In a small, dusty town in western Oklahoma, it grew cold as the days shortened. One November a young single mother struggling to make ends meet had a thought that the more she considered it, the more it warmed her. She worked as many hours as she could at a local convenience store, barely making it. After work, she would take care of her small child and assist an elderly relative who lived in the same town, occasionally running errands and buying groceries. But she still felt a need to help others growing stronger in her heart.
A nearby nursing home needed someone to style the resident’s hair for Thanksgiving Day festivities. After arguing with her boss who did not want to allow her time off work, she won her case and set off on Thanksgiving morning to the nursing home. The residents lined up; some were in wheelchairs, some were in beds, some weren’t even awake. Most talked very little if at all as she styled their hair to look nice for that special day, some for family visits, many for no one at all. With just a few hours, she brightened many lives.
Asked later why she was willing to go through so much to serve, she replied, “I just needed to give. I made them happy that day. I made a difference.”
The person who related that story to me didn’t even include this woman’s name. Why? Because there are two kinds of people who serve. There are those who serve from the heart out of the need to give like the single mother and there are the pretenders who perform a service, then quickly look around expecting praise and recognition. And get angry when it doesn’t come. And judge the visitors to the food pantry for their nice cars. And feel emptier and angrier when they are finished their “service” than when they began.
You know you have truly served when you walk away afterwards feeling like you were the one who received. My neighbor enjoys the brownies I made for her, but I get full.
When we do hard things, moving out of our comfort zones, walking toward risk and awkwardness—not away from it—and get things done, something else happens. Using the gifts we’ve been given is not just honorable but transformative, as we are as joy-filled as Elisha’s widow’s pot.
As we consider the pathway to spiritual maturity, obedient service is part of that process. Not to balance out grace, but to reveal it. Doing hard things, trying and failing and succeeding and persevering in good works and service is exactly what God uses to reveal his kindness, forgiveness, and mercy through us, and to us.
I remember serving John at a disabilities camp one summer. He was autistic and non-commutative. But as I served him, and loved his family, and fed him, and kept him safe (mostly). At the end of the week, I wasn’t mad at him for throwing feces around the room one day. I missed him and felt emptier without him almost immediately. I still think of him often. Now he’s learned to speak a few words. Like “Thank you.” When I heard those two words we so casually toss around, spoken by John, they filled my heart beyond measure.
To experience that, I had to do something hard, with someone who was mysterious and chaotic, and get nothing in return. But that’s exactly where God wanted me and his little discipler, John.
Find a person, a place, a cause, that is difficult and overwhelming and I’ll show you a place where God fills us to capacity with love and hope and faith.