church/service/work

Or, Lord Make Haste to Help Me Tear This Salad

I was raised helping out at church. Trotting up the sidewalk carrying pies or running errands amidst the hubbub of event preparations; struggling with folding chairs as only a child straining to be grown-up can do. I have a distinct memory, every time I make a salad, of tearing up Romaine before a spaghetti dinner, and Ms. Patti’s voice: “Tear that up smaller, no one likes trying to shove big lettuce in their mouth!” I hadn’t been thinking about the people eating the food; but doing so made the work a bit less boring, and showed me a glimmer of what it might mean to serve others.

The church, in some way, was the first microcosm to show me close-up the basics of economic life: that we all depend on each other to do different jobs; that if every family brings one casserole, there will be food to fill most everyone in town; that even when nobody’s counting gives and takes, in the end it’s clear who’s done the work and who hasn’t. Everywhere else, I worked for my own grades and my own allowance, learning plenty about meeting rubrics’ arbitrary standards, about scarcity, supply demand; these are the unavoidable ways of the competitive and individualistic world where most of us have our jobs. But at church I worked because we were working, and I learned the feeling of contributing to a community, and the value in aspiring to a standard of love.

There is something deeply intuitive about all this. It seems there’s some other level of knowing where we gather the feelings and experiences of working in different places, with different motivations, within various relationships, and learn what good work is like. Maybe that is why the subject of work is rarely named in theological settings, beyond simply stating that “people should volunteer” like “people should give”. Our theologies of how to work tend to surface only in stories and eulogies – observations and remembrances of people who have not just performed a duty, but have found their joy in serving.

Those who understand service best may be those who have committed to a life of poverty. Monks and nuns, after all, may work for many reasons good and bad, but it is rarely for direct personal gain (the way I might take on overtime so that I can acquire more camping gear). For Benedictines, at least, their daily and weekly schedules are also not dictated first and foremost by work; they are ruled by the hours of prayer (five or six times a day) and the priorities of worship and community.

On a recent mini-retreat/visit to a monastery, I was hosted by a monk who did not seem highly enamored of the details and stipulations of Benedict’s rule, which made his comment all the more striking to me: “We eat lunch buffet-style, and at dinner we have a sit-down meal where one brother serves the others. We rotate weekly. It can be a little odd, being a waiter like that, but I think it’s important for inspiring a sense of humility and community. Some other communities have given it up and eat buffet-style all the time. I wish they wouldn’t.” He was referring to a bit of the rule I found again later: “Everyone in the community should take turns serving in the kitchen and at table. None should be exonerated from kitchen duty… because serving each other in this way has the great merit of fostering charity.” Perhaps if our churches practiced such a rule, it could have the same effect it would have had for medieval monks – undermining the devaluation of women and manual labor by “demoting” everyone to kitchen duty, while at the same time elevating the work itself. At the beginning of the week, the Rule also states: the new kitchen servers must “bow low before all the community asking for their prayers… intoning three times the verse ‘O God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me'”.

Many churches do not have to be taught how to work together in a joyful and playful spirit, but there are places where begrudging duty reigns. There is enough drudgery and petty resentment in this world; let us do our best to excise it from our churches. Not by hiring out all the dirty work or leaving it undone, but by learning to see it as Saint Benedict did: as an opportunity for meditation and prayer, for humility, community-building, and love. A spirit of prayer, and many hands, can lighten the load. Kathleen Norris reflects that God does the repetitive work of making the world “new every morning” out of love for us and, I would add, out of delight in the world itself. Why shouldn’t we be able to see our service in the same way?

Those congregations whose people exist in a world of desk jobs and power plays may be places that could learn from the Benedictines’ emphasis on manual labor. Raking leaves and serving soup could be surprisingly refreshing ways of discovering new things about ourselves and one another, or they might be challenges that open new avenues for God to speak. May we love the small things well enough to delight in a job well done. May we love one another well enough to renew each day the simple work of our hands, of folding chairs and salad.

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