A New Approach to Serving Others

Today, I hear my husband explain a new way to care for folks in our community.  He says that we do things “with” people and not “for” them.  As a scholar obsessed with the nuances of language, I find myself baffled by how a simple change in a preposition revolutionizes how we act.

Prepositions reveal relationship.  Am I doing things “with” my community or just “for” my community?  For years, my husband and I followed the model of doing things “for” other people.  But two years ago, we wanted to belong to our community and not stand outside of it.

We had recently heard a Navajo Indian speaking about various groups that would visit his reservation.  They’d bring help or aid and quickly leave.  Yet what the Navajo truly wanted, more than anything else, was to be known, understood, and valued.  They wanted the organizations to be “with them” and not just come do things “for them.”

In our community, I have learned (finally) to be with people.  The walk-to-school campaigns, the Monday Night Fitness Groups, and the Saturday Pancakes are all about being with my community.  We mutually encourage, mutually support, mutually serve.

In my parenting, I have learned (finally) to do things with my children and not just for them.  I’m learning to say, “I would like to do this with you and not just for you.”  That philosophy seems to honor their dignity and mine as well.

It’s the same with teaching.  It’s the same with blogging.  There’s a “withness” about this work that transforms it.  We are with each other. 

My husband reminds me that the incarnation is God “with us.”  Immanuel–God with us–represents a prepositional phrase that’s changed my life.

Living with flair means I learn the meaning of with. 

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Journal:  How can I change my “for you” to “with you?”

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Secret Agent Life

This morning, I read about how a businessman responds to a doctor’s order to go to a train station and “look for someone who needs help.” The doctor believed that if the businessman practiced doing something for another person every day, that man would begin to feel better about his life.

He did.  It worked.  

I wonder about the direction to “look for someone who needs help.” What if that mission shaped my day?    I wonder what it means to live a life that anticipates, on a daily basis, how I might serve another person.

Someone we’ll encounter today will need something (a hug, a word, a ride, a lunch), and what if God wanted to use us to meet that particular need?  What if each day we were on a special assignment to care for somebody in our path?   

But we will not know who, where, or when this person might appear.  We just know that it will, most certainly, happen.  So we keep our eyes open, waiting for our special assignment.

I tell God I’m available.  But I’m nervous–a little–about what shape the day will take.

The day transforms into an action-adventure film.  I’m the one scanning the train station platform, looking for the helpless.  But it’s not the train station; it’s my own street, my own neighborhood, my own office.   

I feel like a secret agent on a mission from God. I feel like this covert operation changes the focus, the purpose, and the meaning of what it means to be alive today. 

Living with flair means I’m available for secret missions to care for everyone and anyone, stranger or friend, who enters my life today. 

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Journal:  Who was my special assignment today? 

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Make Yourself That Somebody

For months, my friend and I travel by this one treacherous patch of sidewalk on our walk to school–the place that dips down towards a jagged ravine of rocks and icy water–and say, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

We rescue kids as they slide off the sidewalk, shake our heads and say again, “Somebody should really put a fence up.”

As the months go on, we realize how much we say, “Somebody should really…”–whether referring to cleaning the house, fixing something, or generally improving the world.

We laugh about this expression: somebody should really. . .

Who is this Somebody person?  Can I meet her?

It occurs to us that we are the Somebody.  We stop saying, “Somebody should really put a fence up,” and we decide to make ourselves that somebody.

I don’t know where to start, so I ask someone at the school who tells me I should “call the county.”  (I didn’t realize you can call people in your county and get help with things your community needs. You can!)  I look up in my phonebook the name of my township and call the number there.  A man answers the phone, and I explain that children are slipping off the sidewalk and falling into a ditch on the way to school.  Can we put a fence up?

“Yes,” he says.  “Let me check who owns that property, and I’ll send a crew out today.  We’ll take care of it.”

I even ask the man if he could make it a nice fence, charming, and not some metal thing with orange mesh reserved for danger zones.

He sends out his crew and builds our fence.

Now, on the walk to school, my friend and I look at that fence and remember to make ourselves that somebody.  

My Charming Fence

She says, “Somebody should really write a book with that title.”

Up the Big Hill Towards School

Somebody should.  If you make yourself that somebody, you can really change something.

In fact, what initiates my friend’s 100 pound weight loss last year is a t-shirt she sees that says, “Somebody should really do something about how fat I am.”

She decides to make herself that somebody.

I want to make myself that Somebody in 2011.

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The Next Step

My one-eyed cat, Jack, has taken another important step.  

Remember how wounded and sick Jack was?  How unattractive and miserable?   We brought him home and gave him all the love we could.   He’d lost his ability to purr.  He couldn’t even meow.  His whole kitty identity seemed withered and dying. 

Then one day, he found his purr again, deep and rich and wild.  We were petting him, and we heard the slow chug, like some distant train coming from a far-off country.  He’s purring!  Then, nearly a year into his recovery, he stood in the kitchen, proud and tall, and let out his first meow.  That kitty self was back. 

The One-Eyed Cat Serves

It gets even better.  Yesterday, I walk into my bedroom, and I see the once lonely and wounded kitty in a warm embrace.  He’s holding another cat.  He’s holding her still and bathing her face and the back of her ears!  As I watch this display, I realize that Jack’s journey has reached yet another point of healing. 

I snap a picture of him and think of what it means to care for somebody.  The once-wounded cat is now serving others.   

Living with flair means that we don’t stay wounded.  We press on, find ourselves again, and discover where we might serve.  Even if you’ve had a loss that changes how you see everything (and limits you), there’s hope towards a journey of healing-turned-ministry.  Maybe that’s the best kind.  Maybe Jack is particularly good at caring for other cats because he’s come back from the worst. 

The One-Eyed Cat and His Friend

Maybe I’m particularly good at helping folks live with flair because I lived without it for so long.  How could I not offer an embrace, hold you still for a moment, and speak out whatever words might help make today meaningful? 

 

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Flabbergasted! (A Student Laments Being Over-Scheduled)

Yesterday I had lunch with a college student who looks back on her grade school years with a certain regret.  She won awards in three different sports, had a full schedule of activities, made great grades, and got into a wonderful college.  She’s a triathlete.  She’s a straight A student. 

I look at that life and see how many parents in my community make extraordinary sacrifices for their children to have that kind of resume.  Even in elementary school, children are in multiple sports, multiple classes, multiple shows.

If I’m honest, I want to be that parent.  I feel so badly that we can’t afford to have our children in more activities. I feel like I’m depriving my daughters of all the good things in life.  But talking to this college student changed my attitude.   

“I feel regret when I look back,”  the student said.  “I spent all that time developing my skills in all those activities, but I did nothing for my community.  I did nothing for the world.”

She challenged me to put my girls in one or maybe two activities and let the rest of our days be spent engaged in community service.

“Did you know that right now children are enslaved in sweat shops?”  The student leans over the table in disbelief.  “Should I join the Peace Corps?  Should I start an awareness campaign?”  She asks the question with tears nearly filling her eyes.  “Nobody is reflecting on anything because they are all so busy doing their activities!” 

She spent hours in clubs and activities that bred a self-focus she laments.  Her perspective left me as flabbergasted as when the mother at church said I should teach my children they are not special.

I went home and looked at the list of possible activities for my children.  And then I looked at my own personal calendar.  I could book gym classes, lunch outings, shopping trips with girlfriends, Bible studies, dance classes–all for me!  What if I put a stop to everything and took a look around my community?  What if I gathered my family together and asked my girls to change the world and not their dance shoes? 

There’s nothing wrong with sports and activities.  Children and adults learn vital life skills in extracurricular activities.  There is something wrong with cultivating a self-focus that excludes community, nation, and world.  I want to raise compassionate citizens trained in community organizing.   And as a citizen, I want to forgo my devotion to self-improvement (hours at the gym!) and think about how I can serve someone else.  What a hard paradigm shift! 

Living with flair means we live in a community and serve that community even if it means giving up another sport, another club, or another performance.

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A Strange Way to Refresh Yourself

I’m used to thinking of personal refreshment in terms of spa days and vacations.  Today, I remembered a bit of wisdom that reoriented my thinking.  The flair moment came in the form of sweaty boys and mulch. 

On my drive downtown this morning, I saw a group of young men spreading mulch in the flowerbeds that lined the sidewalk. They were laughing, embarrassed maybe, as the cars at the stoplight stopped and observed them. The wheelbarrow of mulch wobbled between one boy’s arms, and the pitchfork in another boy’s hands took aim and missed the pile altogether.

I was thankful for their work to renovate those beds.  They were giving that space some flair.  And I knew, too, that the work would bring some flair to them as well. 

Community service is like that.  

It’s service that intends to renovate us as we renovate our community. There’s something about taking care of a community—those that need help, those that are suffering, or those places that need cleaning—that renews and refreshes the spirit, too.

As I drove past those boys, I remembered a verse from the book of Isaiah, chapter 58:

“If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.”

When I spend myself on the needs of my community, I ironically find a form of refreshment. My night becomes the noonday; my darkness turns to light. The promise of God guiding, satisfying, and strengthening me in that process represents the paradox of Christianity: you find yourself as you lose yourself; you become fully alive as you die to your own self-obsession.

You would think, in sacrificial service, that a frame would weaken, that a body would exhaust itself.  But instead, the strongest frame, the most nourished individual, is the one who serves others.

Watching those boys spread mulch on that sun-scorched sidewalk reminded me that serving a community, even in small ways, contributes to our well-being.  When we find a need outside of ourselves that we can meet, we can renovate, not just another person, but ourselves.

Living with flair means I meet the needs of others and delight in how it refreshes me.  Spas and vacations are great, but greater still might be taking care of a neighbor (or spreading mulch in her flowerbed).

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