Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Matt Bruce. Matt is currently serving as a Community Outreach Coordinator at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA, where he helps to mobilize church members to serve in the community. Matt has a Master’s in Social Work, and is currently working on his Master’s of Divinity. His dream is to see the church reclaim its God-given responsibility to care for the most marginalized groups in society- the poor, the homeless, and those struggling with addiction or mental illness.

 

What is the worst gift you have ever received?

Maybe it was that strange, purplish-blue turtleneck you got from your grandparents just last year (not that it really matters, because no one wears turtlenecks anymore)

Or, maybe it was that Power Rangers action figure your distant uncle bought you for your birthday (but you had just turned 15).

Mine was a gift from my grandma.

As we were opening Christmas presents a couple years ago, I tore back the paper and cracked open the box to see a field of bright red, squared off by lines of forest green: An unsightly plaid shirt. To be clear, this was not one of the trendy plaid shirts that some Hipsters have started wearing again in recent years. This was lumberjack plaid… circa whatever era lumberjacks wore that type of plaid! To top it off – or more appropriately, to ‘bottom it out’ – I opened the next box to find a pair of plaid shorts (of a different color), which my grandma enthusiastically explained could be worn to complement the shirt.

The best part of the story?

My Grandma had ascertained my apparent love for plaid from a Facebook photo of my wife and I participating in an ugly Christmas sweater contest! Naturally, she assumed that this was our attire on a typical Friday night out, hence my new wardrobe.

Now, I love my Grandma; but, she is notorious for these types of gifts. Why? I think it’s because she has never really sought to know me or ask about the things I am interested in. Consequently, though her intentions are always good, her ignorance often makes the gift more about the giver than the recipient.

I think the same is true about serving others.

For the past few years I’ve worked at a church, mobilizing people to serve in the community. I’ve learned that we (myself included) often serve others in the same way that my grandma gives gifts: Our efforts are genuine, but misinformed. We sincerely feel compassion towards people who are struggling, and we serve them with good intentions. However, we tend not to invest the time necessary to truly know the individuals that we serve or ask what they need.

So, we give money, canned food, or second-hand clothing (maybe even an old plaid shirt). We paint their homes, clean up their yards, or sing Christmas carols at their door. Of course, all of these acts are thoughtful, and probably do some surface level good…

But I’ve also learned that deep hurts and systemic injustice are rarely healed through free food, clothing, money or one-time service events. Instead, as the story of my grandma illustrates, the best ‘gift’ of service comes from someone who has taken the time ask, listen, and discern what’s really needed. This requires greater investment and longer-term commitment.

As a leader charged with helping others learn to serve with excellence, this realization has been tremendously challenging to me. For those of us who desire to truly love others in a Christ-like fashion, we must move beyond serving just to mark off some internal check box, or fulfill some civic or religious obligation. Instead, we have to invest the time necessary to serve selflessly, in a way that asks before we act, and really seeks to know those we serve before we give.

I know these are challenging words in a world where time is one of the scarcest commodities.

Nonetheless, I want to encourage you! Metaphorically speaking, don’t give turtlenecks, Power Ranger toys, and ugly plaid shirts to the people that you serve. Instead, when you serve others, make the investment necessary to give the kind of ‘gifts’ that can only come from one who knows them well. In doing so, you may just help them to experience real, deep, profound life transformation.

I’ve seen it happen, and so can you!

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