Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Excellence of Serving.

"The servant ran towards her and said, "let me sip, if you please, a little water from your jug". She said, "Drink my lord", and quickly she lowered her jug to her hand and gave him to drink. When she finished giving him to drink, she said, "I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking" So she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough and kept running to the well to draw water and she drew for all his camels. The man was astonished at her, reflecting silently to know whether The Lord had made his journey successful or not." Genesis 24:17-21

I am always terribly moved when hearing or reading about people whose devotion to others burns with a passionate flame that is not extinguished by any opposition and which leads them to help others to a greater extent that is warranted. This week I was reading about William Thomas, otherwise known as Gwilym Marles. Born in 1834 in the village of Brechfa in south-west Wales, this intelligent and broad spirited man studied at Carmarthen's Presbyterian College before continuing his studies at the University of Glasgow. Eventually he became minister of the Unitarian Chapel in Llwynrhydowen. This was a man of some considerable literary abilities, and his pen produced poetry, many stories and hymns. Clearly this creative energy ran in his family because his descendent was none other than the celebrated Dylan Thomas.

But above all these things he was a faithful and dedicated servant of his flock and the wider community. He dedicated himself to the education of local children and opened a grammar school for their benefit. One issue that was pressing in those days was the issue of tithes. The established Church used to collect tithes from the tenant farmers and small holders. This was generally resented, especially by the growing numbers of non-conformists who did not feel that they should have to fund the established Church. This resentment was deepened during times of hardship, because while people struggled to make ends meet the Church still collected its tithes. William steadfastly supported the farmers of Rhyd Owen, in their dispute. Eventually the law was changed so that it was the landlords who paid the tithes not their tenant farmers, a solution which was not perfect as people still questioned why anyone should be forced to fund the Anglican church.

This was not his only involvement in politics, he played a central role in supporting the Liberal Party in the parliamentary elections, against the Tories who derived their overwhelming support from the landowners. The power that such people wielded in nineteenth century Wales should not be underestimated, it took considerable courage combined with a selfless service to his flock, to take the stance he did. It did not come without repercussions. He and his congregation were turfed out of their chapel. In response to this he uttered his famous words; "They can take away the building but they will never take away the flame of our faith."

William Thomas was one of many who took to heart the teaching of our master;

"But Jesus called them to himself and said to them "you know that those who are considered leaders over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whomsoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 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" Mark 10:42-45

Today the concept of service, and certainly sacrifice, has fallen out of fashion. There is a scene in Barbara Streisand's Yentl (my favourite film) in which Yentl (a girl disguised as a boy in order to study) is observing Hadas, the daughter of the family she is eating with. Hadas who is in love with Yentl's friend Avigdor spends the whole scene serving her fiancée. She lays his napkin on his lap, she serves him his food, she pours his drinks and all the while Streisand sings Yentl's thoughts:

"No wonder he loves her, no wonder at all
The moment she sees him, her thought is to please him.
Before he even knows that he's hungry, she's already there with his plate.
Before his glass is even half empty she's filling it up God forbid he should wait.
Before he has the chance to tell her he's chilly, she'll go put a log on the fire.
Fulfilling his every desire.

There can be no mistake, Hadas' attitude illustrated by and clearly disliked by Streisand was expected from all women towards their husbands and in our day it is not. Have we improved? Yes and no.

When devoted service is predicated on notions of superiority then it is wrong and immoral as all were made in the divine image "male and female he created them". In our past women were viewed as inferior to men and so were expected to serve their more "important" menfolk. This attitude is regretfully still present today, although it is focused in smaller and smaller pockets. However service that is predicated on love and humility is to my mind positive. If women serve their husbands like Hadas does, and if men serve their wives in an equally devoted fashion then imagine what a spirit of harmony would fill their home. When each partner is concerned only with the happiness and desire of the other, then a home is built on the wellspring of genuine love. For to give is to love. I once heard someone point out that when Joseph focused on telling others (his brothers) about his dreams, things went very bad for him, and he ended up as an imprisoned slave. But while in prison he asked his two fellow prisoners to tell him their dreams and shortly after things went very well for him and he ended up as second only to Pharaoh. The lesson? If you want to succeed in life then make sure you focus on the dreams and needs of others, and not focus on getting them to address yours. Today so many people are far more interested in what they get out of their marriage than what they can contribute. Is there any wonder there is so much marital disharmony and divorce these days?

It was because Rebecca not only gave Abraham's servant Eliezer water to drink, but also because she went far beyond the call of duty and gave his camels to drink (quite some achievement when one considers how much camels drink) that led to her inclusion in the holy Abrahamic family. It was Ruth's devotion to her mother in law, her refusal to abandon her, that allowed her to be the originator of the Davidic line, which culminates in the King Messiah. Rebecca could have said "I am not your slave, do it yourself" but thankfully for her and for history she did not.

We must do away with the idea that to serve is demeaning. The opposite is true. To serve is elevating.

Once upon a time it was seen as a privilege and a vocation to work in this country's public sector. One would forgo the higher wages and pensions and other benefits of private sector work, in order to devote one's working life to others. How sad it is that such an ethic has vanished from many who still go by the name public servants. How dispiriting it is to read that fire fighters are planning to go on strike, on Guy Fawkes night of all nights, over a dispute concerning a small change in shift patterns. How can people think that it is correct to endanger lives as a bargaining tool? And how can such people call themselves servants of the public? There are other ways that must be tried to resolve these conflicts. It is not the population of London, many thousands of whom have worse employment terms and conditions than fire fighters, that are to blame for any grievance that exists, and their well-being must not be put at risk. Thankfully there are, according to the Telegraph at least 300 fire fighters filled with true public spirit, who will work during the strike. May the Almighty bless them and keep everybody safe.

Western individualism has been one of the greatest blessings in the history of mankind. Deriving as they do form the Judeo-Christian insistence on the worth and unique role of every human being, it has freed those societies that have embraced it, from the tyranny of oppression. It is taken as axiomatic in many countries that each citizen has the freedom to live their lives, to think for themselves, to believe what they will. But like anything else, there is a downside. We have begun to focus on self realisation to the detriment of others, a trend that can be seen in the flourishing of modern spiritualities and self help books. Spiritualities that focus almost exclusively on self discovery and personal happiness. But the truth that many religions and cultures testify, is that to find oneself one must loose oneself in devotion to others. On our own we are nothing. An infinitesimally small dot on the face of an existence too vast for us to conceptualise, and infinitely nothing before the Majesty of the Holy One. But when we extend ourselves to others, when we humble ourselves before others, setting aside our needs and desires to maximise theirs, we become part of something larger. And what we do, no one else in the world can do. A single millimetre of wire is worth nothing, but that same millimetre as part of a circuit in a defibrillator can save a life, for despite its smallness, the machine would not work without it. The same is true for us.

Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, otherwise known as Mother Teresa, a woman who's whole life was an act of total service said; "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonley and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work".

Not many can achieve what she achieved but let us remember she also taught; "There are no great things, only small things with great love. Happy are those." Daily life provides many occasions for humble servitude to others. I myself struggle to be forbearing with others. Occasions in which I am very busy and people call on me for favours, or simply those occasions when I am pestered by people, offer abundant obligations to learn patient devotion. Only this week just after such an incident I sat down and read the words of the Gospel:

"And he said to them" come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while" for there were many coming and going and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in a boat by themselves. But they saw him departing and many knew him and ran there on foot from all the cities.....And Jesus when he came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, for they were like sheep having no shepherd. So he began to teach them many things." Mark 6:31-34

Clearly Jesus and his disciples wished to be alone with each other and share a private meal. They had returned from missions of preaching and healing and wished to catch up. They rowed themselves across the sea of Galilee to find a private and secluded spot. It would have been more than understandable if Jesus had asked the people to leave them alone for a while. (That is what I probably would have done). But instead he feels great compassion and love for them, and his desire to serve their needs overtakes, and he preaches to them late into the evening. And not only that, when the multitudes begin to hunger, instead of accepting the very reasonable suggestion of his disciples to send them away he said; "You give them something to eat". Beautiful, a lesson I shall try to absorb.

While I can sadly see a growth in selfishness in our society slowly damaging the bastions of service that once flourished, my feelings of sadness are much ameliorated by countless examples of selfless devotion still visible. To this end I look forward to the Pride of Britain awards soon to grace our screens.

As a new week arrives full of potential let us seek to set our own desires and needs aside, humble ourselves before others and serve them. Then we too can be a brick in the edifice of the family of Abraham.

"A commonweal of brothers,
United, great and small,
Upon our banner blazoned be
The Charter, “Each for all!”
Nor let us cease from battle,
Nor weary sheathe the sword,
Until this city is become
The city of the Lord."
William George Tarrant 1890

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