Learning to Serve

I spoke in Waterville yesterday. This month the topic was on service. I focused on a question I’ve had around service for quite some time: when is it appropriate, and inappropriate, to serve? I know the easy answer is “you should never turn down an opportunity to serve.” But there are times when you just don’t have time, or the request is manipulative. For me, it’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I really reached an answer, but I tried. I was happy with how the talk turned out.

Here’s the full text from yesterday:


When it comes to service, perhaps the single best known contribution I made to the discussion in the Farmington ward was to create the infamous Ward Moving Project Contract when I was the Elders Quorum President. This would have been about nine years ago. I’d already been living in the ward for a few years before I received that calling, and I’d been in the presidency for a year or so during that time. Over the course of my time in the presidency, I had seen a pattern develop for most service projects the Elders Quorum was asked to perform.

The approach to service has changed a fair bit in between then and now, but at the time, the Elders Quorum was often looked at as the go-to muscle to do any job a member of the ward wanted help with. Whether it was wood projects, cleaning out a house, or moving someone into or out of the ward, we were always just a phone call away. Let me state right away that I have nothing against helping members out in times of need. There have certainly been times I have been in a real bind, and church members have shown up to provide me with some much needed assistance.

And yet as I went to some of those service projects, I observed a few troubling trends that some–not all–of the projects involved. First of all, they were often last minute affairs, called at the spur of the moment, even though they were projects that could have been anticipated long in advance. Hardly anyone finds out they need to move less than a week before that move needs to take place, for example, and it’s not as if the fact that anyone running a wood stove will need firewood to stay warm over the winter should come as a shock to anyone. Members of the Elders Quorum can be busy with their regular lives. It was difficult to throw together a project at the last minute and have it be well organized and attended.

Additionally, I would see some of the people we were serving take little care for actually participating in the project themselves. Able bodied men and boys sitting inside while the quorum was outside hauling wood. Or we’d arrive to a moving project to find nothing boxed and ready to go. I don’t want to cast aspersions on any one project in particular. I’m sure there could be extenuating circumstances for any one of them. But taken as a whole, they presented a worrisome trend.

Enter the Ward Moving Project Contract. Because I’m a bit of an electronic packrat, I still have a copy hanging out in my email. Some of the elements of the document were very practical. It asked people to identify the size of the home being moved, as well as any specialty items (like pianos or washing machines). But it also had some pretty strict guidelines, asking people to give at least two weeks’ notice for a move, provide water for anyone during the move, box everything before the project began, and obtain all necessary moving trucks and equipment ahead of time. One of its last bullets noted, “Any deviation from these guidelines must be discussed in advance and approved by the Elders Quorum President. If these guidelines are not suitable, we encourage the family to find alternate means to move themselves. If these guidelines are violated, we will leave.”

I played for keeps with that contract. Let’s just say It didn’t exactly go over well with everyone who saw it. The most oft repeated criticism of it was that it was big on commitments and light on Christlike service. After all, Christ didn’t make the ten lepers sign a waiver before He healed them, and no long disclaimer was handed out before the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

Yet this is an issue that continues to resound with me. Where is the line between unselfish service and borderline indentured servitude? Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that different church members can have very different ideas about when it’s appropriate to ask for help from other members, and when it isn’t. I’ve heard some complain (back when we were still doing the home teaching program) that their home teachers wouldn’t come for all their requests. But then I heard requests for service ranging from yard work to roof shoveling to house cleaning–basically things that many people consider actual jobs. Believe me, I understand that it’s cheaper if you can get a church member or a missionary to come do something for free instead of hiring it done, but is it appropriate?

The answer to that question is going to vary from member to member, which is fine, I suppose, until it isn’t. Until a member who thinks it’s appropriate to ask for help clearing their property of poison ivy asks someone who thinks that’s a step too far. Either the member who’s been asked will refuse, leaving the requestor feeling spurned, or they’ll agree, and resent the extra unnecessary help they’re giving.

Obviously, a large part of this predicament can be avoided by both parties being understanding and Christlike in their dealings with each other. But beyond that, I have always been taught there’s a hierarchy in the way we ask for help solving a problem. First, we should all strive to be self-sufficient. If there’s something we can solve on our own, we should do so. Second, we should turn to our family for assistance. If there remains a task we can’t handle, then it’s appropriate to turn to the church. True, that hierarchy is generally used when someone’s looking for financial assistance from the church, but I think it applies to other types of assistance as well.

For me, one of the best acts of service I’ve ever received in the church occurred when I wasn’t even in the state. I was down in Boston, as I recall, when my wife called me, frantic. The basement was flooding. The sump pump had failed, and water was pouring in from the crawl space. I was far away, unable to assess the situation. I suggested she call our home teachers, and they came within the half hour. The cleaned the sump pump, got things working again, and a crisis was avoided.

Another example that comes to mind are the times I’ve called friends and home teachers to come give a blessing to me or a family member. I’ve been so grateful for people who are willing to step in and help me when I’ve had no way of helping myself.

As I’ve thought about service, then, I’ve looked at these examples to try and find what made them feel different from the times when my own efforts have felt unnecessary or unappreciated. First off, they involved emergencies. These were times when I needed help right then, and I had no idea I’d need help ahead of time. Second, they were things I was unable to do on my own, whether because I lacked the knowledge or experience or because I wasn’t physically present to pitch in. Third, they were times the person involved contributed with no thought or hope of recompense. They were just being nice to be nice. More on that in a moment.

My wife and I have been trying to instill a strong work ethic in our children, and that’s a task that’s proven much more difficult than I would have hoped. I don’t think it’s because my children are particularly rebellious or lazy. I actually think they’re pretty great. But rather, I think we all have a need to overcome the natural man, and the natural man in my house seems to have a real taste for long sessions of Fortnite games and My Little Pony marathons.

Over the years, we’ve tried various programs and approaches to household chores. We’ve had goal sheets, sticker charts, rewards, penalties, Family Home Evening discussions, and more. In the end, the thing that’s worked the best for us has been the development of the Chore Chart, a grid we print off each week that has various chore assignments that change from week to week. Video games and screen time aren’t unlocked each day until those chores are finished.

It’s worked for the most part, as each of our three children have faced the grim reality that my wife and I aren’t kidding about getting those chores done. But one area where it’s failed has been in the building of any sort of a sense of family unity and service around the home. Instead, I see my children often check off the stuff they have to do and completely ignore anything that isn’t on their slate that week. In my ideal world, we’d all be pitching in for each other as everyone’s needs and responsibilities change from week to week.

When I was halfway through my undergraduate degree, I learned firsthand a simple principle: when I choose to do something, I have a whole lot more fun doing it than when I am forced to do it by outside influences. In school, this meant I would try to get ahead of my homework and reading by at least a few days, so I was no longer doing it because I had to do it, but because I wanted to get it done. I know that might not seem like an insignificant difference to many of you, but it made all the difference in the world to me. Suddenly, how I spent my time was up to me. Yes, I could sit around and play video games if I wanted. No professor would have gotten mad at me or been disappointed. I was ahead of my obligations, after all. But I could also spend some time to stay ahead of the curve and keep that feeling of being on top of things with me. It’s a heady sensation, if you’ve never had it before. One that’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to recapture as my obligations multiply over the years.

The same principle applies to service, I think. When you do something because you’ve chosen to do it, it’s much less likely to feel like a burden or an imposition. Go grudgingly, and chances are you’ll resent what you’re asked to do.

In the seventh chapter of Moroni, Mormon talks about the importance of intentions and their relation to our actions.

6 For behold, God hath said a man being aevil cannot do that which is good; for if he boffereth a gift, or cprayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real dintent it profiteth him nothing.

7 For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

8 For behold, if a man being aevil giveth a gift, he doeth it bgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

9 And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with areal intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.

Cristina B. Franco, Second Counselor in the Primary General Presidency, put it like this: “it will not matter if we sat in the comfy seats or if we struggled to get through the meeting on a rusty folding chair in the back row. It won’t even matter if we, of necessity, stepped into a foyer to comfort a crying baby. What will matter is that we came with a desire to serve, that we noticed those to whom we minister and greeted them joyfully, and that we introduced ourselves to those sharing our row of folding chairs—reaching out with friendship even though we aren’t assigned to minister to them. And it will certainly matter that we do all that we do with the special ingredient of service coupled with love and sacrifice. In the end, it’s the motivation we do our service that matters.”

So there we have it. All we need to make sure we are approaching service right is to be joyful about it. We need to be authentically good. Fantastic. Wait a minute. How do we do that?

Back in July, I injured my shoulder playing tennis. It’s been bugging me ever since. Not a severe pain most of the time, but enough to remind me it’s there. A constant discomfort marked now and then by more intense pain. I debated going to get it looked at, but as the months went by and it didn’t improve, I finally decided enough was enough. It turns out the injury was more serious than I was trying to pretend (surprise surprise), and I’ve been going to physical therapy now for the past few months.

What I wanted to get out of physical therapy was simple. A few key exercises I could do every day that would magically make my shoulder feel better. But after the initial exam, the therapist told me one of the things I really needed to improve was my posture. It turns out my shoulders are rolled way too far forward. The muscles that are supposed to be there keeping everything tight and in place aren’t developed enough. Because of that, whenever I move, I’m exacerbating the problem. This is something a younger body was able to get away with, but as my body gets older, it isn’t as resilient as it used to be.

My therapist showed me where my shoulders were supposed to be, manhandling them back into a painful position. I stared at him, thinking he had to be joking. “How in the world am I supposed to keep them there all the time?” I asked.

He told me those muscles are actually indefatigable, a fun word to say which means they aren’t ever supposed to get tired. They’re built for long term endurance. Except mine have been on a permanent vacation. “You get them into shape the same way you train for a marathon,” he told me. “Bit by bit over time, with concerted effort and attention. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, it’ll eventually improve.”

I think that’s the same way we become authentically good. It’s not something that’s going to happen in a day. We won’t be asked to perform service and magically find ourselves excited and ready to help. “19 For the anatural bman is an cenemy to God, and has been from the dfall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he eyields to the enticings of the fHoly Spirit, and gputteth off the hnatural man and becometh a isaint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a jchild, ksubmissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”

Satan’s goal is for us to skip that process. For us to think about it and decide it’s just too hard. He’d much rather we slouched through life instead of standing tall and doing what God has asked. To persuade us away from the right path, he puts up as many false obstacles as he can. He’d have us think of service strictly as the most uncomfortable, unwanted activities we can imagine. But I think that most of us actually do far more service than we’re aware.

First of all, remember that service to your friends and family counts just as much as service to strangers. Not if you’re just doing it so that your friends and family will do things for you, but if you’re generally trying to help someone other than yourself, congratulations. You’re serving.

President Dallin H. Oaks taught: “Our Savior gave Himself in unselfish service. He taught that each of us should follow Him by denying ourselves of selfish interests in order to serve others. A familiar example of losing ourselves in the service of others … is the sacrifice parents make for their children. Mothers suffer pain and loss of personal priorities and comforts to bear and rear each child. Fathers adjust their lives and priorities to support a family… We also rejoice in those who care for disabled family members and aged parents. None of this service asks, what’s in it for me? All of it requires setting aside personal convenience for unselfish service. …[And] all of this illustrates the eternal principle that we are happier and more fulfilled when we act and serve for what we give, not for what we get. Our Savior teaches us to follow Him by making the sacrifices necessary to lose ourselves in unselfish service to others.”

For whatever reason, service to family can sometimes feel like baseline service. It’s taken for granted as something we’re supposed to do anyway, perhaps, and so it doesn’t count as real service. And yet it should very much count all the time. Unselfish service doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Much of the initial phases of learning to serve joyfully and unselfishly are learned through service in the home. Being part of a family provides us with so many opportunities to forget ourselves and help others.

In some ways, I worry the chore chart my wife and I made for our children is teaching the value of hard work, but at the expense of selfless service. After all, a family can’t function if every person in it is only worried about the things he or she has to get done each day. There will be times I’m busier than everyone else, and times that everyone else is busier than I am. I should pitch in to help where I can instead of simply stopping at the boundaries of what’s been assigned to me.

I’m still not quite certain how to go about helping that trait to grow in my family, and it’s caused me to reflect on how I’ve helped it grow in myself. We all have weaknesses, and I think that’s still one area I need to work on personally. I’ve found the best way to become better at anything is through practice, and so I’m trying to take more time to do nice things for others in my family without being asked. Ideally, I do it without being acknowledged, either–and that’s a tricky spot for me.

It’s not just that I don’t like feeling like I’m not appreciated. When I clean the bathroom or do the dishes for one of my kids, I want them to recognize that I pitched in and helped out. I want my children to realize they had responsibilities and someone helped them  After all, step one is realizing they have obligations of their own to fulfill.

As I wrote this talk, I came to a greater understanding of the way I learned how to serve others. It happens in stages. The first stage is recognizing you have things you need to do for yourself. Things you want to improve. Goals you want to meet. Until you can start wanting to improve yourself, moving on to the next step is impossible.

Sister Franco notes a problem with this of course. “We live in a selfish world where people constantly ask, “What’s in it for me?” instead of asking, “Whom can I help today?” or “How can I better serve the Lord in my calling?” or “Am I giving my all to the Lord?” But I think it’s important to realize that even developing just a love of yourself is still a way to develop and understand love. If you stop there, you’ve done almost no one but yourself any good, though.

The next step is to recognize that the love you feel for yourself is something others feel for themselves as well. That we all have our own goals and desires, and that the odds of us reaching those goals are slim as long as we’re on our own. It’s easiest to recognize this in people you already care for or regularly interact with. “Perhaps,” you say to yourself, “if I were to help my mother with that chore, she’d be more likely to want to help me get the thing I want.” It’s still mostly a selfish desire, but you are at least beginning to move your attention elsewhere, if only to get the things you want more quickly.

But once that realization that other people have desires and goals moves from being “this is a way I can manipulate people into helping and liking me” and over to a “what would it feel like if someone were to help me without being asked?” we can really begin to progress. Often that transition only occurs when we see the example of other people. In my experience, sometimes it takes multiple instances before someone begins to actually sit up and take notice. That happens with many things, like when you learn a new word for the first time, and you swear no one has ever used that word in front of you before. Except from the moment you learn it, you discover multiple people using the word around you from then on.

I have to remind myself that my children are learning line upon line, just as I am. At times it might feel important to point out to them that I did something nice for them without being asked, but the more I think about it, the more I worry that sets the exact wrong example I’m trying to portray. The moment you bring up the fact that you did something nice for them, you can no longer really say you were doing it for no other reason than to be nice. Because you clearly were doing it to teach them a lesson. And after all, if that’s really why I was doing it, then could I truly say I was doing it for no reason?

It’s a paradox, I suppose. Perhaps the best solution is to tuck my head down and serve where I can. Sister Franco asks, “Are we sacrificing of our time and talents so the rising generation can learn to love the Lord and keep His commandments? Are we ministering both to those around us and to those we are assigned with care and with diligence—sacrificing time and energy that could be used in other ways? Are we living the two great commandments—to love God and to love His children? Often that love is manifest as service.”

Up until now, I’ve often worried about overextending myself. King Benjamin notes that everything should be “done in wisdom and aorder; for it is not requisite that a man should run bfaster than he has strength.” That’s a phrase I’ve found myself using a lot over the years, and I definitely still believe it. But I’m also beginning to think perhaps focusing on that one principle too much closes me off from the chance to develop in other ways.

Sooner or later, we all need to forget ourselves and serve others. I clearly do not have that process figured out yet. I know how it can and should work in a family, even if I haven’t been able to master even that. I’m uncertain how it ultimately can work in a community, a ward, or a stake, but I’m working on becoming better.

One last thought I’d like to share on the subject comes from CS Lewis. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes from the point of view of a demon trying to tempt a man to be evil and fall away from God. That demon observes, “Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury…. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him.   It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-a -tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.”

I know this is one of my weaknesses. I schedule my days and weeks out to what some might say is an absurd degree. When something crops up that spoils that schedule, it can really throw me for a loop. Requests for unselfish service are often the culprit. I need to do a better job releasing the concept that my time is my own. Perhaps some of you can relate.

Wherever you might find yourself on that path, I encourage you to strive to keep moving. Love God, and love His children, and do things for others that they cannot or have not yet done for themselves. I believe that as we do this, we come closer to becoming what God knows we can become, and we can ultimately find joy in unselfish service.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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