September 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Special Needs and Service Rendered
A few years ago when living in Las Vegas, I was driving home from work and listening to the radio when an announcement came on the radio station. One of the DJs was at a specific fast-food chain; listeners who went in to this exact place within a certain period of time and said “hi” to the DJ would get a free specialty burger. I was about 3 blocks from this fast-food place. As a student who was living on my own, and working part time to put myself through university, money was tight. So in this, my days of “rice and beans,” a burger –from any restaurant- sounded like a really nice indulgence.
I pulled in, said “hi” to the DJ and received a coupon for the burger. I went, got the burger and hopped back in my car. I don’t know why I didn’t eat it there, but I didn’t. As I was pulling out of the parking area, I noticed a homeless man. He wasn’t begging, he wasn’t trying to clean windows for cash. He was, however, very clearly destitute. I pulled and stopped at a light. In case you have not experienced this, stop lights in Las Vegas seem incredibly longer than in other cities. And, as you can guess, I felt prompted to give my burger to this man. I rolled down the window, and called out “are you hungry?” He didn’t speak, he rather– jerked awkwardly towards the bag that was in my outstretched hand. He nodded, as if to say thank you, but still did not speak. He took the bag and jerked a few more thank-you type nods as he stepped back onto the curb. The lights changed and I drove off, burgerless.
I felt good. Really good. A very powerful spirit came over me from doing that random service. I didn’t know the man, had not seen him there before or after that. But I can still picture him. I overwhelmingly felt the spirit tell me to give the burger away, and I did. That overwhelming, loving, spirit stayed with me for days. It was so powerful and filled me so spiritually that I wanted to share the feeling. But not just anyone would understand, right? I thought I needed to be someone who I thought understood the spirit. So I shared the experience with a guy – a returned missionary (RM)– whom I had been dating.
“Ha-ha!” he said sourly enunciating each ‘Ha.’ “So now, because you told me, you aren’t going to get any blessings. Ha-ha.”
With that, the spirit was gone. To be clear, the spirit was not gone as a result of my telling him, the spirit was gone as a result of his mocking me, and my hurt at his mocking. His dour response had a large, and somewhat lasting effect on me. It made me feel dirty- as if I had sold the spirit for a mess of potage. He made me ashamed, even fearful– of talking about the random service that I had rendered. I began to think that I could only be blessed when I did service in secret.
Now certainly I was not assigned to visit teach a homeless man, but still, as this message is titled “Special Needs and Services Rendered,” I think this story is still relevant. Because it took me some time to heal from that RM’s jeers. But I learned three important things:
Second, it is okay to talk about ways that we serve and share that intense feeling of service with trusted friends. That will not rob us of blessings. Often sharing stories of service inspires others to do service as well. This is an awesome and powerful thing and should not be held back.
Third, and most important: service is sacred, not secret. It is not to be lobbed out clandestinely in bulk without feeling or ceremony. It is to be rendered in ways –no matter how large or small- that include the desire of experiencing and sharing Christ’s love. I repeat: no matter how small. That burger meant a lot. I don’t know why, but it did. I felt it.
For a time after that, I became so concerned about keeping any bits of service secret that in a way, I was being secret in order to show to others that I was righteous. Talk about irony! In a nutshell, rather than serving God, I was more concerned with being secretive in serving others so yet more others (like that dismal RM) would judge me as righteous. Finally understanding that service does not need to be accomplised secretly, I was liberated and healed- I could just serve when I wanted, no matter who was watching… nay, even when someone was watching, and even if I talked about it later.
We often worry so much about pleasing and performing for others that we lose our own uniqueness—that full and relaxed acceptance of ourselves as a person of worth and individuality.
– Patricia T. Holland, BYU Today, June 1987, 48.
Funny how I didn’t see at that time that only allowing myself to credit real service as something accomplied in secret– was actually a residual performance for a man who had stolen the spirit from me. But it was. And in that, I was not expressing myself, or my spirit or my individuality in expressing the spirit. So- how does this apply to this month’s message?
“The needs of others are ever present,” said President Thomas S. Monson, “and each of us can do something to help someone. … Unless we lose ourselves in service to others, there is little purpose to our own lives.”
We are well familiar with “lose ourselves in service,” but I want to focus on another aspect: “do something.” Do something. Anything. Text. Call. Bake cookies. Go for a walk. Send an email. Give a hug. Hand over a burger. Something. Big or small, secret or shared… do something. Anything that is in you. No need to please someone else or do a service that is assigned or impersonally “supposed to be done this way.” If it takes your time, it is personal. So embrace that. Do your thing and ingore the “supposed to do it this way” thoughts. With the right spirit, that will be enough. There are special needs that are served through a text, a smile, and a burger. Don’t berate service. No matter what it is.
Serving one another has always been at the heart of visiting teaching. Through ongoing service we bring kindness and friendship that go beyond monthly visits. It is our caring that counts.
“My desire is to plead with our sisters to stop worrying about a phone call or a quarterly or monthly visit,” said Mary Ellen Smoot, the 13th Relief Society general president. She asked us to “concentrate instead on nurturing tender souls.”
Service does not need to be political or perfect; it just needs to be service. And for women, many of us who serve so often and so much in folding washing, sharing recipes, opening doors, letting cars merge with us in traffic when we are in a hurry, trimming bread crusts, peeling oranges, waiting in a long grocery store line just to let someone with less shopping to jump ahead of us, choosing a resturant we don’t like because that is what our friend is craving…. another assignment of service can feel draining. But… you never know what small acts really make all the world of difference to others. So give yourself credit for those little things, because every act of service is sacred and meets a special need. And don’t let anyone take the spirit from you, no matter their title.
It is the desire in individual hearts that powers not only small, individual acts of service, but also the great acts that become mass movements and even revolutions. You have that power, too.
You have that power, too. Really. Consider the inspiration found in a book called Chocolate Chips and Charity: Visiting Teaching in the Real World. One of the stories details a woman who over some months, grew to know her new visiting teacher:
I even grew comfortable enough to admit my own peculiar ritual of making and freezing chcoclate chip cookie dough and (as a kind of quantity control) cooking up just one cookie every night in my little toaster over.
When my baby was nearing a year old, I became extremely fatigued and began having serious digestive problems. I went to the doctor who put me on a liquid diet for a week while she ran tests. I worried a lot about what might be wrong. I grew weary of juice and water and the occasionally sanctioned rice in broth “treat.” I waited anxiously for the test results. The test said I had an intestinal parasite. Enormous pills got me back into working fairly quickly, but I had to work my was back slowly to normal foods.
Just as I was able to eat a real meal again my Visiting Teachers arrived with proof that they knew and loved me. What they brought was better than tuna casserole. Better than dinner rolls. They brought Sisterhood in a feeezer bag- a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookie dough ready to be chipped off nightly, one cookie at a time and baked in my little toaster oven.
What are ways that you like to serve that are not necessarily by-the-book? How can you do some small acts of service to the women you visit teach that won’t drain you so you can feel the spirit in your life, as well as invite the spirit in their lives?