To serve can mean so many things. Kindness to someone you know, kindness to someone you don’t know. To be of use, to help, to make a contribution, to make a difference.
To serve can mean so many things.
And, all are called to serve. No matter who you are, your age, your collection of identities, your estimate of what you have to give.
All are called.
Part of the reason why is that everyone is on a learning journey, and a main way to learn is through service. Service opportunities put you in places that may be new for you, and you discover things about yourself, you witness unknown talents emerging, you meet people who bring blessings into your life. You get as much as you give and maybe even more.
All are called to service because all are called to growth.
And then there is this reason. All are called to service, because each of us has a stake in everything and everyone else’s well-being. It’s one for all and all for one. This is so in several ways. For one, when I hurt others, I can make amends through service. I may not be able to make amends to the particular person I hurt, so let me make amends as best as I can to some other.
Another situation is when someone’s kindness heals me. The gratitude that results is a call to pass that kindness on to another. And kindness means service.
Everyone has hurt others.
Everyone has been the recipient of kindness.
Therefore: everyone is called to serve.
But now we must go even deeper into the spirituality of service, and to do so, I want to use an old teaching story, use it as a lens to magnify some other insights about service. The story is about a monastery down on its luck, shrinking in terms of numbers and spirit. Its leader is the Abbot, who is frustrated and burned out and has had it up to here with his brother monks.
One day, the story goes, he takes a break and goes over to the nearby Jewish temple, to visit with his good friend the Rabbi. The moment the Rabbi finished pouring tea, the Abbot began pouring out his frustrations and fears about what was going on at the monastery. The Rabbi handed him a tissue, comforted him with a hand on the shoulder, and then after some silence, found himself moved to say: “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. In the community I lead, we have long known something about your monastery, and now it’s time you knew: that the Messiah is one of you.”
At first the Abbot thought the Rabbi was joking. But there was no smirk on the Rabbi’s face, there was no mischievousness in his eyes. Seeing this, the Abbot, wiping way his tears, started to laugh. “The Messiah is one of us? Listen, I know a thing or two about Jewish theology. The Messiah is supposed to be a hero who restores justice and peace to the world. And let me tell you, I know my fellow monks, and none are hero material.”
Despite all these objections, the Rabbi held firm. “The Messiah is one of you. I don’t care how unlikely it seems. Believe it.”
The Abbot had never experienced the Rabbi as one given to exaggeration, or irrationality. He came away from the temple feeling amazement. A burden had been lifted. Maybe the Messiah really is one of us, he thought….
Entering the monastery, familiar sights and sounds were charged with new possibility. Walking down the halls, walking through the courtyard, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Every different monk he saw brought this same question to his mind. Is he the one? Soon enough, the blame he felt towards every one of them fell away, and what was left was anticipation, openness, respect.
It did not go unnoticed. One of the brothers came to him and said, “Sir, what has happened to you? You are so different….” It took a bit of coaxing, but the Abbot eventually explained what had happened. The revelation was stunning. The brother monk caught “the Messiah is one of you” vision, and soon enough, it spread all throughout the monastery, until every monk was wondering about every other monk, Could he be the one? Is he the one?
The good news simply could not be contained. The Messiah is one of us. Soon enough, the entire community glowed with kindness and grace. The prayer life grew profound and deep; the worship services vibrated with an energy they had never known before. Like a magnet, it drew villagers from the surrounding town to the monastery. They felt the amazing spirit of the place, and they wanted to be a part of that. In fact, requests to join the monastery rose to a number the Abbot had never known before, and he rejoiced.
Things had come full circle, from despair towards a community that felt like it was dying, to joy at how it had turned right around and discovered abundant new life. All because it believed and lived a profound vision: that the Messiah is one of us.
And that is the old teaching story, not factually true about any specific actual monastery but psychologically true, spiritually true, for us and for everyone.
What else can it teach us about the spirituality of service?
Start with the story’s beginning: the monastery down on its luck. Resentful and demoralized Abbot, resentful and demoralized monks. You better believe that, when a community is in a psychological space like this and the call to service has fallen on deaf ears, there is a feeling of deadly scarcity. The community is truly on a path towards death.
Do you all know that phrase about “freezing a person in time” so that your sense of them always goes back to some mistake they made, and they are never anything but that mistake? Same thing goes with communities. A community might have been the scene of some blow up, or it tries to improve but never quite gets there, and when you think of that community, your mind always goes back to that conflict or failure, the community can never be anything other than that.
Have you ever done this with West Shore, or with another group?
It may therefore be the first act of service to forgive. To let your mind and heart be immersed in the vision that we are all in the same cosmic classroom and we exist as an interdependent web of people who inevitably hurt other people as part of our learning journey, and these other people hurt us in turn. We are all just trying to learn. It is not personal. Those monks are not intentionally trying to mess things up for the monastery. Neither is the Abbot.
They just aren’t.
Forgiveness may very well be the first act of service. To forgive the parents who might have hurt us, the siblings, the friends, the colleagues, and, yes, the church. Forgiveness: which is about unfreezing, releasing, letting another person or another community have back their freedom to learn from their mistake and do things differently in the future.
These words are so easy to say. They are so hard to do.
One reason why is that we get stuck in our heads. The stories we tell ourselves are too narrow, too limited, and they are set on repeat like a broken record. Somehow, a larger vision needs to break through.
Which, in our teaching story, is where the Rabbi comes in, when he says “the Messiah is one of you.” He puts a very different spin on something that the Abbot already knew. The Abbot already knew that his fellow monks are Children of God. That’s a more Christian way of saying that all people are more than the sum of their mistakes, more than the sum of their social identities. That there is something that remains pure and free in each person no matter how bogged down they might seem to us, viewing them as we do from the outside.
Surely the Abbot had heard sermons about that a million times already!
It just points to the realistic fact that sometimes we need to hear about a truth we already know differently, to really receive it. In my ice-skating life, sometimes I get stuck in a bad habit and my head coach can tell me how to do it differently 20 times and it goes nowhere, but then I work with an assistant coach once and the way he says what he says penetrates, fits, clicks.
Sometimes, when people are stuck, what is needed is a different spin, a different metaphor, a different voice. That’s how the Rabbi served the Abbot, when he invoked the metaphor of the Messiah, rather than using the old “Child of God” metaphor that the Abbot was no doubt already well aware of.
It means that yet another way of serving, when people are stuck in a rut, is to change things up. Don’t just repeat what you’ve already said ten more times, or, even worse, decide that the person is just stupid. Say it differently, shake up how they are imagining it.
Besides forgiveness, helping people reimagine what they are doing or what they are facing is a powerful way of serving.
But now we take a closer look at the impact of the Rabbi’s main message to the Abbot, which spread through the monastery like wildfire: the good news that “the Messiah is one of us.”
Notice, first of all, what this good news does NOT mean. It does NOT mean that the Messiah, the bringer of justice and peace, is someone else. Affirm this–that the Messiah is someone else–and what you have is an impenetrable obstacle to seeing and receiving the abundance that is yours and is ours, here and now. I mean, if the Messiah is truly someone else, then nothing is going to get better until we get something that we don’t already have—more members, different members, different friends, different spouses, different children, different lives. Something other than what we have right now.
A classic example of church people believing that the Messiah is someone else comes from the sphere of fundraising. It’s people looking for a sugar daddy or sugar mamma to pay for what we all get to enjoy. Do you know what I’m talking about? People not giving at all—or giving way beneath their means—because they are counting on someone else to take care of it.
This is any church’s quickest route to a sense of collective scarcity.
Here’s a true-life story that proves the point. I heard it from West Shore member Soren Hansen. He told me about this Universalist Church he used to belong to. An old church whose Endowment Fund was so big that people drew on it to pay for everything. No one needed to pledge or in any other way give a dime. The Endowment Fund was the church’s Sugar Daddy, and no one had to give anything.
People just took.
Soren went on to say that this old church, with a building that could seat upwards of 800, dwindled away to a congregation of only 30 people. That was the shape the congregation was in, when Soren found it.
I was stunned to hear the story.
I was even more stunned to hear the same story repeated over and over again, as I went looking for other cases of congregations relying on a Sugar Daddy Endowment Fund or some other kind of Sugar Daddy to pay for everything.
They had all the money in the world, but no heart.
It means that the quality of your relationship with this congregation is absolutely impacted by the generosity of your direct giving. It means your annual pledge has a distinct spiritual dimension to it. It means when you could give more but you give less, you care less, you get less out of this Beloved Community.
“The Messiah is someone else” vision in fundraising is just a small vision that crushes the life out of the church.
“The Messiah is someone else” vision is exactly the mindset that the Abbot and his monks were struggling with. And maybe another mindset, as well: the vision that “only one of us—or only the few—get to be the Messiah.” Oh yes. The vision that only one person gets to step up, only one of us gets to be brilliant, only one of us can deepen our lives through service.
Now, it is true: in a big church like ours, where some jobs require special expertise, or when the oversight of programs requires the sort of focus and time that are just not possible for most volunteers, we need structure & policies and we need staff and ministers or at least a minister.
But it is a distorted and false vision to allow staff and ministerial leadership to control
everything. This is way beyond the fundamental structures and policies and paid leadership that are needed to keep this big institution afloat and going.
With a distorted “only one of us” vision like this, in the end everybody’s weeping. For one thing, the people who aren’t allowed to step up to service never get their chance to develop their Messiah-like potentials and step up into Messiah-like action. They must learn to be content just to follow, just to sit-and-soak. When things go wrong, their only option must be to complain and wait for the problem to be solved for them. Passivity and reactivity!
No wonder the monks in the monastery were all shallow and lifeless! No wonder the villagers wouldn’t touch the monastery with a ten-foot pole!
Who’d want to be a part of that?
And as for the person who is pegged as the official one and only Messiah: they are weeping because they are expected to do it all and be all for everyone else. They have to have all the wisdom. They have to have all the answers to solve all the problems. They have to have all the energy to be the change agent and must bear the full burden of that. They, in short, are stuck holding the hot potato; and they get burned out to a crisp.
Above all, what they don’t have is the right to be human, the right to make mistakes, the right to sometimes take off the Superhero cape.
They don’t have that right.
Ever felt like you have been stuck in the Messiah role, like this? That you’ve been pegged as the one answer person, the one who must always be strong, the one who must give and give and give without receiving? The Perfect one?
How could someone not be weeping if this is what their life is like?
It is said that without an expansive vision, the people perish. And I believe it. Ultimately, to peg one person as the official one-and-only one Messiah—or to say that the Messiah is always someone else but never me—is to hand ourselves over to a vision of scarcity in our lives, and we will shrink to fit. We will become scarcity. We’ll scatter into separate groups that compete and quarrel. Turn selfish. Be quick to anger and criticize. Quick to despair and to blame. We could be surrounded by every good thing in life, but we won’t be able to see it and receive it. We would starve in a full pantry because we simply couldn’t imagine anything higher than the floor, which is all that our eyes are looking at—the floor.
So much depends upon the kind of vision we give ourselves to. And I am saying that the expansive vision that all are called—the hopeful vision that the Messiah is one of us—now THAT is worthy of our loyalty. Its brilliance is the fact that the identity of the Messiah is forever deferred—we never know exactly who it might be—therefore the door is opened to moments when everyone potentially gets their time to shine, moments when your contribution in the moment is what helps us turn the corner, and then your contribution, and then yours … and if you don’t contribute in the moment, something precious that we are all depending on is lost….
This is nothing less than a good news imagination that allows the Abbott and us with him to see everything through the lens of a more positive kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. As the story says, “The Abbott would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Every different monk he saw brought this same question to his mind. Is he the one?” Inspired imagination like this is a matter of wondering, weaving and connecting the pieces of our lives together in a way that reveals new meaning and purpose. It’s so different from a burn-out imagination, which instinctively presumes meaninglessness in people and situations.
The Messiah is one of us: sometimes maybe you, sometimes maybe me, but always the maybe. That we are only human is true, and each of us brings limitations to our relationships and jobs and volunteer roles—but what if we refused to allow our vision of ourselves and each other to be defined by our limitations? What if we were to presume the best instead and wonder: Is he the Messiah? Is she the Messiah? Are they the Messiah? Could I sometimes be the Messiah?
What happens then?
If someone thinks I might be the Messiah and that I possess potentials to bring beauty and justice to this world in some unique way—if they treat me as if this were true, with all the reverence and respect this requires, then I will step up to that! I can be that!
Recognize me like this, respect me like this, and I will respond. Recognize the teenagers among us like this, and they will respond. Recognize the children among us like this, people of every age, every person who comes through our door, whatever they look like, whatever their gifts or flaws, and they will respond. The vision will happen.
The Messiah will come.
Let this story speak to us today, here at West Shore. Let it mean that each and every one of us finds a way to love this place and finds a way to give into it with their presence, their time, their money, their talent. It means that no one person is so valuable that without him or her we are lost. It means that all the resources we need are always already here within reach. It means that we are the servant leaders we have been waiting for!
We are all a part of the same cosmic classroom, teaching and learning from each other.
We can freeze each other in time, or we can release each other through forgiveness.
We can stay stuck in imaginative ruts about what is going on, or we can experience renewal by seeing what’s happening through new lenses, new metaphors.
It is our choice, moving forward: to know
that the Messiah is one of us
that all are called to serve.