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at your service

Setting up lunch at the conference
I was working at a conference (Christian Faith and the University) this past week in Montreal.  The schedule featured many top scholars in the fields of Christian history, ethics, biblical studies, and practical theology. If anyone has ever been a conference assistant, you know that it means being the first to arrive and the last to leave. It means setting up the registration desk, greeting people, making  coffee and arranging refreshments in an aesthetically pleasing way, accepting deliveries from the caterer, setting up meeting spaces, putting up posters and signs, carrying cases of water and trays of food up and down flights of stairs, and basically doing anything and everything that needs to be done to help the conference run smoothly.

Some of the benefits of working at a conference such as this are that you get to meet many interesting and influential people who know a lot about different aspects of theology, and you can take in some of their presentations and talks. For graduate students such as me, this is a prime opportunity to listen to the latest thoughts and ideas from people working in the same field. This can add to your knowledge and enhance your own work. In addition, you have the chance to introduce yourself to people who might give you a job down the road or be able to guide you in your research. At least that's the theory.

Friday was a super long day starting at 6 am and ending when I got home just after 10:30 pm. I had spent most of the day making coffee, setting out refreshments, cleaning up after people, answering questions, and carrying large quantities of food down a flight of stairs.  My fellow conference assistants were doing what they were supposed to do which meant that at times they took a break to attend some of the sessions and I was left alone to hold down the fort. By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I hadn't had a chance to take in very many talks, I had not really made any connections, and I felt more like a waitress or stewardess than a doctoral student.  Here is a dramatized version of the conversation I had with God that night.

M: All I do is make coffee and set up cookies while everyone else gets to network and meet important people and hear amazing talks which help them in their research!  What about me? When do I get a break?
G: Oh, little one. Your job is to serve. So serve! Do it well and do it with joy. Don't worry about promoting yourself. That's not your job. Can you focus on serving and trust me with everything else?
M: Yes. I think I can.

On Saturday morning I arrived at the conference, tired but with a new attitude.  I was there to serve, so I made coffee while others were attending and giving presentations. I set up cookies and helped the caterer carry lunch down a flight of stairs (with some help this time, yay!). When the attendees arrived for their meal, I volunteered to be on hand to see to their needs and direct traffic.  I saw the woman whom I had met over drinks the night before go through the line, so I quickly said hi and told her I had enjoyed hearing about her work in practical theology and spirituality and hopefully we would see each other again. She promptly invited me to a conference she was organizing in Zurich and told me she could probably fit me in as a presenter. The conversation was no longer than 5 minutes; she went off to eat her lunch and I continued to assist the lunch-eaters. But my heart was pounding.  Had I just been invited to attend a conference in Switzerland to speak about Christian spirituality? Without even trying to promote myself?

I was reminded of the story about how two of Jesus' disciples tried to secure favoured positions for themselves in the kingdom of God. After Jesus indicated that he was not able to grant them their request, he called all the disciples together to set things straight..

When the ten others heard about this, they lost their tempers, thoroughly disgusted with the two brothers. So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” (Matthew 20:24-28, The Message)

Jesus came to serve and he asks us to do the same.  Whether we gain great positions in this world or the next is not really our concern. We are simply to serve.  And we have to be careful not to see serving as some sort of magic key which unlocks success; that is not the point of my story. The point here is that when I do what Jesus asks of me (to serve) then I align myself with the ways of God. My life ends up going "with the grain" of the kingdom of God, so to speak, instead of being at odds with it. And when we are going with Jesus (obedience), his purposes are accomplished and our life flourishes. Flourishing may not look like worldly success (Jesus ended up being killed) but it always brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. It always gives a gift to those we come into contact with. And it always shines bright with hope, grace, and love.

May I continue to learn how to serve in every situation.  Even in Switzerland.

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