My toes were a combination of numb and painful. It was below freezing on a Friday night in the District of Columbia, and I was spending it walking around Capitol Hill talking to people living life unsheltered. I handed Dan and Jenny each a cup of hot chocolate, as they playfully teased me for the Irish jig I was doing to keep warm. On the corner of Northeast Massachusetts Avenue and First Street, we warmed the night together with laughter and conversation.
I believe that if you give people the outlet, they will show you the true beauty of their hearts—aches, pains, joys, inspirations, and all—and one environment in which I’ve always been able to find this is when I am in service to others. My fellow volunteer and I were out with blankets, snacks, conversation, and a reminder of the city’s right to shelter that night. We were in service to those who shall not be forgotten.
Dan and Jenny were going on their nineteenth year of marriage and were the epitome of “through sickness and through health,” the living truth of “for better or for worse,” and the encouraging reminder of “for richer or for poorer.” Jenny opened her heart to me, explaining her past history of abuse and how Dan many years ago had taken her on a trip across the country that cured her of her deep depression. Dan believed that if Jenny traveled and met other people along the road, she’d learn from them about how we are all hurt and that we find the strength to go on when we connect with one another. With a bright smile on her face, Jenny told me how this trip had saved her. I stood in awe of this couple, truly in it together, praying for a one-bedroom apartment, and living in love while they waited. My heart felt full and warm and before I could think of the word to describe how I was feeling in their presence, Dan said to me, “You’re out here receiving blessings.”
I responded with an inquisitive smile, and so he continued, “You’re in service to others, and you’re being blessed by God. That’s ultimately what I want to do. I want to make sandwiches and hand them out to the homeless someday and just receive blessings.”
And that was just it. Although I had not gone out that evening with the intention of receiving blessings, what I was feeling—as I stood there cold, but warm in the company of good souls—was blessed. I felt blessed.
When I returned home that night, I thought about God again, and the powerful little wisdoms in religion that we often lose in the fight over whose faith is right and whose is wrong. I thought about what we can learn if we distill the religious fight down to what really matters, to the true essence of religious teachings. Previously, I contemplated the phrase, “let go, and let God,” and now, I’m looking at what it really means to be a servant of the Lord.
This evening was not the first time I had felt blessed in this way. In fact, a month or two back, my day-to-day was riddled with stress and grief. I couldn’t seem to find the courage to quiet my head and to see beyond the fog. After a long workday, I pushed to keep my energy going for an interview at Capitol Hill Group Ministry to become a mentor for youth experiencing homelessness. During the metro ride there, and then along the walk to the office, I felt heavy. By the time I left, however, after having spoken with two great administrators of the program about why I wanted to do this and what exactly we’d be doing, that weight had been lifted.
I walked down the street after our meeting with my head no longer looking down, but facing our world, facing this moment. Along my walk, I passed a woman experiencing homelessness who was asking for help. She was in a wheelchair and she was deaf. Remembering some of what I had learned in my college American Sign Language courses, I stopped to chat with her for a bit—simple questions like: what’s your name, how are you, where are you from?
When we told each other goodbye, and I continued my walk back to the metro, my face had been taken over by a smile, and I felt as though something was watching me. Instinctively, I looked up at the blue sky. I took in the omnipresence of this feeling and began to laugh out loud. In that moment I understood. I was but a vessel of something bigger. I had been so caught up in my own personal stress, and the only thing that had so effortlessly been able to pull me out of that was a sense of service to something greater. In some way, knowing in that moment that I was a servant of God, whatever that God may actually be, made all of life make sense, made all of life light—the pressure was gone, as my purpose was clear.
They say that God is love. And so, if God is love, and we are servants of God, then our service is an extension of a great love.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.
—Kahlil Gibran, On Work
And what makes service ever the more powerful is that anyone can be of service. As a people, we tend to easily get wrapped up in our own egos, and doing so doesn’t breed love. Doing so often pulls us apart from each other, creating an “us and them” mindset where we’re better and they’re worse, or we feel empty and unworthy because they are so much more “successful.” Service is the great equalizer. Service binds us together through love.
Martin Luther King, Jr. explains this idea so powerfully in his sermon, The Drum Major Instinct, in which he explains the story of how James and John came to Jesus looking to be first, looking to each secure an exclusive spot by Jesus’s side. Instead of castigating James and John for their ego-driven pursuits of greatness, Jesus instead takes this as an opportunity to redefine what greatness is to them. As Martin Luther King, Jr. explains:
But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
To me, being a servant of God does not mean you’re some “crazy religious freak.” To me, being a servant of the Lord means putting aside our own ego-based thinking and actions for a greater good. Being a servant releases us from the painful pressure and stress this self-focused approach inflicts upon our own hearts and souls; it allows us to surrender ourselves to love.
Service does not necessarily entail the same thing for every person. Hypothermia street outreach to unsheltered men and women may not be a calling for everyone—and that’s ok. For some, being a servant may mean cleaning up a neighborhood park. For others, it may be providing financial counseling to those who may not understand that facet of this life on their own. Still others may find it to be writing letters to people who could use a little cheer, or repairing and selling old bikes to members of the community.
The truth about service is that it really doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do it with love. If we look at each of our actions throughout each day as not just another mundane task, as not just another thing to do, but as service, as a piece of the fabric that creates a greater, more loving world, then suddenly that pain, that lost feeling, that anger, that sense that we’re all alone, begins to dissipate, and we’re left with the true reality that we are an extension of a great love; we matter in a way far greater than our own ego alone.
I may not go to church every Sunday. I may not be an active member of any synagogue. I may not pray at a set schedule every day. Some may question my faith and my belief, or not understand how I can believe in everything and not assign myself to one religion or to one spiritual path. But one thing, regardless of how we define or argue over religion and spirituality, will always stand strong as a personal truth to me. Never have I felt such a clear sense of purpose as I do when I am in service to others, when I am walking around on the cold streets of our nation’s capital making sure that my neighbors are warm enough. One thing I know for certain—I am a servant of God.
~Names were changed to respect the privacy of these individuals.~
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