On Service

“you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
 the restorer of streets to dwell in” (Isaiah 58:12)

Written by Alex Swain, Beloved in the Desert

This post will be the last of a series of reflections that have been focused on the topics of call, prayer, and community. They are an attempt to articulate, broadly, the main ways that I have come to draw closer to God through this year as a member of the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC). These posts also come as an apt opportunity for reflection on my time at Beloved in the Desert, as the first year of the program is in its final weeks.

Of all the multifaceted ways of living throughout this year, by discerning the call of God and developing a discipline of prayer, while living in community, I have experienced that service is a natural outpouring of these ways of living.

Service is a pillar of ESC. All of the ESC programs scattered around the nation are deeply engaged in service (it is in the name!). At Beloved in the Desert, we seek to “serve others in solidarity, promoting justice throughout community.” It is our impassioned desire to give of our time and energy to work towards the end of a host of maladies and injustices that plague our society: homelessness, hunger, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, domestic abuse… the list goes on.

We seek to be “repairers of the breach” as described in Isaiah 58:9-12.

if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
 the restorer of streets to dwell in

I am ever more convinced that the work of service, the pouring out of the self for another, is a manifestation – even an incarnation – of the work of the kingdom of God. It is a response to the call of God. It is an emanation of our daily prayer. It is the overflow of grace found in community. I think, too, that it is a necessity to the realization of justice on Earth, it is what God asks of us as members of the Body of Christ.

In a parable, Jesus describes what service looks like (Matthew 25:37-40).

“Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” 

The acts of service can be simple. It can be providing a sandwich you had in your lunchbox to someone in need, or providing money to those who ask. It can be chatting with someone, listening to them, hearing them and their frustrations. Service can be a simple and charitable act that one is able to do throughout their day, within one’s own sphere of influence.

We also engage in service on much larger levels through our service sites.

As a community we serve across placement sites here in Tucson to assist organizations that work towards aiding, and ending, the systemic injustices of our nation. I see it at, for example, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona where I serve. The organization is the fourth largest food bank in the country. Quite simply, and perhaps most importantly, it aids those in need of immediate hunger relief by providing food to thousands of people each month.

Additionally, however, it works towards the abolition of the intersectional and systemic issues of hunger in multi-pronged ways. It seeks to grow individuals in knowledge of growing their own food, especially in the desert, through community farms and free garden education programs. The organization raises up leaders in the community through teaching kitchens and gardening co-operatives, establishing local food pathways for those most in need of fresh, healthy food. They seek to empower the community with knowledge and organization while simultaneously providing the immediate necessity of hunger relief. It’s breathtaking, really, to participate in such an organization.

The wonderful thing is that numerous organizations here in Tucson, and across the country, are engaged in this task: aiding those in need immediately, while working to overturn unjust systems, getting at the heart of systemic and intersectional realities.

We are, in all of this, rooted in our faith.

Faith flows into call. Prayer and communal life are a realized response to call. From these pours forth a compassionate heart to act in service to one another and to a world which groans for its ultimate redemption. Faith and action are intimately tied together. Indeed, Charles Gore, an Anglican priest and theologian of the 19th century, writes, “Faith… belongs to our entire body of activities.” (Lux Mundi p. 16).

Likewise, Saint James has some strong words to say about the intersection of faith and service.

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17).

As this year progressed, I experienced the hard work of service transform from being, rather than a duty of faith, to a necessity. A similar transformation in my experience with prayer happened as well. Engaging deeply, attentively, intentionally with these components of our faith caused them to unfold from duty to necessity.

CS Lewis writes in his beloved The Screwtape Letters, where the demon Screwtape writes to his nephew, a novice tempter, about humans, “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

I continue to learn that service is a positioning of the soul, a placing of the entire body which effects all things, our relationships, our prayer, our time with God, our very faith. Gradually, as we pray, serve, live, and our entire being steeps in faith, our life becomes a lived prayer.

Our service becomes blurred and inseparable by the prayer we begin and conclude in the daily office.

Often, I find myself praying in the morning that throughout the day I would be attentive and focused on God’s Holy presence, particularly while working at my site of service. That in keeping Jesus at the forefront of my life, in ordering my life on the primacy of Jesus Christ, right relationship will flow, coloring all my interactions with others. Reminding myself that each and every person I come across is deeply beloved and cherished by God, made in God’s very image. I think this cannot come without an intentionality to service.  

Service, then, is an absolute necessity which is simultaneously the outpouring of the overflow of grace which God pours upon us, and something to be intentionally stewarded. This year as a member of ESC has provided that, and it’s been a truly meaningful and wonderful journey, thanks be to God.