To help is good; to serve is even better

Last week at church, in a reading connected to the sermon, we heard the following words by Rachel Naomi Remen (excerpted).

In recent years the question how can I help? has become meaningful to many people. But perhaps there is a deeper question we might consider. Perhaps the real question is not how can I help? but how can I serve?

Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals…. When I help I am very aware of my own strength.

But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve…. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.

When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude.

My husband and I had quite the discussion of this topic, as we walked home from worship. “But,” we said to ourselves, “we feel like it’s a good thing to help people, and it’s good when others help us. What’s up with this ‘serving’?”

After chewing on it for awhile, we began to understand. The difference is in the approach. When we go into a situation aiming to help, it’s not bad, but we are focused on what we are doing, how we are affecting the person helped. When we go into a situation aiming to serve — and it can be exactly the same situation — we enter with willing openness to know how the other person is. When we serve, we listen, and perhaps we hear echoes of our own limitations and wounds. We don’t just deliver our help, we feel the humanity of the other, and maybe even glimpse the holy spark that dwells within us all.

I remember the time a family in our congregation fell upon hard times. The father’s alcoholism had led him to leave, the mother was in school, and there were three school-age children. We on staff put out a call for food, not naming the family, and the congregation responded with enormous generosity, bringing overflowing boxes of good food and household necessities. Now, the folks donating the food could be said to be primarily helping — but with love and generosity in their hearts for fellow travelers, perhaps recalling hard times in their own lives. An even deeper serving came when I delivered the food to their house: sitting down and enjoying their amazement and delight, listening to the stories of what was going on, how they were feeling. The real “serving” came for me as I remembered my days as a single mom with two little kids, and my tears mingled with that mom’s weeping. How much the same we are, how we all feel fear and despair and anger and gratitude and love and connection and amazement.

When we serve each other — and when we allow ourselves to be served — we know in our souls that we all live because of the same sun, we all breathe the same air, we all walk the same earth. We are all content sometimes, and wound up tightly other times. We all love and we all feel resentment. We all stumble and we all know redemption. Serving — opening our hearts to those with whom we share — reminds us of all these things.

As my husband concluded in our talk, “Sharing creates community.” May we practice this, building our human and holy connections, places and times.

Rev. Elizabeth Greene is Minister Emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.