Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Mic. 6:8).
God has two dwellings; one in heaven, the other in a meek and thankful heart.

The Discipline of Service

Devotional 2

I’ve been rereading a book about the spiritual disciples for devotions because I’ve found it inspiring. Here’s an excerpt on the discipline of service that I read this morning:

From “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth”
Richard J. Foster
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998

As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service. When Jesus gathered his disciples for the Last Sup­per they were having trouble deciding who was the greatest. This was no new issue for them. “And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46). Whenever there is trouble over who is the greatest, there is trouble over who is the least. That is the crux of the matter for us, isn’t it? Most of us know we will never be the greatest; just don’t let us be the least.

Gathered at the Passover feast, the disciples were keenly aware that someone needed to wash the others’ feet. The prob­lem was that the only people who washed feet were the least. So there they sat, feet caked with dirt. It was such a sore point that they were not even going to talk about it. No one wanted to be considered the least. Then Jesus took a towel and a basin and redefined greatness.

Having lived out servanthood before them, he called them to the way of service: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14, 15). In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial. …

Service … is not a code of ethics, but a way of living. Service to be service must take form and shape in the world in which we live. Therefore, we must seek to perceive what service looks like in the marketplace of our daily lives.

At the outset there is the service of hiddenness. If all of our serving is before others, we will be shallow people indeed. Listen to the spiritual direction of Jeremy Taylor: “Love to be concealed, and little esteemed: be content to want [lack] praise, never be troubled when thou art slighted or un­dervalued. ...”

Hidden, anonymous ministries affect even people who know nothing of them. They sense a deeper love and compassion among peo­ple though they cannot account for the feeling. If a secret ser­vice is done on their behalf, they are inspired to deeper de­votion, for they know that the well of service is far deeper than they can see. It is a ministry that can be engaged in frequently by all people. It sends ripples of joy and celebration through any community of people.

There is the service of small things. Like Dorcas, we find ways to make “coats and garments for the widows” (Acts 9:39). The following is a true story. During the frantic final throes of writing my doctoral dissertation I received a phone call from a friend. His wife had taken the car and he wondered if I could take him on a number of errands. Trapped, I consented, in­wardly cursing my luck. As I ran out the door, I grabbed Bon­hoeffer’s Life Together, thinking that I might have an opportu­nity to read in it. Through each errand I inwardly fretted and fumed at the loss of precious time. Finally, at a supermarket, the final stop, I waved my friend on, saying I would wait in the car. I picked up my book, opened it to the marker, and read these words: “The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpful­ness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”

In the realm of the spirit we soon discover that the real issues are found in the tiny, insignificant corners of life. Our infatua­tion with the “big deal” has blinded us to this fact. The service of small things will put us at odds with our sloth and idleness.

We will come to see small things as the central issues. Fenelon writes, “It is not elevation of the spirit to feel contempt for small things. It is, on the contrary, because of too narrow points of view that we consider as little what has such far reaching consequences.”

There is the service of guarding the reputation of others or, as Bernard of Clairvaux put it, the service of “Charity.” How necessary this is if we are to be saved from backbiting and gossip. The apostle Paul taught us to “speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:2). We may clothe our backbiting in all the religious respectability we want, but it will remain a deadly poison. There is a discipline in holding one’s tongue that works won­ders within us.

There is the service of being served. When Jesus began to wash the feet of those he loved, Peter refused. He would never let his Master stoop to such a menial service on his behalf. It sounds like a statement of humility; in reality it was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed feet!

It is an act of submission and service to allow others to serve us. It recognizes their “kingdom authority” over us. We gra­ciously receive the service rendered, never feeling we must re­pay it. Those who, out of pride, refuse to be served are failing to submit to the divinely appointed leadership in the kingdom of God.

There is the service of common courtesy. Such deeds of com­passion have fallen on hard times in our day. But we must never despise the rituals of relationship that are in every cul­ture. It is one of the few ways left in modern society to ac­knowledge the value of one another. We are “to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Titus 3:2).

Words of “thank you” and “yes, please,” letters of appreciation and RSVP responses are all services of courtesy. The specific acts will vary from culture to culture, but the purpose is always the same: to acknowledge others and affirm their worth. The service of courtesy is sorely needed in our increasingly com­puterized and depersonalized society.

There is the service of hospitality. Peter urges us to “Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (1 Pet. 4:9). Paul does the same and even makes it one of the requirements for the office of bishop (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). There is a desperate need today for Christians who will open their homes to one another.

The old idea of the guest house has been made obsolete by the proliferation of modern motels and restaurants, but we may seriously question whether the change is an advance. I have walked through the Spanish missions of California and mar­veled at the gracious and adequate provisions that were made for visitors. Perhaps it is the modern, shiny, depersonalized motels that should become obsolete.

There is the service of listening. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” We desperately need the help that can come through listening to one another. We do not need to be trained psy­choanalysts to be trained listeners. The most important require­ments are compassion and patience.

We do not have to have the correct answers to listen well. In fact, often the correct answers are a hindrance to listening, for we become more anxious to give the answer than to hear. An impatient half-listening is an affront to the person sharing.

To listen to others quiets and disciplines the mind to listen to God. It creates an inward working upon the heart that transforms the affections, even the priorities, of life. When we have grown dull in listening to God, we would do well to listen to others in silence and see if we do not hear God through them. “Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

There is the service of bearing the burdens of each other. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). The “law of Christ” is the law of love, the “royal law” as James calls it (James 2:8). Love is most perfectly fulfilled when we bear the hurts and sufferings of each other, weeping with those who weep. And especially when we are with those who are going through the valley of the shadow, weeping is far better than words.

If we care, we will learn to bear one another’s sorrows. I say “learn” because this, too, is a discipline to be mastered. Most of us too easily assume that all we need to do is decide to bear the burdens of others and we can do it. Then we try it for a time, and soon the joy of life has left, and we are heavy with the sorrows of others. It does not need to be so. We can learn to uphold the burdens of others without being destroyed by them. Jesus, who bore the burdens of the whole world, could say, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Can we learn to lift the sorrows and pains of others into the strong, tender arms of Jesus so that our burden is lighter? Of course we can. But it takes some practice so, rather than dash­ing out to bear the burdens of the whole world, let us begin more humbly. We can begin in some small corner somewhere and learn. Jesus will be our Teacher.

Finally, there is the service of sharing the word of Life with one another. The “Poustinias” [places specifically designed for solitude and silence] that were established by Catherine de Haeck Doherty have a rule: those who go into the deserts of silence and solitude do so for others. They are to bring back any word they receive from God and share it with others. This is a gracious service to be rendered for no individual can hear all that God wants to say. We are dependent upon one another to receive the full counsel of God. The smallest member can bring us a word—we dare not despise the service.

The risen Christ beckons us to the ministry of the towel. Such a ministry, flowing out of the inner recesses of the heart, is life and joy and peace. Perhaps you would like to begin by exper­imenting with a prayer that several of us use. Begin the day by praying, “Lord Jesus, as it would please you bring me some­one today whom I can serve.”


  • CH

    • 2 years ago
    Thank you for posting this, Frank. So good, so convicting.
  • Jon

    • 2 years ago
    I really like the line that the "towel is a sign of service." So true that in some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than His word to wash feet, the quiet unseen ministry.

    Our local volunteers and an international aid worker still talk of Marc (of Anna). When he was here, he went into the room of the war injured at a center on the Syrian border and he helped a visiting nurse to clean the wounds of several residents there. There was a young teen with his private parts blown off, Marc and the visiting Australian nurse went in and cleaned him up. Often these men are treated in the nearby hospitals, but aftercare is limited, as there are so many who need help, and these centers provide very limited nursing aid.
    Many aid groups have visited this center, but this single act of care, the human touch for the lowest of the low, still lingers in our collective memoires, long after the very necessary and needed food boxes, and other items were delivered. The Australian nurse, who works part-time for a global medical agency, commented that she wanted Marc and Anna on her next international aid trip.

    Such is the effect of the ministry of the towel.