As I Have Loved You
One afternoon a couple years ago, a friend of mine was sitting on the couch after work when he noticed his 3 year old daughter waddling back and forth in front of him with her hips pushed forward and shoulders back and a look of deep concentration on her face.
“What’cha doin’ sweetie?” he asked.
Little Lucy looked up, puzzled that it wasn’t completely obvious, and said (sweetly patting her little protruding belly) “I’n be’n Dad.” My friend went back to the gym that week.
Sister Julie Beck gave a talk a few years ago that has really stuck with me. In it, she called on the women of the church to make their service “a pattern of discipleship the Lord will recognize when he comes again.”
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t cured any lepers or raised anyone from the dead lately, but I don’t think that’s what it would take for the Lord to see himself in my attempts to imitate him…however laughable they often are.
So what was it about the way the Lord served that made his service so transformative?
There are many answers to this question; the priority he put on people, the way he met people where they were with kindness they could understand, the inspired questions he asked, the way he served the whole person… But I want to focus on three hallmarks of Christlike service I’d personally like to get better at imitating.
First, Jesus stood up for people.
I was surprised once this thought occurred to me how often it shows up in the scriptures. Sometimes his defense was explicit, like when he took the authorities to task for shaming his friends about Sabbath breaking;
“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless. What man shall there be among you, that have one sheep, and it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep?” I imagine what it felt like to those poor fisherman to hear someone answer back to the prejudice and condescension that made up so much of their experience with authority and I think I understand why the Savior felt like defending their snack in a corn field mattered.
But he stood up for people in more subtle ways too.
I picture the woman taken in adultery ashamed and terrified, surrounded by people who literally want to kill her, and the Savior stands up for her with the perfectly timed and piercing “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” which silenced judgmental crowd and gave her hope on what was probably the worst day of her life. I am more and more sure that just this kind of inspired response truly is there for the asking at crucial moments in our lives too.
I also love the story of Zaccheus. When Christ called the little tax collector down out of the tree and invited himself to supper, he was pretty much literally putting his arm around this nerd whose awkwardness and isolation had twisted him up into a bully and inviting him to come sit at the popular kid’s table. I know what it feels like to be stood up for that way.
I want to learn to stand up for people like the Savior did.
Second, Jesus never shied away from serving when it was hard.
To say he served in ways that were unpopular is putting it lightly. He spent his time with lepers, harlots, tax collectors and other social pariahs, and challenged the prevailing wisdom of the day even when he served those who weren’t outcasts.
When Jesus healed a man born blind, the people asked “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” Not only had his answer (neither) not even been an option in their minds, it messed with some really important social mores. Sometimes the ways we are inspired to serve grate against deeply held beliefs and traditions built up over generations, or just popular in the moment. Challenging those kinds of cultural forces in society, and in the church, is hard. But it’s what the Savior did.
Jesus also served in ways that were uncomfortable. You can almost feel Peter squirming in his seat as the Savior kneels before him at the Last Supper. “Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Thou shalt never wash my feet,” he exclaims. And I get it. But Jesus gently persisted to teach one of the most poignant wordless sermons in history. Real service, authentic watchcare (as sister Beck calls it) is vulnerable stuff—both to give and to receive.
I also love the story of the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of Israel,” he told her “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs. And she said Truth Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith, be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.” As with pretty much anything in scripture, there are many ways to take this, but as someone who sometimes struggles to admit when she’s wrong, let go of preconceptions and change perspectives, I see in this exchange a beautiful example of the Savior leaning in to a situation that challenged what he understood about his role, his place in the world—choosing to growing himself and deeply blessing someone else in the process.
I want to learn to serve when it’s hard like the Savior did.
Third, Jesus served with profound empathy.
Truly caring about people can be gut-wrenching. Really looking at the world and seeing the pain, injustice, deprivation and hopelessness that pervades the lives of so many of God’s children breaks my heart on a fairly regular basis. And it broke the Savior’s heart too. I picture him holding Mary and Martha, crying with them by their brother’s tomb. I see him exhausted and hungry but compelled to stay with the multitude in the wilderness until every last one of them had been healed.
From the Old Testament through the Doctrine and Covenants, over and over in some of the most poignant moments of scripture, Jesus tells us that his “bowels are filled with compassion” and I can just hear him trying to find words to describe that visceral identification with another person’s pain, the aching desire to do something. Without going too explicitly into the origins of that particular phrase, it’s clear that the Savior didn’t back away from feeling deeply. But he also didn’t let emotional gut checks paralyze him.
Elder Holland captured this balance beautifully for me in his talk at General Conference last month. He said, “Brothers and sisters, such a sermon demands that I openly acknowledge the unearned, undeserved, unending blessings in my life, both temporal and spiritual. Like you, I have had to worry about finances on occasion, but I have never been poor. Nor do I even know how the poor feel. Furthermore, I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education and economic opportunity vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that there but for the grace of God go I.” I also know that although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother and because I have been given much, I too must give”
I want to learn to serve with empathy like the Savior did.
So, how do we do that? How do we nurture the attitudes and behaviors and character it takes to build “a pattern of discipleship the Savior would recognize?”
Turns out there is a fairly substantial vein of research affirming and refining the old adage that practice makes perfect, and if any of you had basketball coaches or violin teacher who drilled the variant “perfect practice makes perfect” into your head, they were even closer to the truth.
Across disciplines from ballet to the boardroom, a concept called deliberate practice turns up as one of the most effective and efficicent way to achieve mastery.
There are 5 characteristics that define deliberate practice, and distinguish it from what most of us do when we set out to get better at something.
First, deliberate practice is designed to improve performance.
This often means that our practice is a lot more granular than the activity we’re trying to perfect. Top athletes don’t practice by playing their sport. They run drills, and more drills, and more drills to improve their performance on the critical tasks that come up maybe once or twice a game, but make all the difference.
I know of nothing designed to reinforce the “pattern of discipleship that the Lord would recognize” better than home and visiting teaching. Imagine what would happen in our community if each of us actually ran this ‘service drill’ over and over again, intent on perfecting the art of compassionate service, stewardship and watchcare. Nothing we do in these sacred relationships is irrelevant. President Eyring reminds us; “Never, never underestimate the spiritual value of doing temporal things well for those whom you serve.”
Our callings are also carefully designed to improve our performance as disciples of Christ. And we can design our own opportunities, “for behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things,” God tells us “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will.”
I believe that God will magnify every effort we make to practice serving like him.
Second, deliberate practice is well-suited to repetition.
A LOT of it.
This kind of practice is not about grand gestures or major sacrifices. In fact, it works better if it shows up as a commonplace part of daily life—something you can do, like the Savior so often did, in between and on the way and meanwhile.
For example, a few years ago I made a simple resolution to say out loud every kind thought that came into my head. It was a really simple thing, and it did land me outside my comfort zone on occasion. But several times a day, I complimented, thanked, encouraged and expressed love to family, friends, and strangers. I know ripples went out from that effort into the world, but the light and strength and refinement it brought to me was much more significant.
Third, deliberate practice involves immediate, expert feedback.
In almost every common human pursuit, this means a coach. People shooting for the highest levels of performance in their field will give up education and job opportunities, leave friends, spend fortunes and move halfway around the world for the best coach. In addition to their decades of experience, these coaches have software and sensor arrays that can track and analyze every minute detail of a shot or serve or drive to perfect it down to the millisecond.
I testify that the Spirit is every bit as effective as all of that and more…the best coach we could possibly have, and eager to help us. If we will choose the Holy Ghost as our coach, if we will invest in a trusting relationship, listen carefully and put forth our best efforts to follow, I know we’ll be given the immediate, expert feedback that deliberate practice requires. Because there is nothing as irresistible to a teacher as an enthusiastic student.
Elder Holland promised as much when he said; “I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.”
Fourth, deliberate practice is mentally demanding.
It’s tempting sometimes to metaphorically ‘pop the clutch’ in our service and coast through delivering casseroles, loading moving trucks and reading visiting teaching messages on autopilot. Deliberate practice demands that we engage; picking up speed or slowing down, adjusting proximity (and enduring the occasional grinding or slipping) as we learn to mesh our will with the Savior’s and feel the power that can only come through that partnership.
Sometimes deliberate practice involves doing less…or at least doing it differently. Ballet dancers log practice hours that would be physically impossible by running through routines using only tiny hand motions that represent what they call the ‘spine’ of the dance. Every step, spin, jump, etc. is reduced to its most essential nature and represented on one hand and the dancers go over and over with their minds (and hand) what would absolutely wreck their bodies to do.
I believe we too could be inspired to understand the essence of the kind of service we want to give and that those “small and simple things” may well “bring to pass more righteousness” than all our previous, exhausting, efforts.
Finally, deliberate practice is seldom “fun.”
This is not to say that it has to be torturous to be effective, but sometimes I think we get confused about what that favorite Book of Mormon verse of ours actually says. In our house, mama was always quick to point out that the nowhere does it say “men are that they might have fun.” We are, however, promised joy as we serve our fellow men. And Sister Beck assures us that if we place the priority on the work that brings real joy, some of the “fun” objectives that often distract us acutally come along on their own. She says “Remember that focusing on relief will always build sociality, whereas focusing on sociality may not always bring relief.”
I testify that if we will choose to practice serving as the Savior served, if we will look to the example he’s given us and choose specific ways we want to be better, that the Spirit will jump at the invitation to be our coach and we will grow, find joy in our hearts, and be a blessing in the world as we establish in our lives (and the church) “a pattern of discipleship that the Lord will recognize when He comes again.”