Summary: Service of others can bring us closer to God if we treat it as a spiritual discipline

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Tilling the Soil of The Soul May 14, 2006

The Spiritual Discipline of Service

The Spiritual Disciplines are meant to be ways to draw closer to God. We meditate, not just to achieve inner peace, but to have God fill our emptiness; we fast to increase our hunger for God; we study to have our minds transformed and renewed so that we might have the mind of Christ; we practice solitude to get alone with God, we pray to converse with our heavenly Father. The danger in any of the classic spiritual disciplines is that we can use them to keep our distance from God. As one woman said “In my day, we wanted to be on the right side of God, but we didn’t want to get too close to him.” We can fast out of spiritual pride, we can pray like we were making an order at the McDonald’s Drive-thru-window, we can Study to know about God without ever knowing God… Without remembering the key purpose of the Disciplines, they can bring death rather than life. I think that this is most true with the discipline of Service.

We can perform all sorts of service for God without connecting with God. I know people who perform acts of service for others, because they don’t really want to relate to them. they are always in the kitchen at parties, because washing dishes is way easier than having a conversation. We can do this with God – we can serve him in order not to have to relate to him! In the end, God calls us to serve, but he doesn’t want our service, he wants us. And we can use our service to keep ourselves from him, or we can use it to give ourselves to him.

Jesus tells this story in Luke 15 that we often call the parable of the Prodigal Son. By calling it that, we forget that it is the story of two sons.

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ’Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

"When he came to his senses, he said, ’How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

"The son said to him, ’Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

"But the father said to his servants, ’Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ’Your brother has come,’ he replied, ’and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ’Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

" ’My son,’ the father said, ’you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ "

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