Rex Ryan changed his tattoo. The new head coach for the Buffalo Bills had been sporting a tattoo of his wife Michelle dressed in a Jets-green jersey. After being fired as head coach of the Jets and coming to work for the Bills, Ryan had the color of his tattoo changed to Bills blue. Ryan said he never considered leaving the tattoo green to remind him of that period in his life, claiming his style was to immerse himself in the present. “I’m all in,” the coach said of his new relationship with the Bills.
To be part of the body of Christ, we’ve got to be “all in,” or to borrow a phrase from Dave Reichard, we’ve got to have “skin in the game.” Some people join a church congregation and spend the rest of their lives being part of the audience, as if what goes on in the church is meant for their benefit. They act as if they can become part of a new team and still wear their old team’s colors.
But becoming part of the body of Christ involves more than that. According to St. Paul, it means “Those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun” (2 Cor. 5:17)! We have changed teams, and we need to start wearing new colors, showing our new priorities.
There’s a conversation among some members of the congregation today about what the purpose of the church is. Simply put, some think the primary purpose of the church is to serve its members; others hold that our primary purpose is to serve others. Of course, nurturing our members and serving our neighbors are two sides of the same coin. But neither in the organizing documents of The United Methodist Church nor in the Judeo-Christian scriptures is there any ambiguity about our purpose.
We are “created anew in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote, “so that we can do the good things God planned for us long ago” (Eph. 2:10). Jesus said he came “not to be served but to serve others” (Mark 10:45). In the same way, when we become members of the body of Christ today, we are no longer here to be served; we are here to serve others.
In the beginning of our history as a people of faith, when God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home and go to a land God would show them, God promised to bless them and make them great so that they would be a blessing to every family on earth (Gen. 12:1-3). It’s easy to neglect that part of the story. We like to remember God’s promise to bless us, but too often we forget that God blesses us for a purpose, so that we will be a blessing to others.
The good news is also that when we live as a blessing to others, we find ourselves blessed even more. It’s ironic that those who come looking for blessings for themselves will never find the best of what Christ has to offer. “If you try to keep your life for yourself,” Jesus said, “you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life” (Mark 8:35). The greatest blessings for which we hunger are ours when we work to serve others. If you don’t believe it, ask Stephen Post.
Post is a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. As a boy, whenever he got a bad grade, or felt left out of his older brother and sister’s games, or was otherwise having a rough day, his mother always said, “Why don’t you go out and do something for someone else?” At which point he’d head next door or across the street to help a neighbor with some chore. “I always came home feeling better,” says Post. It turns out, there was science behind his mom’s kitchen-table wisdom: serving others is one of the surest steps you can take toward a happy, healthy life.
Serving others increases your lifespan. A 2013 review of 40 international studies found that volunteering can add years to your life – reducing morality as much as 22 percent. A separate study found that seniors who gave 100 hours or more annually were 28 percent less likely to die from any cause than their less-generous counterparts. “But that could be 75 hours or 125,” says study coauthor Elizabeth Lightfoot, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. “The important thing is that you’re doing it regularly.” And you needn’t be older to benefit. High school students saw a drop in their cholesterol levels after volunteering with younger kids once a week for two months.
Serving others results in greater happiness. When you read to the elderly, walk a 5K for cancer, or even plunk a quarter in the Salvation Army kettle, the reward center of your brain pumps out mood-elevating dopamine, creating what researchers call a helper’s high. In fact, one study found that people who completed five small acts of kindness (like helping a friend, visiting a relative, or writing a thank-you note) one day a week for six weeks experienced a significant boost in overall feelings of well-being. According to study coauthor Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, “Each action has a cumulative effect. The more nice things you do, the better you’ll feel.”
Serving others results in better pain management. When chronic-pain sufferers helped others with the same ailment, they reported feeling less discomfort, according to a study in Pain Management Nursing. On a scale of 0 to 10, people’s average pain ratings dropped from nearly a 6 to below 4 after volunteer training and six months of leading discussion groups for pain sufferers or making weekly calls to check in on patients. Those who helped others were also less prone to depression and anxiety.
Serving others will lower your blood pressure. A 2013 study in the journal Psychology and Aging revealed that adults over the age of 50 who volunteered at least 200 hours in the past year (roughly four hours per week) were 40 percent less likely to develop hypertension. Researchers believe the effect may be tied to the stress-reducing effects of being both active and altruistic. “As we get older, our social networks shrink,” said one of the study’s coauthors. “Volunteering may offer an opportunity to establish more social connections and form new bonds with people who care about you and motivate you to take care of yourself.”
God calls us to be a blessing to others not because we are of less value than others but because that’s how all of us receive the fullness of life for which God creates us. We live in a culture where putting others first and serving their needs first is considered foolish. Take care of yourself first, our culture says, then you can take care of others. But God has so woven all creation together as one, that only by caring for others can we offer the best care for ourselves.