others since. We all meet times when we believe that those we’re trying to serve are unworthy or stubborn or self-destructive or, worst of all, ungrateful. It wounds our sense of how hard we’ve tried to serve. But God can see the beauty in every heart and can offer a redemption for every soul. The more we can put that light into our lives, the better servants we can be.

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