Charity is not Optional

One of my favorite things about the Church is that it provides lots of opportunities to serve. Even when I have struggled with certain aspects of my religion and found Sundays uninspiring, I recognize that getting out of myself and doing for others makes me a better, happier person. And the LDS faith consistently offers me chances to serve and be served. So now that my 15 year-old son is attempting to boycott Sunday attendance on the grounds that he doesn’t “buy into it,” I am struggling to get him to understand that being Mormon is so much more than belief. In fact, for lots of us, belief is beside the point.

Last night we had a talk and I said that if he was going to refuse to go to Church on Sundays, he needed to find someplace he could go and serve instead, like a soup kitchen or a nursing home. This irritated and perplexed him.  “You just think I don’t want to go because I’m lazy.” Of course I think he’s lazy–he groans when I ask him to empty the dishwasher. When I told him that in our family, we serve each other and the community, and he couldn’t do that staying home watching Myth Busters, he countered that the three hours spent in Church are not service hours.

While that may be technically true, I disagreed. The connections I make on Sunday, the people I interact with, the stories I hear shared, and just observing my fellow saints, all this creates and/or enhances my willingness to reach out to others. His reply totally floored me. “Yeah, but it’s not like you spend three hours a week outside of church serving people.” Oh the cluelessness of a know-it-all teenager. I contemplated telling him about all the time and resources I have already spent this week–and it’s only Tuesday. But much of what I do would not qualify in his mind as “service.” For example today a few of us who work in YW busted our butts to fix the prom dress of one of our girls. My son would find it ridiculous to spend so much time and effort finding a way to add sleeves to a strapless dress so that it would cover a bit more flesh without ending up looking “too Mormon.” I did not inherit the modesty gene and thought the dress was fine. But to this YW, it mattered a lot. And even though I swear sometimes God rolls his eyes at me when I pray for all sorts of silly things, I know he listens and blesses me just the same.  So too I am trying to value the things that matter to the people around me. (And the dress looks gorgeous!)

And this is a big part of why I want my son at Church. I want him to notice who is feeling excluded. I want him to take the time to talk to the chatty, lonely sister who passes out programs. I want him to see that his YM leader has prepared the lesson specifically with him in mind, that he is loved by this community that has served him his whole life. And that they need him too. I can accept that he doesn’t believe. But you don’t have to believe in Christ to be Christ-like. So whether in an LDS chapel or a secular venue, I will teach my kids that charity is not optional.


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20 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    Great post, Heather. I am impressed (though not surprised) at how you dealt with your son’s desire not to attend church. Instead of the “as long as you’re under my roof” answer, you gave him something to think about. My kids struggle on and off with the weekly activities–and as the YW president I try to make them relevant and fun, but honestly, there are times when the stuff gets boring. I like that you presented service not solely as pulling weeds for an hour or babysitting or helping someone move, but rather helping to create a community. I hope your son will think about what you told him.
    (And I’m with you on the prom dress thing–finished altering one last night and another YW is coming over today…)

  2. Amelia says:

    I love this post, but this was especially powerful this morning: “And even though I swear sometimes God rolls his eyes at me when I pray for all sorts of silly things, I know he listens and blesses me just the same.  So too I am trying to value the things that matter to the people around me.” Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    • Christi says:

      Coming off a week where I’ve prayed incessantly about what to do about our dog, that quote really hit home for me too. Wow, I feel like that thought can really change how I relate to a lot of people, in a good way. Thank you!

      • Diane says:

        What’s going on with your dog,? Please post, I may be able to offer a suggestion.

      • Christi says:

        To make a long story short, we ended up with a dog we weren’t really planning on, because he was too much for his owners to handle. I love the little guy, and want desperately for it to work, but my husband and I both work full time and just don’t have the time he needs to socialize. I’ve come to the painful conclusion that we need to find him a new home where his needs can be met. We thought we had found someone, but it seems to be falling through. I’m not willing to put an ad in the paper and give him to just anyone, I want to ensure he goes to a good home. I worry about it much more than I probably should!

        Thank you for your concern.

      • Ru says:

        Christi – this may not be helpful, but if you do want to keep him, consider doggie daycare. (Yes, I know how stupid the idea of doggie daycare is. The things you do for a pet.) There are two that I know of in SLC that are affordable, and my dog is completely tuckered out for a whole day afterwards. Even on my busiest weeks, if I drop him off at daycare 2-3 times a week, he is happy all week long even if I don’t have time for long walks.

        Hope that helps.

    • Miri says:

      That’s the part that stuck out to me too. As I’ve become aware of all the things I used to care about for reasons that I know think were very stupid, it’s hard for me to not judge others who care about the same things. Valuing the things that matter to the people around me… That’s something I could learn to do better.

  3. Naomi says:

    Good post, but I agree with your son. Sitting in church for 3 hours is not service. If you go out of your way to find the people who need you, then it can be turned into service, certainly, but it’s not a given that going is service, not for me anyway. And forced service (like serving in a calling you don’t like or don’t want but keep doing because you are “supposed to”) isn’t charity either. Maybe you should tell him about all the hours you spend serving others in ways that most people, let alone teenagers, don’t consider real “service”. It took me years to realize that just cooking dinner for my family is service, because no one pointed out to me that it was. So tell him about the dress you helped alter. Point out to him that when you do his laundry, it’s service. He may be of the mindset that real service is doing something big, like helping someone move. And if he knows the little things count too, he may be more willing to go to church and find the people who need the little things, like a hug.

    • MJ says:

      Going to church, and listening to the speakers and teachers IS service. What isn’t service is goofing off, ignoring them, or making a ruckus.

      Everyone there has a calling to serve–be it the teachers to teach, or the rest of us to listen to what they’ve prepared. Even if we don’t necessarily agree with their viewpoint, then we get the opportunity to learn tolerance.

      • Naomi says:

        We’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think just listening to someone is service. It is respectful to listen, but it isn’t a service to them. It does nothing to improve the speakers or teachers life. To me, service means doing something, anything, to improve someone’s life a little. A lesson or a talk is service because that is what the teacher is trying to do, improve other peoples lives a little. Listening with the intent or hope to hear something that will improve your own life is service to yourself (there is nothing wrong with that).

  4. Diane says:

    Sorry to the OP for taking this off course.


    Please contact your local ASPCA or your vets office. They may be able to help foster your dog until a more appropriate situation can be found for him.

    And no, its’ not stupid for worrying about your dog. Its’ human and at least you have a conscience. Some people would just let their dog wander the streets. Some people leave dogs tied up to a pole outside of an adoption center rather than walking the dog up and giving proper information. You have done neither of these.

  5. Janna says:

    Firstly, you must be a great mom – the fact that your son could honestly tell you how he feels about the church is huge.

    Secondly, I love your idea of having him participate in service each week. That seems fair. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be the equivalent to 3 hours, but the spirit of the request is spot on. You are still the parent and you have the right to help your child develop certain qualities and abilities, and if you think that engaging in service is an effective way to develop charity – then, that’s that.

  6. What a great post. I expecially loved your conclusion–we don’t have to believe in Christ to be Christ-like–and even better, charity is not optional.

  7. Ru says:

    I sometimes think of life like a football game and church is the huddle. Of course your son is right, you can do service on your own without church–but there is something special about a community attempting to tackle (couldn’t resist, sorry) a problem as a group.

    Of course, this requires that the members of the team apply what was discussed in the huddle during each play, which is a different problem altogether.

  8. Ziff says:

    The connections I make on Sunday, the people I interact with, the stories I hear shared, and just observing my fellow saints, all this creates and/or enhances my willingness to reach out to others.

    I really like this point in particular, Heather.

  9. Emily U says:

    You sound like a really great mom.

  10. Erin says:

    Thank you for this. I need to remember this in a few years when my pre-teen rugrats no longer accept what I say as truth and try to find it on their own.

    I also need to remember this for me.

  11. Suzette Smith says:

    Heather – I love your thoughts. One of the things I really love about organized religion is that it brings us “together” – for better and for worse. I think I become better – and more Christ-like – BECAUSE I associate with all kinds of people at church – especially people I don’t like. I listen to lesson I don’t like and comments I don’t like – and try to find common ground – and love. I hope people will do the same for me. This is charity. And it is service. Just like bring food, listening through hard times, child care, and sharing testimony – is also service. All the best with the teenager. 🙂

  12. Libby says:

    Storing this away for the inevitable Sunday morning when my kids say the same thing.

    I think that attending church is consciously choosing to be part of a community. And while I could easily do without much of what I hear at church, I *need* that community.

  13. cheryl says:

    While I like the idea of replacing Sunday church hours with some other service-related hours, I remember quite vividly being 15 (that was 30 years ago) and do not feel my Sunday hours were service hours back then. I’ve since spent countless service hours in church (supporting a new teacher by nodding and asking questions, singing congregational hymns loudly so the others could follow the tune, etc.). But my teenage hours were not service hours. For me, it’s framed differently: Church is a place to learn about Jesus. (If they remember to mention Him – often they don’t). If you don’t want to learn about him there, you can learn about Him in lots of other places by giving service.

    Second, I was struck by this sentence: “So too I am trying to value the things that matter to the people around me.” It was said in connection with the prom dress; but it also can relate to your son, no? If he values (in his myopic teenage way) not going to church right now, I think you teach him a great lesson by considering his position seriously and asking him to do the same with yours, then coming to an agreement about serving at the humane society or reading to the nursing home residents or whatever it is. Which it sounds like you are well on your way to doing.

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