More than 30 years ago, my great-aunt Joanie died after a painfully slow and terrible bout with ALS, known only to me then as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. Over the last month just about everyone I know has been challenged to dump a bucket of ice/water over their head as a way to raise awareness and money for research so that it may be a disease of the past. What has amazed me is the amount of criticism that accompanies the challenge. It is mere ‘stunt fundraising’ according to one writer. It is self-congratulatory, ‘focusing on fun rather than donating to a charity in need’ according to another. A British paper calls it a ‘middle class wet T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists’. I suppose the sarcastic saying may be true: “No good deed shall go unpunished.”
The high profile of the challenge and its amazing popularity have made me think quite a bit, though, about acts of service. I’ve actually been thinking of service a lot for the last six months, ever since we received our results from the Church Assessment Tool (CAT) Survey. The survey we took last Spring as a congregation named ‘service’ as one area in which we wanted to do much better. We have talked to area organizations and institutions about what they are already doing and how we may contribute. A team of writers has created a service outreach initiative for our long range plan including lots of ideas for how to get more of our members offering more hours to those in need. Mission trips have long been a great opportunity for service for our kids, and this summer was no exception as our own kids visited Cincinnati and Pine Ridge. The questions that have always accompanied these acts of service are the same ones being brought up with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: are these acts of service done for the recipient or are they actually being done to make the ‘servant’ feel better about themselves? Why send someone up to a mountain top experience just to have them crash down on the other side? Isn’t ‘volunteering’ just another guilt-laden burden placed on us by the Church?
In response to last spring’s CAT results, and even more done in response to our baptism where our parents, sponsors and congregation promised to help us to, “proclaim Christ through word and deed,” First Lutheran is launching a Year of Service & Fellowship. Notice! We are not seeking to make ourselves feel better by offering some spare time or money to others in need. Your pastors are not interested in pushing your guilt buttons. And we don’t want you to simply volunteer at an event. ‘Event service’ is how inspiration and commitment fade away like a dream. Living baptized means a daily return to that bucket challenge where service is not an event, but a lifelong practice. We will spend the year defining service as something more broad than activities and events, or giving money to worthy charities. Those all count, of course, but so does making time to sit down with your elderly neighbor who just needs a listening ear. So does sitting on a community board who needs your leadership and perspective. So does you doing your daily work well. You may get paid for it—you may not… but whatever you do all day could be done with a servant heart!
We will be following a model called ‘service learning’ instead of just volunteering. There are four parts to service learning: 1) Preparation 2) Action 3) Reflection 4) Celebration. Typically, we at First have been pretty good at #1 and #2. We have not, though, excelled at reflection or celebration. That’s why this year won’t just be a year of “Service” It will include “Fellowship” too, because service was never meant to feel like a burden or a ‘have-to’. Our service is meant to be reflected upon through story-telling, conversation, creative expressions and more. Service is also meant to be celebrated. We need to have more fun with each other! (Do I really need to convince you of that?)
Baptism is a bucket challenge that goes on every day of our lives. We are called to serve, as Christ served. I look forward to all our preparations, actions, reflections and celebrations this program year!
Photo credit: Anthony Quintano on Flickr