I want first to apologize to my fellow Celebration of Discipline bloggers for my extended absence. I did not weigh in with posts on Chapters 7 and 8. Two weeks ago, when I read Chapter 7 on "solitude," I was stuck in a van for seven days on vacation with five other people, all of them relatives, so solitude was a concept I just couldn't get my fevered brain to accept.
Last week, during the chapter on "submission," I was too busy submitting to demands on my time from just about everyone to allow me to sit down and develop a cohesive post. I'm still having trouble figuring out that chapter -- it has so far proven the hardest for me to understand, much less put into practice. I understand some of what Foster says about the "why" and "should" of submission, but as far as practical "how to" information, I felt the author was a bit lacking.
Anyway, here I am now at Chapter 9, on the Discipline of service. I must admit that before I read it, I thought I had this chapter all figured out. I just knew that Foster was going to repeat a lot of Bible verses about providing for the poor, and doing for the least of these, and then lay down a big guilt trip about how I and other Christians should all be quitting our day jobs to become missionaries in Africa and work unpaid in soup kitchens and missions, give our old clothes to Goodwill, recycle and join the PTA.
Well, maybe not, but I had a narrow idea of "service" in mind, and it centered around helping established organizations, such as churches or government agencies, do BIG THINGS for God. It turns out that this is not what Foster is really concerned about in Chapter 9 at all.
Foster says that the definition of true Christian service can be found in the story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Jesus called them to a life of servanthood, which he described as true leadership, and told them, “If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15) Foster also reminds us that Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant…even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matt. 20:25-28)
This, says Foster, is “true” service, but he says that too often, we Christians substitute “self-righteous” service. I found that many of the things I thought were good deeds are considered “self-righteous” under Foster’s biblical criteria:
SELF-RIGHTEOUS SERVICE: Comes through human effort
TRUE SERVICE: Comes through promptings from God
SRS: Is impressed with “big” public acts of service
TS: Doesn’t distinguish between small and large acts of service
SRS: Requires external rewards for serving
TS: Is contented to remain hidden and unheralded
SRS: Picks and chooses whom to serve
TS: Does not discriminate, is willing to serve all, even enemies
SRS: Affected by moods and whims. We must “feel like” serving first
TS: Ministers simply because there is a need, whether one feels like serving or not
SRS: Is insensitive, doing good deeds even though they might prove destructive or counterproductive
TS: Can wait and listen, serving in silence if that’s what’s needed most
SRS: Fractures the community because it centers on the “glorification of the individual,” despite the religious trappings
TS: Builds community by quietly binding and healing
It’s somewhat obvious why our service benefits someone else – we see at least the exterior benefits they get – but what does true service do for us? Foster says possibly the biggest benefit seen by the servant is the strengthening of our humility by crucifying the flesh:
”Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance.”Foster then spends a lot of time pointing out the types of small, simple, unselfish acts of everyday service that can help produce this humility in us. Many of these examples I had never thought of as constituting acts of “service”: the service of small things (doing small tasks or running errands for others); the service of guarding the reputation of others (no gossiping or slandering); the service of being served (allowing others to do nice things for us); the service of common courtesy (saying thank you and all the other kindnesses); the service of hospitality (welcoming people into our home without having to make a big fuss about cleanliness or what to offer them to eat); the service of listening (not to give our unsolicited advice, just to listen); the service of bearing each other’s burdens; and the service of sharing God’s word with each other.
If we do these kindnesses and aren't concerned about who we bestow them on, can’t we be taken advantage of? Foster says yes, most definitely, and says the key is to simply expect that we will be taken advantage of in this way. We should expect that we will do things for others and get no thanks or even acknowledgement in return. Once do, Foster says, we are free to serve, and move closer to acquiring the mind of Christ:
”The result, then, of this daily discipline of the flesh will be the rise of the grace of humility. It will slip in upon us unawares. Though we do not sense its presence, we are aware of a fresh zest and exhilaration with living. We wonder at the new sense of confidence that marks our activities. Although the demands of life are as great as ever, we live in a new sense of unhurried peace. People whom we once only envied we now view with compassion, for we see not only their position but their pain. People whom we would have passed over before we now ‘see’ and find to be delightful individuals. Somehow – we cannot exactly explain how – we feel a new spirit of identification with the outcasts, the ‘offscourings’ of the earth (1 Cor. 4:13)”This is why Foster closes the chapter with an admission that he prays a simple prayer every day: "Lord Jesus, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve."