When someone requires service, it’s fascinating to see who steps up to provide it. Quite often, it’s not who you’d expect.
Some years ago my husband and I were in charge of setting up and serving Christmas dinner for our ward (church group, congregation). We anticipated a good turnout, about 150 people, both members and neighbors, because no one turns down a free dinner.
A few people had been assigned to help us, but on the evening of the dinner they were unable to come. So my husband and I, and our capable children, scrambled to set up the buffet as best we could.
Soon, some members of our ward noticed we were shorthanded, and volunteered to help. To this day I’m still impressed by those who chose to serve, rather than be served.
The first was our bishop (pastor, rector, preacher) and his wife who were supposed to be relaxing that night, instead of helping as they always did. In addition to being our bishop, this busy gentleman was also a college math instructor and basketball coach. He and his wife cheerfully positioned themselves in the kitchen where no one would see them laboring, to hand our children platters of turkey, ham, and potatoes for the buffet, and to prepare backups.
The next couple who stepped were in their sixties, and busier than anyone I knew, so most deserving of a peaceful evening. He was the president of the liberal arts university where we worked, and his wife was behind the scenes of everything. Without a word they set to filling and putting out pitchers of water on the tables, and setting out salt and pepper shakers.
The third couple who joined us immediately rearranged the buffet tables, so that two groups could go down either side, servicing four lines most efficiently. Then again, the husband knew all about efficiency. He had recently retired as the CFO of a well-known, high-priced clothing company whose name I won’t drop here because it’d drop your jaw, and had come to our little university as a volunteer to help with finances.
In terms of importance, these three couples were probably the most important in our small community in Virginia. In terms of education, financial standing, prestige, and anything else the world ranks, no one compared.
In terms of service, no one could compare, either. Now that I think about it, none of them asked if they could help, or how. They just saw a need and filled it. I don’t know if any of them sat down to eat, but instead assisted us all evening in keeping the buffet table full.
My husband and I were both astonished by who came to our family’s aid that night. Even though it’s been many years, I’m still awed by their examples.
Did I mention that the wives and the bishop all stayed afterward to do dishes? And that the university president vacuumed up, while the retired CFO put away tables and chairs with our kids? And that none of those six left until they were sure all the work was done?
I doubt any of these three couples would remember that evening, because it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime expression of service; it was something they did every single day.
Recently we discussed this incident with our children who were too young to remember that dinner, or were not yet born, because it coincided with our scripture of the week, from Mark 10:43-44:
43 But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:
44 And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.
The school where these six people served with us, Southern Virginia University, has as part of its motto to turn students into Leader-Servants. None of us are working there anymore, but that mission statement has stayed with me.
No leader can be fully effective without love, and those who try to serve without it will not be properly motivated, and may even feel resentment and a sense of slavery. (The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, pg. 194; emphasis added)
It’s an election year. We’re choosing new leadership. When I read about candidates, I’m not looking for evidence of financial success, or business acumen, or charisma, or moxie, or guts.
I’m certainly not looking for someone to voice my anger, to shout or disparage or drag down or accuse.
I’m looking for someone who knows how to serve, who feels genuine love and concern, who desires to help this country, not merely be known as the leader of it.
But so far, I’ve mostly heard young Perrin’s attitude toward leadership. His response is something I was taught years ago in a business leaders course I was forced to endure, but I rephrased it for book 3 in less exalted verbiage:
“No leader is truly great who doesn’t know how to serve,” Hogal told him. “Service first, leadership later. First rule of leadership.”
“No it’s not,” Perrin retorted. “First rule of leadership is to identify the rival and eliminate it through defeat or feigned friendship.”
Hogal sighed. “A true product of the king’s educational system. Learned your lessons well, I see. . . .Trust me; to be a great leader, you need to be a great servant.”
~Book 3, The Mansions of Idumea
I still have hope that a great leader-servant to show him or herself this year; for another George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson–a true statesman who’s greatest concern is to help the country, not exploit it or use it for self-promotion. The kind of leaders who won’t lock up at night until they’re sure everyone who’s serving under them are taken care of first.
It’s time to make serving an honorable tradition again.
I realized long ago that God is the ultimate plot developer.
One of my favorite quotes is an old Jewish saying: “Tell G-d your plans, because He needs a good laugh.” I think this is why so many of us experience plot twists in our lives. And while I’d grumble about those twists, always–always–I’d thank my Heavenly Father later that He didn’t pay any attention to my plans. His are always better.
No, I wasn’t having a midlife crisis.
Someone in my church asked me to do this. Really. Ok, not dress exactly like this, but as something “unrecognizable.”
It’s a group activity called “Where’s Waldo,” and ten adults from our church group (called a ward) were asked to dress up and hang out in the local Walmart while groups of our youth, ages 12-18, with their leaders, found us. I was instructed to “really get into the part,” so I dressed up as best as I could, put on make-up I’d never used before, and since I don’t own jewelry, made up my own goth look with paperclips. (I’ve seen safety pins used in piercing, so I wasn’t that far off, right?)
Then I drove to Walmart, and as I pulled in to the parking lot, I laughed out loud. “Wait—I have to WALK into the store like this! Someone’s going to take my picture and put it up on that website that makes fun of Walmart shoppers.” At least no one would know who I was, because I kept my glasses off. (Worked for Clark Kent, too.)
But my 17-year-old daughter had said, while I was preparing for my big acting scene, “You have to change your walk, too. You have a ‘Trish Mercer’ walk that’s kind of distinctive.”
“It’s because my mom used to make me practice walking with books on my head when I was your age. Victorian England, but in 1980s Utah.”
So as I parked my minivan, I practiced my scowl. As I headed into the store I traipsed, slouched, then finally sauntered in, moving like a sophisticated zombie as I got into my part.
Grabbing a cart, I headed to the back of the store and loaded it up with Coca Cola Zero, because it was in dramatic black boxes, which matched my dramatic black clothing, and my son’s dramatic dark gray trench coat. I also picked up a tribute magazine to David Bowie, then ‘hung out’ in the bakery department to read it.
An adult from my ward was to come by with slips of paper that I’d give to the teams of teens. The kids had to ask me, “Are you a Waldo?” then I’d give them a ticket as proof they’d found me. After they had ten tickets, they were to race back to the church (adult leaders were driving, thank goodness) to see who got their first.
But no one came by, and the stray thought went through my head, What if this was just a set-up to get me to dress up bizarrely and make the rest of the shoppers nervous?
Because by this point, I’d noticed—even without my glasses—that carts would approach, hesitate, then turn or take a circuitous route around me. I felt badly about that, because I’m usually a cheerful shopper, smiling at others and saying “excuse me.”
But not last night. I could feel the darkness of my clothing, the drama of my makeup, and the pinching of the paperclips on my earlobes. Altogether, that meant I wore a perpetual scowl.
I felt terrible that the way I dressed and presented myself made others feel uncomfortable, and maybe even threatened. (But not terrible enough to quit.)
So I tried to ignore everyone else as I thumbed through the tribute to David Bowie, reading about his wild early years which I felt I was living right then. That’s when my cell phone rang. It was my neighbor Elise, also in the store dressed up (whew—wasn’t a set-up) asking if I was there yet. “Yep, hanging out in the bakery department, like I’m supposed to.”
She chuckled. “Well, Cindy’s been looking for you. I’ll send her over again.” A few minutes later Cindy approached me nervously, until her eyes lit up. “Holy cow, that is you! I walked past you twice but didn’t dare talk to you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Without my glasses, I can’t recognize faces until they’re right in front of me.”
“Very convincing,” she said, handing me the tickets I was supposed to give the teens. “And the Bowie magazine is appropriate.” She took one last look at me, shuddered briefly, and left, and then I waited.
And eventually . . . the fun began.
I kept my head down as I read, but I could see feet approaching from different directions as the sweet and innocent youth of my church approached the strange gothy woman in the store. You see, we live in a quiet valley where nothing too exciting ever happens, and where people are pretty much white bread and baked potatoes.
I was black licorice over quinoa. No one knew what to do with me.
As I saw the feet tentatively congregate around my cart, I’d slowly look up, with as much snarling apathy as I could muster. “Like . . . what do you want? I’m reading my Bowie, here. Can’t you tell?”
Then their eyes would bug out, they’d take a step backwards in alarm, and someone would mutter, “Isn’t that Mrs. Mercer?”
“I don’t know . . . I think so. Whoa.”
“Are you . . . are you Waldo?”
I’d roll my eyes dramatically (yes, I practiced that too) and fished in my trench coat pocket for a ticket. “Oh my gosh, look—can we get this over with already? I’m late for a Walking Dead party, you know.”
That’s when they’d start smiling and laughing, but still they stayed back a few feet.
One of the leaders, a lovely woman in her 60s, stared at me in shock. “Trish? Oh my gosh . . . Trish?!”
Only for her did I break out of character, because she really did seem disturbed. “Cindy didn’t recognize me either,” I consoled her as her group of five girls hustled off after the next clue.
But for the other groups, I just glared menacingly and went back to flipping pages of my magazine after I handed them their tickets. I think a few of the younger girls were worried by my appearance, and I nearly lost it when a fifteen-year-old boy exclaimed, “Wait—she’s my Sunday School teacher!”
I may have lost all credibility with him.
But all of the effort was worth it when one high school girl said, “Wow—I thought you were a teenager.” I’ll hold on to that one for a long, long time.
I’ve lost 30 years! And my mind!
After a while the groups of kids slowed down, and I finished reading, waiting for the call that we were done. At the end of the Bowie magazine, looking at pictures of him in his 60s with his spikey gray hair and dazzling smile, I couldn’t help but think, “He was a great looking senior citizen.”
I flipped to the earlier pages and felt as uncomfortable as I had when I first walked into the store, dressed up as something I really wasn’t. Bowie—actually, David Jones—seemed a lot happier and more handsome in his later years. The gray hair suited him.
By the time the call came for “All Waldos to come to the front of the store,” I was relieved. While it had been fun to dress up and freak out the youth of my neighborhood—especially since it wasn’t Halloween—I was anxious to become me again. While I had a small shopping list in my pocket, I couldn’t bring myself to actually buy anything in my present get-up.
As I approached the other Waldos at the front of the store, everyone’s jaws dropped. I have to admit I rather enjoyed the attention—I’ve never been a jaw-dropping woman—but I also was glad it wasn’t going to last more than a few minutes.
At home, my husband took one look at me and said, “Are you going to need a shower to get all of that off?” I had even gone so far to buy a gray hair touch-up kit to darken my bangs and color my streaks of gray. “You really don’t want to keep using that stuff, do you?” he hinted.
I’m blessed to have a husband with the same attitude of my dad, who once said, “I don’t like a lot of makeup on my wife. I want to be able to recognize her in the morning, not wonder how some stranger got into my bed.”
“No,” I assured my husband, “this it was just for the night, and yes—I need a long shower.”
I took a couple of selfies in the bathroom, because that’s what you’re supposed to do after you spend an hour putting on makeup, and then I tried to wipe it all off. Half a jar of Vaseline later, I took a shower to scrub out the rest of the dyes and gunk.
This morning as I looked at myself in the mirror to get ready for the day—gray streaks highlighting my hair again, and pale, dull eyes looking back without any ringing makeup—I knew that was a much better look: the clean, basic, unmade me. Kind of like Bowie in his later years, looking genuinely happy in his rawness.
I’ve discovered that with the right makeup and the right clothing, I can look like just about anyone, as skilled make-up artists have demonstrated. Even untalented me turned myself unrecognizable.
And I don’t like that.
I’ve always been averse to lots of makeup, and I think it started way back in the 1980s, when coincidentally I first fell in love with David Bowie’s music. I also noticed a Robert Plant video where the same makeup and clothing turned a variety of different young women into creamy, rubber copies of each other. It struck me as strange, and as sad.
I never wanted to be an imitation of someone else.
So I’ll go out today as usual, “au natural” (but dressed, so don’t panic). (Ok, I’m wearing a tiny bit of eye shadow and mascara, so people can find my eyes.) No one will mistake me today for something I’m not. Because even if I had an identical twin, no one can copy my look.
(Not that anyone would want to, but that’s a rambling topic for another day.)
Winston Churchill famously said that, “History is written by the victors.”
I’ve always wanted to hear the other side of the stories. One side’s “glorious leader” is the other side’s “maniacal tyrant.”
I need this tattooed to the inside of my eyelids, to remember. (Especially during this political season, which is drawn out to many very long, very ugly seasons . . .)