Serving Those That Are Hard to Serve

October 21, 2018 — Stephen Fox


In the reading today Jesus talks to his disciples about serving those in need: Those in need of food and drink, clothing, those who are sick and those who are imprisoned. He says to the disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.”

The disciples are confused and ask Jesus: “When have we seen you suffering so?”

In this story, Jesus helps us understand that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and to serve one is a service to all. Jesus names those in need: the poor, the hungry and thirsty, those who are bereft, without home, friend or family. The sick and the criminal. Those without voice, shunned by society, the outliers, castaways, those that we try to ignore and those that are often hard to love.

When Katie asked me to do the meditation today my initial reaction is “No, not me,” But reading further in the email I see that the topic of focus of today’s worship was service, and I reconsider the “No” to “perhaps I do have something to share.” The word meditation gives me a place to start. My meditation on service leads me to the thought of service as being an outward manifestation of love, the act of putting Love into practice, a sharing of love and of God with another and the easing of suffering for another of God’s creatures. My meditation then leads to my own personal, ongoing struggle with serving those that I find hard to serve, hard for me to love.

Take a moment and close your eyes. Identify a person in your life that can be a challenge to you; someone you might find hard to love.

We will come back to that in a few minutes.

I work in an outpatient clinic serving people with Acquired Brain Injuries; providing counseling to our clients and their families, and clinical, and often emotional support, to staff.

Folks with brain injuries can be disinhibited, impulsive, with an array of cognitive, emotional and behavioral challenges. The staff members are often young and eager to learn, but need ongoing attention and support. Both clients and staff can at times, be a challenge for me to provide them with what they need.

I am currently working with a client who has suffered multiple brain injuries and has a history of schizophrenia. On first impression, she is hurtful to others, bigoted, and at times hateful. It can be a struggle for me to give her what she needs. The client lives in a group home which is staffed partly by men and women who are recent immigrants to Maine from Africa. My client is rude to one woman in particular; telling her that she has no right to be here, that she is living off of taxpayer money, that she is a Muslim and worships a false god, and that she should go back to where she came from. These behaviors are antithetical to my own, but by listening to her, I can sense that I can be judgmental myself.

So, how do I serve those that push my buttons?

How do I serve those whose behavior I find disrespectful, hurtful, rude, violate my basic beliefs of what is right and what is wrong? Those that, because of what they say, what they do, the choices they make, the way they touch the wound inside of me, I find hard to love and hard to serve.

There is no simple solution. But what I have learned through my life is a process, which is difficult, frustrating at times not always successful, but often quite helpful and satisfying.

The process begins with deep listening. The most important part of deep listening is listening to myself, setting aside my ego which stands in the way of my awareness of my own wound, pain and need. This awareness is the gateway to finding that part of me that can serve as a connection to another person, to love and be of service to that person.

When I fail to listen to my self in this way I not only fail to serve the other, but pass on my own negativity and anger. I am still surprised that when I deeply listen to another I am able to access what Carl Rogers calls the unconditional positive regard and empathy for the other, and communicate with that person from a space of authenticity and genuineness.

Beneath my client’s outward presentation of bigotry is a woman who is lonely, feels betrayed by most people in her life and in need of solace, comfort and support. I was unable to get past my own distaste for her beliefs until I was able through deep listening to remind myself of my own weaknesses, and of my own wound, and then, and only then, be of some help to her. And that help has aided her struggle to overcome her wounds and she said to me the other day, “I’m making an effort to be less racist and more understanding.”

Some of you read the daily meditations of Richard Rohr. He talks about the oneness of creation, the deep connection that occurs when there is this recognition:
I am not you, but I am of you.
I am not you, but I am of you.

There is nothing in you that is not in me. There is nothing in the other person I am Listening to that is not also a part of me. That part may be small, it may be large. but bringing into awareness that part I cannot initially recognize in me, or accept in the other person, ultimately helps me connect with that person. That awareness is the door through which one accesses the universal love that is God.

Close your eyes and think again about the person in your life you previously identified as someone who can be a challenge for you and reflect on these words:
I am not you, but I am of you.
I am not you, but I am of you.

I will end my meditation here, with this one final thought.

I shall endeavor to love, and be of service to all of you.