On the Nature of Christian Service

Today’s guest post comes to us from PCB, a professor in the Philadelphia area.

I have recently had the chance to get a deeper exposure to my fellow Mormons’ sometimes heroic efforts to serve each other. It is quite stunning to me how much we do for each other, in quiet and unheralded ways, from serving in the Bishop’s Storehouse to hosting a gala celebration for the young women.

These recent experiences reminded me of an important, transformational experience I had a few years ago that taught me a more complete picture of what it means to engage in Christian service. In our usual characterization of Christian discipleship, we talk about giving up our time, talents, and resources to serve God by serving others. Selflessness is the hallmark; unidirectional service is the framework. The imagery and scriptural basis for that service is clear. We are instruments in the Master’s hands. God reaches out to others, through us. We are blessed by our proximity to God in the process, and the work of His kingdom is accomplished.

I have a strong testimony of the power of that vision of Christian service and our duty and privilege to perform it. But it is also the case that the work of the kingdom of God is about building us, all of us. In his workshop, what He builds and how He builds are intimately connected. Very often—perhaps most often—the building of His kingdom requires nothing more than His picking up one instrument in one hand, one instrument in the other, and then allowing the two to create something together that cannot be done alone. Service, in that sense, is not a donation, but an exchange, a connection. And when both sides heed the Lord’s call, it becomes almost impossible to identify who is being served and who is doing the serving.

To illustrate what I mean, I want to tell you a story about a couple named Addie and Harris (I’m omitting last names to preserve some internet anonymity, although Addie has given me permission to discuss their story widely.) Addie and Harris met in 1958 when Addie was 16 years old. Much to her father’s regret, they immediately fell in love and dated on the sly until they could marry three years later. This was the south during the height of the Civil Rights Movement; for an African-American couple like Addie and Harris, it was a reality of law and practice that their efforts to improve their lives would confront huge barriers of racism and hostility. Despite these harsh conditions, Addie and Harris went to college, started their lives, and started a family. Harris eventually took a job in customer service at their local, regional airport and, after raising their five children, the two started a taxi and limousine service in and around the airport. Everyone knew Harris, with his favored cap and usual wit. “How are you, Harris?” came the usual question. “Same old soup, just warmed up,” came one common answer.

They became pillars of their community. Everyone knew them and their growing family of three sons and two daughters, all of whom lived within 20 minutes of Salisbury.

In January 2015, Addie and Harris took their first vacation in a dozen years, to visit Harris’s brother in California. They had a wonderful week, and on February 1, they started their journey home, by way of Phoenix and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, I was in Utah for a quick weekend visit to family, for my niece’s baptism. It was a stressful time for me. I was a practicing lawyer working on a PhD, and both demands had been especially heavy that month. What’s more, my wife and I were in the midst of an intense two-career coordination, with my wife applying to graduate schools while I applied for a law and business professorships at the same universities. The two-body problem in academia is ridiculous under normal circumstances, and we had made it even harder on ourselves. It was a stressful and uncertain time and for the previous weeks, I had allowed my level of self-absorption to get to levels that made me less willing to devote myself to my own and to others’ spiritual well-being. I just felt too stressed, too busy.

This was the state of things when I met Addie, as we made our way to Philadelphia by way of Phoenix.

Have you ever seen that old LDS pro-airplane missionary film Labor of Love? In it, an earnest return missionary on his way home after two years strikes up an hours-long conversation with his seatmate about the Gospel. I have a confession: That is not me. Except perhaps on the flight back from my own mission, I don’t think I have ever felt comfortable chatting up strangers on airplanes. I have even been known to put on my headphones even when I don’t have anything to plug them into if I notice that my seatmates are threatening to get chatty. I’m just a little bit shy and a little bit crabby any time I am traveling.

To make matters worse on this particular flight, a combination of fog in Phoenix—I didn’t know this was a thing—and the Super Bowl in that city on that day meant that we were delayed for hours and almost didn’t make it out of Phoenix at all. As I finally found my seat, though, a dreaded middle seat on a long flight after hours of delays, I looked expectantly at the empty aisle seat and hoped that it would stay that way. It almost did. But because Harris was a career employee of the airline, he and Addie flew free so long as they were willing to fly stand-by. So it was on February 1 that Addie sat down next to me, Harris a couple rows ahead, as the last two on the flight. I didn’t even notice Harris; I was too grumpy about not having an extra seat.

I quickly put my headphones in (yes, without music), grabbed my Kindle, and alternated between reading and dozing.  After 2-3 hours, I woke up to Addie jumping up, running toward Harris, then yelling for help. Harris had stopped breathing. She had watched her husband coming out of the bathroom looking dazed, almost blank. Moments later, he slumped over in his seat.

The flight attendant asked if there was a physician on board, and an EMT sprinted to the front of the plane where we were sitting and started chest compressions. It was an agonizing three rounds of compressions before Harris gave even a faint pulse. The pilot announced that we were being diverted to Memphis for emergency medical attention.

As Addie sat back down next to me, understandably stricken and sobbing, I ached, powerlessly, for her. My fatigue, work anxiety, and general grumpiness were snapped away from me in a moment, and I felt strongly prompted: “You need to deplane with this woman. This is overwhelming for one person. She needs to focus on her husband until her family can join her. Get off the plane.”

Even as my heart broke for this stranger, I immediately felt that this was a spiritual misfire. I didn’t know her name. We hadn’t said a word. And I didn’t want to impose on her during her time of grief. I silently prayed as much—this is not my place. I felt it would be rude for me to insert myself into her life. And, I’m embarrassed to admit it, I thought of the mountain of work waiting for me in the week ahead. Who knows how long she was going to be in Memphis?

The rebuke came quickly. The divine prompting came again: “Get off this plane.” I recognized that this was indeed not coming from my own mind—which was, in fact, shoving me in the opposite instruction. But I still decided to hedge a bit, and asked a different question (the first thing I said to Addie on that flight): “Do you know anyone in Memphis who can help you through this?” She didn’t even look at me, but kept crying, her head in her hands. “Not a soul,” she whispered. Now I felt certain that God was asking me to do something, and that if I said no, He would find someone else who would. I took a deep breath: “I am so sorry this is happening. Would it be helpful to you if I came with you to help with all the details at the hospital and airline and hotel? I want to respect your privacy, and won’t do it if that would be uncomfortable or disrespectful. Would you like me to come with you?”

She looked up, gripped my hands powerfully and, still weeping, said “Would you do that for me?” I said that I would. For the next twenty minutes or so of our descent, we sat hand-in-hand, and introduced ourselves to each other. When we arrived in Memphis, we left, the three of us—Harris on a gurney, with me and Addie following behind.

Harris died on the way to the hospital. For the next 24 hours, I barely left Addie’s side. We spent most of the night in the hospital where I just kept my arm around this sweet woman and helped coordinate the logistics, from the police to the medical examiner, hotels to the airline, mortuaries, and more. As it happens, there are an impolitely large number of decisions you have to make when a loved one dies, especially if he does so on an airplane. I made sure to give her privacy throughout the night so she could grieve without my hovering, but also kept the avalanche of information to a trickle so that she could make the decisions one at a time, rather than feel like she had to decide everything all at once. Addie learned in our initial conversation on the plane that I was a lawyer, and she saw that I was wearing a Stanford ball cap. For the rest of the night, she introduced me as “This is Peter, he’s my lawyer from Stanford,” followed by an explanation of how we had come to know each other just hours before. Her intro helped explain what the heck I was doing in that hospital room, and even gave me added credibility when I had to get a bit tough with a well-meaning but overly solicitous mortician who showed up offering a steep discount on his irrelevant Memphis-based services. Luckily, I didn’t have to threaten any lawsuits on Addie’s behalf. My lawyer’s stink-eye was enough to get him in line.

Three memories of that extraordinary night stand out to me as testimonies of God’s love not only for Addie but also for me. First, was Addie herself. She was simply majestic that night. She treated everyone in this tragic scene with care, respect, attention, and comfort. She wept, of course; I will never forget the sounds of this widow’s pleas with her Heavenly Father for her husband’s restoration. Her heart was broken, her partner and best friend dead at her side. And yet, on the phone with her five children and many others, and in person with the nurses, social workers, doctors, and many others, she was the physical embodiment of the Comforter to them all. This angelic woman bore others’ grief alongside her own. Everyone who met her during that day left, I am certain, with the same impression I had: we had interacted with a holy person.

Second, at one point in the night, the hospital chaplain came to minister to her. Both the chaplain and Addie are from a black evangelical Protestant tradition, obviously different from my Mormon religious experience. The chaplain led us in what I take to be a fairly standard prayer circle, with calls and responses in the prayer. This prayer was beautiful, soaring, mournful, and hopeful. This gentle chaplain invoked the blessings of our common Father on each of us and thanked Him for allowing us all to be there on this painful night, to comfort each other though race, gender, age, religion, and more separated us. As we circled Harris’s body, the chaplain’s hand in my left, Addie’s hand in my right, I knew that God was with us in that holy room. We were a sister and brothers in that moment and felt our Father’s deep love for us expressed through the deep love we felt for each other.

And last, a couple hours later, probably around 2am, Addie was weeping softly on my shoulder and starting to drift as we waited for the police report and medical examiner to conclude so that we could get a little sleep. As we stood there with my arm around her, Harris’s body two feet away on the hospital bed, my mind wandered to that crazy month. The demands from my law practice, graduate school, my efforts to become a professor, my wife’s professional plans, and the rest of these life-scrambling details, had become a burden keeping my soul bound to earthly concerns. But in that moment, in an emergency room in Memphis with this loving couple broken by death before me, these professional obsessions were almost offensively insignificant. Looking at Addie, reflecting on what she had just faced and how she still managed to touch everyone with her goodness and love, I couldn’t believe I had wasted so much mental and emotional energy on so much outside my control. There is a much more important work to be done in loving and connecting with each other that can get lost in the din of the ambitions of life.

In that moment, I felt simultaneously called to repentance for my past spiritual negligence, but also blessed by a loving and forgiving Heavenly Father who taught me how much really pure living we can do when we forget ourselves and allow Him to match us to those who need us as much as we need them.

The next afternoon, Addie and I headed back to Philly and met her family. Her son, ten years older than me, a big man who didn’t look like either the hugging or crying type, embraced me closely and wept as he whispered the words: “I will never forget you for what you did for my Mama.” As I said goodbye to my dear friend and her family in the Philadelphia baggage claim, I cried, too, thinking about how much my worldview had just been changed by her gentle goodness and the privilege to participate with her in a day as holy as this.

A week later my family and I went to Salisbury for Harris’s funeral. During the funeral, the preacher told our story and referred to me as Addie’s guardian angel. As I sat there with the other 700 people who came to pay their respects and show their love for Harris, Addie, and their family so completely, I felt again God’s love for this sweet family. And looking at Addie, I felt His powerful love for me and my family. Here I realized this profound truth: even in her moment of grief, Addie had been receptive to spiritual promptings to include and give comfort, to me and to the many others who were blessed by coming into her orbit that tragic February night.

Because make no mistake: she was my guardian angel. I had been struggling with life’s uncertainties and insecurities, with self-doubt and self-absorption, with misguided priorities. By allowing me to accompany her on this private, personal journey, and then giving me a tutorial in comfort and holy grief, she had answered the call of the Lord to bless me. She had helped one of the least of these, the Savior’s brethren, and in so doing had served the Lord. She was an instrument in the Master’s hands.

I think often of Addie and the road we walked together (I’m also in regular touch with her—she has become another mother to me and I am another son to her). What I learned from Addie and what I hope to continue to experience is this: when we are open to the Spirit to guide our ministries, service opportunities stop being “service” and become moments of profound connection. Because Addie allowed me to accompany her and know her on this most private part of her journey, I am closer to God. Her friendship will forever be sacred to me. Her holiness and faith during a harrowing time will forever light my path.

God works in mysterious ways, so we know. He could have delayed Harris’s departure from this life until his arrival home. For reasons we don’t know, He didn’t do that. But He did allow me and Addie to participate in this connection, built on Christ-like love. And, in the process, He transformed us both into more loving disciples. I hope I will always listen for and accept these invitations.

 

Comments

  1. I can’t stop the tears. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. What a profoundly moving story. Thank you for sharing it. It speaks to me, not only of the deep spiritual journeys and connections awaiting us if we acknowledge them and let them speak to us, but also of the bravery it takes to listen to the spirit when all of our intellect and common sense say otherwise.

  3. Happy Hubby says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. This is one of the loveliest essays I’ve ever read anywhere.

  5. Perfect. I love lived religion.

  6. Amazing story. Amazing post.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Incredible. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  8. Thank you. I had been needing just such a story. Your sharing it is another Christian service.

  9. This is so beautiful. Thank you.

  10. Thank you. This is perfect. Prayers for you and Addie.

  11. Beautiful.

  12. The Other Aussie Mormon says:

    My wife and I have recently been talking about how we have let our lives become way too crazy with all of the things we NEED to do. Running a business, maintaining a family of six kids, serving in demanding callings, and trying to find time for one another.

    In spite of it all, we have felt called to serve in other ways. My wife had begun a book club and invited people we barely know. She has started a Mum and child group for others we barely know. And she has me reaching out to serve the men in our ward who, again, we barely know.

    With all we have to do it seems crazy to take more on. And yet…

    Your story will have more impact than anything we are attempting. But I share because we can all listen to the voice of God and lift where we stand.

    Thanks for the beautiful story and the gentle reminder

  13. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks PCB. Moving stuff.

  14. What a great story. I loved hearing it.

  15. Beautiful story. Thank you.

  16. Thank you. This is so wonderful.

  17. This is great.

  18. I just returned from Philly last night. I never met anyone in this story but I imagine so many faces I met during my stay who could have been this couple. Thank you for adding another testimony to my heart regarding personal service. To me you experienced true Godliness. I will add this piece to my favorite BCC piece file.

  19. God blessed you both. Such a powerful story.

  20. Wow. I’m logging this away as not only one of the best things on BCC, but as one of the most moving things I have ever read. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  21. Heather Ward says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

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