Each year around my birthday I go on a week-long trip. It is an annual trip I take that I affectionately call my “Introvert Intermission”. It is a gift from my parents where I go away by myself and just enjoy the simple things like reading, the outdoors and silence. Glorious silence. My extrovert friends break out into hives when I describe it but after an incredibly busy summer of mission trips and lots of quality time with quality people, I’m usually counting down the days like a high school senior in May.
A few years ago the day arrived and I hit the road to the place I would be staying for the week. I arrived right around check in time and went into the little reception office where there was a lady folding some towels in a harried pace. We exchanged greetings and I said I was here to check in. She set the towels down and came over to the desk. I could hear the sounds of a TV and a young child crying from around the corner and the room had this sense of rushed, craziness. You know that feeling – the feeling of having a hundred things needing your undivided attention and you aren’t sure where to even begin.
The lady looked up my registration and then apologetically told me the room was ready yet. She was the only one there because other staff had called in sick. This lady was doing registration, cleaning rooms, and apparently trying to keep a small child happy. I told her that I would wait in my car and check back.
I went back to my car, rolled down the windows and pulled out a book. And then it began. That nudge. That whispered prompting … “Go offer to help.”
I pretended not to hear. Like that ever works.
“Go offer to help.”
No, God. This is my vacation. My introvert intermission. I’ve been working for you all summer and I’m off the clock. It’s your own fault for calling an introvert to work with people. I told you you were nuts.
“Go offer to help.”
God, I really don’t think she’s going to accept my help. I’m pretty sure she would think I was crazy or that she’d get in trouble if management ever found out. And there’s no way she’d let a total stranger near her kid.
“Go offer to help.”
I shall not be moved.
And I wasn’t.
I ignored the nudge. I plugged my ears to the whispered promptings. I refused to move.
A move comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a move is physical. Having lived in Jefferson City my entire life, I can’t really speak to the challenges of moving geographically. In Genesis 12:1-5, Abram left all that was familiar – customs and traditions, family and friends, the rhythm of a life well-known. In verse 1, God calls Abram to depart in increasing levels of intimacy – his country, his clan, his home. But Abrah’s departure from Haran is a story about more than a change of geography. It is a story about moving from comfort to discomfort; from known to unknown; from fear to trust; from self-reliance to complete reliance on God.
The geography of ancient Canaan pales in comparison to the complex geography of the human heart.[i]
Often when we think of being called to serve, we think that like Abram we will be called to move to a faraway place. As Scott brown once sang in a popular 80’s song: “Please don’t send me to Africa”. But more times than not, service often moves us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial. Like folding some towels for an incredibly stressed resort employee. In some ways, this move is a greater distance for us than a move across the Atlantic.
The sacrifice of a move is often directly related to how much it inconveniences or costs us; how far it will move us out of our comfort zone. And that is relative, isn’t it? Go to Africa to work in the poorest community? I’m there! Take middle school youth on a weekend retreat? Sign me up! Sit all day with someone at the hospital? Umm, well, all day? How about an hour? Talk to my neighbor instead of shutting the garage door before my engine is even off. But, God, it’s been a long day. Offer available space in my home to someone needing a place to stay indefinitely? Okay, now you’re just talking crazy, Lord.
God’s call often pushes us beyond where we want to go. And the holy nudges don’t consult our schedules. Why does it seem like needs come a callin’ at the worst possible time for us? Perhaps it is because there is no good time for us. Interruptions are not welcomed. Schedules are tight and we’ve not built in any margin. Author John Walker says, “Even though Jesus was on an urgent and vital mission, he took time to stop because he saw the interruptions in his life as divine appointments to show God’s love to people in desparate need. And his example makes it pretty difficult for us to think, say, or act like we are too busy to stop and serve those around us …”[ii]
In his book Life Together, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “the second service that one should perform to another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. That means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy.”[iii]
It is difficult for us to open our hands and our lives to serve others while keeping a tight grip on ourselves. And that is the challenge and the blessing of service – to help us forget about ourselves and to focus on God and others.
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor says that there are only two ways to cure our raging narcissism: 1) have children, or 2) move to a foreign country where people don’t care who you are or what you do.
But Jesus says that there is another way to cure our raging narcissism: starve our inner narcissist by forgetting ourselves and focusing on God.
You are not the point. And we are not the point. Jesus Christ always has been and always will be the point.
We desperately need reminders that it isn’t about us. Service is that daily reminder.
And I think if most of us are really honest, we are desperate to be set free from the captivity of me. We’ve learned we are horrible masters – exhausting, neurotic and difficult to please. We desire to be released from the straitjacket of the exalted, exaggerated sense of self and be empowered to deny ourselves, live beyond ourselves, and live outside of ourselves.
Here is the caution of spiritual disciplines. When we do get to the point where we are willing to release our grip on ourselves, we must be careful that we pick up the right thing in its stead. The temptation for us hardworking, Midwestern folk is to pick up the disciplines themselves but to do so would simply move us from one captivity to another. From the captivity of self-focus to that of self-reliance.
To experience true freedom, we must grab hold of God and rest in Him in utter dependence. Knowing Christ as your rest and allowing Him to live His life through you is one of the most freeing things you can know as a Christian. Resting in Christ doesn’t mean being passive. It means allowing the Lord to do the heavy lifting. And the same Christ who washed the feet of his disciples now lives in us and beckons us to the ministry of the towel. Such a ministry, flowing out of Christ in us, is life and joy and peace and freedom.
So Lent, then, is not merely about giving up chocolate, meat or social media. Those are only external reminders of an internal transformation that we seek. Our ultimate journey is to move from a self-regarding heart curved in on itself to an other-regarding openness to the love of God, a love for others, and a love for all God’s world.[iv]
I don’t remember a lot of things. But to this day, I remember sitting in my car outside in the parking lot of that resort wrestling with God, refusing to move. I live, not with guilt, but with a spiritual limp from that divine wrestling that reminds me that when I sense a holy nudge or hear the whispered prompting of “Go offer to help”, God is extending an invitation to move me from the prison of self-absorption to true freedom by including me in something large than myself – the manifestation of God’s ruling presence in the here and now.
God of Abraham, set us free from the captivity of self-centeredness. Give us ears to hear your whispered promptings. Give us sensitivity to recognize your holy nudges. Give us faith like Abraham’s so that when opportunities to serve are before us, we will move to serve with gratitude and love, displaying your kingdom among us. Amen.
The spiritual discipline of service leads one to a lifestyle of caring for others and serving others. I leave you with these words attributed to John Wesley:
“Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as ever you can.” [v]