Serving Others – humility and sacrifice

Recently I heard a news report about a politician who was standing down from office. “He has served his community for more than thirty years”, the reporter said. It set me to thinking about service and what it really means, because whatever contribution politicians make, service is not a word I associate with an activity so based around the desire for and wielding of power. Many of the “services” we now receive are delivered by large organisations with rigid hierarchical power structures for the thousands of people they employ to “serve” us, be they health, military, police, national, regional or local government. Whilst as institutions they do of course serve our needs for health, safety, protection, amenities and so on, true service and servanthood is something very different. It’s marked by humility, self-sacrifice, disregard for power, preferring the interests of the other, generosity and self-effacement. There are undoubtedly some individuals in the large service organisations who do serve in this way, but the majority appear to do it primarily for the paycheque, the power, the prestige or for a combination of these things.

Jesus was truly revolutionary in his approach to power and authority. Though servant leadership is a term that has only been used in the last 50 years or so, Jesus introduced his followers to the principles two thousand years ago. It was incredibly radical. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Matthew 20 26-28). Jesus’s words were lived out in his life, where he consistently expended himself for others, but perhaps his notion of service is most clearly displayed in his washing of the disciples’ feet on one occasion shortly before his death. This was a menial, despised job, not something for a leader, let alone a king. And he washed the feet of all of his disciples, including Judas who was about to betray him.  Followers of Jesus should, as he said, seek to serve people and not lord it over them. Service is never about power, pride or status.

Service is very important in 12 step recovery. The early pioneers understood the paradox within the teachings of Jesus that “we must give it away if we are to keep it”. All within fellowships are there to serve, recognising that service is essential to recovery. The Twenty-Four Hours a Day book author likens recovery without service to the Dead Sea. It is service which keeps us fresh and alive. And service, as Bill W says, is “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer — ranging all the way from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee.” Serving is a way of looking beyond our ego driven selves to consider the needs and struggles of others, so teaching us a different way of living.

One of the many amazing things about the 12 step programme is the way in which it operates with the minimum of power – positions are temporary and always done as a service to help others and to help one’s own recovery. As Tradition Nine says, “We create Service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve”. In A.A. groups, these trusted servants are sometimes called “officers” and usually are chosen by the group for limited terms of service. Tradition Two says, “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” These service positions may have titles. But titles in A.A. do not bring power or status, they simply describe roles and responsibilities. Chairing a 12 step meeting is both a service opportunity and a unique chance to practice the principles learnt in A.A, especially one of humility. It’s been said that most mistakes made by a chairperson arise from a false feeling of ego, power or control which simply shows that they have more to learn about humility.

Given that Jesus declared that the path to greatness lies in humble service, it is surprising how consistently the Christian church is based upon positions of power and authority and how many individuals within the church have been caught up in the pursuit of this power. All too often we see signs of abuse of power, with pride in positions of status and prestige clothed in false humility. It is remarkable that the heady attraction of power and the ever-present pitfalls from our personal weaknesses have been so consistently disregarded, given that Christianity in all its forms is based on a common belief in our human fallibility and sinfulness. Churches lack the built-in safeguards which the founders of A.A. inspirationally put in place for their meetings and structure. As a result, whereas 12 step organisations and their overall structures are upside down, with ultimate responsibility and final authority for services residing with the groups, the church is a traditional pyramid structure with power generally resting at the top. Ironic really, because Jesus heavily criticised the religious power pyramid of his time and the Kingdom of Heaven he spoke of, is very much an upside down, topsy turvy model of living.

As they say, it is what it is, so as followers of Jesus we have to work with what we’ve got and the way that things are. Our job is to put into practice the things he taught, loving our neighbour as ourselves, so we serve without expecting anything in return whether that be awareness, reward or recompense. As Jesus showed too, we serve those who are opposed to us as well as those who do not value or appreciate what we do. We need to be very, very wary of power and find some way to build in our own personal checks and safeguards if we are in positions of power and prestige. Hard as all of this may be, we must trust that as we do seek to serve with genuine humility and as we show love through this service, it creates ripples which extend far beyond us. “To keep it you have to give it away,” and by giving of ourselves we not only advance the Kingdom of God, but somehow, miraculously, we are fed and become full ourselves.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. Jesus of Nazareth

The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy. Mahatma Gandhi

Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness. Leo Tolstoy

What brings you closer to God is being in service to others. Any religion or spiritual way of life will indicate that service to others will lead to a connection with a higher power.  Anonymous

How can I be useful, of what service can I be? There is something inside me, what can it be? Vincent Van Gogh

 

In The Power Zone – the spiritual risks from personal power

I recently read an interesting piece by Brennan Manning, a recovering alcoholic who wrote some fine Christian books marked through with 12 step wisdom. In it he said that most of our personal battles are about us seeking security, pleasure or power. Whilst I willingly plead guilty to the first two, it has taken me a lot longer to recognise that I am also guilty of wanting power – the speck in other people’s eyes is always much easier to see than the log in my own. Most of the time I do a fairly good job of convincing myself (and maybe others) that I am a fair and benevolent person who shares what power I have and only wants a little power in order to add to the greater good. Which is true. But there is a less comfortable side, because power is always about control – control of what I want, what I do, what I experience, what I have. The corollary of this is controlling others so that these and perhaps more hidden needs of mine get met. It is very hard to see where the cross-over between wanting to do good and benefit others becomes a justification to satisfy my personal needs for power and control.

The reason I can get glimpses of my interest in power through the cloak of innocence that normally hides it, is that other people come clean about their own relationship with power and I see myself in their stories. Sometimes too, people close to me have the courage to shed a spotlight of objectivity onto my actions and self-perceptions. The reality is that I do want power and when I don’t have it, I’m envious of those who do, whether through their schooling, their jobs, their connections, their political positions or through their income, wealth and resources, especially when they seem to misuse it – measured of course by my yardstick of what’s right and wrong. Even as I write (and perhaps because I am writing on this subject) I am wrestling with a decision about my continued membership of a group which has moved away from doing the things which first got me involved and which I no longer really believe in. Do I leave and move on? I am beginning see that it is the power and prestige of membership which is the biggest attraction to my remaining. And of course the silky voice of temptation provides me with a number of very reasonable justifications for doing nothing and staying put.

We cannot get away from the harmfulness of power. Power does change us, and power can corrupt us. Where there is abuse, it always exists in the shadow of power; power that is misused, deliberately and through ignorance or weakness.  Physical and sexual abuse, racial abuse, exclusion of individuals and groups who do not fit in, the creation of actions and behaviours to gain compliance are all based on power dynamics. Power structures underpin the Church, and the emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse of countless individuals over the centuries bear witness to the damage that misused power can cause. Power inflates our egos and self-importance – research has shown that individuals rise to positions of authority by being collaborative and selfless but once they reach a high rung on the leadership ladder, many become coercive, impulsive and self-centred.

In the 12 step fellowships, there is a strong recognition of the damaging nature of power. The grounded checks of the 12 traditions have helped to safeguard the programmes from the excesses of power. As tradition 2 says, “our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” There are no chiefs in AA or NA, no central directives or authority, no managing group or Board. No opportunity for power to be misused. Group conscience decides what individual meetings will do and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most people would say that this is a recipe for anarchy and yet it works in 12 step fellowships – the core principles of AA remain as they were 80 years ago and it is because it is uncorrupted by power that it remains as effective as ever with no agenda except to carry the message.

Jesus had a unique take on power. He saw the abuses of power, he declined to accept the trappings of power and many of the accounts of his life in the gospels relate to the verbal duels he had with the religious authorities who held enormous power, in spite of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Eventually he was killed because he challenged these powerful and influential men who saw him as a threat. In the account of his wilderness temptations early in his ministry, he rejected power as a way of being, let alone how he would communicate his message, and he consistently rejected the offer of power over the three years that he taught and healed. Even in the days and hours leading up to his death he refused to buy into it. Towards the end he rebuked Peter for using a sword, he did not try to ingratiate himself with the High Priest, Pontius Pilate the Governor or King Herod, and he accepted the nails and the hours of dying agonisingly on a wooden cross. Jesus came into the world to share a new type of power – power based upon compassion, honesty, sharing and transparency that the world has never really liked. He was the Servant King. And sadly, in spite of this example, Christianity has yet to redefine power in the way that Jesus showed us.

None of this is to say that power in itself is inherently bad or indeed that any society has ever existed without a power structure of sorts, but if power corrupts as it surely does, then institutions and individuals need to create safeguards to prevent the harm that unchecked power will cause. So how do we build in actions, checks and systems to prevent us misusing the power we have?  Firstly, since a sense of power is associated with a growing urge to gratify our own desires, an easy starting point is to question whether we ever use our positions of power to feed the other two areas of indulgence (security and pleasure) identified by Brennan Manning.  As a starting point, resisting the temptation to gratify our desires would massively reduce the destructive impact of power in every context, personal and institutional. Building in some sort of system of review and reflection on our actions is useful. We are more likely to abuse power when we don’t have anyone who will constructively criticise our actions, so having someone outside our positions of power (a mentor, sponsor, spiritual director) who we are honest with and accountable to and who is not afraid to give us honest feedback is so important. As Anne Lamott bluntly says, “Since we can’t heal our own sick mind with our own sick mind, we need to consult somebody else’s sick mind to help us.” It is undoubtedly true that when we have to explain our actions to someone else, we will think twice about what we do. (so long as we can manage to avoid trying to manipulate or control them to give us the answer we want!) External checks are necessary too for large organisations. Finally, and possibly most important of all, we need to be servants in everything we do. Whatever our position but most especially if we hold a position of power, serving others with compassion, consideration and kindness will help to stop us becoming self-absorbed and seeing other people as objects to use for our own ends. As Jesus said to his disciples on the evening before his death, after he had taken on the role of a common servant and washed their feet, “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  Power based on service that is shaped by compassion, honesty and sharing becomes benign and the power of love overrules the love of power, making the world a better place.

Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Montesquieu

 Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. Anne Lamott

 Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. Carl Jung

 Good people tend to be naïve about power; bad people aren’t – they know it’s all about power. Richard Rohr

 The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again. Power corrupts, and when you’re in charge, you start doing things that you think are right, but they’re actually not. George Lucas

 Power always thinks that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws. John Adams