Downward Mobility

We traipsed down the street in Kampala, Uganda—a motley crew in flip-flops, water bottles banging against our legs. Jack, always the wild card, was the one whose hand I needed to hold. Motorcycle taxis purred past us with odd cargo: butter-colored jerry cans, loaves of bread piled around the driver, live chickens hanging by their feet from the handles like creepy bouquets.

Once we turned the corner, pavement dissolved into streets of dust. The air was crowded with smells of charcoal stoves, smog, and something fried. Children ran in clothes with broad holes, the milky soles of their feet flashing. We knew we were getting close when we saw the goat who seemed endlessly, enormously pregnant.

Astoundingly patient South Koreans had converted The Giving Tree from a storefront to a neighborhood library—but one where the books stayed put. Maybe it seems contradictory that the books couldn’t be checked out, but in a neighborhood unfamiliar with the luxury of a library, allowing books to be checked out would mean the disappearance of these books shipped from around the world. So children clustered on the cement floor, guiding their fingers beneath the words or flipping through vivid illustrations. Adults trickled in for literacy and computer classes.

On Thursdays, my children held a library story time. We would sing and act out Sunday school songs my kids had picked out. Then each of my children old enough to read would fluidly narrate books toted from America to Uganda: The Berenstain BearsFrog and Toad, a repeated favorite; Harold and the Purple Crayon. Then my kids would assist as the other children huddled over their lime-green tables for a craft, usually while some diaperless toddlers hauled in by an older sibling ate the crayons and peed on the concrete floor.

What I loved: There is something beautiful about kids learning to wash someone’s feet, so to speak. Jesus paints swaths of a kingdom where the greatest among us is the servant (Matthew 23:11), not the smartest, strongest, skinniest, most attractive, most charismatic, or most athletic. A kingdom where God, when he was among us, wrapped a towel around his waist and gently scrubbed manure from his people’s toenails. Have this mindset, Philippians says.

Service trains our eyes to see the neighbor in our path—like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)—and not step around him but deliberately, sacrificially move toward him.

Selective Service

Years after that trip to the library, when the heavy, cloudy reality settled on me that we would likely move back to the States, I wasn’t sure how I would translate “service” to an American context for my kids. No self-respecting library was likely to let ten-year-olds run a story time—and that wasn’t needed.

So I prayed that God would somehow draw an arrowed line for our kids from service in Africa to service here. Strangely, it worked.

Was it because I’d asked? Because our eyes were sweeping for opportunities? I can’t tell you. A Fall Fest was hosted for the community by a local church. The Salvation Army needed bell ringers. (Gosh, that was frigid. But shoppers even brought my kids bags of M&M’s from inside.) A family next door, with the father deployed, had a daughter with Down syndrome and a near magnetic attraction to my younger kids.

Permanent Truth


We look for opportunities for humble, happy service everywhere. Service pries our fingers from our own agenda and primes our hearts for “Here am I! Send me!” It is

• ideally beginning with an inward transformation of loving someone (though our hearts can admittedly follow action)

• being content without reward, recognition, or paybacks

• not always being compelled by emotion, but faithfulness

• a lifestyle

I’m cautious now, as I see the ways my home culture loves achievement and hurry and image, and that service carries the danger of more to do when we’re trying to share dinner together. So, as with the rest of life, our family attempts to say the right no so we can get to the right yes.

Sometimes that means service is less of an event and more of a lifestyle, like caring for the elderly couple that needs their drive shoveled. It also means we look at the ways our kids are naturally made. This one likes helping with the soundboard at church. This one’s fantastic with kids. This one could be a greeter when the church doors open.

Deciding where to serve can be tricky, particularly in a way that’s sustainable, rather than a big flare of energy that peters out. What can you do to serve members of your own family? Then, expanding your “circle,” how can you serve your school, community, or church?

Talk with your kids to discover causes they’re passionate about, and help them design an activity they could do: hosting a baby clothing drive for the pregnancy center, cooking relief meals for parents doing foster care, finding a missionary kid pen pal, or playing a pickup game of basketball with a kid whose parents are in the middle of a divorce.

Your child’s imagination and your resources are the limits. Serving transforms your home into an aircraft carrier as its members are fine-tuned, then deployed into the neighborhood.

How Much Do I Push?

My kids often loved reading the stories and singing the songs at our African story time. But the novelty waned after the first few weeks. And, of course, other kids dumped out my kids’ water bottles or acted obnoxiously.

This required some discernment as I watched for signs of when to push for the sake of perseverance and love, when to ease up for the sake of protecting my kids’ hearts from bitterness and joylessness, and how to add to the “carrot” (the reward).

My kids took turns having a week off, and we always went for kasooli—roasted maize—afterward. We strategized together about the ornery kids. And at the end of my kids’ service, the sponsor of the library honored them. It was like a perfect dessert making you think that the meal wasn’t half bad. But if the situation had persisted, I would have been okay with ferreting out a more gratifying way to serve.

Sacrifice, faithfulness, and perseverance are unmissable lessons. And I would love, when possible, for service to mean a lifetime of swelling, burbling joy, tugging them toward God rather than away. But I also hope my kids become adults who know when it’s okay to let go. Hopefully, they listen to their bodies and emotions and trust that God will have someone to take over—or not—if they need to say no.

I attempt to handsomely reward my kids when they serve and give them healthy breaks. I love when they look forward to service and when they volunteer for it, when we laugh together and get a smear of mud on a cheek.

Yes, service is its own reward! Yet, we also want to associate serving with pleasure. God inlaid his own reward system in us, washing our bodies’ systems with endorphins when we love on others. And he promises rewards in the future too. So plan a movie night after your time of serving, and consider kids’ service as their chore for the day.

When Loving You Is Really About Loving Me

Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, “A man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. So without love, benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.”1

We’ve all seen our kids (and ourselves) serve in ways that really aren’t about the person being served; they’re about our feeling superior or needed or holy. (We’ve probably been on the other end of that too.) Humble service begins with seeing ourselves as laterally needy to those we help, as the rescued because of Jesus. But sometimes it is hard to know when we’re being self-righteous and when we’re being authentic.

I’ve vamped a bit on Richard Foster’s contrast between self-righteous service and true service.2 Perhaps the chart can help you interpret your motives and aim for authentic service.

Self-righteous Service

Authentic Service

prefers the big, sparkly jobs

finds it almost impossible to differentiate the small from the large

calculates results and expects gratitude and compensation

finds happiness in service itself

picks and chooses whom to serve, mostly because of image

is indifferent to an audience; almost never notices when others watch

is blown around by moods and impulses

gives steadfastly because there is a need

is short-lived

is an ongoing lifestyle

puts others in their debt; builds self up as the giver, breaking community

builds community; is subtle and unpretentious, putting no one under obligation

needs to know people see and appreciate the effort (with proper religious modesty, of course)

is fine with hiddenness; doesn’t shy away from or look for praise

Writing on the Wall: Practical Ideas

Considering your current mission may just involve getting your kids to eat peas with a fork, what could authentic service look like? Your energy and capacity aren’t endless. Pick a couple of ideas that dovetail with your family’s subculture, your circumstances, and your community.

Hold an egg demonstration.

Try this spin on an activity from author Jamie Miller. Place an egg in a glass filled with 1 cup of water. Have ¼ cup salt nearby and a tablespoon. As the egg sinks, explain to kids that this is like a person having a hard time. (Who can they think of who’s struggling right now?) Kids take turns adding a tablespoon of salt and, with each addition, suggest a kind act of encouragement. Watch as the egg is “held up” by kindness. Read 1 Thessalonians 5:11 together: “Encourage one another and build each other up.” Explain that when people are at their lowest, they often need to be compassionately lifted up by the ways we serve them.

For family devotions, consider a foot-washing ceremony.

After one of your kids reads John 13:12-17, focus on its final message: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Seeds Family Worship has a song for this verse so you can memorize it together. Then talk about whether your kids feel like it really is better to give than receive—but acknowledge we all need to do both.

Don’t confine kids’ service at home to chores.

When my kids were still waddling around in diapers, I watched a preteen hop up and immediately help his mom with a younger sibling. I thought, I want kids who will respond to service whenever they’re asked.

Occasionally, ask your kids to pick up what’s not theirs (hello—like their parents are doing).

It’s good for them to learn to be their brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9), cleaning up after someone else, as Jesus did for us. Rather than shielding your kids from dinner duty or carrying in groceries, frequently request their assistance. It won’t all be fireworks, but help them get excited about making someone’s favorite dish, or have a contest to see who can hit the hamper with their sibling’s dirty clothes. You’re training them to be the chief servant in their own homes someday.

Challenge your kids to secret service.

My youngest son, Jack, felt frustrated this year when kids were rewarded for helping others at school, but no one saw him when he was helpful. Though I love rewards, they work against serving in secret (Matthew 6:2-4). So, challenge your kids to three “secret services” a day. They don’t have to tell you what they did but can give you a “code word” for each mission they accomplished.

Create a group of people who serve together.

Corinne and some friends created an open group of girls who serve, pray, and hang out together. They even designed their own T-shirts! Could your family partner with another or cart along some friends to serve together, then have a game night afterward?

Ask your kids to serve in situations where they might otherwise be takers.

They might help at grandparents’ houses, pick up others’ plates after a meal, or look for ways to help a teacher. In general, it’s good to “leave a place better than you found it.”

Make a hot fudge pudding cake to illustrate service.

Memorize Mark 9:35 together: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Together, make a hot fudge pudding cake.* Talk about how God’s kingdom is upside down from the way the world does things. The best is on the bottom because “anyone who wants to be first must be last.” Ask kids what the world values in its leaders: power, beauty, popularity, achievement, wealth, ease, superiority. But what did God’s leader and example, Jesus, do differently?

Talk about everyday situations that provide openings to serve.

Remind kids that the heart of a servant is about how we show up in the world. Though some of the following ideas could act as one-offs, we hope to communicate that service isn’t a project; it’s a way of being and of seeing the world.

Talk about everyday situations that provide openings to serve.

•Sit with that kid in the cafeteria who’s alone. When a public restroom has paper towels all over the floor, pick them up with a clean paper towel.

•Let someone in a hurry go ahead of you in line at the grocery store.

•Stay after an event to help clean up.

•Bring coffee or donuts to construction workers in your neighborhood.

•Make a no-sew fleece blanket for the friend who’s in the hospital or could use something to cuddle during a loss.

•Babysit as a family for a date night for a young couple, a single mom, or a family plowing through a rough patch.

•Visit a nursing home or adult day care center. You could play bingo, lead a sing-along, or bring board games, nail polish, and lotion to rub hands or feet.

•Shovel snow, rake leaves, or mow the lawn for a neighbor. Or when they’re gone, volunteer to water plants or care for a pet.

•Pick up trash in your neighborhood.

•Tutor a younger child after school or play with one who might need extra love.

•Write notes to people who could use a little affirmation or encouragement (e-mail works in a pinch).

•When a sibling is having a bad day, put your heads together to make a plan to encourage them.

•Prepare a care package for a missionary or someone who is sick. E-mail ahead of time to see what small items they’d love—maybe chocolate chips, a book your kids loved, beef jerky, or a small pack of Legos. Include notes from your kids. Pray together for the recipient.

•Adopt a family (without making them feel like a project): Pray and talk together about a family who could use some extra love. What will your strategy be? What are their true needs (as opposed to what you guess they might want), and how can you help them in a sustainable way?

Fresh Ink: Resources for Vibrant Faith

•Focus on the Family’s KidsOfIntegrity.com has innovative ideas for devotions, object lessons, and service-oriented action. To drive this life skill home, visit their Generosity page.3

•I love the picture books below that teach compassion—for that flow of inward transformation to outward action. In reading, kids encounter stories outside their own experience—equipping them for when life imitates art (and certainly making that real world less scary).

How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting

Say Something! by Peggy Moss and Lea Lyon

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe

Listen to the Wind by Greg Mortenson

The Lady in the Box by Ann McGovern

•And these chapter books make for compassion-inducing read-alouds:

Wonder and Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

You Were Made to Make a Difference by Max and Jenna Lucado

Rules by Cynthia Lord

•Look for opportunities in kids’ movies to talk about compassion too—like the messages in How to Train Your Dragon

•At janelbreitenstein.com/permanentmarkers/service, find ideas for kids to work with organizations that are already making a difference, 40 ideas to raise globally-minded kids, and links on creating care packages for the homeless.

True Colors: Discussion Questions for Kids

•Why do you think Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Isn’t that kind of gross? Why would God want to serve us in ways that seem gross?

•How did Jesus serve us?

•Who serves you? How do they serve you?

Think Ink: Contemplative Questions for Parents

•When you think about service, how do you feel? Inspired? Overwhelmed? Guilty? Exhausted? Resentful (for ways you’ve served resulting in burnout or other negative experiences)?

•What do you want to pass on to your kids from your own experiences in service? What do you want to improve or avoid?

•Service takes time and emotional energy. Is there anything you could cut out to create this space so you’re not more exhausted and can serve from hearts that actually want to?

•In what areas do you struggle most with selfishness? What’s one step you could take to loosen your hold on what’s “yours”?

When I think of a God who models love through stripping and kneeling to wash the dirty feet of his creatures and submitting himself to their capital punishment, I remember service grows on the tree of humility. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God knows our pretenses and posturing interfere with any quality relationship, hindering our ability to truly love.4

Service ideally follows humility, but the two flow in a circle after each other. Only God can produce that kind of meekness in my kids. But service is one way to cultivate toward that end.

*If you haven’t tried this before, check out the recipe at cafedelites.com/hot-fudge-chocolate-pudding-cake.

Prayer of the Dependent Parent

Lord, thank you for serving us, ultimately, in the cross—starting from the minute you stepped into our mess among a bunch of animals and their smells, far from what was flashy or convenient or honored in this world. We know what love is because you laid down your life for us (1 John 3:16).

I can’t create a service mindset in my family. We were born into selfishness. Our natural inclination is to look after our own needs.

Make us a family of servants for your honor, not ours. Show us our attitudes that exalt us even in our serving. Let giving be our daily lifestyle, and help us make space for it so we’re not more frenzied and burned out.

Remind us we’re not what we do for you. We’re not more worthy because of what we do. Let our serving bubble up from the way you’ve filled us and served us—from the ways we’ve received your overwhelming love. Give us your eyes—your compassion—to see what others around us are carrying, and to care about it.


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