Sometimes I feel so stuck on how to serve. I grew up in the church, but there wasn’t a strong emphasis on serving the “least of these” in our community so I never really had the experience of getting outside of my comfort zone to interact with people who grew up in a different way.
Recently, my heart feels overwhelmed with a desire to do something and find a way to plug in to serve others. But when I try I often just feel paralyzed by my own fear and self-critique. It is so easy to compare myself to other people who seem so natural at serving that then I just don’t know how to do it at all.
How do I push myself to get out of my comfort zone while still remaining true to the way God made me and the gifts he has given me?
Partway into my own faith unraveling, I discovered Shane Claiborne, a compelling, dreadlocked author who coined the term ordinary radical and wrote a lot about living in community with the poor.
In therapy, I was dissecting the ways that my faith had shaped and misshaped me, and grad school, I was writing angry, cathartic essays about the damned evangelicals, and everything about this edgy young guy and call to downward mobility resonated with me.
After years living with a kind of low-grade guilt for not witnessing enough, not leading others to Christ, not wanting to be a missionary in some sub-Saharan country, this new movement toward social justice felt like a kind of exhale. Instead of trying to wheedle a prayer of salvation out of the people I met, I could simply serve them. Love them. It was a generous, beautiful thought.
For a while, I hummed with the excitement of this new theology. But it wasn’t long before the burst of insight and energy fizzled into a new kind of religious guilt.
After all, we had just moved to The Suburbs.
We did not rub shoulders, regularly, with the disenfranchised. Our neighbors had their own baggage and brokenness to be sure, but they also had clothes to wear and cars to drive and food to eat. For the most part, they looked a lot like us.
That year, I read dozens of stories about people who had moved into urban neighborhoods to start after-school programs for disadvantaged youth. I read the profiles of those fighting for justice, changing corrupt systems, planting community gardens, hosting neighborhood dinners in the backyard, and I felt shame over my own suburban home with its big, green lawn and multiple bathrooms.
It felt exactly like the shame I’d once felt over not wanting to be a missionary in Africa.
It looked different to me now, but I was still desperately trying to change the world.
You mention in your letter, Rachel, that you often feel paralyzed with fear when it comes to service, and that it feels impossible not to compare yourselves with others who seem to do it so naturally.
I completely get this.
When it comes to the life of faith, I too am prone to creating hierarchies where there are none. When I came into my faith in the 90s, it was the missionaries, martyrs, and vibrant evangelists who made me feel inadequate. And now, still, almost two decades later, I sometimes catch myself wondering if God might love the Shane Claibornes of the world just a titch more than he loves me – this suburban mom-writer who keeps letting perfectly good food expire in the fridge.
I believe in my heart that faith lives in the gray areas and the tensions of both/and. But when it comes to the tension between doing and not doing, I am continually perplexed. I struggle to follow this Jesus who poured himself out for the poor and powerless…and who also, at the same time, invites me to a life of total grace – of not having to work my way toward holiness.
When I see a need unmet, I can go from zero to paralyzing guilt in about two seconds flat, regardless of whether I have the resources to fill that need. I have never been very good at boundary-setting, at letting my heart be moved toward compassion while also letting my worth stay unmoved, planted deep in the grace of God.
I looked up the phrase “the least of these” in my Bible when I read it in your question. It appears in Matthew when Jesus is commending his followers for the ways that they served him:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The righteous ones are befuddled. But when were you hungry? They ask.
Truly, I say to you, he replies, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
When I read this passage now with an eye turned toward the grace of God, I see not so much the grocery list of tangible ways in which we might engage with those on the margins – though that, certainly, is part of it.
Instead, I find myself wondering at the ways that we miss God.
We expect him to show up looking one way, and he comes as something else entirely. Like Elijah, who looked for God in the earthquake and found him, instead, in a whisper. Like the shepherds who expected Messiah to come in a palace and found him instead in a stable.
Like the time I searched for God in one evangelical church after another and found him, instead, in a cramped stall of the Bar Louie bathroom as I puked my guts out in the toilet.
God seems to be constantly thwarting our expectations, reminding us again and again that there is so much more to him than we know.
So, yes, this is a passage about serving others. To know God’s love is to bestow it on the least of these, and part of that is helping to ensure that people’s basic needs are met. But it would be a mistake to assume that the suburban housewife pouring white wine all over her pain is not also thirsty. It would be a mistake to assume that hunger is always about food.
We would be altogether missing the point to assume that the least of these all live in some urban area, some third world country. When we do, we begin to forget that we are all, in one way or another, the least of these. We are all needy and poor in our own small and big ways.
After all, there are a hundred thousand prisons, and only some of them have bars. There are millions of moments in which we find ourselves the stranger – even when we know everyone in the room.
I wonder if what Jesus might be saying to his followers that day is not so much about doing more. I wonder if, instead, he is saying something like this:
Seeing God is intrinsically connected to seeing others.
We engage with the hungry – whether that hunger is about food or something else entirely – not because they need us, but because in doing so, we encounter a stunning new aspect of God, one more glimmer of his mosaic beauty.
And I think that is where we start.
The antidote to our serving-paralysis, dear Rachel, is not to find the ministry that fits us best. It’s not doing more and more until our guilt is quenched with exhaustion. It might not even be “serving” in the way we’ve come to understand and define it.
Instead, we begin by keeping our eyes wide open. You are here, wherever here is for you. And so is God.
For me, right now, here is the Minneapolis suburbs, where Carol, the Walmart greeter bears the image of Christ. Where to welcome the wild-hearted kids across the street into our life is to welcome Jesus. Where people are hungry to connect and thirsty for meaning.
Wherever you find yourself, dear Rachel, start there. Go about your day with your eyes open as wide as you know how to make them. Remember that we were never meant to scrub or ladle or teach or donate our way toward holiness. Instead, we are invited into the pain and need of others.
The least of these are all around you, shining with the beauty of God, waiting for someone to see them.
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