Compassion-and-service

February 23, 2014 | 13 comments
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I recently accepted a new calling in my ward. I’m now the compassionate service leader in the Relief Society. It’s been a good change from my previous calling as gospel doctrine teacher; I’m still relatively new in the ward, and this calling allows me to meet and know the people I worship with more intimately. There is a self-interested angle to this: every so often I cause a little trouble in my wards, or contemplate doing so, and I’ve found that when I know and love individual people I can get away with saying more. Plus, you know, once in a while the service I organize does actually bring some love and support into people’s lives — which is the whole point, after all.

Over the past week our ward has whipped up some classic, casserole-style compassionate service. A new family moved in, and several days later a member of that family suddenly became very ill, resulting in week-long ICU stay. We barely knew these people — indeed, I hadn’t even met them yet — but the ward sprang into action, and visits, meals, childcare, priesthood blessings, and lots of fasting and prayer were freely offered. My tiny part in all of this was to organize the meal deliveries, a task that took only a few minutes thanks to an email network and a convenient website. Ward members responded willingly, and I do believe that we ministered to this distressed family in Christ’s way.

This story looks like it will end well, and in Sunday’s fast-and-testimony meeting there was a feeling of true intimacy and love as we shared tears of gratitude with our new family. This is the kind of service that Mormons provide exceptionally well: a defined need was met rapidly and effectively, and the favorable ending allowed us to share the joy as we shared the burden. Moments like these, marked by trust, work, fellow-feeling, gratitude and joy, are at the heart of Mormon lived experience.

There are other kinds of needs that are harder for Mormons to meet; to be fair, they’re much harder for any community to meet. Chronic, undefined health problems, mental illness, unhappy family dynamics, prolonged financial distress, burdensome caregiving responsibilities, social isolation: each of these crosses is borne by somebody in our ward, and this kind of suffering is not easily relieved with casseroles and child-care. These sisters and brothers, too, are in need of our service, and while it is sometimes more emotionally difficult to provide this kind of ministry, it can be done. I have seen it happen many times in the wards I have lived in.

Yet something still remains, and a child’s malapropism helped me to think about it in a new way. One of my children, misunderstanding the title of my new role, asked me to explain “compassion-and-service.” Suddenly the phrase, and the duties it described, took on a new meaning for me. I am called to facilitate the sharing of service and compassion in our ward. Compassion need not be merely a tacked-on descriptor, a grammatical adjunct to the “real” work of practical service. The best practical service is indeed compassionate, but compassion is a Christian labor in its own right.

If you will forgive a brief incursion of commercial language, perhaps we can think about “re-branding” compassionate service. [1] When we re-brand the work of the Relief Society as, in part, “compassion-and-service,” a new realm of ministry, beyond casseroles and visits, opens to view. Returning kindness for anger; refusing gossip; reaching out to the eccentric and the difficult among us. Advocating for the “least of these,” the transgressors and the nobodies. Breaking down barriers of race, class, gender, sexuality. A ministry of remembering: a sister in my parents’ ward has sent flowers on the anniversary of my brother’s death for more than twenty years. A ministry of tears: mourning with those who mourn. A ministry of presence: simply sitting with a lonely soul. A ministry of lovingkindness, of reconciliation, of acceptance.

This is nothing new, of course. This is basic lived Christianity, but I can always use the reminder. “Compassion-and-service” reminded me of those basics today.

 

[1]  I do so with trepidation, because just today I read Hugh Nibley’s classic rant against mixing the worldly and the spiritual: “But the label game reaches its all-time peak of skill and effrontery in the Madison Avenue master stroke of pasting the lovely label of Zion on all the most typical institutions of Babylon: Zion’s Loans, Zion’s Real Estate, Zion’s Used Cars, Zion’s Jewelry, Zion’s Supermart, Zion’s Auto Wrecking, Zion’s Outdoor Advertising, Zion’s Gunshop, Zion’s Land and Mining, Zion’s Development, Zion’s Securities — all that is quintessentially Babylon now masquerades as Zion.” (“What is Zion? A Distant View”, in Approaching Zion, p. 54).

 

13 Responses to Compassion-and-service

  1. Kristine on February 23, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    I love this, Rosalynde. If Montaigne was right that “the greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar,” we should rejoice that there can be so much saving grace in a single syllable.

  2. Orange on February 23, 2014 at 8:08 pm

    I loved this too. I have long felt that the Relief Society has not lived up it it’s potential. I’m sorry to report that out ward no longer has a compassionate service leader because the leadership wants our ward to be more self reliant. I’ve been so frustrated by it. We have an emergency preparedness committee but no compassionate service leader. Sowehome I think we’ve missed the boat.

  3. emig on February 23, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I was asked to give the spiritual thought in ward council this morning and shared Moses 7:41, where Enoch, following the Lord’s example, weeps for the pain and suffering and misery he sees in the world and “stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned.”

    That phrase “his heart swelled wide as eternity” really struck me – every time we serve others, mourn with them, comfort them, help bear their burdens, I think our hearts swell a little wider to accommodate that love and compassion, which are, after all, some of the defining characteristics of Christ and our Heavenly Parents.

  4. Steve Martin on February 23, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Best of luck in your new position.

    I’m sure you will do well.

    And, by the way, you are a terrific writer.

  5. Genevieve on February 24, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Thank you for this inspiring post.

    In our Mormon culture, we so often respond to people in distress by bringing them food. I actually love that about us!

    But I need the reminder to put aside my fear of awkwardness and mourn with them in other ways as well, with my heart as well as my hands.

  6. Dave on February 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

    What’s wrong with casseroles?

  7. Craig H. on February 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Thanks a lot, I liked that. I think you should trademark “casserole-style compassionate service”, very nice.

  8. Rosalynde on February 24, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Thanks, all. To clarify, there’s nothing wrong (and soooo much right) with casseroles. Bring them — to me, preferably! But true compassion, lovingkindness, even without casseroles is also an important Christian work, and sometimes harder.

  9. Amy T on February 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Lovely thoughts. My ward was busy last week with a happy need, an adult (part-member family) baptism, and a sad one, the funeral of a middle-aged brother. They are easier to deal with than long-term chronic needs, but they may also build community in a way that dealing with the long-term needs wouldn’t, so I suppose our congregations need to do both.

  10. BBH on February 24, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rosalynde. I am absolutely in need of compassion (recovering from a major marriage crisis) but not casseroles. I am fortunate that I have one friend in my ward (not my visiting teachers, but a sister I used to visit and developed a love for) that I trust with this private information. This kind of compassion cannot be mandated by assignment or committee.
    Realistically, the RS compassionate service committee has to use blunt tools (food and babysitting). We set up VT and HT routes hoping that people will learn to love and trust each other so that they can turn to each other when they need quiet compassion. It feels like magic when that happens.

  11. Ziff on February 25, 2014 at 9:42 am

    I really like this, Rosalynde! Great re-branding!

  12. Jennie on February 25, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for this post, Rosalynde! Have you seen this?

    http://www.reesedixon.com/2014/02/help.html

    A questionnaire: “How can I help?” I might actually hand this to a person, and it helps me think about the many ways they might be feeling. It starts with “Dinner would be great!” or “We’ve got dinner covered.”

  13. Andrea R. on February 27, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Rosalynde,
    Thank you so much for this. My son recently passed away, and we were hit by a tidal wave of love and compassionate service. So many people offered comfort in the form of meals, cards, flowers, and gifts for my younger two children. It was a testament to the goodness of those around us — we had recently moved into the ward as well. I was continually amazed at the love and support we received and continue to receive 4 weeks after his death.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but I also really identified with your words, “There are other kinds of needs that are harder for Mormons to meet; to be fair, they’re much harder for any community to meet. Chronic, undefined health problems, mental illness, unhappy family dynamics, prolonged financial distress, burdensome caregiving responsibilities, social isolation: each of these crosses is borne by somebody in our ward, and this kind of suffering is not easily relieved with casseroles and child-care.” My son was severely disabled, and his life was a paradox of grief, pain, chronic health issues, and isolation. Many in the wards in which we have lived didn’t know that I had three sons — one was home under the care of a nurse.

    I don’t want to minimize the blessings and kindnesses of those who have been with us through our son’s last days, his death, his funeral, and the aftermath. But I will say that there were many years of yearning for someone to just understand the situation we were in, to come into our home and meet him, to sit by us and hear us, and to witness our struggle. Compassion-and-service indeed. Thank you.

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