A few years ago I worked in the call centre of a well known life assurance company. We dealt with queries regarding low cost life cover for the over 50s which most folk bought because Michael Parkinson promised them a free pen on the telly.
One day I received a call from a gentleman who hadn’t received an update from us in some time and wanted to know why. Now, anyone who has ever dealt with a call centre knows that the first thing you need to do is a security check, to answer a few personal questions about yourself to prove you are who you say you are. One of those questions was his address and as soon as he gave his answer I figured out the problem, he had clearly moved and not told us because we didn’t have his current address. So I asked him for his last address. No luck either. I asked him if he could remember any old address he lived at, but nothing matched the one he’d provided us with. We agreed that he would go and search for old paperwork to see what address he could find on it and that I would call him back later.
A couple of hours later I called him and he’d written a list of every address he’d lived at for the past 20 years. He reeled them all off and, eventually, he gave me the right one and we could proceed. It turned out he’d moved 6 times without telling us once.
He then launched into a tirade about how difficult we had made it for him by not keeping in touch regularly, so I told him that we were unable to because we had an old address on file. After he argued the toss for a while he came out with a line I’ll never forget,
“Well, you should have written to me at my new address to tell me that you didn’t know what it was!”
Customer service, like all types of service, can be frustrating and under appreciated at times. But it’s important that you always do it in the right spirit; one of a desire to help and to make the lives of others easier.
So I didn’t tell this guy he was an idiot. Even though he treated me like I was one because of a mistake he had made.
It’s so easy to treat those who are there to serve us with contempt. Many’s the time I’ve heard supermarket cashiers snapped at for being too slow, or for their till ringing up a wrong price. We’ve probably all come across times we’ve seen people working in other types of retail, or restaurants, hotels, public transport, cinemas, theatres etc. being shouted at for something that is beyond their fault. Even public servants like doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and fire fighters get treated like dirt. And so often it’s with the justification that “I pay your wages”.
Maybe we’ve even done it ourselves.
But serving is not menial, beneath us or worthy of being treated poorly. To serve others, in any capacity, is a divine instruction which Christ himself taught us to do by his own example.
James and John, the two brothers among the twelve, had approached Jesus (Mark 10:35-45) in order to ask what they needed to do in order to sit at his side in God’s Kingdom.
As usual with questions like this, where glorifying themselves is the main object, they have no idea what it is they are actually asking and what they will need to go through to achieve it. And Jesus tells them. He tells them of the cup of suffering they must endure – alluding to his own persecution and death. And then he tells them that being glorified does not come through lording it over others. It doesn’t come through highlighting one’s own importance and the lowliness of other people. Instead, he says this,
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it is among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”
In order to be great, you need to lower yourself and serve others. This was a pretty radical thing to say in Jesus’ time because social structures were absolutely vital to the running of 1st century life. There were those at the top and those at the bottom and, except for when they came together to worship at the temple, the two did not mix and those at the top certainly would not have lowered themselves in to the service of their inferiors. It was simply unthinkable.
It’s nice and easy to think that we have moved well past that now, and we have certainly improved. However, have we really extinguished the hierarchies of society to the extent that we can all gladly become the servants of others? And I mean all others?
How about the drug addict, who steals from his own family in order to feed his habit and get his next fix?
How about the single mother whose only way to feed her children is to sell herself?
How about the serial criminal who can’t find a way out of that spiral of crime that keeps landing them in prison?
How about the paedophile who struggles to overcome his own urges?
Genesis 1:27 tells us that we are all made in the image of God, and that includes each of these people, with all their failings and struggles and sins and crimes. And us, with all our failings and struggles and sins and crimes. Every deed we find ourselves dismissing and condemning is carried out by someone created in the very image of God, and by someone Jesus would have sat with, talked with, eaten with and invited into eternal life.
Who are we not to do the same?
Do we even realise the extent of the need around us? Are we even aware of the poverty and suffering on our own doorstep?
I was shocked this week when I looked at some figures around poverty levels in Scotland as a whole and my home town of Falkirk in particular. I’ll give you a few snippets:
The Trussell Trust, the largest operator of foodbanks in the UK, handed out more 3 day emergency food parcels in Scotland than they did in London in 2017. Despite Scotland’s population being around 60% that of the nation’s capital. And remember, every one of those were given to someone who needed a referral by a Government agency; you can’t just turn up and plead poverty.
In Falkirk I’m pleased to say that the levels of child poverty, according to Scottish Government statistics, are below the national average. However, they are still appalling. Defining poverty as those who, after housing costs, regularly cannot afford fuel, clothing or food, the percentage of children living in poverty just in the Larbert and Bonnybridge council ward, where my church is situated, is 15%. 3 out of every 20 children! That’s almost 4 children in every school form class in the ward.
And that is the lowest figure in Falkirk.
Falkirk as a whole sees just over 20% of children in poverty and in the ward I live in, Falkirk North, which includes Camelon, the figure is 1 in 4.
That is real, desperate need sitting right on our doorsteps. And you may hear people in the news, or on the telly, or even in the pulpit or the pew telling you that the problem isn’t as bad as it seems. And, yes, some people do play the system, as they always have and always will. But to see one child in every 5 in the Falkirk area regularly miss a meal, or wear old torn clothes, or go without heating or warm water is totally unacceptable.
And Jesus is telling us that this is our job to do something about it. He’s telling us to get involved with food banks and clothes banks. He’s telling us not to walk past the homeless person in the street, but to give them money, or food, or a chat. He’s telling us to get to know our neighbours, to offer them a hand whenever they need it.
He’s telling us that we mustn’t be like the leaders of his time and looking down in judgement, but that we must offer to serve all those around us, no matter who they are and no matter what they’ve done. But instead we are to be his church, his hands and feet and eyes and ears and voice and heart in our nations, in our towns.
The question “What would Jesus do?” has become a bit of a trite cliché to some, but when we think of the need all around us, both great and small, it is the most important question of all. And the answer is just as important.
He would serve.
Let us do likewise.