This article is part two of a series of three, so if you missed the first part or would like to refresh your memory, click here
Today, we shift our focus to a more subtle way that we can reduce people to projects because the truth is, we don’t always treat one another as an argument to be won. More often, we actually care about that person and want to help them. We enter the conversation with a heart that longs to fill in what the other is lacking. In other words, to serve, and this desire reflects the heart of Jesus. But as we will see in our next story, good intentions alone don’t guarantee that others are being served well.
Preaching to the Choir
Excited wouldn’t have been a fitting word to describe me in that moment. Nervous maybe, or even apprehensive, would have better correlated with my inner state as I sat and waited. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there: I did. It was just that, well, usually I don’t enjoy women’s events or women’s Bible studies. There, I said it. It’s out for the world to read and know. I love being around women, and I love studying the Bible. Yet somehow, when those two things combine, I often feel out of place and awkward. That’s a story for another day. Needless to say, I was just as unsure about this women’s event as I had been about any other.
My friend was hosting it though, and I liked her, so my logic was that maybe I would like the study too. She wasn’t teaching though, a stranger was, so I still had a little cavern of insecurity within me. We sat in a circle, and I looked around. Almost all of the faces were familiar. I knew these women: loved and respected them deeply. The newcomers might be just as amazing, I thought. I should give them a chance.
The study started, and about ten minutes in, I started thinking, oh no, not this. This poor lady has no idea who she’s talking to. She’s not just preaching to the choir; she’s preaching to the soloists who often lead the choir.
It wasn’t that her teaching was unclear. She was a good communicator. Her chosen subject was also a good one. She was exploring the topic of how to make disciples. Very applicable to every believer, no matter their geographical location or background. Making disciples is a universal call made by Jesus Himself, and therefore a great thing to talk about at a women’s Bible study, but the content she was sharing was so basic that it was almost insulting. She was explaining the theology behind disciple-making and what the practice might look like, but through the lens of an unfortunate assumption: that we knew very little about the topic.
I groaned inwardly. Sitting across from me was a lady who was, at that time, on the leadership team of an online platform for disciple-making. She responded to online inquiries from people seeking answers to spiritual questions and then slowly, through back and forth texts, unfolded the possibility of a relationship with their Creator. She was, sometimes daily, in contact with people leading them toward Jesus and toward becoming a disciple of Jesus. She is a practiced disciple-maker and has even trained others to become the same.
The lady sitting next to her co-leads a home group and disciples ladies long distance. She has a special ability to lead group discussions with all the particular challenges and dynamics which that involves. She was at that time, and is still, also using her gifts on a regular basis to make disciples.
A couple ladies down from her was a lady who serves on the board of her well-known Christian organization. She’s part of the leadership team for the entire region: a region that includes multiple countries. Her passion is Member Care, and she has been making disciples for over 30 years.
Two other ladies present are missionaries who reach out to students through the platform of a Culture Center. Their entire mission is to provide opportunities to cultivate relationships with people, and then if they are interested, to walk with them as they unpack together what it means to follow Jesus a.k.a. be His disciple.
There were also full-time children’s workers (a big part of their job being discipling children). The only person in the room who might have been hearing the concepts being taught for the first time was the translator, and while it’s good and useful to be reminded of truths already known, this bible study was geared toward an audience who had never made disciples. It was an Intro to Disciple-Making and these ladies had already taken that course.
She closed by teaching us how to pray. Literally. She taught us the ACTS of prayer. Have you heard of them? For those unfamiliar, it’s a tool which uses the acronym ACTS to teach different aspects of prayer. For example, A stands for adoration, C for confession, and so on. It’s a very basic tool that can be a helpful framework for someone who doesn’t know how to pray or is learning to pray, but it was completely incongruous with that group of ladies. It didn’t match the knowledge, ability or spiritual maturity of the group. She was bottle-feeding heavyweight champions and she had no idea.
The teacher, as I discovered through conversation with her later than evening, was a deep, thoughtful lady. I enjoyed my conversation with her immensely more than her teaching. The depth came out, her life opened up before me. She shared about her child with special needs and the struggle to find church programs that are inclusive and child care workers that are equipped to work with him.
I was screaming inside because one lady present had a child who was recently diagnosed with Autism and many of her struggles were the same, but neither of them knew it. Here was a lady from across the globe whose struggles and deepest pain echoed that of a lady from a small town an hour away. They didn’t speak the same language and their children were different ages and genders, but their journey as a mother had a lot in common. Oh how I wish that they had talked and cried with each other and encouraged each other in the unique way that only mothers with children with special needs can, but instead that local mother was taught the ACTS of prayer: again.
The study was so basic and generic that I left feeling a little bit like a project; a thing to be checked off a list even though I know that wasn’t the intention. While talking to the lady, I got the sense that she was a wonderful lady who loves Jesus, but her message was unsuitable for us. Ignorance regarding who she was addressing, led her to be ineffective in her service to us. Her good intentions weren’t enough.
It’s extremely difficult to show up and teach a group of strangers, so that needs to be acknowledged. It’s also brave to teach in a context outside of our own, but we live in a time when it’s possible to learn about a context before entering into it. There’s an overwhelming amount of information to help prepare for circumstances like that. My friend, who hosted the event, would have been a great resource to utilize because she knew most of us attending personally. She could’ve given a clear picture of who the group was and where we were at spiritually, and the assumptions made could have been avoided. Unfortunately, she wasn’t asked and as a result, the message that night didn’t strengthen or equip us. The teacher puttered around in the shallows as we sat there in scuba gear ready, longing for depth.
To serve another is both a privilege and a responsibility. It requires right desire and right action. One without the other is incomplete and possibly dangerous. Good intentions inappropriately applied can damage the one being served. It’s not enough just to want to serve. How we go about serving is just as important as our motivation for doing it. If the way we serve people looks more like accomplishing something instead of empowering someone, then we aren’t serving well. We must know the difference between serving a person and managing a project, and that’s a skill developed over time.
Serving Like a Sailor
Every ancient sailor had developed this skill of serving. It’s just instead of people, they served ropes. To serve a rope is the last step in the process of protecting it from the elements and from fray. First, the rope is smoothed out by wrapping spun yarn into the grooves (first step) and after that, strips of old canvas (step two). When that’s done, it’s ready to be served. Using a wooden mallet, made especially for this purpose, twine is firmly wrapped around the prepared area, the ball of twine often being held by another person wrapping it in the same direction, as the mallet circles the rope to keep it from tangling. Tension in the twine must be consistent as it’s wrapped and the mallet the right size for the rope. Once tied off in the proper way, it’s ready to do its job: hold things together, even during the fierce winds of a storm.
Sailors would never have served every rope in the same way. First, they had to see where it was worn out or frayed. They had to observe the rope. Then, they had to gather their tools; tools were chosen based on their initial observations. The size of the rope dictated the size of the mallet used. The length of the damage correlated to the length of the yarn, twine, and cloth strips. Next, with tools in hand, they had to worm and parcel the rope, which are the official terms for the first two steps of the process described above. Then, and only then, was the rope ready to be served.
A rope appropriately served was strengthened by the process, and in the end, more able to achieve its intended purpose. If it was served carelessly, the entire ship would be in danger, and in this way, a sailor’s skill and care to serve the ropes he was responsible for well was directly linked to the welfare of everyone on board. He knew how important each rope was and took his job seriously.
To evaluate if he had done his job well, he might have asked things like, what was the initial condition of the rope? Where exactly did it need to be served? Were the tools I used appropriate for that particular rope? Did I work with my team to make sure the rope was served in the best way possible? In what condition did I leave the rope? Is it stronger than before? Are the frayed areas covered and restored to function? Can it now be used for its intended purpose?
We might never serve ropes on a ship, but we’re all called, by God’s grace, to serve those around us, and as we serve, may we become skilled in holding projects and people in separate hands.
Questions for Reflection—Moving from Ropes to People:
What is the current condition of the person?
Where exactly does he/she need to be served?
Are the tools I’m using appropriate for this particular person?
Am I working with my team to make sure the person is served in the best way possible?
In what condition am I leaving the person?
Is he/she stronger than before?
Are the frayed areas covered and restored to function?
Can he/she now be used for his/her intended purpose (purposed by God)?
@Alford, Nikki. “Bessie-Ellen.” How to service (serve) a rope. November 25, 2015. https://bessie-ellen.com/how-to-service-serve-a-rope/#:~:text=The%20serving%20is%20always%20laid,hauled%20taught%20before%20cutting%20off.
Social History Curators Group. “Tools of the Trade: rope working and rigging.” YouTube, March 8, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBFNsbV_Bvs