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I gave the following talk in another ward today:
photo credit: cboyack
What is a Christian? The answer to this question has been hotly debated for some time now, with various denominations trying to narrowly define the word so as to exclude those whose theology differs from their own. As Latter-day Saints, we are keenly aware of this discussion since we are often accused of falling outside the commonly understood definition of Christianity. But whose interpretation is correct? Who qualifies as a true follower of Christ?
In answer to such a question, it would be most logical to see what Christ himself had to say on the matter. Thankfully, the scriptures contain a statement from the Savior that clarifies just what a Christian is. Speaking to his apostles, the Lord said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another”.
True followers of Christ try to do and say what He himself would do and say. As Christ’s entire life was an example of love for God’s children, it goes without saying that our efforts should revolve around the same principle. The love that Christ possesses is the kind of love that He wants mankind to have.
Love Made Alive
How is such love manifested? Just as faith without works is dead, could it be that love without corresponding action is also dead? Mere words often do not suffice in demonstrating our love for another person when they lack accompanying behavior. Love is better understood, then, as a verb; we love people through word and deed. The action that must accompany love in order to make it come alive is service to others.
Someone once said that “doing is a servant’s language of devotion.” If the two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbor, then it becomes clear that we need to be anxiously engaged in good causes—showing our devotion to God and His children by serving them. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet makes this clear:
Service to others is one of the most important characteristics of a disciple of Jesus Christ. A disciple is willing to bear other people’s burdens and to comfort those who need comfort (see Mosiah 18:8–9). Often Heavenly Father will meet the needs of others through you.
Most people would readily agree that they have felt God’s love for them through the actions of another person. A warm smile from a stranger, a casual phone call from a distant friend, or a love note from a family member, along with countless other acts of kindness, are part of the labor of love Christ’s followers are to be engaged in. In a world full of individuals in need of divine assistance, we can be instruments in the Lord’s hands to answer another person’s prayer and fill a specific need. Elder Holland elaborated:
The people around us need a lot of help, and I think the Lord expects us to join in that effort. I think that is what he meant when he said, “Come; see what I do and watch how I spend my time.” . . .
On the example of the Savior himself and his call to his apostles, and with the need for peace and comfort ringing in our ears, I ask you to be a healer, be a helper, be someone who joins in the work of Christ in lifting burdens, in making the load lighter, in making things better. . . . Someone sitting within reasonable proximity to you [right now] is carrying a spiritual or physical or emotional burden of some sort or some other affliction drawn from life’s catalog of a thousand kinds of sorrow. In the spirit of Christ’s first invitation to Philip and Andrew and then to Peter and the whole of his twelve apostles, jump into this work. Help people. Heal old wounds and try to make things better.
Covenant-making Christians have a duty to help those around them. As we make ourselves available to the Lord, He will give us the guidance we need to lift up the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet further teaches us regarding the importance of continual Christian service:
Seek daily the guidance of the Holy Ghost to know whom to serve and how to help meet their needs. Often the most important service is expressed through simple, everyday acts of kindness.
We demonstrate our love for God and God’s children by serving others. In this way our love is made alive and proven sincere.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opportunities to serve permeate the entire organization. Hardly a week goes by in each ward without new callings being extended to one or more individuals. In this way, we all benefit from the talents and efforts of our fellow Saints who, as different members in the body of Christ, work through their callings and assignments to serve those around them and together build the kingdom of God.
The Church is certainly not unique in this approach, since there are other organizations throughout the world that are dedicated to providing service to those in need. Whether it be an orphanage, a battered women’s shelter, or a food bank, the principles of love and service are found in countless other institutions.
In the United States alone, over 60 million people volunteer for or through an organization each year. While there is certainly room for improvement, this number shows that people benefit from institutionalized service. Simply put, it is sometimes easier to render service when we do so through an organized activity we are not responsible for planning, and where others are participating with us in a joint effort. Boy Scout Eagle projects, high school car wash fundraisers, community clean up days, and other similar activities give us the opportunity to serve those in need while meeting our neighbors, making new friends, and seeing our small service contribute to a large, noticeable result.
Our stake has created a new tradition of a yearly humanitarian aid activity to facilitate this very thing. Many people have commented about the positive experiences they had with last fall’s activity, where they were able to invite their neighbors into their home to assemble hygiene kits, involve their children in collecting supplies, and participate in a large project with others in the community to contribute to a common goal. For the service activity in 2008, our stake assembled and donated a total of 3,240 hygiene kits, 830 school kits, 519 quilts, and 1,160 receiving blankets. Everybody involved should be commended for participating in such a substantial amount of service. Our efforts make an impact we can scarcely imagine.
Three years ago in the local singles ward, I had the opportunity to organize a similar service project. In a few short weeks we raised $3,000 and purchased the supplies needed to assemble just over 900 hygiene kits. We gathered together as a ward, much as we recently did as a stake, and put all the kits together in a couple of hours. Instead of going through the Church, these kits were sent to Zambia, Africa, through a humanitarian organization called Mothers Without Borders. We were happy to have been able to render this simple act of service, and on that day found ourselves feeling what Alma counseled his new followers to strive for: hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another. President George Albert Smith wisely stated that “Our eternal happiness will be in proportion to the way that we devote ourselves to helping others.” Serving in organizations with fellow Saints, neighbors, and even total strangers provides us an opportunity not only to contribute to a large project, but also to share a common experience with others who are likewise manifesting their love for God’s children.
For all their positive aspects, organizations that institutionalize the principle of service often lack the intimacy, emotional discovery, and spiritual introspection that naturally occur through individual service. While the cumulative efforts of a united group of people can achieve fantastic goals of service, such activities seldom can change the individual’s heart as can an experience of individual service.
The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet elaborates on this aspect:
As you devote yourself to serving others, you will draw closer to Heavenly Father. Your heart will be filled with love.
When we take the time to directly serve the recipients of our efforts, rather than indirectly through an organization, our hearts are easily changed. When we witness on an individual basis the heartfelt gratitude that the person we’re serving feels, we both draw closer to God and feel grateful for the tender mercies He has given us.
An experience from my own life demonstrates the difference individual service can have versus being involved in a service project from a distance. While I was organizing the hygiene kit service project in my singles ward that I previously mentioned, my mother was in Zambia, Africa, on a three week service trip with Mothers Without Borders—the organization through which I was going to ship the hygiene kits. When she returned and showed the family her photos of the trip, I immediately connected with one of the photos she had taken of two boys using an empty water barrel as a drum. For whatever reason, in that instant I knew I would be going to meet those boys. One year later, I did.
Along with my brother, aunt, and about twenty others, I had the opportunity to go on a similar service trip to Zambia in the fall of 2007. We did all sorts of activities, from clearing land, to playing with orphans, to teaching children values such as kindness and love through games and activities, to visiting the sick and reassuring them of our love for them. To say that this trip was life-changing would be an understatement.
But the event I want to focus on happened in a small village called Julius, where our group was spending the day. We had all sorts of activities set up: a medical screening room for anybody sick or injured; a craft lesson for women who wanted to learn a new trade; a soccer game for the kids; and, of course, lunch. As somewhat of the roving photographer for the day, I was going from place to place and participating in all of the various groups. At one point I was in the medical screening room—a small, dark hut that was somebody’s home—cleaning the bloody knee of a young child. I looked up momentarily and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of something that looked oddly familiar: a toothbrush with Arabic writing on the back.
To maximize the number of hygiene kits we could assemble for our singles ward service project, I had shopped around for the best bargains I could find. Among the purchases was a set of thousands of toothbrushes manufactured in some middle-Eastern country, with Arabic writing on the package. Having never encountered a toothbrush in Arabic other than at that time, I immediately became curious. I finished attending to the child, and went over to investigate.
To my surprise, the toothbrush being given away had indeed come from one of the hygiene kits we had assembled the year before. Evidently the packaging and boat ride over had taken several months, and so as luck would have it, they arrived in time for distribution when I myself had traveled to the very same location. Of course, you and I would consider this a significant blessing to witness—not just coincidental luck. For the next several minutes, I stood by in profound humility and gratitude as I watched impoverished women and children line up to receive a bar of soap, a couple washrags, and other hygiene supplies.
In that moment, the service project I had organized the year before came full circle for me, as I observed our efforts making a direct impact on the lives of those receiving the hygiene kits. While I felt like I was making a small difference during the service project itself, the feelings I had as I personally witnessed the fruits of this charity work surpassed anything I had ever before experienced.
Clearly, it’s not always possible nor practical to be present for every act of charity we are involved in. When we give our fast offerings, we delegate to the Bishop the responsibility and opportunity to meet one-on-one with those who we are indirectly serving. When we do temple work for the dead, rarely do we know much about the person whose ordinances we are completing. But whenever possible, our service should be individual and direct so that we may rejoice together.
Two decades ago, Elder William R. Bradford taught this principle in this way:
Selfless service projects are the projects of the gospel. They have continuity. They are not one-time special events based on entertainment and fun and games. They need not be regimented nor regulated. Selfless service projects are people-to-people projects. They are face-to-face, eye-to-eye, voice-to-ear, heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, and hand-in-hand, people-to-people projects.
I previously made mention of being able to rejoice together through personally serving others, and this is something that I believe is often overlooked and deserves our attention. The apostle Paul, speaking to the Saints in Corinth, spoke of the way we are to strive for equality in this life through service:
For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened:
But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality. (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)
We who live in America often times think that our financial prosperity puts us in a unique position to be able to render service to our impoverished and needy brothers and sisters throughout the world. While true in part, these verses by Paul indicate that service is meant to be a two-way process; just as teacher and student are to be edified and rejoice together, so too should both the giver and receiver in service benefit from the experience.
What does Paul mean by this? What does the recipient of charity have to offer in return for the assistance he receives? Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin explained it this way:
…although we may make a difference in the lives of those we help, we who give charitable service are often the ones who benefit the most. When we sacrifice our time, talents, and resources for the sake of others, we refine our character and thereby become more fit for the kingdom. The Savior said the poor would always be with us (see John 12:8). And it is a good thing too because we cannot become exalted without them. We need the poor as much as the poor need us.
My own experience in Africa bears this out. While I spent three weeks in Zambia serving those I came in contact with, I undoubtedly learned and benefitted far more from them than they did from me. I was giving of my time, talents, and resources, but in the process I was gaining a deeper testimony of God’s love for His children, a better understanding of my charitable responsibilities to my brothers and sisters, and a powerful insight into the socioeconomic imbalance inherent in our fallen world.
Paul was right: we who are financially blessed can use our abundance to fulfill the wants and needs of those who possess less than we do. But we must not forget that those whom we serve have their own spiritual, intellectual, and emotional abundance from which they can serve and help us. In this sense, we should approach service to others as an opportunity to be served by others as well. Only then, we are told by Paul, will we experience the equality God meant for us to have here on earth.
Reaffirming the benefit we can personally receive from serving others, President Spencer W. Kimball taught the following:
Service to others deepens and sweetens this life while we are preparing to live in a better world. It is by serving that we learn how to serve. When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen, not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective. When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves! In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves! Not only do we “find” ourselves in terms of acknowledging divine guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become more significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to “find” ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!
As we prepare to live in a better world through service to others, as President Kimball said, let us not approach our service as just one more task on our checklist of things to do in order to get to heaven. President Marion G. Romney reminded us that:
Service is not something we endure on this earth so we can earn the right to live in the celestial kingdom. Service is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made.
The covenants we made upon being baptized are fundamental to living a Christian life. In them, we promise to bear other people’s burdens and to comfort those who need comfort. The For the Strength of Youth pamphlet says that this is the very definition of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Service to others is a core principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the foundation of a consecrated life, and the manifestation of the love one feels towards God’s children. If we claim to be Christians, then our actions must match our words; we must love and serve others. Perhaps in the best summary of this principle, the Prophet Joseph Smith said:
A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole of the human family.
May we each follow Christ by loving others. May we look for ways to incorporate service into our daily lives. May we teach our children the benefit of service through example and through heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit, hand-in-hand, and people-to-people projects. May we not feel content with our service through Church channels alone, but look for meaningful opportunities of individual service as well. And most importantly, may we each try to emulate the Savior in every act of service, striving to do and say what He Himself would do and say. I testify and promise that our efforts will not go unnoticed, and that we will become instruments in the Lord’s hands to bless others’ lives and improve our own.