Fit to Serve … at Every Age and Stage of Life A Mother and Daughter Perspective
Today, Deborah and I are going to examine what it means to live a life of service in the various stages of life. I think you'll all agree that life's circumstances often circumscribe what form this service might take. A middle aged woman like me will find opportunities for service that will be different from those a young Mom like Deb might find. And those will again be very different from the ones that occupy my Mom, who is 86 years old. And yet, we'd like to suggest that each generation has an important role of service to play in the body of Christ.
Before we get to the practical part, I'll give a brief overview of 1 Corinthians 12 examining what it means to be the body of Christ. Deborah will look at Philippians 2, which highlights Christ as the great model to imitate. And then we'll get to some practical examples.
Being the Body of Christ
1 Corinthians 12 speaks beautifully of what it means to be the body of Christ. Paul begins his discussion by putting the whole question into its ultimate theological context. The diversity of gifts within the unity of the body finds its roots in the character of the Triune God himself. (It is interesting to note that verses 4 & 5 presume a Triune God without explicitly saying so.) In these verses, Paul explains that there are many different types of gifts, but they have one source — the Holy Spirit. There are many different types of service but they are performed in service to the one Lord. There are many different types of workings, but one God works them in us.
We are not all the same. The Holy Spirit is manifested in each one of us in a unique manner. The purpose of these unique manifestations is for the common good. We enjoy a diversity that promotes unity. This reflects the diversity and unity of our Triune God, in whose image we were created — and are being recreated.
In the second half of chapter 12, Paul more fully develops the analogy of believers being the body of Christ. Paul explains that no single part of the body may consider itself insignificant, or less important than another. "...God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be" (vs.18). In addition, no single part of the body may consider itself superior to another part. In fact, the weaker less presentable parts of the body may well be of greater significance.
Diversity Vital for Unity
You will remember what the church of Corinth was like. It was made up of both Jews and Greeks, slaves and masters, rich and poor. Paul is warning them that these distinctions are of little significance within the body of Christ. For example, slaves need not feel that they are less than full members of the body. You will also remember that the Corinthians believed that if you could speak in tongues, you were the superior Christian. "Not so," says Paul. All manifestations of the Holy Spirit are of equal significance no matter to whom they are given within the body of Christ.
We can draw a few conclusions.
- Diversity is good — the body is composed of many and varied parts.
- Uniformity is not good — a body that is all nose or all mouth is a monstrosity
- Unity is good — all body parts functioning together to their potential ensure a healthy body.
- Dissension and factions are not good — no one body part is superior; no one body part may be ignored.
So, we see that Paul keeps hammering home the point of diversity and unity as the model for the Christian congregation.
How can we apply these insights to our situation? Each one of us functions within a congregation of Jesus Christ. By virtue of the fact that we are in Christ, the Holy Spirit is manifesting himself in us in one way or another. We are to employ those gifts for the common good.
The Great Example of Humble Servanthood
Philippians 2:1-18 highlights Jesus Christ as the great example of humble servanthood. The phrase "united in Christ" (vs. 1) describes a personal union with Christ which is the basic reality of our salvation. In Christ we are saved; we have the comforting assurance of God's love. And when the Holy Spirit dwells in believers he produces fellowship known as "fellowship with the Spirit." This leads to an intense care and deep sympathy for each other (cf. Phil 1:8; Col 3:12).
No Half-Hearted Sacrifice
When Paul says we are to be "like-minded" he doesn't mean uniformity in thought but in disposition and attitude. Selfish ambition and vain conceit are mortal enemies of unity and harmony in the church. Humility is fundamental to Christian unity. Christian love sees others worthy of preferential treatment. We are to have the same attitude as that of Christ. He did not consider equality with God something to cling to at all cost. Instead, his attitude was a giving one, even to the point of sacrificing himself. Most people are willing serve if it costs them nothing. However, sacrifice and service go together if service is to be true Christian ministry. Sacrifice for the sake of others generates genuine spiritual growth.
Halfhearted sacrifice is not good enough. In verse 14 Paul says "do everything without complaining." He does not say do some things or even most things but "Do all things without arguing or complaining." The world's philosophy is to fight everyone to get what you want to get happiness. Jesus never fought with weapons, yet He won the battle against sin and death and hell. How? Through obedient servitude. His surrender made Him victorious. We must be willing to follow in his footsteps. The paradox of a Christian life is that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we sacrifice, the more God blesses.
A Definition of Service
What are some of the things that young mothers struggle with when trying to live a life of Christian service? Deborah and others have mentioned the following. We often feel like we don't have time to do anything except take care of our families. Just doing that can be exhausting. At times we feel used and abused. We don't have time or energy to serve others in our congregation.
Perhaps part of the problem we have is with our definition of service. We want to be effective and helpful to our friends, in our congregation and beyond but maybe we need to begin by thinking about service in a smaller circle, in our homes. It may not seem as glamorous, but it is vital. And the effects will ripple out from our homes into the congregation.
One of the common complaints young moms have is that they are busy 24/7. There is no let up. Someone always needs them. You go-go-go all day long. Feeding and changing the baby, sending a couple of kids off to school with proper lunches, toilet training, cleaning, shopping, lunch, making supper, helping with homework and memory work, baths, bedtime, folding and ironing laundry. Finally, you toddle off to bed at 10:30 only to find that your dearly beloved has that romantic gleam in his eye. AGGHHH!! Or alternately, you finally have time to talk and find him fast asleep, snoring.
A Proper Frame Reference
I have a couple of suggestions, some that I learned by experience and some that I learned from others. One simple way to ensure that you have some time to yourself is to get up a half hour before anyone else does, or if your husband works really early, a half hour before your children do. Spend some time in reading Scripture and in prayer. Perhaps this sound a bit idealistic, but those who do this find it of great benefit. It gives a proper frame of reference for the day, and it keeps you a step ahead of your children, rather than a half-step behind. It will help you to be cheerful in the morning, something of great benefit to both your husband and children as they leave home each day. A cheerful mother is better than vitamins.
Another vital area of service is within the marriage relationship. Ephesians 5:33 instructs wives to respect their husbands. Now Eve was created to help Adam, which suggests that Adam needed that help. Since the fall into sin, that has become even more evident. A wife knows that her husband is vulnerable. She, better than anyone else, knows his weaknesses and shortcomings. She knows that he tends to let her shoulder too much of the upbringing of the children. She knows that he'll sometimes go off to Men's Society without having read the chapter to be studied. She knows he yells at the fighting kids in the backseat, even on the way to church on Sundays. And yet she is told to respect her husband. But maybe he should work at earning that respect, and besides, how would respecting your husband be a work of service within the body? Why doesn't he just be the leader in the family like he should be?
Prayer for Our Husbands
Now I don't want to place too heavy a burden of guilt on anyone here, and I certainly don't want to come across as a husband basher. Husbands do have their God-given responsibilities as well, a major one of which is to love their wives like Christ loves the church, but we're together as women here. So let's think of some positive approaches. Remember the earlier suggestion to begin the day a half hour ahead of your family? In your morning prayers, ask the Lord to help you respect your husband. Ask him to help you teach your children to respect their father. Pray that your husband will grow in his role as head of your family. Pray that he will develop his "manifestations of the Holy Spirit" for the good of your family and congregation. And in your evening devotions together — I hope you do devotions together — discuss your family needs and pray about them together. You will both draw courage and support to carry out the awesome but wonderful task of nurturing your family.
Now, let's take it a step further, away from immediate family. I believe that young Moms and older ones can serve each other in practical ways. I know of some examples.
I know of Moms who swap babysitting so they can exercise regularly, or take a course, or visit others in the congregation. I know of women who get together for craft or scrap booking evenings — evenings of busy hands and good conversation. Sometimes these hobby-type evenings can be used to develop ways of reaching out into our community, as has been done with our Chinese Christian Fellowship. The morning Bible study groups that in many congregations function as a way of outreach also provide a mutual support for the women who attend faithfully. You may have other suggestions as to how we can serve each other.
In wrapping up this section, I would like to state that I have great admiration for the busy young moms in our midst. I remember it as the most exhausting period of my life. Some of the times — especially those right after the birth of a new baby remain a foggy blur in my memory. But I maintain that we cannot appreciate enough the importance of a godly, nurturing wife and mother. So take courage. You are providing the best service you ever could.
Comfortable with Who They Are
In order to do this introduction, my Mom and I got together a couple of times and had a number of telephone conversations. When we started this next section how do older, middle-aged women serve in the church, we both came up with a list of ideas. One of the things I appreciate in middle-aged women is that they've become comfortable with who they are. Often they've developed their talents in a particular direction. Some have become great at arts and crafts. Some have developed leadership skills. Some are good musicians. Some have focused on studying.
So somewhere along the way, as busy mothers themselves, they've made a point of developing their talents. This gives me incentive and courage to do the same. I see them organizing aid for our schools, cooking and volunteering at Manoah Manor, accompanying the congregational singing, teaching, leading Bible Study groups, organizing and helping out at VBS, serving on school boards and other school oriented committees — to mention only some that come to mind
We love those women who quietly offer help, without any fanfare and without expecting or even wanting any credit. Often they seem to see the need even before we are aware of it ourselves. We have Helping Hands in most of our congregations. When ever there is a crisis, Helping Hands springs into action. Meals are cooked for families where there is illness, whether that be a mother or another family member. I know of families where the ironing and mending is cheerfully and efficiently done, where houses get cleaned, where windows are washed and the weekly groceries are shopped for. Two hours given in love and kindness sows seeds of thankfulness in many families blessed by Helping Hands.
Teaching Practical Skills
Another way the middle generation can serve in the congregation is to help the younger ones learn some of the practical skills that were simply a normal part of their own upbringing — things such as vegetable gardening, canning and freezing, knitting and crocheting, mending and even finances. In every congregation there is no doubt a pool of knowledge and a wealth of experience that can be handed down to a new generation. The benefit of passing on such knowledge goes beyond learning the actual skill, but puts the women of different generations into regular contact with each other.
If this is true for learning practical things, it's even more valuable when it comes to Bible study. What can be more beautiful and more beneficial to the health of a congregation, than having three generations of women studying God's word together? Each generation has something to contribute and to teach the other. It helps us stay in tune with each other's perspectives and needs.
It seems that the middle generation shoulders a lot of the tasks to be done. But that may be as it should be. They're not quite as busy at home, although their teenage children still need a lot of attention. Unfortunately for the parents of teens, that attention often happens after 11:00 pm when most Moms — and Dads would rather be sleeping. But in general, the "prime of life" seems to be the time period when energy levels, time-management skills, and confidence in one's talents come together in a manner that allow opportunities for service to blossom.
Our Seniors' Contribution
We come to the senior generation. What can we expect from them?
Sometimes health concerns become a real issue, but we also have many seniors who are blessed with good health. Seniors often underestimate their own value, and sell themselves short, but they can be a significant support when it comes to grandchildren. Grandparents love their grandchildren in a unique way. They love them even if they're causing their parents gray hairs.
Grandparents and great grandparents form a link to the past for their grandchildren. They can look through old photo albums with their grandkids, and tell their stories. It makes the children appreciate their own roots and their history. The stories will make clear that the God who helped their grandparents is the same one they can trust for their daily lives.
Seniors often seem to underestimate their significance in the congregation. Sometimes they suggest that they've done their bit, and would prefer just to be left alone to do their own thing. We expect young people to reach out to the seniors coming to sing and visit, going all out making a dinner for the seniors in the congregation. What about reversing that, and having the seniors make dinner for the teens? For entertainment, teach them some of the games you used to play. Or invite them to have their Bible study at your home, taking turns with other seniors. Whenever this happens, everybody enjoys and benefits from the intergenerational contact. It helps build up the body of Christ.
As Long as You Have Breath, Pray!
And when the physical body starts to give out, remember that you can always pray for your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren. As long as you have breath in your lungs pray that the Lord will keep them faithful. Pray for the church of the future and the future of the church.
We're coming close to the end now. Again, we have no intention of laying a guilt trip on anyone here, but perhaps we are all guilty of being too modest when considering our own talents. But as mentioned at the outset, each one of us has been blessed with gifts by the Holy Spirit — gifts that we are to use for the common good, for the body of Christ. None of us is exempt from service. Yes, humility is good. False humility is not. It can be a cop out. So let's rejoice in the gifts God has given us, and be ready and willing to employ them in His service, in our families, in our congregations and beyond. We will become vibrant bodies of Christ that hold out the word of life in a wicked and perverse generation. We will be the city on the hill. We will bring glory to God, which after all, is the ultimate goal of all our lives.