Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Why We Call it "Service"...

When members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington travel to Biloxi, MS, we help build a house for a family whose home was lost in Hurricane Katrina. We take high school and college students and foreign exchange students each Christmas. Of course, we could take the money we raise in order to travel and send it to the agency that helps coordinate our project so that they could hire workers. Even day-laborers would be more competent and efficient than most of us! But, we go. Why?

One could be cyncical and say that we go in order to feel better about ourselves and to ease the guilt we feel in our comfortable lives. But my experience of those who are willing to travel during Christmas Holiday, and work on something they will neither complete nor be lauded for, is that they go to stretch themelves: to learn, yes... but maybe more to the point, to understand. To be deepened, even if that deepening creates discomfort. The Gulf Coast will do this for you. Even a week a year will stretch and deepen you. You will move closer to the Holy.

You'll see the glittering casinos, rebuilt immediately, rise a few blocks from still-empty lots and still-gutted bungalows waiting for repair. You'll see the gnarly live oak trees, torn from their trunks by the force of the water, carved into graceful sea creatures. You'll hear stories, like the one told by Priscilla, a mother who watched the water rise from her church balcony, and considered mercifully drowning her two year old son so that he wouldn't be orphaned. You'll see that same boy, now five, playing and laughing, "adopted" by a couple who help with his school expenses and visit him regularly. You'll taste fresh catfish and shrimp cooked by hands that are also working to restore some order into lives as ravaged as the buildings. And after a while, you'll begin to wonder.

Where is the government that is supposed to protect and "serve" its people? Why are so many people still waiting for places to live? Why does it seem the rest of the world has forgotten?

These questions are good. They lead to deepening and they open doors of thought and feeling. That reveals a simple truth: we can not serve others without serving ourselves.

We often ignore the fact that service comes from the same root as "servant." It is interwoven with Christian faith. It is also tied to the Communion meal and hence to what even Unitarian Universalists still call the Sunday service, although few practice Communion. That Sunday service should also lead to questions that stretch and deepen. Unlike charity, philanthropy, or even advocacy, service can not be done from afar, but entails the hand-to-hand transfer of goods or labor. Traditionally, one serves the Lord through service to others. One deliberately places oneself in a position of servant to another.

We gain. We learn humility, and we truly comprehend the first of our Unitarian Universalist principles: inherent worth and dignity.

And it is here, in the midst of unanswered questions, unfinished projects, and unmet expectations, that I find the Holy. For me, God is a God who refuses to offer simple explanations or easy solutions, but who grieves and mourns and questions beside humans. In the midst of chaos, the Eternal appears. That's why we serve.