Helping Hands

Barbara Slater, my mother

Her fingers crook now at the joint,
swollen and unwell.
But even though they ache and chafe
they still cannot be still,
a tender testimony to
a history of easing life 
for others in her world.

They tap upon a tabletop,
thinking audibly,
type heartbeats into keyboard words
to pleat divisive miles 
and hold her daughter close.
They multiply the loaves of bread
to feed whoever comes.

(What I do, he said,
you will do too).

Because, to this dear mother/friend,
to love connotes to touch:
to stretch across a wall to reach
those different hands,
dark-skinned and suffering much;
to change a diaper, clean a wound,
or wipe away the tears.

(Or even scrub a floor:
the act is more.)

My fingers’ gifts are not the same;
I fumble, yet I know
her loving has rubbed off on me.
The years of mirroring
her moves left habits in my hands.
And so her fingers keep right on,
still fruitful in old age.

But now, they’re exponential
in beneficent effect
passed on to all her children—
their great inheritance.

We just celebrated Mother’s Day, which always brings back memories of those no longer with us. My mom, Barbara Slater, went to her eternal home five years ago, and I was not able to be with her during her final days (I was in Africa, and by the time I heard her last days had arrived she would not have known I was with her). But she lives in on my heart, and thinking about her life brought to mind the poem I had written about her hands back in 2002, when she was retired but still active. One of the gifts she had was compassion, which really showed up in her acts of service. She was a nurse who not only practiced her medical skills but taught them to others. When I was a teenager she invited me down to the mission hospital to learn how to care for the newborn babies, but also showed me how to sort through the “white cross” packages filled with handmade goods sent over to the hospital by various women’s groups, and count pills to put into small bottles.  And at home she taught me how to serve the family and guests by helping her in the kitchen and taking care of my baby siblings. Her hands seemed to constantly find tasks to do, whether it was in medical work or accounting for the hospital, writing letters, or teaching us kids.

It is not always recognized that “service” can also be a practice to apply in spiritual formation. Not all work fits that category, but consciously applying oneself to service as an antidote to seeking public admiration or to counteract tendencies to laziness, apathy or selfishness can make it truly effective.[1]

That is what I had seen in Mom. She was not looking for applause or status. She was paying attention to needs around her and responding as she could, all because of her calling to serve Jesus.

This reminds me of an unexpected moment of spiritual formation that the Lord inserted into my program. I needed to find a way to minister in a church to fulfill an internship requirement for a seminary course. Being a woman, I knew my options would be limited, but asked if I could serve in some way for my home church’s preparation of short-term missions teams. I was, after all, a missionary with over 20 years of experience already. To my surprise, the task I was given was to provide the food for the luncheon at an all-day training session! That was not the kind of experience I had expected, and not an area that fits my skill set. But doing it definitely checked my expectations of being in a front-seat role, and put me in a position of humbly absorbing what I could by watching and listening even while serving behind the scenes. It bred humility. And that is what service does when it is a spiritual discipline.

So we should be asking ourselves: What is motivating my response to involvement in an act of service, a desire to be helpful or a need for recognition? What activities only add busyness to my schedule, versus the ones that my Lord is putting before me as a way to serve? What will sand away my preoccupation with my standing and help me to become increasingly humble?

Let’s look at what the Word says about it:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:4-45 NIV)

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Gal. 5:13 NIV)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. (Eph. 6:5-8 NIV)

We may not be “slaves” but most of us do have a boss, someone in authority over us. Learning to do the work assigned to us wholeheartedly, as if our beloved Master were the one right there overseeing us (which he is, actually!), changes our motivation. This is especially life-changing when we are having a difficult relationship with that earthly boss. The pressure to please them is released when instead we focus on pleasing our King.

Jesus showed us how to serve with humility when he washed his disciples’ feet. That was something a person either did for themselves when entering a house, or a servant (or the wife) would wash them, someone of lower social status. It was not what the teacher or a famous person would do. But he insisted on taking that role. Then he explained the main lesson:

12 When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined  again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example  that you also should do just as I have done for you. 16 ” I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master,and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (Jn. 13:12-17 CSB)

Life for most of us is already full to the brim with work and other obligations. But if we take time to notice a need that we can actually meet by pitching in to serve, it can make a huge difference to those around us. In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun suggests making it a practice to ask someone in our life daily, for two weeks, “What can I do to help you?”[2] This would be a way of learning to pay attention to opportunities to serve. And noticing them is what would make humble service become a part of our character. It would become more automatic to do what seem like mundane tasks but that contribute to the good of family, colleagues, neighbors or even a stranger. They might not be so mundane, either—think of the service the “Good Samaritan” gave to the wounded man he happened to see!

For those of us not naturally attuned to what is happening around us, this is transformative. For some, it may even be their spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:406). Each of us can concentrate on doing what is helpful to those around us, whether it is a physical need or helping to set up an event, helping with dishes or changing a diaper. As Richard Foster points out, any service that is done for the good of another, not for self aggrandizement of any kind, takes us out of the spotlight and teaches us humility. When I am with someone who takes over a conversation completely, do I assert my right to speak, or listen? Often this involves learning to “bear the sorrows” of another, even their loneliness. The most important requirements are compassion and patience.” The service of listening also teaches us to be more sensitive to promptings that come from the Spirit, more aware of what our Lord is saying to us. This promotes service that matters to him.[3]

Perhaps your occupation is already one of serving others, just like nursing was for my mother. Changing the heart attitude to the tasks can transform them into “the ministry of the towel,” as Foster puts it, serving the way Jesus demonstrated when he got out of his official seat, took off his outer clothing and bent down to wash the feet of his students.[4]

Let’s “serve one another humbly in love”! (Gal. 5:13)

[1] Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. (HarperSanFrancisco:1988), 182.

[2] Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2005),  146.

[3] Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1978), 120, 121.

[4] Ibid., 122.

Published by Linnea Boese

After spending most of my life in Africa, as the child of missionaries then in missions with my husband, I am now retired and free to use my time to write! I am working on publishing poetry and on writing an autobiography. There have been many adventures, challenges and wonderful blessings along the way -- lots to share!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: