Although it was two weeks ago, I keep referring back to the retreat we led in Flagstaff because a lot stood out to me from that weekend. I think our entire community would agree that in many ways that retreat was just as much for ourselves as it was for the teens. From the very beginning as we were praying through the different sessions, it seemed clear that each part of the retreat called each of us deeper into the lifestyle we are currently living. One of the sessions was titled, “Washing of the Feet,” and it was to be about servant leadership. It immediately stood out to me, although I wondered if that was because I gave a similar talk at the beginning of our year. I didn’t want to just be drawn to it because it was easy. As other members of the community confirmed that they felt I should take that session, I couldn’t really deny it. So at first I thought it would be really easy since I have talked about it before and since servant leadership is a topic that, in general, I have a lot to say about. As we continued to pray about the retreat, the topic of presence started coming up a lot for me. At first, I understood presence to relate to one of the other sessions later in the weekend. I didn’t really think of how it applied to me. But it wouldn’t go away. Still thinking that the idea of presence was separate from my session of servant leadership, I randomly decided that I would spend the couple weeks before the retreat consciously making an effort to be more present to people in my life. And what unfolded from that was something completely unexpected.
Let me start at the beginning. When I read the passage of the washing of the feet in John 13, I at first have a hard time understanding the cultural significance of the washing of the feet. But I realize Jesus’ example is less about the literal washing of the feet and more about the call to be a leader through service. I am struck by the fact that Jesus, as a leader, does not consider himself better than those He serves. Instead, He humbly serves them. I realize that when He says He has given us a model to follow, He is giving us an example of how we are called to be leaders through the ways we serve. We are supposed to set an example for others in our service.
When I first hear this, I of course think of many big ways in which I can serve. I think about building a Habitat house, about going to soup kitchens, about joining community service clubs. I think of numerous “scheduled” community service projects. These are all great ways to serve, and I love these things. But Jesus calls us deeper.
Then there are small ways we can serve each and every day. Our service goes beyond these scheduled times, and it just becomes a part of who we are. It is about recognizing a need and tending to it. Helping around the house, holding open a door, picking up trash, etc, etc. Although I can always continue to grow in my service, this, too, is not that difficult for me. I like to keep myself busy, so it is easy to identify a task that needs to be done and to do it. And this is the place I was at when I talked about servant leadership at the beginning of the year. God was really showing me the importance of serving in small ways, of serving for His glory and not my own. And this is an area that I think I have grown in this year, and one that I will continue to grow in.
But as I prayed about my session for the retreat, it bothered me to talk about how we can serve through all our tasks. All year, the theme of being and not doing comes up constantly. Most days I fail to understand what it means, but the saying and the theme seem to follow me everywhere. I can’t escape it. And even though service “tasks” are good and necessary for us to do, it didn’t seem consistent with the direction God has been leading me in all year. I didn’t like the idea of talking about doing service tasks. So this idea of presence continued to come up, but I still didn’t understand how it fit in.
Then, a few weeks ago when I was flying to Covecrest for a few days, I had in my mind a list of tasks I wanted to accomplish while I was on the plane. A few hours on the plane seemed like plenty of time to get some things done that I wanted done. Well I ended up sitting next to this guy who wouldn’t stop talking to me. We ran out of things to talk about very early on in the conversation, as we had next to nothing in common. I sat there thinking to myself: “Ok God, I promised that I would try to be more present to people. If this is one of those opportunities, please make that clear to me, because this is really painful right now.” I found out he was a non-practicing Catholic, but as I talked about my life as a missionary and my faith, there was definitely no response from him. So then I thought: “Ok God, I am trying here, but I am getting no response.” And then I realized something, or rather God helped me to understand something: being present does not mean I have a deep theological or evangelical conversation with someone. It doesn’t even mean that I have to talk about God or faith. It simply means I am present to the person and his needs. For this man, he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to. All he needed was for me to listen to whatever he wanted to talk about (even if I couldn’t relate). He needed to be loved and served by the way that I listened to him. My presence to him was how I was washing his feet. So God taught me a lesson on the way to Covecrest, although I don’t know if I really understood it until a week or two later. On the way home I also ended up being engaged in conversation the entire time. So my list of tasks to work on during the plane rides didn’t get accomplished. When I got home, though, I ended up having unexpected time in my schedule to work on everything I thought was so urgent (although none of it really was). God showed me that when I take the time to be present to others, He blesses me with the time to get done what I need to get done. I struggle with the idea of being and not doing because I don’t understand how to balance myself, knowing that I still have to accomplish things. God showed me that when my focus is on being, the doing gets done.
Through this lesson, I realized that my very presence is a way to serve others. In a world where people are very selfish and for the most part only care about their own agendas, what most people need more than anything is for someone to be present and to listen to them. I realized that when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, more than anything else, His example was how He was present to each of them. In taking the time to individually wash their feet, He was showing each one of them that they were important enough for Him to spend time with them. He loved them enough to spend time with them. Once reaching this understanding, it seems so simple that we can “wash people’s feet” and serve others by being present to them, but it is much harder to live out. So many times I live my life with this sort of tunnel vision of the direction I am going, thinking only of what I need to get done. When I don’t take the time to check my peripherals, I am missing many opportunities God may be trying to give me to be present to others. This is something I definitely continue to struggle with and will continue to struggle with; however, I have been consciously trying to make myself take a step back and look for opportunities to be present. In doing so, God has shown me that He will bless me by allowing me the time to complete my tasks, even when I don’t see it at the time. And although I only shared one story, in only a few short weeks, there have been countless moments I have been called out to be more present. I have finally started to understand a little more about the concept of being and not doing. And for the first time, I am learning to see how my presence is an act of service to others. As God started to connect the dots for me (and as He continues to do so), I realized how He has led me on a journey calling me deeper and deeper into service. First, He blessed me with a desire to serve in big, organized ways. Then, He showed me how to incorporate service tasks into my daily life. And now, He is leading me even deeper as He shows me how to serve through being present to others, through BEING. With each step, He allows me to understand more deeply the verse: “I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
I had no idea God would bless ME so much through my preparation of giving a talk to teens. I guess it is a good thing I was open and receptive to the ways that He wanted to use me because clearly I received tenfold in return. If I were always that open and attentive to Him, I cannot even begin to imagine how much He would change my life! First and foremost, I am called to be PRESENT to HIM.