Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 16 July 2006
We went to the temple in Columbus last evening. On our way home, we stopped to eat at a busy restaurant. Fortunately we had called ahead and had reservations. After being seated at our table, we were greeted by a cheerful, good looking young man who informed us the his name was Anthony, that he would be our server, and that he would take care of us. After we completed our meal and he brought us the check, I took a poll of those around the table, to make sure that my assessment of his performance was valid. Though all admitted they he wasn’t a straight 6:00 thumbs down, he was somewhere in the vicinity of 4:30. Were the Harwards just being too critical, as they are often prone to be? He was, after all pleasant and competent. He didn’t spill anything. We weren’t in a hurry, didn’t feel rushed, and spent about the amount of time we expected. So what was missing?
Well for starters, Anthony obviously had never studied his For the Strength of Youth booklet. If he had, the most important thing he would have learned is that service is first and foremost about others.
Service to others is one of the most important characteristics of a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is willing to bear other people’s burdens and to comfort those who need comfort. Often Heavenly Father will meet the needs of others through you.
Anthony was not a disciple of his craft. He knew the actions he needed to perform, and he did them fairly well, but they were pretty superficial. Like the Priest and Levite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t engaged. He knew his duty and executed his responsibilities in a fairly perfunctory, though pleasant manner. But like them, he kept to the “other side.”
Just what is this “other side” that he kept to? What is it about the “other side” that is not consistent with being a disciple of Christ? In the story, the Priest and Levite are on the same road as the robbed traveler, so the “other side” has nothing to do with geography or space. However, it does have to do with perception and deception. The Priests and Levite had created an artificial otherness for the man in need. They pretended that they had nothing in common with him. He was not one of them nor were they one of him. They did not realize or at least were unwilling to accept that they could have also been robbed. The “other side” for them was mental and emotional. They chose to block out the unpleasantness of the situation of the robbed traveler.
Interestingly, the priest, when confronted with the situation, simply passed by. Possibly, his artificial otherness was so ingrained in his character, that his automatic response system just kicked in and he didn’t even have to think about it. He probably wasn’t even aware there was a situation. From the text, we know that the Levite, at least “came and looked on”, but still chose the ”other side” when he realized that the situation might require some engagement on his part.
In contrast, the Samaritan, walking the same path, journeying along the same road of life, did not merely “look on” as the Levite had done, but “came where he was.” And in the coming to where he was, he then “saw him” and “had compassion on him.” In other words, his place and the place of the robbed man were one and the same. He did not create some artificial reality where he lived in a different place and time than anyone else along the journey.
The fact that we are travelers on the same road, means that sometimes we may need to step down into the gutter in order to come to those who are in need. Service is not about comfort. It will, more often than we are comfortable with, mean that we need to go into places, physical and emotional, that are not easy, that demand we step out of our comfort zone. Service is not about convenience. It is not about writing down in my planner that I will provide service on every other Tuesdays between 2:30 and 3:00.
When serving, look to the Savior as your example. Although He came to earth as the Son of God, He humbly served those around Him.
Jesus knew who He was, probably better than any of the rest of us. He knew that He was the Way, the Truth and the Life. Yet it was never about Him. His only motivation in life was to follow the will of His Father. And in a very instructive way, He understood that the realization of the will of His Father always involved other people, always involved His Father’s other children. There was no monastic disengagement of life involved in the process. Certainly King Benjamin’s injunction on service, teaches us that the only way to serve God is to serve our fellow beings.
We all know that there are various ways to serve our fellow beings, all depending upon our motivation.
A telestial based service is motivated by “what’s in it for me?” At first blush, most of us see that this is not really service. Yet there are many subtle manifestations of this type of service because the true motivation is often masked. For example, most of us, when asked why we serve, will respond “because it makes me feel good.” Yes, it does. But that alone is not enough. Lot’s of things make me feel good. The problem is that the emphasis is on the “me”; it is on my feelings. And that is not what service is about. If I’m only after good feelings, then I really am just motivated by a “what’s in it for me” attitude. And then what generally happens, is that “my feeling good” becomes more important than that outcome or even need of the service.
For example, when we went to Delaware last weekend for my brother-in-law’s funeral, all seven of his daughters were there without their own children. They kept getting calls from well-intentioned people who wanted to bring over food or clean the house, or do something. One niece, with a slight amount of frustration in her voice said, “the problem is that we already have the Relief Society here: we are seven women who do not have enough to do.” Fortunately, in this case, the well-intentioned recognized the situation, and held back their own need to serve.
But how often do we “render service” simply because it either makes us feel good or we think it is the right thing to do, without real regard for the needs of the recipient? If we are serving simply to fulfill our own internal need, then our motivation needs some adjustment. Or maybe we just simply need to be as truthful as my friend Allison Larsen once was. One evening, she gave me a dozen eggs. “But Allison,” I told her, “I don’t need a dozen eggs.” “But,” she said, “I need to give you a dozen eggs.” In an interesting switch of roles, she recognized my need to render her service by accepting her gift.
A terrestrial based service is motivated by the quid pro quo of mutual consent. We all agree to do something for each other. I’ll serve you if you’ll serve me. Think of it as the market of capitalism: we all have different services and goods that we offer, trade or sell. We recognize what we are good at, what our gifts are and we find those who need or want our services. In general this works; in fact, it works quite well. However, the problem is that it is still essentially “me” based. I know what I am good at, and I either spend my effort perfecting what I like to do or finding those who appreciate and accept it. I also know what I need and seek out those who can provide it. As a consequence, my community tends to be limited to those who operate within my well-defined boundaries, who fit my understanding and perception of the world and its needs.
In contrast, a celestial based service, like that of the Savior and the Good Samaritan, is motivated by “what does the other person need from me?” It is important to note that this is not the same motivation as “what good can I do for another person?” The distinction may be subtle, but it is significant. Yes, “what good can I do for another person?” is oriented towards another person and not towards me and my needs. But in the “what good can I do?”, who defines “good”? What generally happens, is that I look at the situation of the other person, I determine what their needs are and I then render service to meet those needs. Now don’t get me wrong. This is a much better motivation than the “what’s in it for me?” or the mutual consent of capitalistic markets. But unfortunately, it is still focused on “me” and my perceptions and my understanding.
Knowing what the other person truly needs means putting ourselves in the other person’s place, and looking at the situation from their perspective and then rendering the type of service appropriate to the situation. The Good Samaritan did not just say “Oh, you have been robbed, and since being robbed means that somebody took your money, I’ll serve you by giving you some money.” No. He assessed the situation, got engaged and, as the text tells us “went to him, and bound up his wounds, . . . and set him on his beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” This is true selfless service, i.e. service without the self of “me” focused on the self of an other.
There are many ways to serve others. You can serve in your Church assignments and in your home, school, and community. Seek daily the guidance of the Holy Ghost to know whom to serve and how to help meet their needs. Often the most important service is expressed through simple, everyday acts of kindness.
I still remember the first time Sacrament Meeting was not simply something I went to every Sunday with my mother. I was in eighth grade, and Julie Cannon, who was two years older than me gave a talk that woke me up, that made me realize that I really could learn something in what had been, up to that point in my life, just boring sessions to be endured every Sunday. She also made me realize that the scriptures could teach me how I needed to change if I were open to them. To this day, now almost fifty years later, I still think of her when I hear or read “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I suspect that up to that point in my life, I had operated on the Big is Better and More Important plan. Big house, big car, lots of money, power and might, the one-ups-manship of early teens, with our google-plex understanding of the solutions to the world’s problems. Julie’s talk was the first time I let something disrupt that complacency. What occurred to me, was that what really mattered, was the way that I treated other people.
Since then, I have learned that service is not just a series of events or actions that I perform, it is a disposition, an approach and an engagement to life, and more important, to others in my life. If I allow it, the Holy Ghost will not only tell me whom I should serve, but how and when and why. He will help me look beyond my own perceptions, he will help me understand the needs of others from their own perspective, and he will help me know how to render that service so that it truly meets their needs and does not simply make me feel good.
As you devote yourself to serving others, you will draw close to Heavenly Father. Your heart will be filled with love. Your capacities will increase, and your life and the lives of those around you will be blessed.
Many of you are coming to learn about, as I am rediscovering for myself, my love of choral conducting. At an earlier place and time in my life, I did a lot of it. One of my most exciting experiences, was conducting a major choral work, complete with orchestra and a select group of singers. The rehearsals were intense, but gratifying as we made progress towards our goal. One of the things that makes me a good conductor, is that I know what I want to achieve and I am able to get the group to produce what I want. The concert went well and I received several accolades, but almost as soon as the final chord ended, and the applause was thundering behind me, I felt a slight emptiness. By the time, the last music stand was put away, and the lights were turned out, the emptiness had grown considerably, and was not just a passing fancy. It didn’t last long, but was etched in my memory because it caused a certain amount of emotional confusion—which I was not able to fully understand until several years later.
When Stella was in fifth grade, I consented to coach an Odyssey of the Mind team which included her and four other fifth and sixth graders. As coach, my job was simply to facilitate. I could teach principles, but I could not solve problems. The whole endeavor was to teach the kids how to think and respond for themselves. We were given a specific problem that we had to solve and demonstrate by means of a 12 minute skit on a gym floor, in a defined space, with judges evaluating the solution based on specific criteria. In contrast to my choral rehearsals, what I wanted really didn’t matter. In fact, by the time the competition came around, my job was long completed. Rather than sit on the gym floor where the coaches usually sit, I choose to sit with all of the other parents on the bleachers. This was about the kids and not me.
Well, this time, when the final chord sounded and the applause (from us enthusiastic parents) roared in the background, I felt something very different from what I felt standing on the podium in the United Methodist church in Newark, Delaware. I was so pumped, so proud of the kids. Later that afternoon, when we found out that our 10 and 11 year olds who were completing against other 14 and 15 years in the whole Cincinnati region won second place, I was euphoric and it lasted several days.
Within a not too short time, I was able to connect the two experiences, and realized that my capacities had increased, that I had understood a little bit better, that I had drawn closer to my Heavenly Father. I learned that service, concern and love for others is not about me. When I am the focus, then the lasting result is a certain emptiness. But when it is completely about others, then fulfillment and euphoria are lasting.
Anthony’s problem was that we had nothing to do with his service. It was just his job. just a set of tasks that he hard to execute. He had to inform us that he would take care of us, because otherwise we would not have known. For this type of selfish, telestial “what’s in it for me” kind of service, I simply just feel sorry.
However, I am optimistic about terrestrial “let’s agree to help each other” service, because it can at least make the world a pleasant place to live.
I am even more hopeful and moved when I see and experience the celestial “what can I do to help make you successful” kind of service that every now and then does take place.
I am, however, very concerned with the masked and deceptive nature of the rampant paternalism I find taking over our culture. There is a certain insidiousness in a “father knows best” paradigm. It appears in many disguises, often in the “I will take care of you” siren songs of politicians. We pretend to serve, pretend to have the best interests of others in mind. For many, the pretension is not malicious. They truly believe that what they are doing is for the best of others. And that is exactly what makes it so insidious. Celestial service, godly service, is not at all about me deciding what is best for you and then rendering you that service. It means getting in the gutter with you, seeing the world from your point of view, seeking to understand why you feel what you are feeling, why you act the way you are acting, and then providing you the service that you need to be the best kind of person you can be. Sometimes what I learn about your perception and understanding, like an OM coach, is that your thinking and/or analytical skills are weak and so the best way I can serve you is to help you strengthen them. But I do it from your frame of reference, not mine.
I pray that we will all be better able to render service that is appropriate and best for others around us, by understand their needs from their perspective, rather than our own.
July 16, 2006