As the passengers settled in on a West Coast commuter flight, a flight attendant announced, “We’d like you folks to help us welcome our new co-pilot. She’ll be performing her first commercial landing for us today, so be sure to give her a big round of applause when we come to a stop.” The plane made an extremely bumpy landing, bouncing hard two or three times before taxiing to a stop. Still, the passengers applauded.
Then the attendant’s voice came over the intercom, “Thank you for flying with us. And don’t forget to let our co-pilot know which landing you liked best.”
Often people define greatness in terms of power or possessions, prestige or position. If you can demand service from others, you’ve arrived. Being a servant is not what we aim for. There is danger in seeking to be served, and not to serve. Scripture famously says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Most people want to stand out however. In some sense, that’s what matters a lot at the Olympics. The winner stands on the highest podium, gets the gold, and his or her national anthem is played. Many kids have dreams of this glory. Adults have put this away, but we still have dreams of standing out among a crowd.
You know, thousands of books have been written on leadership, but few on servanthood. Everyone wants to lead; no one wants to be a servant. Even Christians want to be “servant-leaders,” not just plain servants.
But to be like Jesus is to be a servant. That’s what he called himself. And that’s how he measured greatness. God determines your greatness by how many people you serve, not how many people serve you.
Sometimes serving others isn’t that big of a deal. It means merely thinking of them, rather than oneself. But how hard this can be. It’s almost like we’re born or trained not think of others and only consider ourselves.
I travel to Atlantic Avenue and Congress every morning on my way to church. There’s a left turn lane for me to get on to Atlantic and then get the on ramp on to 95. Like all left turn lanes, there are only so many cars that will fit before they start coming out on to the straight lanes of traffic. Many times, because the second of the two lanes, the one on the right is the one that will take people directly on to the on ramp, that lane gets filled up. Drivers don’t want to have to fight from the left turning lane to get over right to get
on to the on ramp. What that does is cut off the left lane from filling up, and this mean fewer cars get in there and get to turn on the left signal. When you take this way five to six times a week, plus all the times we drive down to Boca Ballet Theater, you see this happen a lot: an emptier left turning lane and a long filled up right turning lane.
And then you see cars that are spaced a part too far, or they’re over too far to the left and block off the squeezing in part of the two turning lanes. If they would only move up or move over, another two or three cars could get a chance not to be stuck because they missed that green turning signal and have to wait another two minutes for the next one. Few people realize this however.
Once we’re in, we forget about what and who is behind us. We don’t think of others.
Have you ever noticed how impatient and fidgety we are when we’re in line, a slow line at a grocery store or a bank? While we’re waiting our turn to be served, we can’t believe how long it’s taking, how slow the customer is or the cashier or bank teller is. It feels like it’s going to take forever, and we’re going to not get done what else we’re supposed to get done, even if we can’t think exactly of any other pressing business at that moment. We just know this isn’t going at the right speed.
But when we’re the one who is getting our groceries scanned and bagged, and when it’s our turn to pull out the credit card and swipe or insert, and when the cashier talks to us, then time is no matter. When it’s our turn and the bank cashier has a problem with the math or he can’t read the numbers on our deposit slip and we have to rewrite it and it takes longer, we don’t feel the slowness, we don’t judge ourselves incapable, like we might others. Time seems to stop when we’re being taken care of.
It’s strange how different it is when someone is taking care of us, when we’re being thought of, and served. How right the world feels at that time. How little we sense another’s situation when it’s not ours any longer.
But this isn’t true for everyone.
Dr. Mohammed Basha remembers Jimmy. He says, “As I walked through the parking lot, all I could think about was the dire diagnosis I had handed my patient Jimmy: pancreatic cancer. Just then, I noticed an elderly gentleman handing tools to someone working under his stalled car. That someone was Jimmy.
“Jimmy, what are you doing?” I yelled out. Jimmy dusted off his pants. “My cancer didn’t tell me not to help others, Doc,” he said, before waving at the old man to start the car. The engine roared to life. The old man thanked him and drove off. Then Jimmy got into his car and took off as well.”
Our servant’s heart will reveal our maturity. Make the world truly right by putting another at the center. Don’t orbit around yourself. Free yourself from being consumed by your needs, wants, intentions, and desires. Practice diligently raising up others.
Anyone can be a servant. All it requires is character. “No one is useless in this world,” wrote Charles Dickens, “who lightens the burdens of another.”
In our reading, Jesus and his disciples have one of the most memorable dialogues in the New Testament. In so many words, Jesus insists we must climb down the ladder to greatness.
The way Mark sets it up is dramatic and unflattering, to say the least. Jesus had just finished telling the twelve disciples he is going to Jerusalem, to be betrayed, rejected and killed. Instead of anyone showing concern, James and John take the moment to come up to Jesus and ask him to see what he can do about putting them at the highest positions of his coming kingdom. The right-hand seat was reserved for the person who was second in rank, while the left-hand seat was reserved for the person who was third in rank. James and John saw themselves as the leaders among the disciples and they wanted their positions made permanent.
Considering the timing, it’s not only prideful but cold-hearted and self-centered.
But Jesus fields the request with gentleness and patience, diffusing any potential arguments among the twelve. Instead of scolding James and John for wanting to be great, he teaches them what greatness means and how to achieve it.
“You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.”
To be someone who serves doesn’t require thinking less of yourself. It only requires thinking of yourself less.
It’s easy to create explanations for not serving: “I don’t have time” is a big one. Sometimes it’s true; other times not. “I don’t know what I would
do” could be true, but often serving isn’t something that demands high skilled training. Also, if training is needed, it’s usually provided.
At the heart of these is the idea that we aren’t needed but that’s simply not true. One person makes the difference. One hour helps. One child or teenager or adult whose burden is lightened changes that person’s life. How far your gift of service will take them, we may never know. But it was given and received.
What we do we do because we’re called, and the Lord doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. More than this, what is ultimately done because we serve isn’t up to us. The Holy Spirit multiplies what we do into ministry in Christ’s name. We just want to get on the blessing train, the serving train, and ride it to the next stop. Where it goes after that, well, we let the Lord the conductor do the rest.
But it’s not like servants don’t get to experience something special. In fact, sometimes we’re in on the ground floor, while those who don’t care to serve never get to see the power of God’s love working in the world. Servants get to see miracles. In John 2, Jesus was at a wedding and the couple was running out of wine for its guests. He tells the servants to fill several big jars to the brim. When they served the water to the guests, it was wine! The guests never knew what happened. Only the servants were the ones who witnessed the miracle.
The truth is when we do for others, we do like Christ. Serving helps us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We’re never more like Christ than when we care for someone else in their need.
More than this, we never see others more like Jesus sees them than when we serve them. We never increase our faith more like Jesus’s faith than when we serve others. We never increase our spirit toward Jesus’s spirit than when we minister to another. We never share God’s love or feel it or know it’s real or rely on it as much as when we think more of someone else and less of ourselves.
Serving increases faith. Serving others increases our hope. Serving the needy increases our love.
Jesus said something that was and still is hard for people to understand. “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” God’s grace gives us a servant’s heart, and more grace can be
and will be poured into it. But to those who don’t have the love and faith and hope and grace of such a heart, even the little they had, if any, will be removed.
Treasure your giving heart. Hold onto your serving soul. Take care of the grace that has been given you. Don’t neglect so great a salvation that God has given you. For the Lord gives and takes away. As 1 Peter 4:10-11 says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
A person remembers one time at the airport. She says, “I forgot about the rules for liquids in carry-on luggage, so when I reached security, I had to give up all my painting supplies. When I returned a week later, an attendant was at the baggage area with my paints. Not only had he kept them for me, but he’d looked up my return date and time to meet me.”
Find your serving place. Give something so others receive. Be a conduit for goodness. Have a servant’s mindset.
When someone shows you a picture of a group of people that includes you, who’s the first person you look for? Ourselves. I must admit I do it also, but I most of the time it’s to see how far my hairline has receded, since it seems to occur non-stop at this point.
Practice looking at others first. Think about someone else more. Put another person at the top of your thinking and concern. Start with your loved ones, and then expand to colleagues or friends, and continue to embrace strangers, the poor, the needy, God’s world.
Serve God by serving others, in this way we fulfill the promise of God’s life in us. As it says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.