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Spiritual practices for the year: Service

Spiritual practices for the year: Service

by Marion Van Driel


The air was tense in the upper room. The disciples were gathered around Jesus, keenly aware of the unspoken problem; no servant was present to wash their mud-caked feet, and those of their Master. They were trying hard to ignore the elephant in the room – eyeing one another, wondering what to do. After all, this menial task was relegated to the person of lowest position. This wasn’t the first time they’d struggled with the question of position. 

In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Whenever there is trouble over who is the greatest, there is trouble over who is the least…Most of us know we will never be the greatest; just don’t let us be the least.” Foster concludes the story, “Then Jesus took a towel and a basin and redefined greatness.” Jesus never required anything of his followers that he hadn’t already modeled. 

Losing the ‘pecking order’ mentality

Foster suggests that we might rather choose to follow the more radical examples of Jesus, giving up everything – even father and mother – choosing a path of martyrdom rather than serving in anonymity. He writes, “Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure…in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

Foster explains that the goal of Spiritual Disciplines is freedom; in this case, we find freedom in rejecting outright the idea of a ‘pecking order’. Woven through the fabric of humanity are telltale signs of how and where people view their own place within a group. Those who speak, and those who quietly listen; those who walk ahead or behind; those who step forward to do a job, either as a sign of servitude or lordship. 

A story is told of Queen Victoria hosting guests at her royal table. At the meal’s end, finger bowls were placed before the guests. The guest of honour, an African Chieftain, who had not been briefed about the purpose of the bowl, lifted it to his lips and emptied it to the last drop. For a brief moment, the diners took a collective breath – until without ado, the Queen lifted her bowl and also drank its contents. This was the first (and likely last) time a full table of Britain’s Upper Crust drank from their finger bowls. 

Foster clarifies that rejecting a ‘pecking order’ is very different from rejecting the idea of leadership and authority. The authority Jesus spoke of had nothing to do with control and status – it is not about lording over, but of function. “The authority of Jesus is … not found in a position or title, but in a towel,” Foster concludes. 

Service: self-righteous or true?

Inherent to our humanity is the temptation to place ourselves in a different category from those we serve. Our motive may be to foster our own humility or feel good about ourselves. Self-righteous service is selective in its recipients, likes to make service a big deal, and is usually planned. True service is indiscriminate, treating its recipients with dignity; it originates from keeping in step with the Spirit, heeding divine nudges to carry out large or small tasks with an attitude of love. It often goes unnoticed. 

While deeds of true service are often inconspicuous, their evidence seems to seep out between the floorboards over time, and we recognize those responsible. One such person is May (not her real name). May grew up in a large family, at an early age noticing her parents’ involvement in the lives of others. Every Sunday they picked up a single lady for church, and brought her back to their home for lunch. May smiles. “She wasn’t always a very nice person either, but they put up with her.” Following her parents’ example of hospitality, May has hosted scores of guests (from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds) in her home for various lengths of time – providing a bed, food and helping them find resources to carry forward. On hearing of someone’s need for a place to stay, she reflects, “we have a big house with lots of empty rooms, and you think, ‘well, I really don’t have a reason to say no’.” She calls it organic, a natural working out of our faith. “It’s the Holy Spirit that changes us and it’s a gradual process,” she muses, referring to Romans 12:1 …present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. (NKJV)

May reasons that everyone has different gifts of service and different personalities. Not everyone is a ‘people person’ – yet everyone is called to serve. She remembers a particular time when she felt called to start a church ministry. “I had a nagging to start something. I kept waking up with ideas.” These nudges aren’t always about starting ministry. They could be about providing a meal, sending a note of encouragement, or listening to someone. May submits that family and friends are sometimes God’s agents to encourage us where and how we might serve.

Serving vs. being a servant

Foster differentiates between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. “When we choose to serve,” he notes, “we are still in charge. We will decide whom we will serve and when … we will worry a great deal about anyone … taking advantage of us.” Francis of Assisi said that above all the gifts the Spirit gives His friends is “that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.” Foster notes that when we choose to be a servant, we give up our right to be in charge – to determine who and when we will serve. “There is great freedom in this … We become available and vulnerable.” 

Overlooking trees in search of a forest

True service is an attitude of love. May recalls serving in a specific ministry, growing so concerned for others who could be attending, that she was overlooking those already there. “I was anxious for all these other people, but not [serving] the ones who were closest.” As we love those already in our circle of influence, we become a very attractive community, drawing others in. “I think it’s how the Spirit works,” she says.

“In the realm of the spirit we soon discover that the real issues are found in the tiny, insignificant corners of life,” Foster writes. This kind of service includes guarding the reputation of others, listening well, and learning to bear one another’s burdens. 

Foster suggests the Discipline of Service can be tended with a prayer at the beginning of each day: “Lord Jesus, as it would please you bring me someone today whom I can serve.”