I heard the roar of the lawnmower before I saw it.
The Department of Natural Resources Parks & Rec is responsible for the upkeep of the trails near my home. What this means is that every so often I run across a state employee sitting atop a Colossus of a mower, cutting grass away from the sides of the path so that ticks, critters, and problematic flora don’t bother the walkers.
Usually they roll right on by without noticing me. Today, though, the man mowing – wearing safety glasses and ear protection and his bright orange safety vest – stopped the lawnmower right in the middle of the road as I rounded the bend. I paused. “Is it okay to pass?” I wondered, assuming they were doing work on the trail beyond.
“Oh, yeah!” he answered, and gestured to the mower. “I just didn’t want to get grass on you or hurt your ears with the noise.”
I was startled by the kindness and thanked him. Once I was a safe distance away, the mower started up again – and then, ten minutes later, I heard it cut off once more. When I glanced back, I saw that the mower had stopped for another walker.
That poor worker, I thought. It’s going to take him forty years to cut the grass if he stops for everybody!
But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? That sacrifice of efficiency is precisely what makes the gesture so considerate.
It can’t be coincidental that right after that my uncle happened to send me an email with an attached story called “The Rabbi’s Gift” in which a group of monks, convinced by a rabbi that one of them might be the Messiah, treat each other with the utmost care, grace, and respect as a result – thus saving their dying monastery. The point of the story is simple: if we treat each other the way we would treat Christ, the world will notice and everything will be changed.
But treating each other the way we would treat Christ comes at a cost – the cost of our money, or our energy, or our time. And it should. I don’t know if the state employee today was a Christian, but I do know that a gesture meant to honor and respect the walkers going by slowed down a process that could have gone much faster. Last night, my parents drove hours to go see a church member who had suffered from a heart attack and was hospitalized – time that could have surely been spent somewhere else. Many of the great servants I know are able to serve precisely because of what they are willing to give up. It is when you are able to say “my needs and wants are irrelevant” that true service begins.
And as believers we know this, but I don’t think we know this. All too often, I think we try to make our kindness convenient. We want our service to fit into our lives. Of course we’ll take the cake to that church member who’s been struggling lately – her house is right on our way to the mall! And why wouldn’t I call Susan and check on her? I have to wait for my nail polish to dry, at any rate, and I might as well be doing something. Oh, and I’ll absolutely serve at the church dinner – I was planning to be out that night anyway.
But canceling that thing we planned to do something for someone who makes us sigh? Serving at that event that we’re really not interested in? Devoting two hours to a phone call when we really need to get the grocery shopping done? Those are far bigger asks.
I suspect this is one facet of what Jesus was getting at when He told His disciples in Matthew 16:24 to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If your Christian life is convenient and all your acts of service never really demand anything from you, you’re not really denying yourself. The greatest consideration and the greatest acts of love come at a high cost – and Christ paid the highest cost of all.
I’m not saying that we need to make service more difficult than it is, or that we only ought to serve in ways that inconvenience us. Rather, I think it’s worth simply keeping an eye on why we do what we do as believers. Are our acts of ministry and service really the things that Christ wants us to be doing for others? Are they genuine ways that we’re showing love and care? Or are they our way of fulfilling Christian “obligations” without inconveniencing ourselves? Who gets dropped off our radar because the act of serving them is inconvenient? What opportunities do we avoid?
In the story my uncle sent, the monks’ love and care for each other revitalized their monastery and drew in others. If the world sees Christians bent on serving each other and the world regardless of the cost to themselves, they’ll be drawn in, too. There is no act so miraculous as the love willing to inconvenience itself, to sacrifice, to put selfishness aside.
Embrace inconvenience. Serve when it doesn’t work. Love when there’s no time. Give when it seems foolish.
The world will notice.