Without Love it Means Nothing
Do everything in love."— 1 Corinthians 16:4
The green neon servants
A few years back I turned down several invitations to spend Christmas with various friends and family. I decided to go down to the local rescue mission and serve for the day. I went through application process and was approved. Soon I was notified they wanted me to come for the breakfast shift. I was very excited, feeling pretty darn good about being able to help others at this time of year.
When I arrived there was no parking, every lot being full and closed. I had to park blocks away and hike in the freezing cold to get to the dining hall. What I saw nearly knocked me over. A long queue of people streaming from the back door of the kitchen out onto the parking lot. "I wonder why people are at the back door. Don't they even provide a dining room?" I went near the front of the line and asked someone what the line was for. "This line is for volunteers," said a middle aged man. Hmmm. This is not what I expected. I went to the end of the line which took me through the parking lot, almost to the sidewalk. I hadn't dressed warmly enough because I hadn't anticipated standing out in the frigid air. "How irritating," I thought. "I came all this way to help people, and I'm stuck standing in this icy wind." Shame on me for not thinking about the men and women who daily lived in the biting winter temperatures.
I waited for a good fifteen to twenty minutes to get up to the door. I could see the kitchen staff bustling around getting breakfast ready. But over to the left people were squeezing into a crowded room - in with street clothes on, out of it with bright neon T-shirts that said Rescue Mission Volunteer on them.
When I entered the shirt room the neon green T-shirts lay in a big pile on the floor, empty boxes, and cellophane strewn everywhere. People were trying to squeeze into their shirts. Flabby, well fed bellies jiggled visibly through the two size too small shirts, and children swam in their shirts. Apparently they were down to one or two sizes. The mission staffer was hollering at everyone to hurry up because people were standing out in the cold. I was one of the flabby bellied people who had to squeeze into a too small shirt. "How annoying," I thought. I wasn't thinking about how the very people we came to serve often had to take what they could get when it came to clothing.
The cattle of volunteers were herded to the kitchen and jobs were assigned. I was assigned to the beverage table in the dining room. As I entered, I was taken quite aback at the picture I saw. The tables were full of happy, hungry men and women. But I could barely see them through the sea of neon green, T-shirted volunteers hovering around each table and in every nook and cranny of the room. I helped set up a special table with glasses and cups and a variety of other things I can't remember and then I began going from table to table to take orders.
"Sir, would you like coffee, tea, milk or juice?"
"Oh thanks hon," said a burly guy in a snow cap. "But someone just took my order."
"Oh good. Merry Christmas."
This went on for awhile until...
"Hello Ma'am, would you like some coffee, tea, juice, coffee, all of the above maybe?"
"Thank you but that lady over there just took my order for coffee. But you know, I would like a glass of juice."
Thrilled that I could make someone's Christmas day merry, I ran to get her juice. I had to wait in the line of eager and enthusiastic volunteers at the beverage table. They were all squeezing past each other. The room was wall to wall neon servants. The worker behind the table could see this was not working so he just told us to grab pitchers and start serving table to table. Milk and juice were slopping on the table and all over the floor from us all jostling into each other. The pit of my stomach felt like a sinking anchor. My spirit fell. This didn't feel right, look right, seem right. I noticed many of my fellow servers looked stressed, disappointed, and confused. It didn't feel right to them either.
I continued to work the tables, mostly topping off beverages and bringing words of cheer. As the guests were eating, talking and laughing, the neon green brigade were swarming the tables like mother hens. I started to notice a change in the countenance of the guests. I saw a few of their heads shake, pairs of eyes rolling, frowns forming, looking behind them to see who had just bumped into the back of their chair for the umpteenth time. The chair bumpers of course were the volunteers trying to squeeze between each other and the tables. Finally a mission staffer came in and ordered half the volunteers to report back to the kitchen. He assigned them to other duties in the back, but there were still too many volunteers in the dining room. They told the departed group that if they wanted to serve they could do it at the 3 p.m. dinner. In the meantime, trash needed to be taken out, and all the other behind the scenes dirty work. The kitchen volunteers thinned out rather rapidly at that point. Garbage detail wasn't the glory task some had signed up for. It did my heart good, though, to see several teen boys and girls step up with enthusiasm and vigor to do the work others did not want to.
They decided to send me back out to clean away tables and meet whatever needs the guests had. The workers still there had it all covered and there was nothing for me to do. Seeing I was not needed I wandered back to the kitchen. I saw a mission staffer and asked him, "Is it always like this? So many volunteers?"
"Only on Christmas and Thanksgiving. The rest of the year these people aren't here. We never have enough help. Most people only care twice a year."
I asked him how much he needed me there. He told me feel free to go on home, he was about to send home another herd of cattle volunteers any moment. I thanked him and left with a sad and disappointed heart.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."— John 13:35
What's wrong with this picture?
A big part of the problem with what happened at the mission that day was very poor organization by the mission staff. In order to be a volunteer you had to go through an application process and be approved. So they knew how many volunteers were scheduled to be there. The staffer I talked to also told me that many people show up to volunteer without going through the application process (because they didn't know they had to) and the mission hates to turn away good hearted volunteers. I can understand that. They want to help and serve. Good for them. But they didn't have enough work for everyone.
What began as an attempt to bring good cheer to people who were struggling to stay warm and fed turned into a chaotic mess, and caused great annoyance to many of the guests. Ever since I served at the mission that Christmas some four or so years ago, I have never returned on a holiday. There are plenty of volunteers.
I would like to emphasize that I believe with all sincerity, the people in green served that day out of generous, selfless hearts. I saw it in their eyes and energy, heard it in their comments, and saw it demonstrated in the way they interacted with the guests. I saw many frustrated as I was also. It was a bittersweet experience.
I have done a lot of customer service and volunteer work in my life and I never want to be in a position where someone's experience with me personally or the company or organization I represent leave with a bad taste in their mouth. This was one of those times. Instead of being a part of the blessing I was part of the madness.
All that said, I am not sorry I went. It was a learning experience and there is no doubt that many men and women were blessed by the meal, in spite of the chaos.
Love must be sincere."— Romans 12:9a
Why do we serve?
Poor organization isn't the real focus of this hub. My focus goes back to what the staffer said about people are only interested in serving twice a year and the rest of the time they don't care. That's like a sword through the heart. This is the kind of statement that gets our hackles up. "How dare they say we don't care the rest of the year. What do they know about me and my heart?" That was how I felt at first. I always hated it when my mom said "Actions speak louder than words," because I knew it was true. She was in cahoots with the Lord, I'm sure.
The drive home was a long one and I had a lot of time to think and pray. I cried most of that time, partly because it was such a disappointing experience for everyone involved, and partly because I was second guessing what my motives were that day for serving. It made me sad to think I never thought about going to the mission any other day of the year. Had I gone that day just to feel better about myself? Had I come seeking to put another notch on my "Christian service card?" Was it because I desperately cared about the people I would be serving and wanted to make sure they had a merry Christmas? Doesn't serving the Lord in any capacity always offer a feeling of joy at being able to make a difference in someone's life? Is that okay or not okay? Where is the defining line between feeling good about what I was able to do to help, and feeling good only in seeing how blessed the recipients were in what they received? Are both acceptable? The lines seemed so blurry to me.
The final and most important question I had to ask myself was "Do I care enough about others who are in need to serve any time of the year?"
The answer to that question for all of us will reveal where our hearts truly are.
It's about love
I learned a lesson that day. Serving God and serving people boils down to loving God and my neighbor as myself. It is not about loving what I've done or can do for Him, or loving how it makes me feel. It's okay to feel those things, but they should not be what compels us to serve. The Bible tells us that there will be rewards and crowns for God's saints in heaven, But the Bible also says we will lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus (Rev. 4:9-11). All the glory goes to God, not to us.
God says in Isaiah that our righteousness is as filthy rags (Is. 64:6). But when Christ died and rose again, He transferred or credited His righteousness to our account. So now, when God looks at us, He sees Jesus' righteousness in place of our debt. Jesus paid a debt He did not owe, because we owed a debt we could not pay. So our good works, in and of themselves do not make us righteous. Our good deeds should be the fruit of abiding in Christ, and reflect what he did for us, in us, and through us. We do not earn God's grace; if we did we would be boasting in ourselves not Him, and the works we did would not glorify God. Grace is a free gift. (See Eph. 2:8-9)
The Apostle Paul understood what was most important: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing...And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1Cor. 13:1-3,13).
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the thing which are needed for the body, what does it profit?"— James 2:15-16
Serve as God directs you and as you are able
Not everyone is able to be involved in serving in a mission, or go to a nursing home to minister to the elderly on a regular basis, but there are a million in one ways to reach out to people who have little, who are suffering, and who are lonely. It doesn't have to be on a grand scale. Serving those in need can and should be a life style of seizing every day opportunities to minister to others. It can be a hug to a co-worker who is mourning the loss of a loved one, or it can be visiting an elderly person in the hospital.
You might argue that you do not have time. We do live in a busy world and there are many circumstances that make serving those in need a difficulty. Someday, you may well need the help of others, and it will be hard to accept that many will feel they are just too busy to help. So ask God to show you each day how you might be a blessing and help to someone else. Some elderly and disabled people who cannot get out, minister through prayer, and letters and phone calls of encouragement. God has moved many mountains through the prayers of a bedridden prayer warrior. God has a work for you to do as you journey through the day to day business of life.
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you."— 1 Thessalonians 3:12
© 2013 Lori Colbo. All rights reserved.
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© 2013 Lori Colbo