When Serving Makes Your Quads Scream in Protest

Last weekend, we held a service event at church cleverly called “Leave the Leaves to Us.” You can likely guess what it entailed–lots of raking and bagging of fall foliage. Unfortunately, this was an event that had to be rescheduled, due to unseasonably warm temperatures in early October and the stubborn persistence of the leaves to remain tethered to their trees. The later date for our project meant that the “us” participating consisted of 3 adults and 2 teenage boys (my own) who have a strong aversion to physical labor. The weather had finally turned cold as we plodded out into wet morning, and the winds were gusting.

For the next approximately 6 to 60 hours we went from yard to yard –raking, scooping, bagging, tossing over and over and over again. The wind blew, taunting us it seemed in our efforts, as leaves once piled gleefully twirled and pirouetted to freedom. This, I thought to myself, is why I hate yard work. Aside from mowing, which I love because it’s a workout in which I can see immediate results, I detest yard work. It always seems like a pointless endeavor. Pull weeds one day, they’ll reemerge the next. Pack up one leaf, another will fall. And it uses muscles that I generally prefer to leave in peace.

By the end of the event, my quads were screaming, my nose was stuffed up, I was covered in dirt, and I stunk. And herein lies the truth about serving–sometimes it stinks.

In churches we like to sell the Hallmark version of serving–soft lights, loving smiles, warm fuzzies and hot cocoa for everyone. Organizations know that if they’re going to ask for help, the helpers better get something in return, like a t-shirt that says “I’m a good person.” So, we sell the quid pro quo: Serving isn’t just about helping someone else–you get something, too! You get to pat yourself on the back and bask in the butterscotch-scented glow of doing a good deed. And eat free pizza.

The problem with this message is that it misses the point. Serving isn’t about us, it’s about loving God and helping others. It’s about someone else’s needs, not our own. When we serve, we are allowing ourselves to be the conduit by which others can experience the love of Christ–and sometimes that means raking and bagging leaves until our quads quit in protest. Sometimes it means giving up a Saturday lie-in to go stand in the cold and ring a bell while shoppers push past, or taking that ten dollars you had earmarked for a coffee and cinnamon roll and giving it to the guy on the street you’re trying really hard not to see. Serving might mean giving up prime vacation time to help clean up after a hurricane rather than lying on a beach, or volunteering to mentor a kid once a week when children make you more squeamish than spiders.

The disciples understood this true nature of serving, though they didn’t always like it either. Paul often writes of the suffering he endured in his quest to spread the gospel near and far. There were nights without shelter, days without food, muscles that were constantly sore, and physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. Yet notice what Paul says to the Corinthians about working for God:

Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians that serving others feels great. There’s an implicit acknowledgement here that it does not. But what he does say is that in whatever work God calls us to do, God will provide what we need to get the job done. God gives us the tools we need so that we can help others in his name–fulfilling their needs and showing them that God is real. He is here. And he cares.

So, was there was a moment in leaf-bagging last weekend when God’s spirit descended and turned the task into a profoundly soul-stirring event for me? Not even a little. But even so, when it comes time to leaving the leaves to us next year, I’ll be one of the “us’s.” Because for the people we helped, it meant a lot. Our work was just another way to show the grace and love of God to our neighbors. And in the end, serving others isn’t about me at all.

Blessings and Peace,