Surprised by Service
What is service? What does service mean for the Christian? These are not questions I typically dwell on. Not being an especially devotional thinker, neither an eloquent writer, it is with a certain foolish enthusiasm that I dive into something one would be more likely to read from the likes of John Piper. Yet dive I must, as I learned something about service that surprised and invigorated me, something so obvious in retrospect and yet so elusive until I experienced it.
At the two churches I have attended there is a common theme regarding service. It usually entails either a short-term mission trip to a needy part of the world or finding an equally deserving group or situation in your own town. The peer pressure (“Get out of your comfort zone!”), the overwhelming need, and the obvious obedience to Jesus’ words make such trips hard to resist. Yet I fear we are so obsessed with serving Christ somewhere else (either geographically, demographically, or both) that we lose sight of the potential to serve where we are. Part of my discovery was the power of an act of service within my small circle of Biola apologetics students.
As readers of this blog know, Dr. Ordway moved from San Diego to join the faculty at Houston Baptist University. When I first heard about this and Holly’s interest in moving herself to Houston, I immediately volunteered to help with the move. I imagined there might be other friends that would step forward or that she would decide to use a moving company and simply fly to Houston. As the timing of the move firmed up Holly became more convinced that the catharsis of driving from California to Texas was an essential part of this transition. There would be help at either end to load and unload, but Holly and I were going on a road trip!
I first met Dr. Ordway at Biola at my first summer residency in 2010. Another residency in 2011 and much e-mail culminated in my becoming a regular contributor on Hieropraxis. Holly has been a mentor in my growth as a writer. The only thing more difficult than studying apologetics is trying to find a place to practice it. Holly has been a source of wisdom and encouragement as I grow as an apologist.
With that background in mind, it should not be surprising that I would want to help such a friend. In addition to a sense of gratitude, there were three reasons why I volunteered to help Holly with this move. First, there was an obvious need. It was unacceptable to allow a friend to drive that far alone. Further, as I later learned, she did not want to drive a moving van (or a moving van towing a car), any distance.
Second, I have some experience with road trips, moving, and driving large vehicles. For example, I’ve logged over 10,000 miles on road trips to five different states. In other words I enjoy planning and going on road trips. I also know a little about packing moving vans, having moved friends and myself a few times.
Third, I was willing and available. This may be the most significant element. My responsibilities to job and family did not conflict with Holly’s schedule (availability) and I genuinely wanted to help (willingness).
The road trip itself was simultaneously epic and pedestrian: 1,500 miles in two days, not a single problem (mechanical, physical or interpersonal), and a tremendous amount of providence. A third-floor walkup combined with 95-degree Houston heat resulted in a four hours to unload the moving van. Our journey so very close to the end, we finally did get lost dropping off the moving truck, where Holly graciously deflected the criticisms and complaints of an overzealous Penske/Home Depot employee.
That brief paragraph hardly captures the bare facts of this trip. What is even harder to put into words is what I didn’t expect. The stress, duration and “hardships” of the trip, were completely overwhelmed by how much I received from the fellowship and conversation. That was the surprise. Going into this, I knew there was the possibility of conversation with two good friends (Holly and Melissa). It was also possible that circumstances would prevent such interactions. Didn’t matter to me. I had nearly 200 hours of podcasts and books I could read when I wasn’t driving. What I did not expect was how much I would be encouraged and recharged by the conversations I had on this trip. As we drove back to Melissa’s after dropping off the truck, my dehydration and headache were almost a welcome reminder of how hard we had worked and how even in the midst of struggling with boxes, fatigue and the heat, there were still conversations on the philosophy of science and C.S. Lewis. Returning from dinner that final night, I felt like I owed Holly and Melissa a debt of gratitude for getting to hang out with them for a few days. I felt I had received so much more than I had given, I hardly knew what to say.
In the days following this, I have tried to understand what happened and why. Strange I know. As a Christian I am comfortable with there being a spiritual and potentially unexplainable side to this episode. However, as an engineer who has studied philosophy and theology, I wanted to understand what happened. I imagined the Venn diagram below.
For many short-term mission trips the participants are in the intersection of Need and Willingness. The absence of ability is touted as the opportunity to “get out of your comfort zone” and allow God’s grace to fill the gap. These are laudable ideas, but I fear we sacrifice too much, not the least of which being our effectiveness to use all that God has given us.
Someone who serves in the intersection of Need and Ability, if they serve at all, will be doing it under a sense of pressure or obligation that is probably not the spirit of giving that Jesus had in mind.
If one is confined to the realm of Ability and Willingness where there is no need, one must wonder who is being served. An example might be the educated and belligerent apologist who can win any argument but is oblivious to the needs of the atheists he is “defeating.”
Finally, at the intersection of Need, Willingness, and Ability the act of serving others ceases to be a burden and becomes a source of joy and blessing. When such an opportunity or even the possibility presents itself, you cannot resist, you are drawn in almost against your will. Once you are there, God’s providence, grace, and blessing are there in abundance.