Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gifts: Service

Lord, make us instruments of your peace, where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. (a prayer attributed to St. Francis, BCP, page 833)

One of the elements of our Book of Common Prayer that I love, and frankly see too often neglected, is the treasure of prayers, litanies and collects that are assembled in the book and yet remain outside of the standard liturgies we experience most of the time in our worship life. Part of it lies, I am convinced, in the fact that both rectors and lay leadership in worship truly do have to think about a standard canon for community worship. We Episcopalians tend to use the BCP in very succinct ways. Go into any parish or mission church and pick up one of the (usually red) BCPs there. Look at both the spine and the pages and I will lay money in the collection plate that there is a crease in the spine and a brownish bulge in the center of the page block indicating that the primary liturgy of said parish begins on page 355 and ends on page 365. Some more traditional parishes might have either/or in addition to that bulge, a commensurate bulge beginning on page 323 and ending on page 339.

There are always elements of variation, but I will proffer that same collection plate money to you if you can produce a BCP from a pew rack that has pages 830-841 in that same, dog-eared state.

What does that say about us? That we are for the most part a Eucharistically-centered denomination? Yes. That our worship in community tends to fall on Sunday mornings? Probably. That these prayer books tend to get their majority of exercise only on those occasions? Surely. Still, my concern is that, as in so many ways, when we exercise just one part of the whole body of prayer (or any) resource available to us then we sell both ourselves and God short on what might happen in and through us via God's love and will for the world.

This brings me to the last element of the GIFTS idea. Service, and as in all things theological, I think it ultimately should also be bringing us back around to the first idea...Grace. Through service, we complete a circuit of relationship both to God and our neighbor and thus become more effective conduits (and become more open to) the grace of God flowing through us into the world, and that same grace being returned to us.

James, in his epistle to the Church, speaks most famously to his assertion that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (2:17) That, I am convinced, is a true saying, but taken out of context and without a willingness on our part to be open to the spirit of God moving in, around the through us toward others, it creates an onus on the part of the person purporting to be a follower of Christ to offer up what they have done, continue to do and intend to do for the Body-regardless of their posture, intent or character. Too often, that ideal of service to God becomes a "you show me your ecclesiastical resume and I will show you mine."

I have seen this work out in parishes again and again. Someone serves "forever" in a ministry as a leader and despite failing health or effectiveness we say "but he has given so much, how can we take this away from him?" Or, in large meetings when getting to the podium can sometimes be a struggle, it is the ones who stand and say, "I have been here x years and have served as y leader z many times," with the assumption that their opinion weighs with greater import that one who is only just come to the life of Christ in that place. James doesn't intend to inspire division by his words...or to laud and give legitimacy only to those who have the time and resources to volunteer as well as give wealth to the glory of God in the Church. He is instead challenging us to put our expressions of faith that we tender to God and to each other on Sunday mornings (remember that well-used section of the BCP?) to practice the other six days of the week in community with people who may not know Christ the way we do.

What James says just previous to that famous passage is paramount to our understanding just what it means to testify of our faith through works: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?" 2:14-16

If our understanding of our faith finding manifestation in works is to have merit before God, then two things need to take place-according to James. The first is that we not make empty assertions to others in need, either casting them out because they don't fit into our world-view or sending them off with that 'let them eat cake' mentality. When the other is in need, then we are given opportunity to put our expressions of faith into a material context.

If we say we are followers of Christ, then we face the responsibility to act on those credal assertions. Jesus says quite clearly that our first call as his followers is to love God with our whole being. The second is to love our neighbor as our self.

I saw this manifest in the testimony offered by a presenter during a conference this past summer on stewardship in the Church that I attended with my Senior Warden and Stewardship Chair. During her talk, she spoke to the classic tension that exists in most congregations between optimistic and pessimistic points of view. "Many in Churches see the glass as either half-empty of half-full," she said to us, "A good steward sees that glass, turns to her neighbor and asks-'Are you thirsty?'"

Service is being willing to embrace that perspective-to seek to offer the half-full/empty glass to the person who actually has thirst. Service is orienting the individual and the church toward pushing its resources to where they are needed and to those who are in need. It is bears its best fruit in a life that is other-oriented, yet maintains awareness of core motivations and intent.

Another way of looking at service is for us to strive to understand, and act from a posture of inter-dependence (by making sure your needs are met, we become healthier) instead of co-dependence (my sense of well being is determined by your state of being, and my sense of self is contingent on what I get back from you as I serve). If I want to give, serve, act from a place in myself that is centered first and foremost on loving God and then loving neighbor, then I have to be willing to give up the idea that ANY sort of quid pro quo could attach to my actions, my prayers or any perceived or expected outcome. I act because I love God. I serve my neighbor because I love God and I love my neighbor. In order to truly articulate and make manifest in the world my faith, then service is its truest sign.

God is, and in being reveals God's self to us. We act, and in responding to God's being we discover what it means to be.

All of stewardship, from commitments of time, or material resources or of particular skills, means naught if we aren't willing to tender them in service to God and the neighbor. Most of life is about figuring out how to get what we need/want in terms of income in order to cover what we need/want to do, possess or experience. Service is about taking all of that human activity into one prayerful experience of allowing God to transform the worldly passions we know into divine union with God and communion with each other in the Body of Christ.

Take a moment for yourself, just one or two, and think about your life...consider consecrating your work, your leisure, your care of self and family, your hobbies and pastimes...consider consecrating them to God as service rendered-as faith made tangible in the works of your life.

In that, even mundane tasks like making breakfast for your children becomes sacrament.

Full circle, then...Service in life when taken as a consecrated gift to God and neighbor accomplishes one thing above all else that I would pray see happen in our life in Christ. Like taking that prayer book out and using more than just a few pages to pray...we with SERVICE make our whole lives an act of devotion...there are no metaphorical pages that remain uncreased, untouched or under used in a life passionately committed to rendering full service in that way.

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