Gary Chapman relates the words of a young man called Mark who had just started his first full-time job and was contemplating getting married soon. He said the following: “I think the thing that made me feel most loved was the way my parents worked so hard to help me with everything”. As he remembered back to his younger years he recalled the specifics, “I remember all the meals Mom made even though she worked outside the home, and the time Dad helped me with the second hand car we had bought together when I was sixteen. The little things, the big things – they did so much to help me.”
Now at the age of 24, Mark continued to reminisce: “I realise it now, more than I did back then. But even at the time, I knew that they were working hard to help me and I always appreciated it. I hope I can do the same for my children one-day.”
Mark was describing his parents who throughout his life had adeptly spoken the love language of service.
Gary Chapman writes that parenting is a service oriented vocation. He says that the day you decide to have a child, you enrol for long term service. He says that by the time your child has become a teenager, you have been speaking this language of love for thirteen years, and if as a parent you really want to have a sense of the hours, days, months and years of service you have given, take a few minutes to calculate the number of nappies you changed, meals you prepared, clothes you washed, folded and ironed, the number of band-aids you applied, toys you repaired, sheets you tucked in, hair you washed and combed. He suggests that on days when parents may be feeling like a failure such a list will provide solid and irrefutable evidence that you have loved your children.
The same exercise can be done in reverse. It might be equally possible for us to make a list of all that we received from our parents in the earliest years of our lives, through our childhood years, into our teens as well as the ongoing support we may have received from them into our adult years: nappies changed, meals prepared, clothes washed, hair combed, assistance with homework… and the list could go on and on and on.
Gary Chapman goes on to say that all of this hard work takes on a dimension of nobility when you understand that such acts of service are powerful expressions of emotional love. History is full of examples of men and women who learned to speak the love language known as acts of service. The list includes people like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi and more recently, someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and last year here in the UK, Prince Philip. This year, in the UK, many people will be celebrating the years of public service that the Queen has given to the people of this country as well as the common-wealth. I was interested that in a letter written by the Queen that was shown on TV, she had signed the letter as ‘your servant’.
Indeed, one of the signs of true greatness is expressed in serving. When reading off a list of great names in history who have given their lives in service of others, it is easy to forget that millions of parents all around the world have lived equally noble and self-sacrificing lives for the sake of their children, lives of true greatness, unseen and unacknowledged, with no public accolades or medals of honour.
If true greatness is indeed expressed in serving, then many many parents have participated in this work of true greatness as their acts of service freely given have been true expressions of emotional love.
Gary Chapman gives a reminder though, that loving service of this kind is freely given. He writes that loving service is not slavery. Slavery is imposed from the outside and is done with reluctance. Instead, loving service is a gift, not a necessity, and is done freely and not under coercion. When service is done with a spirit of resentment and bitterness then the spirit of love is tainted, and it is no longer nourishing or helpful for those who are on the receiving end. It is important for all of us, when engaging in acts of service to be sure that our acts of service are truly communicating love or whether our actions have become tainted with toxic emotions that harm not just those who are recipients, but also ourselves as givers, poisoning ourselves and our relationships with negativity and darkness rather than being expressions of the purity of divine love.
Another reminder that Gary Chapman gives is that manipulation is not love. When acts of service are used as a means of manipulating another person, then the streams of love flowing between us become tainted and polluted. We are practising manipulation if our acts of service are always tied to somebody else doing something for us in return. As Gary Chapman writes: Manipulation is never an expression of love. Love cannot be earned, It is a gift freely expressed. True love is always given without conditions. That doesn’t mean that sometimes it is necessary to set boundaries in relationships and where other people should never be confronted or called to account, but if our acts of service are to be truly loving, then they need to be given without manipulation or hidden agenda. Manipulation as Gary Chapman writes has nothing to do with love and everything to do with control.
As Christians, the supreme example of a life of loving service is in fact Jesus. Many would agree that the simple act of washing his disciples feet in John 13 represents a profound summary and symbol of the way Jesus lived his whole life. He himself said that he did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life for the sake of others. And he went on to teach his followers: “whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant”.
In the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet, we read of the actions Jesus took on that night:
Firstly, we read that Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God. Jesus act of service came from a positive place within him. It came from an inner knowing that he was already loved. Knowing himself to be loved, Jesus was able to freely share that love with others. He is not doing this act of service to try and win over the love of his disciples. Secure in the knowledge that he is already loved, he is able to freely share that love without any sense of manipulation.
Secondly, we read that got up from the meal. Acts of service require effort. It takes effort to get up from the table. It is much easier to just sit and wait for others to do things for us. Acts of service require some initiative on our part, and the effort to get up ready to act.
Thirdly, we read that Jesus took off his outer clothing. In a way this is symbolic of the fact that when we engage in acts of service, it requires that we take off our sense of self-importance. The Apostle Paul in Colossians uses the imagery of removing a garment as a symbol of taking off what he calls the old-self, the self that is filled with manipulative desires and greed, anger, rage and malice.
Fourthly, we read that Jesus then wrapped a towel around his waist. Again this might have symbolic value for us. Just as we need to take off our sense of self-importance and to take off the old-self, so Paul speaks of putting on the new self, that is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its Creator. In Colossians 3 :12, he says, “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… and over all these virtues, put on love. Jesus wrapping a towel around his waste becomes a symbol that a true act of service needs to be clothed or wrapped in love.
And fifthly, we read that Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. Acts of service requires a kind of pouring ourselves out towards others. It is a reminder that unless we have some love in our love tanks, we will have nothing to pour out towards others.
If loving acts of service are to be protected from becoming acts of manipulation or acts tainted with resentment and bitterness, we need to make sure that our love tanks, or our basin’s have something in them that we can pour out. True acts of service do also require acts of self-care otherwise we will end up with nothing left to give.
As suggested in this sermon, all of us, if we are to become fully mature human beings, need to learn this language of love of loving and kind acts of service towards others. A life that is unwilling to give itself in service to others is ultimately an immature life of self-centredness. When Paul speaks in 1 Cor 13 about having put aside childish ways, he is not speaking about putting aside a sense of child-like joy and exuberance, but rather he is speaking of the need that each of us has to grow out of a self-centred preoccupation.
Psychology reminds us that babies and young children are naturally narcissistic. When we are born into the world, as babies we all have the sense that the world revolves around us. The terrible two’s represent that period in a child’s life when they begin to come to the dreadful realisation that the world does not in fact revolve around them, and that they can’t always simply get what they want.
Part of putting aside these narcissistic childish ways requires that all of us learn to speak this language of service. It is one of the dangers of growing up in too much wealth, one has a sense of entitlement, that the world is here to serve us, whereas Jesus shows us that the path to true maturity and true greatness lies in the opposite direction.
While we all need to learn this language of loving service, for some people, it is their primary language of love, the primary way in which they express love to others and to the world, doing acts of kindness towards others, going out of their way to help and be of service. The danger is that the rest of us take advantage of them, and forget that if this is their primary language of love, then we also need t learn to speak this language of love in return.
In closing, who are those in your life who have gone out of their way in loving service towards you and who have blessed you with this language of loving service and acts of kindness and given of themselves unconditionally to you, serving you without conditions or the hope of getting back anything in return? In what way might you, out of love and gratitude perhaps speak this love language back to them in return?